Inside an Internet Cult: Missing Persons, Nude Meditation, Desperate Families

Six people suddenly vanished from a home in Missouri in August. Police believe alleged cult leader Rashad Jamal links them

Rashad Jamal
Rashad Jamal

Cartisha Morgan first noticed something was different about her daughter Ma’Kayla, a young single mother of a toddler, when Ma’Kayla gave her a candle as a birthday present. They year before, Ma'Kayla had given Morgan a Michael Kors bag.

“I don’t do candles or crystals,” Morgan says.

Up until that point, Ma’Kayla Wickerson, 24, wasn’t really into that stuff either. But she was becoming overwhelmed by motherhood. Still living with her mother and then 2-year-old daughter, Malaiyah, in the St. Louis area, Ma’Kayla started dressing in more off-beat clothing and began seeing a psychic. At the time, though, Morgan had no indication she was involved in anything potentially dangerous.

Ma’Kayla further surprised her mother when in Nov. 2022, she announced that she and Malaiyah were moving into a rented home in Berkeley, Mo., not far from St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Morgan was happy for her daughter at first, but in March, she was informed by Ma’Kayla's employer that she had stopped showing up to her well-paying job. When Morgan went over to the Berkeley house to ask her daughter what was going on, she was instead met by a man she’d never seen before holding a gun. He wouldn’t let her in and Ma’Kayla wouldn’t come out to speak to her mother face-to-face.

“I haven’t seen her or Malaiyah since then,” Morgan says.

<p>Berkeley Police Department (4)</p> Mikayla Thompson, Ma'Kayla Wickerson, Gerrielle German and Naaman Williams

Berkeley Police Department (4)

Mikayla Thompson, Ma'Kayla Wickerson, Gerrielle German and Naaman Williams

Five months after that encounter, Ma’Kayla, now 26, Malaiyah, 3, and the four other residents of that home vanished without a trace. Police who searched the home soon discovered the identities of the other missing individuals: Naaman Williams, 29; Mikayla Thompson, 24; Gerrielle German, 27; and her 3-year-old son Ashton Mitchell.

Related: 6 People Vanished from a Home Near St. Louis in August. Police Suspect They're Involved in an Online Cult

Investigators believe the group to be followers of Rashad Jamal, who is currently serving a prison sentence in Georgia following a 2023 child molestation conviction. He has not been charged in connection with any of the disappearances.

The six missing persons were last seen on surveillance video at a store in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 6, 2023. Maj. Steve Runge, the lead investigator for the Berkeley Police Department, asserts that the six are a part of a cult, and that they don’t want to be found. Before that, neighbors reported seeing the group meditating in the backyard, sometimes in the nude, a ritual allegedly in line with Jamal's beliefs.

<p>Berkeley Police Department</p>

Berkeley Police Department

Runge has been investigating the six and thus Jamal over the past seven months. Jamal, whose legal name is Rashad Jamal White, is a Chicago native. He moved to Atlanta to pursue a music career under the name Jeda D, but his music ambitions never took off. In 2020, however, Jamal started to develop a following on his Facebook live streams, preaching conspiracy theories and other unconventional ideas, including one on how the government uses devices meant to look like pigeons to spy on people.

“He calls himself a god,” Runge says.

Rashad Jamal
Rashad Jamal

The ideas, also featured on various social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, include musings on natural phenomena, Black history and mythology, says his former girlfriend Darshell Smith, who is also the mother of his young son.

“I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say on that,” Smith tells PEOPLE. “It sounded like gibberish.”

Jamal’s influence persists, despite his various legal troubles. Having previously pleaded guilty to a domestic battery charge in Wisconsin in 2017, Jamal was convicted in 2023 for sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl.

Smith, who still faces threats online from Jamal’s followers, has since started a GoFundMe for her children and is writing a book on her experiences, called Incomplete Shellz: The Breaking of a Chrysalis.

Jamal has been in custody since his arrest in 2022, yet he has over 100,000 followers across his various social media platforms. His school of thought is known as the University of Cosmic Intelligence, which according to its website is “geared toward enlightening and illuminating minds.”

<p>Georgia Department of Corrections</p> Rashad Jamal

Georgia Department of Corrections

Rashad Jamal

Thousands have added their signatures to different online petitions calling for his release. Unable to conduct interviews because of his terms of confinement, Jamal, speaking through a spokesperson, “vehemently denies” being a cult leader.

“Rashad Jamal is a devoted father and husband, who has tirelessly advocated for peace and social justice,” his publicist Tay Yoncé tells PEOPLE in a statement. “His teachings have always been rooted in love, unity and enlightenment, and he is deeply troubled by the distressing events surrounding these allegations.”

For more on Rashad Jamal, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here.

Reuben Mitchell, who lives in Tennessee, has been through Morgan’s ordeal before. His daughter was three years old when her mother left with her to live off the grid. Looking for answers, he says he received strange messages on Facebook referring to his daughter as a “fake child” that led him to Jamal and his teaching, which he believes his daughter’s mother fell into.

Mitchell filed for emergency custody, which was granted, and eventually his daughter was located at a school in Washington, D.C. When he drove down to reunite with her, she was shocked to see him, having been told that her father was dead.

“She’s resilient,” Mitchell says. “I’m making sure she’s experiencing normalcy and love.”

Morgan, like Mitchell was at one point, is still stuck searching for answers and is praying for a similar outcome.

“My heart hurts so bad,” Morgan says. “I need to learn how to live while this is going on.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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