On April 28, 2021, a man in Moffat (opens in new tab), a remote Colorado town with just over 100 residents, walked into a Colorado police station to report that several people had brought a dead body to his house.
The deceased woman wasn’t a stranger to the homeowner, Miguel Lamboy. She was Amy Carlson Stroud—although Lamboy also knew her as “Mother God”—the 45-year-old leader of Love Has Won (LHW), a New Age-y quasi-religious group and suspected cult. Videos and photos of Lamboy and Carlson Stroud together date back at least 6 years (opens in new tab).
The Saguache County Sheriff’s Office’s probable cause statement (opens in new tab) for warrantless arrest of seven people alleged to have brought Carlson Stroud’s body to Lamboy’s house reads: “Mr. Lamboy is believed to be part of a Religious group known as ‘Love has Won’. ‘Love has Won’ is known to take people in from all over the world. The Saguache County Sheriff’s Office has received many complaints from families within the United States saying that the group is brainwashing people and stealing their money.”
Close to midnight on the 28th, authorities raided Lamboy’s house. According to the sheriff’s office statement (opens in new tab), from the hallway between the kitchen and living room area, authorities could see the corpse in the back bedroom. There, police found a shrine and mummified remains. The small body was grayish, teeth visible, with what appeared to be glitter around the eye sockets, although the eyes seemed to be gone. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, the body was decorated with Christmas lights.
Two children, a 13-year-old and Lamboy’s 2-year-old son, and seven adults, including Carlson Stroud’s boyfriend, Jason Castillo, a.k.a. “Father God,” were in the house when police arrived. The older child was taken by social services and the adults (other than Lamboy) were arrested for abuse of a corpse and child abuse.
But the so-called shrine to Carlson Stroud was set up long before her body was placed there, says Ash McCoy, a 30-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, who lived “on mission” in Moffat with Carlson Stroud and LHW for two months in 2020. The intention wasn’t to create a death room but rather, a future museum dedicated to Carlson Stroud, McCoy explains. Love Has Won members were sure that, one day, people would want to see where Mother God had lived.
Only about 12 to 15 LHW disciples lived together, commune-style, on two properties in Colorado: a rented ranch in Salida, and Lamboy’s large two-bedroom mobile home. (The group also lived, at points, in California, Florida, and Hawaii.) But it’s difficult to say how many tuned in to the daily livestream videos, typically three-hour mashups of philosophical and apocalyptic musings, dangerous health advice, conspiracy theory propagation, and threats to and about “the cabal”—i.e. wealthy elites, politicians, and business leaders—hosted by revolving pairs of members. (In the early days, when the group was referred to as the Galactic Federation of Light, Carlson Stroud (opens in new tab) spoke to followers via voiceover (opens in new tab); she started showing up on screen in 2013, but her appearances began tapering off a few years ago.) Viewers can watch on YouTube (opens in new tab) and Facebook, and ask questions and get shout-outs from members in a running chat. Some viewers might be curious conspiracy theorists, some merely interested in alternative healing and spirituality, and others are true believers, convinced that Carlson Stroud—a thin, hippie-ish white woman who favored rainbow-colored clothing and makeup—is a miracle-performing God in human form. These apostles regularly send money earmarked for “Mom’s joy” or pay LHW for “spiritual surgeries,” conducted via phone or video chat. The livestreams also attract critics, friends and family (opens in new tab) of former members who say LHW is harmful (opens in new tab) and concerned citizens accusing the group of being a cult that takes advantage of people.
LHW members say their group is not a cult; it’s humanity that’s the cult. Still, their beliefs are hard to rationalize: Mother God claimed that she lived in the mythical, ancient land of Lemuria and Donald Trump was her father. A special, obscure technology was stolen, causing an explosion that sunk Atlantis. Mother God was able to save the technology, but wasn’t able to fully ascend to the fifth dimension (a peaceful, heavenly place beyond the 3D, or regular world as we know it) because humanity wasn’t ready, so she continues returning to Earth in human form.
