The 'Sinful Messiah' & 'The Work' Cult: Multiple Wives, Exploitive Labor & A Murder
Leader Julius Schacknow used his knowledge of scripture and his charisma to manipulate young women, telling them that it was God's will that they sleep with him.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Julius Schacknow ran a disturbing apocalyptic cult in the Connecticut suburbs. Schacknow, who called himself "Brother Julius," proclaimed that he was the Messiah, and hoped to bring about the end of the world.
But until the world ended, he was able to build a multimillion-dollar real estate empire. But the company eventually crashed and burned, and former followers came forward with allegations that Schacknow stole their hard-earned money.
In 2018, the cult made headlines again when two members were arrested in connection with a bizarre murder.
In The Beginning
Julius Schacknow grew up in the Jewish faith. But after serving in the Navy in World War II, Schacknow converted from Judaism to Christianity.
He mesmerized audiences as a fundamentalist preacher, claiming that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated. He preached revolution to his hundreds of followers.
"There won't be one city left on earth intact," Schacknow said.
Former cult member Stephen Mehl told Investigation Discovery that he joined the cult as a way to get away from the confusion of the outside world. "He was mesmerizing," Mehl said. "Brother Julius would lay his hands on people, and they would shake and vibrate ... and lay on the ground."
Brother Julius called the group "The Work." He would preach his mix of Christianity, Judaism, and science fiction for hours at a time.
Former cult member Lisa Oliver told Investigation Discovery that she became part of the group after her mother began following Brother Julius. She was nine years old, and immediately began to adapt to Schacknow's strict rules.
Members wore robes and large pendants. Each follower was given a new name. "Black was the color of the devil. Makeup was frowned upon because that's what loose women wear," Oliver said.
The Sinful Messiah
Along with the dress code, Schacknow imposed strict moral rules governing modesty and behavior on his followers, but it was a double standard, as he himself took several "wives."
He took on the moniker "The Sinful Messiah," explaining that he had to sin, so he could understand what it was like.
Around 1962, Schacknow weds his third wife, Joanne. Together, they have three children. Joanne becomes central to his vision, and a leading figure in the cult.
From the beginning, according to his followers, Schacknow used his knowledge of scripture and his charisma to manipulate young women, telling them that it was was God's will that they sleep with him.
Bill Rocap told Investigation Discovery that Schacknow asked him to permit his wife to sleep with Schacknow. He called this "special work."
Some of Schacknow's alleged victims were even underage. Oliver claims that Schacknow began making sexual advances toward her when she was just 15. "He was holding my hand ... I still remember his breath. He said, 'You know you're becoming a beautiful woman of God.'" Schacknow asked her if she had felt the spirit of God — and then, according to Oliver, said, "Do you want to feel it where it counts?"
At one point Schacknow proclaimed that his wife Joanne enter into a relationship with Paul Sweetman, a member of his inner circle. From then on, Joanne and Paul were a couple.
Oliver also alleges that Schacknow physically abused entire families in front of the congregation, beating them with a leather belt.
The Work Begins
By the late 1970s, according to former followers, Schacknow was running out of money. Chief Apostle, Paul Sweetman, takes control of the group's financial matters. The Work's several hundred followers are enlisted to help build a multimillion-dollar real estate and construction business.
They achieved financial success in construction and real estate — but the followers, who were doing the work, saw very little of the money. Former members would later claim that they were paid below minimum wage even after putting in long work days.
At some point, Schacknow's message began to evolve: He went from being a prophet to telling his followers that he was God.
"He was a scriptural bullshit artist," Rocap said. He left the cult — but his wife remained. Eventually, they divorced.
In 1986, Paul Sweetman's daughter filed a civil lawsuit against Schacknow, alleging that he began sexually abusing her when she was 15. Then in 1988, Joanne Sweetman's daughter filed another civil suit, alleging that Schacknow raped her when she was just 11. Schacknow's biological daughter also came forward and claimed that her father had molested her.
The statute of limitations made it impossible to file any criminal charges against Schacknow, however. Eventually, the civil suits were settled.
The Next Phase
Julius Schacknow died of natural causes in 1996. Following his death, his chief apostle Paul Sweetman took over leadership of the group.
But in 1999, Sweetman pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. In 2004, not long after his release, Sweetman was reported missing by Joanne.
A month later, a coyote found a severed leg on a golf course in New Britain, Connecticut. At first, the police did not make any connection between the body part and Sweetman.
But after DNA testing during a further investigation in 2016, police matched the leg found on the golf course to Sweetman. Investigators learned that a follower named Rudy Hannon had claimed years earlier that Sweetman had been murdered.
In August 2018, two cult members, Hannon and Sorek Minnery, were arrested and charged in connection with Sweetman's murder. When questioned by police, each pointed the finger at the other.
Investigators say they believe that Sweetman was brutally bludgeoned, and that he was put into a freezer while he was still alive. His body was later dismembered.
According to police reports, both suspects believed that God wanted Sweetman dead because he was hurting Joanne. Other followers claimed that Joanne ordered the killing as part of her struggle for control of the cult after Schacknow’s death.
But alas, Joanne Sweetman passed away in April 2011 — taking the secrets with her to the grave.
Even after enduring the various allegations and business downfalls, and despite the bizarre murder mystery, The Work still exists to this day.
For more on this story, watch People Magazine Investigates: Cults, The Work, Monday June 24 at 8/7c on Investigation Discovery!