Watch CBS News

Spotting Teens Who Are Into Cults

The Pamela Vitale murder has drawn renewed attention to the world of cults.

Former classmates say suspect Scott Dyleski was showing signs of leaning to the Goth side. Dyleski, 16, is to be tried as an adult in the brutal slaying of Vitale, wife of celebrity attorney Daniel Horowitz.

It's not clear whether Dyleski was a cult member.

But numerous problems for him on the home front, including the death of his 18-year-old sister in a traffic accident, seemed to send him spiraling toward the Goth world, former classmates say.

"Frankly," cult expert Steven Hassan of the Freedom of Mind Center

co-anchor Rene Syler on The Early Show, "any major life trauma, death of a loved one, divorce, breakup in a relationship, moving to a new city, state or country, major illness, can really disrupt a person's identity and sense of reality. Especially with a young person, the sudden death of a loved one, without proper and appropriate counseling, can drive someone into a radical personality change."

Hassan, who's a former cult leader himself and now counsels families on how to get people out of cults, points to numerous warning signs that someone may be getting into cults: personality changes, radical appearance changes, avoiding time with family, and trying to convert others.

He says those patterns sound like typical teenage behavior, but parents should take note of them in any event.

"As far as I know," he says, "the information on this particular (Dyleski) case, there's no evidence that there's a specific cult or any undue influence of some other person on him. And young people, as they evolve their identity, experiment with different things.

"And I don't believe that the Goth look is, in any way, a destructive cult. It's kind of a subculture and a reaction to society.

"But, clearly, this (Dyleski) is a troubled person. I think the disruption in his parents' marriage, and stepparents … And, obviously, he wasn't communicating what was going on with them and wasn't getting the help that he really needed. We don't know if he was using drugs. We don't know more details about this.

"But I can definitely tell you families need to be alert, (get) preventive education, letting young people know, especially, that there's no instant friends. Become a researcher. Understand that destructive cults are out there. They don't tell you what they believe and what they want from you.

"And take a curious, yet concerned posture. Don't be hysterical. Don't say, 'Are you in a cult?' But say, 'I'd like to meet your friends. Is there anything I can read or any meetings I can go to?' Don't overreact, but be alert."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.