Carlson Stroud told followers that she had been reincarnated more than 500 times and that she had been Jesus, Joan of Arc, and Marilyn Monroe in past lives. She also claimed to be spiritually connected to late actor Robin Williams. Members of LHW are told that when “Mom,” as they usually call her, gets to the point where she’s going to ascend and the world is about to learn the truth, “the cabal” always murders her or tricks humanity from learning the truth. Members believed that the ascension would finally happen, and starships would come and help the followers reach a higher level of consciousness without pain, McCoy says. Nonbelievers would be sent to live on the “central galactic sun” or turned into rocks.
“Every night, they claimed starships were coming to get Amy and that’s the night she was going to ascend. That's how they kept members [on mission] enthralled,” McCoy says. “Amy [would] say, ‘I’m at 2 percent of energy needed to transform,’ then find a way to blame everyone else when she didn’t. It’s the world’s fault.”
Members deeply believe this, McCoy says, and were let down every time Mother God woke up instead of ascending: “They were hanging on the edge of their seats waiting for her to go. In the process, they're traumatized and drained.”
The body appeared to have been deceased for a couple months prior to the raid. Decomposition, therefore, made confirming the identity difficult—the coroner was only able to positively identify the body in July. Carlson Stroud’s sister Chelsea Renninger says that she didn’t find out about her sister’s death until the Colorado Bureau of Investigation called her on April 28 saying they found a body they believed to be Amy.
“Future cult leader” isn’t a career anyone in Carlson Stroud’s family saw coming. As a teenager, Carslon Stroud was pretty (round-cheeked with thick, dark blond hair), popular, and got good grades, says Renninger, who is nine years younger. By her early 30s, Carlson Stroud was a successful district manager for McDonald’s in Texas and seemed generally happy, Renninger says, aside from a tendency to get involved with controlling or abusive men. The family was surprised when, in 2007, Carlson Stroud left her three children to live out of state with a man she met online. She never returned, and over the next several years, began claiming she could heal bodies as well as souls, attracting followers and convincing them she was Divine.
“We knew she was ill,” says Renninger, who, months before Carlson Stroud’s death, appeared on The Dr. Phil Show pleading with her sister to come home or see a doctor. “She’d tell us she was weak and she looked frail in the pictures we [were sent]. The crazy thing was the drastic change in just six months, since we saw her on Dr. Phil. She looked gray-blue from all the colloidal silver they were giving her.”
Love Has Won members, who mistrust doctors and mainstream medicine in general, tout the healing benefits of colloidal silver and gold, which they sold via their natural products business (opens in new tab), Gaia’s Whole Healing Essentials (opens in new tab), until it was shuttered following the April arrests. They even claimed their colloidal silver product could cure, prevent, and treat COVID-19; in response, the Food and Drug Administration sent Love Has Won a letter (opens in new tab) demanding they stop. Members believe that all illnesses are caused by energy imbalances and that “the medical system,” as they call Western healthcare, is designed to keep us sick.
Alternative healing is a major aspect of LHW’s philosophy and business model. According to the group’s teachings, lemon and baking soda can cure cancer, turmeric can cure diabetes, and frankincense relieves depression. The group created an “Ascension Guide” for followers, a lifestyle pamphlet of sorts containing affirmations and inaccurate health advice. It’s a myth that staring at the sun can cause blindness, the ascension guide reads: “As the sun enters your eyes, it burns away the darkness within you.” In a video (opens in new tab) from September 2020, a member says that a heart attack might really be the heart expanding: “The dark side has fooled all of humanity into thinking you’re having a heart attack, but when your heart is expanding...you get pain in your chest sometimes, down your arms. Just breathe. You are growing in love. So don’t run for the doctors, they’re not going to help you; love is helping you.”
Love Has Won’s controversial health declarations are just one reason friends and family of current and former members say they’re concerned about the group, regardless of the recent arrests. Over the past several years, Carlson Stroud’s videos (opens in new tab) devolved from benign prattle (opens in new tab) about energy, God, and angels to drunken rants, dark threats, and apparent mistreatment of members.
