Two college students took a leisurely drive along a remote Alabama forest road last month, but only one returned alive.
Adam Simjee and his girlfriend, Mikayla Paulus, had no idea that their journey would end in a sudden and deadly shooting with bandits living in the nearby woods, according to authorities.
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Now the story has gotten even weirder: The two women who allegedly ambushed Simjee and Paulus and killed Simjee appear to be fans of a growing religious sect, the University of Cosmic Intelligence, whose leader is currently waiting for a trial for child abuse in Georgia. Another supporter was charged in a separate incident earlier this year with murdering his mother with a sword.
There is currently no evidence that the organization has ordered or was aware of the alleged acts of its supporters, or that its teachings condone violence.
On August 14, Simjee and Paulus, students at the University of Central Florida, were on a road trip they had planned as their last outing before the start of the fall semester. According to the police, the couple was victims of their own goodness. While driving on a road in Talladega National Forest, a 400,000-acre wildlife sanctuary, they stopped to help a woman who said she was a stranded motorist.
That woman, Yasmine Hider, allegedly pulled a gun to rob them and sent them into the woods. Simjee, who had a concealed gun, tried to fight back. Police say he and Hider shot each other to death. Simjee succumbed to his injuries when his girlfriend frantically gave CPR.
A companion of Hider, Krystal Pinkins, reportedly looked nearby and fled into the woods. Law enforcement trackers later discovered a camp in the nearby woods where people appeared to have lived. Police said they disarmed Pinkins’ son after the five-year-old approached him with a loaded shotgun.
Hider and Pinkins were arrested at the scene and Hider was taken for gunshot treatment. Both were charged with murder, kidnapping and theft. Pinkins was also accused of endangering children.
It’s unclear if and how they argued. Due to a gag order, no one involved in the case, including police, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses, can speak to the press.
“Rest in peace,” Paul wrote in a Facebook post announcing her friend’s funeral. “I will carry you with me every day.”
Vice News has since reported that Hider and Pinkins were followers of the University of Cosmic Intelligence, which critics describe as a conspiracy theory cult.
The group’s leader – Rashad Jamal White, commonly known as Rashad Jamal – is an Atlanta area social media influencer, rapper and guru whose teachings blend New Age mysticism, polygamy, and Afrocentric and black nationalist ideas. Jamal and his followers believe that they are demigods descended from aliens. Followers call themselves gods and goddesses.
In January, a follower of the University of Cosmic Intelligence, Damien Winslow Washam, was arrested after allegedly attacking several members of his family with a samurai sword and killing his mother.
He didn’t regret anything at all
Captain Paul Burch
Paul Burch, a captain in the Mobile Sheriff’s Office, told a local news station that no one else appeared to be involved. Washam had no known history of violence or mental illness. He had apparently recently had an argument with his mother about his marijuana use.
“He had absolutely no regrets,” Burch said. “That’s probably the most shocking part of it.”
“He listened to those kind of conspiracy videos and it was dumb as hell,” Washam’s father, Hubert Washam, told Vice. “I’ve been trying to watch some of these videos and I can’t even listen to them, it’s so stupid. Lizard people and aliens.”
The University of Cosmic Intelligence is prolific on social media and has a growing following. The YouTube channel has 129,000 subscribers. The organization sells crystals and jewelry in an online store.
“My son must have spent three to five thousand dollars on crystals,” Hubert Washam told Vice. “He became very strange,” he added. “And it didn’t seem, you know, it was strange, but it wasn’t like a mental illness for us. It was more like – I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The University of Cosmic Intelligence teaches that humans receive energy from the sun, that government or other forces control the weather, and that aliens visited ancient civilizations.
These kinds of beliefs are common in African-American esoteric movements, and there’s no reason to view these movements as more violent than other religions, Stephen Finley, a professor at Louisiana State University, told The Guardian.
Such groups “look to other planets and the cosmos and UFOs” because it provides “a sense of transcendence” about the history of race and racism in the US, Finley said. “These ideas symbolize a new way of thinking about oneself, a new sense of depth and complexity.”
In recent years, Hider and Pinkins began to follow the University of Cosmic Intelligence and share its contents
According to Vice reports, Hider previously worked at a Walmart in Oklahoma, where she also attended college but did not graduate. Pinkins is a certified home care provider who has worked for a Tennessee health company, her LinkedIn account says.
Over the past few years, both of them started following the University of Cosmic Intelligence and sharing its content. Hider left the house and stopped talking to her family. She and Pinkins appear to have gone on a trip, run out of money, and have been evicted from a hotel.
Scholars who study new religious movements are often skeptical of the idea that people who join such organizations are being brainwashed or coerced; rather, they are spiritual seekers drawn to gurus with compelling and appealing worldviews — “visions of a better world or of higher states of consciousness,” Susan Palmer, a researcher at McGill University, told The Guardian.
Charismatic leaders with a knack for rhetoric “capture your imagination and take you on a journey and also make you feel like they care about you and that you are close to them,” Palmer said. “I mean, I’ve felt like I’ve been listening to leaders I totally disagree with — I still feel swept up in them.”
Rashad Jamal was arrested earlier this year for child abuse, including charges that he abused an ex-girlfriend’s child. He denies the allegations and has said he would “never, never harm an innocent child”.
According to Vice, Jamal previously pleaded guilty to assault and strangulation. He was also previously charged with murder and attempted murder, but not convicted. He is not involved in the charges against Hider and Pinkins or Washam.
Jamal, who is detained in Georgia pending the outcome of the child abuse case, denies that his organization is a cult. “I am not a cult leader,” he told supporters earlier this year. “I stand for justice.”