While he was at Princeton, and in the early days of his modeling career, Richards began visiting Freddy in Manhattan on the weekends. He and other young acolytes would go with Freddy to Studio 54, where it was impossible to get in without connections. Once inside, the group would see clubbers having sex on the dance floor and doing cocaine in the bathrooms, but Richards and his coterie had nobler pursuits. Freddy was against drinking and drugs. He thought the body was God’s temple. In the wee hours, the group would return to Freddy’s ornately decorated apartment to discuss Eastern philosophy.
“In my mind I was thinking that I was working him,” Richards says. “I was bringing up a couple friends with me from school, and we knew he could get us into Studio 54 and we could crash at his apartment. I was looking at it like I was taking advantage of this guy!”
By his senior year in college, Richards had signed with Ford Models and proudly paid for his last two semesters of college tuition himself. He graduated in the spring of 1985 and moved into an apartment in the same Manhattan building as Freddy’s. But there was much more to it than being neighbors. Richards was becoming part of Eternal Values, a cult led by von Mierers that counted a number of the building’s residents among its ranks. Starting then and for years after, Richards donated almost all of his earnings to the group, helping to cover the rent on the apartments Freddy kept in the building, as well as others he began to acquire as the group grew in number. When he wasn’t jetting off to a modeling or commercial job, Richards spent his days and nights doing menial tasks around the building or studying alongside Freddy and, despite his financial importance to the group, sleeping on a mat on the floor.
Eternal Values was founded in the early 1980s by von Mierers, himself a former model, interior decorator and socialite. An astrologer and self-styled prophet, he claimed to be an alien reincarnated from the distant star Arcturus. He said he had come to Earth to warn people of an impending apocalypse to be triggered by a change in the planet’s magnetic poles, and to train his students to become leaders in the aftermath.
Based out of von Mierers’ apartment building on the east side of Manhattan—the group also kept a loft in the Bronx and, later, a large house in North Carolina—Eternal Values attracted young, intelligent and often wealthy followers. Most were seeking a greater understanding of the universe; some were rewarded with a life of mind control and fanaticism. At its peak, there were perhaps 100 active members. They spoke in New Age jargon, with much talk about “highly evolved personalities,” “ego renunciation,” “the white light and the violet light” and the coming apocalypse, which made personal wealth and relationships unnecessary. Astrological charts and life readings, performed by von Mierers or one of his acolytes, played a central role. Included was often a “gem prescription,” adopted from Hindu belief in the healing properties of certain precious stones. “The gems are God’s thoughts condensed,” he told Vanity Fair in a 1990 interview.
Von Mierers told followers he had connections for great deals on stones, which he often sold to them for more than $100,000; payments were only accepted in cash or traveler’s checks. “The gems were supposed to be the most pure forms of matter on our planet,” says Richards, who bought a fortune’s worth over the years. “They were supposed to strengthen your inherent weakness and enhance your strengths.”
Within the group, the number of gems one possessed was treated as a sign of devoutness. “I spent over $150,000,” Richards says. “The gems all came with bogus appraisals. When I sold them later, I found out they were worth less than $8,000.”
When Freddy’s story was included in a popular 1985 book, Aliens Among Us—“Dazzling true testimony that extraterrestrials are on earth,” the book promised—Eternal Values became a national phenomenon. Thousands of hopefuls contacted Freddy for astrological readings at $350 per session. Hundreds were drawn into his gemstone scams. Richards, then in his modeling heyday, was trotted out for interviews and appearances.
But while von Mierers was getting rich, Richards found in Eternal Values something more grounding. “The economy was kicking ass, there was opulence everywhere: a lot of drugs, a lot of cocaine,” says Richards. “Being in [Eternal Values], you had this sense that there was an alternative to all that. The message was, don’t be attached to this wealth and decadence because there’s really a higher meaning to it all. Freddy was basically saying, ‘Get your head out of your ass because the world is coming to an end—you better get your shit together because you’ve spent lifetimes preparing for this opportunity.’ ”
Gilberto Picinich joined the group in 1981 after hearing Freddy speak on the radio. A lifelong seeker, Picinich remembers the sense of purpose Eternal Values gave him. “We all had the feeling that we were on this critical mission that would help save ourselves, friends and family from the coming apocalypse,” he says. “The message self-validated over the years. You started to fear that if you left, you might miss something important, something that you’ve sacrificed for.”
NEXT: “It was like, ‘Let’s go to Madonna’s for the weekend!’ But I was like, ‘I can’t. The end of the world is coming.'”