In the early 1960s, Carsten Ringsmose, Walther Juul Hansen and Eva Kock Sørensen were part of a small group of idealistic young antinuclear activists living communally in a two-story house in the Danish island town of Odense.
“It was incredible,” Hansen recalled. “Ten, 15 times every month, we had planned things going on – poetry discussions, seminars, speeches from people who came from all over, authors, artists.”
The commune might have become a footnote in hippie history but for the arrival of Mogens Amdi Petersen, a thin, tall man with hair to his shoulders and a gift for oratory. That small commune was the genesis of the secretive, controversial global organization known as the Teachers Group, which prosecutors later would call a “money-making machine.”
Back in the late 1960s, the commune residents watched as Petersen discovered his own charisma, which eventually became a source of power.
“He realized he was able to impress people very much,” Ringsmose recalled. “He noticed that he was able to make a fantastic influence over people.”
Sørensen and Hansen were dating then. Now they’re married. Sørensen, a psychologist, recalls Petersen’s talent for keeping people off-kilter. When Sørensen was a teenager at the commune, Petersen told her that he was immortal, she said.
“He had that charisma, so I thought, ‘Could it be true?’ ” Sørensen said during an interview at the home she and Hansen share in the small town of Ollerup. “You had that feeling that anything could happen. And that anything would happen.”
In 1967, Petersen and the rest of the group bought a bus for a trip around the world.
They sold it in Kathmandu, Nepal. From there, Hansen and Petersen traveled on to the Kowloon section of Hong Kong. Their friendship deepened, and they bought an armful of the works of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. For Petersen, the writings were a revelation, according to Hansen.
Hansen recalled that Petersen insisted in all-night discussions that their journeys would be reimagined as a version of the Chinese Communist Party’s Long March, in which the heroic struggles of a founding elite would inspire followers for generations to come.
“He considered himself a revolutionary, a leader of a movement that would take place in Denmark, or even all of Western Europe,” Hansen said, adding that Petersen wrote comradely letters to Mao, as well as to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “He just wanted to assert himself. He felt, I think, equal and in the same league as Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong.”
Returning to Denmark, Petersen and his friends painted the words, “Traveling folk high school,” on the door of another old bus and drove it from Europe through Africa. Ringsmose was made chairman of the board of this mobile school, according to the book “Mesteren fra Tvind,” a 2003 history of Petersen and the Teachers Group written by Danish investigative journalist Frede Farmand.
In an interview at his home in rural Denmark, Ringsmose told Reveal that Petersen demanded an extraordinary sacrifice from his followers.
“They promise each other to work together for the rest of their life,” he said. “And they say they have common economy, common tasks. It means common work time. It means everybody gives up even the smallest bit of their private life.”
In 1970, Petersen dubbed his cadre “Lærergruppen,” or “Teachers Group.”
Steen Thomsen, a member of the Teachers Group from 1977 to 1998, said: “We were quite naive and were trying to change the world. … But in the end, Mr. Petersen changed all that for me.”
“In one direction, it kind of works in a very authoritarian way,” he said. “Look in another direction, and you’ll see a lot of people who work for something they believe in.”
When Thomsen resigned, he wrote a letter to the Danish Education Ministry, saying, “What I for so many years regarded as a peacemaking organisation, working for the oppressed and poor, has turned out to be a cult.”
That cadre also evolved into what Danish law enforcement officials consider a global network of fraud and a money-laundering empire that serves the interests of Petersen and his inner circle.
Ringsmose described a preoccupation with money that had roots in the commune days.
“All of our money went into this yellow container. They said it’s our common money,” he said. “But you know, the leaders in the Teachers Group, who administered this box with all the money, they were not responsible to anybody other than Amdi Petersen and his close friends.”
By pooling their funds, Petersen would tell the others, a small group with a few dozen disciples could expand quickly. And they did, according to former members and law enforcement sources, building school systems and international relief operations – eventually forming a many-headed organization known as Humana People to People.
From the road trips to Africa came the idea to collect used clothing in Europe to donate to poorer people to the south.
“There was, in fact, cheating going on – irregularities to say the least,” Hansen said. “We found out they were selling the clothes.” Teachers Group, he added, “made it a business – million-dollar business in Africa. We could not believe it. … I said, ‘This is enough. You can go to hell.’ ”
The schools, too, became a profit center, and Denmark’s Ministry of Education pushed for criminal investigations into Teachers Group schools, alleging misuse of public funds.
In 1977, following early news reports with allegations of fraud and abuses from defectors, Petersen stopped appearing in public, according to court documents. That was the same year the Teachers Group founded an organization called Development Aid from People to People in Denmark. It would evolve into similarly named organizations in southern African countries, all operated under the banner of Humana People to People.
This began a decades-long game of cat and mouse between Petersen’s Teachers Group and the Danish press, law enforcement, legislators and a steady flow of defecting, whistleblowing followers.
This story was edited by Robert J. Rosenthal and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.