MERIDEN — In 1973, a man claiming to be a prophet of God moved his cult from New Jersey to central Connecticut.
Over the next three decades, “Brother Julius Schacknow” would lead hundreds in “performing god’s work” as members of “The Work,” culminating in multiple unfair business practice lawsuits, several sexual assault charges and an alleged murder between cult members.
Schacknow died in 1996 at age 71. He reportedly had seven wives he alternated living with and had five children between two women.
After serving in the Navy in World War II, Schacknow converted from Judaism to Christianity. He was a fundamentalist preacher who one day, at an outdoor revival in Trumbull in 1970, proclaimed that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated.
“Several hundred young people flocked to the guidance of the long-haired, bearded preacher who wore a white robe and had mesmerizing green eyes,” the Record-Journal reported in his obituary in 1996. Years later he would elevate his title to “God.”
“The Work” was active in Meriden and Southington and set up headquarters in the Kennedy Building on Pratt Street in Meriden at one time.
In 1985, the Record-Journal helped ex-cult members share their stories of the fear and intimidation that ran deep in the cult’s system.
“You follow Julius because you believe in certain values and ideals, including the existence of Jesus Christ, God’s kingdom, and the battle between good and evil,” said Pawul, a former member who declined to share his last name with the Record-Journal at the time.
“(But) you found out you couldn’t go along with what was happening and retain the values that brought you there,” he said.
Stephen Rand was perhaps the most staunch opponent to Brother Julius’ cult and sued for $1.5 million against commercial enterprises supposedly connected to the cult.
“Intimidation and fear. That’s the whole way they get everybody to do anything,” Rand said. Rand recalled group meetings when he was ridiculed publicly and experienced “the wrath of the cult leader (Schacknow).”
“I’ve gone home from so many meetings thinking I was dirt because I was screamed at so much… I’ve seen people turn white and almost pass out because they were so intimidated and screamed out,” Rand said in 1985. “I’ve seen people hysterically crying … these things are common.”
He described Schacknow as having an insatiable sexual appetite and said he would prey on female members of the cult, which allegedly included underage girls.
In 1988, Schacknow’s stepdaughter sued him, saying he sexually assaulted her for seven years, beginning when she was 11 years old. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount and criminal charges were never filed.
Among the cult members were Southington residents Paul and Joanne Sweetman, who ex-cult members alleged took advantage of the group by paying low wages to cult members who worked in the group’s businesses, according to Rand.
Those business ventures included County Wide Construction Inc., Century 21/
J-Anne, and Anointed Music and Publishing Co. or TAMPCO.
Paul Sweetman was killed and his body was allegedly dismembered by former cult members in 2004. Rudy Hannon, 72, and Sorek Minery, 42, of Burlington, were charged earlier this month in the homicide.
When police officers interviewed Minery in 2016, he said that in the months leading up to the murder, Hannon was trying to convince Minery that Sweetman "needed to be killed because he was hurting his wife, Joanne Sweetman, and that God would have wanted them to kill Sweetman," court documents state.
Minery said at the time of the incident he looked up to Joanne Sweetman as a high religious figure within their group.