Former members have described Petersen as a mesmerizing figure who possessed extraordinary ability to influence and control others. “It was the eyes,” said former Teachers Group member Britta Rasmussen in a 2002 BBC News broadcast. “He would fix you with his stare. He was a very brilliant speaker. He was like a god to us.”
The Teachers Group, often abbreviated TG, is Tvind’s inner circle and consists of several hundred persons, according to a case summary of a Danish public prosecutor. They adhere to a communal lifestyle in which earnings are turned over to the organization. Steen Thomsen, a disaffected former member who was in Tvind for 26 years, claimed in a 1998 report to the Danish Ministry of Education that TG members are encouraged to sever contacts with family and friends. He has also stated members are discouraged from marrying or raising children. Relates Thomsen in a document posted at Tvind Alert: “Once Amdi Peterson asked, in front of [a large group of followers], ‘Well, Steen Thomsen, are you really working for the Teachers’ Group? What is going on in your mind since you have not done this or that? Are you thinking of love life, having children, your own little f—ing house? Tell us what is going on!’ ”
In 1999, after a Danish news show interviewed former teachers who alleged that Tvind was committing tax fraud, the Danish government began a criminal investigation into Tvind’s financial practices. In 2001, several of its alleged leaders, including Petersen and Jørgensen, were charged with embezzlement and tax fraud. Prosecutors contended that Tvind had diverted charity money to private enterprises and investments, such as a plantation in Brazil and condos in Miami.
A British journalist created Tvind Alert about the same time. He, along with a Danish journalist who joined the effort in 2002, have monitored the organization ever since, reporting on accusations of abuses of volunteers and members and alleged financial improprieties.
On February 17, 2002, FBI agents arrested Amdi Petersen on an Interpol warrant at Los Angeles International Airport, while he was traveling between Mexico (San Juan de las Pulgas?) and London, shortly after tighter 9/11 airline screening went into effect. According to Jyllands-Posten, he had been living in a multimillion-dollar condo on Fisher Island, a wealthy community south of Miami Beach, and had the use of a $5 million Tvind-owned yacht named Butterfly McQueen.
Petersen initially asked for a public defender to fight extradition, explaining that as a member of a communal group he owned virtually nothing. Eventually, however, he was represented by high-profile defense attorney Robert Shapiro, one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers in his murder case. Danish journalists flocked to Los Angeles to cover the story. After being held for seven months, Petersen was extradited in September.
The trial took place in Denmark between 2003 and 2006, with long intervals during which Petersen and the other defendants were allowed to leave the country. We encountered Jørgensen at San Juan de las Pulgas in late March 2005.
According to court records, Petersen spent at least part of his time in Zimbabwe. Tvind has an international headquarters in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is said to be a strong supporter. The watchdog website speculates that the San Juan de las Pulgas complex may have been built to serve as the group’s future worldwide headquarters after Mugabe dies. Tvind Alert also notes that the organization has been expanding its Latin American operations.
In August 2006, Petersen and six other defendants, including Jørgensen, were acquitted. Tvind’s financial director was found guilty of lesser charges and was given a suspended sentence. The next month prosecutors appealed six of the acquittals, including Petersen’s and Jørgensen’s and the financial director’s partial acquittal, on the basis of new evidence. This required Danish authorities to serve those six defendants personally with legal papers, but before that could happen, all but Jørgensen vanished.
Danish authorities made efforts to find them, supposedly including, reports Tvind Alert, a visit to San Juan de las Pulgas. The whereabouts of four of them remain unknown. The fifth, Marlene Gunst, was recently identified by authorities while changing planes in London and served by British police on behalf of the Danish government.
Poul Jørgensen’s second trial began in November 2007, and in January 2009 he was convicted of tax fraud and embezzlement for his part in establishing a humanitarian foundation through which money went to for-profit businesses. He was given a two-and-one-half-year sentence.
Tvind Alert suggests those who disappeared may have gone into hiding at San Juan de las Pulgas or in Zimbabwe. Mexico does not have an extradition treaty with Denmark, nor does Zimbabwe — though the missing Danes are not fugitives because they could legally leave Denmark following their acquittals. A photo of Petersen on Tvind Alert was purportedly taken at San Juan de las Pulgas in November 2007.
Tvind Alert’s suspicions seemed validated when Mexican authorities reportedly tipped off Danish police as to the whereabouts of Gunst. According to a December 26, 2009 story in Jyllands-Posten, U.K. police detained Gunst at Heathrow Airport in order to deliver the Danish summons and then allowed her to continue her journey. If she does not appear at her retrial, prosecutors will now be able to issue an international warrant for her arrest.
Tvind recruits young, idealistic people to attend Tvind schools in Europe and the United States where, according to its various websites, students are trained in third world humanitarian work before volunteering in missions in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Projects have included AIDS education, cholera prevention, and farming improvements. Two schools, both named the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, are located near the rural towns of Dowagiac, Michigan, and Williamstown, Massachusetts. A third U.S. school, Campus California Teachers Group, or Campus California TG, is located in Etna, California, a logging town in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border. The school’s website says that students are trained to work at “the humanitarian projects run by Humana People to People” and that in 2010 its teams will work in Belize and Africa.