McCoy says Carlson Stroud was usually sweet until she got drunk, which seemed to be every night. Many videos appear to show an intoxicated Carlson Stroud shouting threats and obscenities at members or the world. One video often cited by detractors appears to show Carlson Stroud disciplining a crying child (opens in new tab) by putting him in a closet. In another, she berates member John Robertson, a.k.a. “father of the multiverse” or Hilarion, in an expletive-filled tirade for bringing her meatballs instead of chicken parmigiana (opens in new tab) from a restaurant.
Famous cults of decades past—such as The Family International (whose survivors include Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan), NXIVM, and Jim Jones’s People’s Temple—were able to keep many of their questionable or illegal practices free from scrutiny behind closed doors. But LHW has always had a public online presence. The group has nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and almost 10,000 on YouTube, where their library of videos has been viewed more than a million-and-a-half times.
They’re not the only ones (opens in new tab) using social media to their advantage, says author and cult expert Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico and a partner with Take Back Your Life Recovery, a mental health service that helps former cult members and people in other coerced relationships. According to Lalich there are more cults today than ever before, and many have become skilled in recruiting via the internet (opens in new tab). They’re also getting better at bolstering their relevance by piggybacking on what’s happening in the culture. Political strife, pandemic-related anxiety and isolation, and the increasing polarization of communities online have made it easier to spread a group’s message to confused and anxious people looking to the internet for answers.
Reflecting now, Sarah, who is using her first name only for fear of retaliation, can see how she was easy prey for Love Has Won. She grew up in a religious family and was molested and bullied as a child. A few years ago, she was hospitalized with autoimmune liver failure for more than three months. She had to leave her job as a child speech pathologist while she was in the hospital, and her boyfriend broke up with her when she returned home. Not long after moving back in with her parents in Lubbock, Texas, she started reading about healing and spirituality online and came across LHW.
“It was a major trauma; I was looking for deeper answers after almost dying, and for hope,” Sarah, now 33, says. Love Has Won “had such a wide array of info on their website that it’s easy to find whatever you’re looking for. They hijack so much from things that are true in spirituality that it’s a perfect storm for someone grasping for light. Then I started watching the livestreams, where they talked about healing sessions”—Carlson Stroud began calling them “spiritual surgeries” later—“and thought, why not?”
Sarah was impressed that the member who did her “spiritual surgery” guessed that she had been abused as a child. (To this day, Sarah considers this person a gifted healer.) Soon she decided to move to Colorado and join the group. Everyone was warm and welcoming, at least at first. She was immediately put to work, she says, so she didn’t have time to contemplate whether or how long she wanted to stay.
Most of Sarah’s days in the year-and-a-half she lived with Love Has Won were spent cooking and cleaning and, after another member had a baby, helping care for him. In her downtime, Sarah copied and pasted content—often “channelings,” or translated messages from angelic beings or spirit guides—from other websites onto Love Has Won’s. Because Carlson Stroud thought she was God, she thought everything on the internet belonged to her, Sarah explains.
Members were only allowed to sleep when Mother God did, which was typically four or five hours a night. Toward the end of her stay, Sarah was only sleeping two hours a night because she had to keep watch in case Mother God needed help with anything, like using the bathroom. Members were scolded and sometimes punished for napping. They could only eat donated food that members retrieved from food banks, and not too much of it. “Their whole philosophy is that overeating is ‘ego,’ and it’s frowned upon to snack,” she adds.
In Love Has Won parlance, “ego” stands for “edging God out.” Members encouraged a culture of “calling people out on their ‘egonic’ traits,” Sarah continues. They also talk a lot about “frequencies,” she says, “as in, ‘You’re in a frequency of jealousy.’”
“And you’re sitting there and don't feel that, but if they see it, you think they must be right,” she says. “They make you believe it; it’s very subtle. And you want to be a better person. I was there because I wanted to be a better person and help people.”
