In February of 1987, a secretive and strange commune rolled into public vernacular. The group called themselves “The Finders” and had been operating below the public’s radar since the 1940s under the directorship of the eccentric Marion Pettie.

For some, the group was a topic of intrigue. While there were those who believed that the group was only the latest to fall victim to the satanic panic witch hunt of the era, others felt that the arrest of two of the group’s members and the subsequent investigation that would follow was definitive proof that not only had the CIA been connected to such groups, but that branches our own government had been involved in organized child sex trafficking through these front organizations.

According to a report written by the New York Times, two men in black suits were arrested in Tallahassee, Florida after they were spotted at a playground with six children between the ages of 2 and 7. The children who were in the men’s care appeared to have been unkempt and disheveled and there were rumors of at least two of the children showing signs of sexual abuse.

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The men, later identified as Douglas Ammerman and Michael Houlihan, explained that they had been living in a van with the children and that they had been traveling to Mexico in order to establish a school for gifted children. The children had the permission of their mothers, who were also in the group, to go with the men on a camping trip while their mothers planned to meet back up with them at a later date.

The report of the strange men in black suits living in a van with half a dozen children sent the media into a frenzy. Both men were charged with child abuse and the U.S. government, themselves, launched a full-scale investigation into The Finders.

Police obtained a warrant to search a number of Virginia and Washington D.C. locations believed to have been inhabited by the cult, one of which included a warehouse.

The Washington Post originally reported that police seized thousands of documents, photos, and computer programs in an attempt to figure out exactly who or what The Finders were. Among these items seized, “[D.C. Police] removed large plastic bags filled with color slides, photographs and photographic contact sheets. Some photos visible through a bag carried from the warehouse at 1307 Fourth St. NE were wallet-sized pictures of children, similar to school photos, and some were of naked children.” There was also suggestion by the D.C. Police that the group had been using the children in some form of strange bloodletting ritual involving animals.

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The following day, on February 8, 1987, The New York Times published their follow-up on the breaking story. According to their report, “The detectives said that they had begun to doubt that child pornography was involved,” but did confirm that they believed the children had been involved in some form of ritual.

As the press had a field day interviewing detectives working on the case, The United States Department of Treasury in cooperation with the U.S. Customs Service had begun their own investigation into the cult.

After assisting police in obtaining a warrant to search properties associated with The Finders, the agency noted a series of bizarre documents found within the possession of the group. These documents included ways the group could obtain children for unspecified reasons which included impregnating female members of the group, purchasing children on the black market, and kidnapping them, as well as an order for two children placed in Hong Kong. There were also a set of instructions for members to keep the children moving and information on how to avoid attention from the police.

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The report also elaborates on the photographs mentioned in the Washington Post article. According to the agency’s report, there were too many photographs to review at the time but the photos they were able to review included nude photos of adult members group as well as the children. A photo album reviewed at the scene included images of the children wearing white robes and participating in the ritual sacrifice of a pair of goats.

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Within a week, The Chicago Tribune reported that police had said that in spite of the bizarre nature of the items found at the warehouse owned by the cult they “had found no evidence of wrongdoing or satanic activity by the Finders.” Health officials in Florida also went on the record, stating that they had “found no evidence of sexual abuse of the children.”

The New York Times also reported similar sentiments. Just two days after the investigation went public, Washington D.C. Police announced “that six children found last week in Florida had apparently not been kidnapped and that there was no evidence to show that the secretive group that has been raising them is a cult involved in child abuse.”

However, that following day, on February 10, 1987, The New York Times reported that the group was not completely cleared yet. Police received a tip from an informant suggesting that The Finders may have had a hand in an unsolved murder. After excavating the property the body was alleged to be buried their search proved fruitless. It was later alleged by Pettie that the anonymous tip came from a member of the group who wanted to have a little fun with the investigators.

The evidence collected concluded that U.S. Customs agents had reason to suspect that the group may have been involved with international child trafficking and transferring international currencies. The agency attempted to follow-up on the case in April of 1987, whereupon they were informed that the case was considered an internal CIA matter and any information the agency had collected on the group was ordered to be turned over immediately.

While the charges against both Houlihan and Ammerman were officially dropped and the children returned to their mothers within weeks of their arrest, issue 16 of Steamshovel revealed that the case was reopened in 1993, when the Justice Department investigated the CIA for closing the initial investigation. One particularly damning memo cited in the article claimed that the “CIA made one contact and admitted to owning the Finders organization as a front for a domestic computer training operation, but it had gone bad.”

