"The ManKind Project offers trainings which support men in developing lives of integrity, accountability and connection to feeling."
— From The ManKind Project Web site
"They had three naked men bring out two chickens that they hit with a hammer."
— Michael Scinto in a letter to a Madison County sheriff's deputy.
Michael Scinto was literally scared to death.
On an isolated 11-acre compound down a winding, country dirt road 110 miles north of Houston, Scinto watched as the leader of the men's group instructed him and nearly 40 other strangers in the room. Put one foot on the carpet. Make sure to keep that foot on the carpet at all times. The leader then began grilling them about who makes them mad.
"They provoked the men into a rage," wrote Scinto in a letter to the Madison County Sheriff's Office. "They were telling 1 man fuck you, you are worthless.'"
Scinto felt nauseous and told a staff member he needed to leave.
When Scinto had arrived the day before, men dressed in dark clothes, faces painted black, stripped him and his fellow initiates of their keys, wallets, cell phones and watches. Now, wanting to go home, Scinto demanded his keys and his wallet back. Not that keys would help at this point anyway. After all, he didn't have his truck with him; Scinto had been driven up Interstate 45 from Houston, through the rural town of Madisonville and over to the training compound located on the grassy ranchlands of North Zulch. All the men were carpooled because they were told there was not enough space for everyone to park.
Outside and away from the other men now, the group leader sat next to Scinto.
"He told me that if I left," wrote Scinto, "I would be causing harm to the other participants. I told him that I did not care. I told him to get my stuff so that I could leave. He said that if I left they would kill...(I was) convinced that if I ran they would catch me. At this point I feared for my life."
Scinto initially agreed to sign up and pay the $650 for The ManKind Project's New Warrior Training Adventure several weeks earlier after hearing about it from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Kim Sawyer. Like everyone else who attended, Scinto was not told what the weekend would specifically entail. He signed several confidentiality contracts and liability waivers and filled out a medical questionnaire, but was promised all activities were voluntary and he could leave at any time. Plus, of course, he trusted his sponsor. Sawyer, a business coach who counsels corporate clients on how to run more effective businesses, had been Scinto's sponsor for about eight months. Sawyer joined The ManKind Project more than a decade earlier and sold the idea to Scinto, telling him it would be the best thing he could do for himself.
"So many of the character defects that eat you [sic] lunch can be replaced by strengths and skills and understandings you'll discover from this training. It will be the best Return on Investment you ever got," Sawyer wrote to Scinto in an e-mail before the initiation.
As Scinto became increasingly distraught at the retreat, staff members fetched Sawyer, who later told police that Scinto was crying and explained that he had unearthed a traumatic childhood memory. Sawyer told Scinto that leaving would be difficult and that it would be best if he expressed his thoughts and worries openly with the group.
Scinto had to make a choice: stay and continue with the program, or try to walk away alone along the poorly marked country roads, lost and terrified someone was close behind, hunting him down.
In a letter to the sheriff's office, he detailed some of the rituals and activities he witnessed:
• Blindfolded walking tours in the nude;
• People blowing sage smoke in his face while 50 or so naked men danced around candles;
• Men sitting naked in a circle discussing their sexual histories while passing a wooden dildo called "The Cock";
• Naked men beating cooked chickens with a hammer.
At the end of the third and final day of the retreat, the leaders and staff members herded the initiates into the main room.
"They threatened us with imprisonment," wrote Scinto. "They said that if we were married to tell the wives we loved them. They told us not to discuss any of the process that we went through. Then they let us leave."
Fifteen days later, on July 25, 2005, Scinto's father and sister found him dead, rotting in his apartment from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
His family did not understand. So they began investigating.
What they discovered was that the international men's organization with thousands of vocal loyalists claiming life-altering training also had an underworld of critics with bone-chilling tales of physical and psychological abuse.