Love Has Won's vocabulary is similar to that of other New Age-meets-QAnon “conspiritualist (opens in new tab)” spaces, says Amanda Montell (opens in new tab), author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism and co-host of the podcast Sounds Like a Cult (opens in new tab). “It co-opts and bastardizes the technical language of physics and combines it with the lofty language of spiritual mysticism to imply that those who know it are tapped into a wisdom higher than science,” Montell explains.
Such language can’t brainwash people into believing something they have no interest in, she says; it simply gives them license to believe what they already want to. “Language works to convert, condition, and coerce certain followers, coaxing them on board with more and more extreme versions of whatever idea they were already open to,” Montell explains. “Whether it's the notion that a certain cult leader has the secrets to eternal salvation or a multi-level marketing recruiter has the key to making a million dollars in a year.”
None of the spiritual (opens in new tab) aspects (opens in new tab) of Love Has Won are new (opens in new tab) ideas. As Sarah points out (and Carlson Stroud sometimes admitted in videos), Love Has Won takes elements from numerous New Age (opens in new tab) and other philosophies, including Scientology, numerology, astrology, the notion of “lightworkers (opens in new tab)” and “twin flames,” and various alternative healing modalities. Many internet gurus describe “ascension symptoms, (opens in new tab)” as Carlson Stroud did, and Facebook has numerous groups (opens in new tab) devoted (opens in new tab) to all of the above.
New Age spirituality appeals to an increasing number of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” a 2017 Pew Research Center survey (opens in new tab) found. A year later, another Pew survey (opens in new tab) concluded that about 75 percent of those in the “spiritual but not religious” category believe in at least one of the following: astrology (39 percent), psychics (54 percent), reincarnation (45 percent), or that spiritual energy can be present in objects (60 percent). Women are more likely than men to hold these beliefs. The boom in astrology (opens in new tab), particularly among millennials and Gen Z, is well documented.
Wellness influencers and products (opens in new tab) are sometimes described as having a “cult” following, but here, the crossover is more explicit. Until the Moffat arrests, well-known (opens in new tab) skincare company FreckleFarm Organics (opens in new tab) sold many Love Has Won–made “wellness” products on their own site, including “plasma coasters (opens in new tab),” said to transform glasses of water by “act[ing] as receivers and transmitters, with the ability to neutralize harmful energy.” (By early May, all mentions of Love Has Won were deleted from FreckleFarm’s site. LHW’s plasma coasters now sell via a new LHW website (opens in new tab) for $66.66.)
The products Love Has Won made appealed to McCoy: “They lure you in with, ‘We’ve got these holistic products, we’re living in unity and want world peace and to save the planet.’ I got behind that message,” she says.
But some of the ideas discussed in the livestreams resonated even more. McCoy had read a lot of websites about spiritual information and writings from groups that “wake people up, and LHW is piggybacking off of that,” she says.
Via its websites, Facebook, YouTube, Telegram pages, and one-on-one paid video sessions, Love Has Won is a handy online resource for people looking to strengthen their certainty about the evils of mainstream media and medicine, the superiority of alternative healing, or Trump’s secret role as society’s moral savior. In a sense, Love Has Won is the center of a venn diagram overlapping interests in wellness and spirituality with darker conspiracy theories.
While Love Has Won’s website copy tends to be more measured, the apparently unscripted livestreams dive deep into the conspiracy world. Hosts routinely express speculation that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned and that the Sandy Hook massacre, 9/11, and the Holocaust were all hoaxes. For example, in a livestream (opens in new tab) Love Has Won broadcasted on March 14, 2021, Archeia (opens in new tab) Hope (real name: Ashley Peluso, age: 26) says in an anti-semetic soliloquy that what society has been taught about the Holocaust and the Nazis is “sus,” as in suspicious. “Hitler’s intention was to serve the light,” adds Archeia Aurora (30-year-old Lauryn Suarez (opens in new tab)), a member and a former lawyer from Florida. “[Jews] wanted everyone else to do the work and they would take the money…. The idea behind the concentration camps was to teach them to work.”