Other sources have also suggested CIA links to the group, with Pettie himself admitting that his own wife had worked for the CIA at one point. Pettie claimed he had no formal connection to the agency but had an intense interest in how they operated and believed his wife would be able to gather that information for him. Other members of the Finders cult were also found to have worked for a private computer firm contracted to work with the agency.

Throughout the years many have attempted to either prove or refute the claims made against The Finders, yet anyone who has spent any length of time examining the group finds themselves with more questions than answers.

In a rare interview with Pettie published in Steamshovel, Pettie admits that when the group began to gain traction in the 1960s an investigator began following him.

“At first they said they thought I was a dope dealer big time because, I didn’t use it myself. Then they decided that I was a front for the CIA. They asked if I was a front for the CIA. Of course, I wouldn’t have told them anyway, but I asked those people, they said they ran the name through the computer and they said ‘No, we don’t own that guy.’ So then the investigator says, ‘I’ve been working on you for four years and I can’t figure out what you’re doing. What the hell are you doing?’”

What the hell are you doing? Seems to be the question everyone had for Pettie and anyone else connected to the group. Known as “The Gamecaller,” among other things, Pettie kept members of his group occupied by giving them different projects to work on, which they called “games.”

Even the photos of the children wearing robes and mutilating two goats seem to have innocent connotations in this context. According to Pettie, the photos were of two goats the group slaughtered in order to eat. As a way to make this “game” more amusing to them, the group pretended to be witches and warlocks, which they documented by taking photos.

Pettie claims that the whole investigation into the two men was blown out of proportion by government agencies who also wanted to know what the hell The Finders were doing. Were they really international child traffickers? Were they spies for foreign nations? Even the U.S. government wanted to get to the bottom of those questions.

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If you were to have asked Pettie directly, as the Washington City Paper had in 1996, you would find his explanation for the group to be innocent enough, yet vastly confusing.

Primarily comprised of men and some women in their 40s and 50s, the commune ran by Pettie was not unlike other communes that became popular in the 1960s. Unlike other communes run by men like Timothy Leary or the likes of the Merry Pranksters, however, Pettie’s group was made up of middle-aged business professionals who had grown bored with their lives and left their families behind to start fresh. These “lost souls,” as Pettie described them, gravitated towards the cult for various reasons, but mostly because they wanted an adventure, which Pettie was more than happy to oblige.

Pettie says his reason behind this was simple. Back before there were proper psychological treatments for troubled or mentally ill individuals, doctors found that keeping the patients aboard ships and in constant motion had been very therapeutic for them. Pettie’s ship of fools would be sent on various missions or games. Members of the group traveled the world as freelance journalists, computer consultants, and Pettie’s personal information gatherers, the Washington City Paper states. Former member Tobe Terrell also speaks of similar experiences in his book The Gamecaller.

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This utopian group began to split apart shortly after the arrest of Ammerman and Houlihan, an event they subsequently nicknamed “goatgate.” In spite of the dwindling numbers in the group and subsequent lawsuits filed against Pettie, the commune persevered and by the time Pettie agreed to the interview with Washington City Paper, the group had found a new home in Culpeper, Virginia where they spent their days following around different members of the community and leaving esoteric messages on the old theater marquee, which the group had purchased.

Wendell Minnick, author of Spies and Provocateurs: An Encyclopedia of Espionage and Covert Action, had also been conducting his own independent investigation into the cult.

“The Finders would love you to think they’re a CIA front, but I would say they’re really nothing,” Minnick told Washington City Paper. “You’re going to hear a lot of bullshit on the Finders, because they lie. These are dysfunctional adults, but they’re all working their asses off. They’re constantly working on some project. If you have a cult, the best way to control people is to keep them busy, to keep their minds occupied—if you have people standing around doing nothing, then they start thinking.”

While many have attempted to connect the group to the CIA or any other government organization, all investigations lead to similar conclusions. The Finders group were the product of a self-created conspiracy solely for their own amusement. A band of merry pranksters who enjoyed the controversy they managed to create. A group who at one point may have dreamed of working as covert spies or as part of some rogue government faction, but settled for mimicking what they believed those organizations do and had a little fun at the public’s expense while doing it.

Though The Finders were believed to have disbanded at the time of their leader’s passing in 2003, plenty of conspiracies linked to the group can still be found today including the infamous pizzagate investigation.