Although members rotate hosting duties, Suarez and Peluso open the broadcasts most often. With their youth, college educations, and Instagram-influencer good looks, they serve as spokesmodels of sorts for Love Has Won, providing cover for the group’s harmful and offensive teachings, including that homosexuality is wrong. But despite their girl-next-door vibes, both were interested in conspirituality long before they found Mother God. Suarez tells Marie Claire that she “woke up,” or “started to realize things aren’t what they seem,” when she was 19.
“From the time I was a child, and I’m sure my parents would agree, I questioned everything,” Suarez says. “The answer I received was, ‘That’s just the way things are.’ But that’s not true, there’s a reason we are here.”
Between 2012 and 2016, she immersed herself in online conspiracies. “I knew back in 2012 about the war of the cabal,” Suarez says. During this time, Suarez felt like she was missing something and would know what it was when she found it. The answer, Suarez says, turned out to be Carlson Stroud. Hearing her speak resonated with Suarez’s soul.
Peluso arrived on mission around the same time Suarez did, in early 2018. She was distraught over a breakup with a boyfriend and booked a healing session with a member of Love Has Won. A week later, she was fired from her job in a chiropractic office and decided to have a second session, during which her healing guide told Peluso that angels said she had transcended attachments. “I felt something happening,” Peluso says. “I realized when I opened my eyes [that my ex] wasn’t the first thing I thought of. I had never felt such inner peace.”
Suarez and Peluso maintain a sincere reverence for Carlson Stroud. They believe she healed cancer, Lyme disease, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. They don’t know why Mom died but feel it was part of the plan, even if they don’t yet understand it, and say they want to keep saving humanity. One of their endeavors is a “crystal school (opens in new tab)” that was Carlson Stroud’s idea. It would include sessions with families who are, as Suarez puts it, interested in reaching higher consciousness and learning how to not parent or teach by “programming.”
The only time Peluso and Suarez bristle during their lengthy joint interview with Marie Claire is at the suggestion that they seem better rested since Carlson Stroud’s demise. “People who talk about brainwashing and sleep deprivation lack the compassion of what it takes to take care of someone else,” Suarez says. “When you have a mission, you don't stop, if you wholeheartedly believe in it. You don’t sleep, you give 200 percent.”
It can be difficult to understand why educated adults subject themselves to what outsiders perceive as a controlling and abusive environment. But the atmosphere former members describe aligns with Lalich’s research (opens in new tab) on how cult leaders gain and wield control. Cult members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities, Lalich writes, along with Michael D. Langone, in Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships (opens in new tab). The group is elitist, claiming exalted status for itself and its leader, and the leader is considered a Messiah. The leader dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think or act, such as how to discipline children.
Members of LHW believe Carlson Stroud is God, McCoy says, so they’ll do anything to serve her. “These people have been searching for answers their whole lives, so whatever they’re told to give, they give their money to it,” McCoy says. “When people give to clergy they feel they’re giving to a higher power and feel drawn to do so. So it’s like any other church donation to give money for Mom’s flowers.”
Although the group doesn’t explicitly demand members turn over their money to LHW, the pressure is implicit, Sarah says. In one video (opens in new tab), for example, a member named Frances castigates herself for keeping money for knitting and crafting supplies instead of turning it over to Mom. “There was a dark twist to the way [Carlson Stroud] presented things,” Sarah says. “If I said, ‘I need my debit card,’ I’d have it, but she’d throw a fit and I’d have to deal with the guilt of offending God.”
Some people would argue that it’s no one’s business whom someone else gives their money to—cult leader or not—and that people should be free to worship what they want without scrutiny or judgment. But if someone were to say, “Tell me what’s wrong with cults without telling me what’s wrong with cults,” Suarez and Peluso might provide an answer.
Asked why they’re now living in Vermont, at the home of one of Carlson Stroud’s supporters, they both pause, then laugh. “Long story short,” Suarez says, “One of the ex-members took every dollar we had and we weren't allowed to stay in the house we lived at, so we had nowhere to go.”
Despite working hard to please Carlson Stroud and Castillo, it became increasingly difficult for Sarah to live up to leaders’ expectations. She wasn’t sleeping and felt constantly criticized. Members seemed to preach love and peace but didn’t practice it, she says.
“I was pulling more than my weight but everything I did was wrong, and I didn’t have any more fucks to give,” she says. Sarah started getting drunk every day, even though it was against the rules to drink alcohol, and certainly forbidden to steal from Mother God’s liquor cabinet. Around March 14, 2020, Sarah decided to leave. Mom was away on vacation, so Sarah gathered some things and called for a ride. Others in the house told her that they’d canceled it.
“That’s when I put on more clothes and just started walking,” she says. “It was still pretty cold, so I put on several layers of clothing to be warm enough to hitchhike.”
Evening was approaching, and the temperature was dropping from its high in the 50s. She knew she could walk the 4 miles to Crestone, because she’d been sent out of the house to “transform her lower energies” a couple of times before. Some members, including Suarez, tried to stop her. Sarah told them, “If you come toward me and try to hug me, I’m going to punch you,” she recalls.
“It was so visceral; I was in fight or flight,” Sarah says. “I knew they were trying to manipulate me to stay. I arrived with a car full of stuff; when I left I had no car and no stuff.”
McCoy plotted her escape strategically. She waited until Mother God had passed out, then instant messaged her that she needed to go home for a quick visit. Early the next morning, she texted Castillo telling him that Carlson Stroud had her trip details, and got Robertson to drive her to the Denver airport. Near the end of the more than three-and-a-half hour drive, Carlson Stroud realized McCoy wasn’t coming back and texted Robertson, calling him a bitch for helping her leave.
“If it wasn't for [Robertson] taking me that day, I don't know how things would have played out,” McCoy says.
More than a year later, Sarah struggles to heal from her experience with Love Has Won. Even well-meaning people sometimes seem judgmental, she says, and it’s difficult to keep her spiritual beliefs intact. “[Carlson Stroud] took a lot of spiritual teachings about vibration and energy that are on the right track, but she hijacked them and said they were hers,” Sarah says. “I still believe there’s truth in those principles, but I’m working on taking Amy out of them.”
It’s unclear which Love Has Won members will run which websites and under what names now that Carlson Stroud is dead. But it is obvious that none of them are closing up the galactic shop. Suarez and Peluso, along with seven other members living in Vermont, continue to spread (opens in new tab) Carlson Stroud’s gospel (opens in new tab) and sell products (opens in new tab) under the name 5D Full Disclosure (opens in new tab). They’re on Facebook and have at least two Telegram channels: @QDis (opens in new tab)closure17, which has more than 40,000 subscribers, and @DivineFemaleAwakening (opens in new tab) (nearly 1,600 subscribers), which doesn’t explicitly mention Mother God but posts links to reserve etheric surgeries (opens in new tab). An offshoot called Joy Rains (opens in new tab) is thought to have been created by Castillo.
Five days before police raided Lamboy’s house, Lamboy paid the Colorado Secretary of State’s office $50 to register a new nonprofit, Gaia’s Crystal Schools Inc., listing the associated address as 4 Alcedo Court, where authorities recovered Carlson Stroud’s body. Registered nonprofits and religious organizations aren’t required to pay taxes on money they take in, whether it’s for plasma coasters, payment for a spiritual surgery, or Patreon contribution.
The members who were arrested have been in and out of court; as of press time, none of the cases have been resolved. Castillo has uploaded videos showing him enjoying camping trips. Ryan Kramer, thought to be associated with Suarez and Peluso’s Vermont group, told a CBS (opens in new tab)Denver reporter upon his release from jail, “God is a woman, and this whole planet will know.”
Many observers aren’t surprised that Love Has Won, though splintered and rebranded, persists. Carlson Stroud even lives on, in a sense—Suarez and Peluso do many of their livestreams sitting in front of a giant poster of her, eyes closed, hands clasped together, smiling serenely. A carousel of pictures of Mother God rotates on the home page of Castillo’s site. A link on the Joy Rains page allowing visitors to book a $55.55 half-hour spiritual healing session is labeled “your ticket to heaven,” offering peace and salvation—for a price.
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