Two women allegedly lured a driver to death. They May be part of a fringe sect.

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Two college students set out on a leisurely drive along an isolated Alabama forest road last month, but only one returned alive.

Adam Simjee and his girlfriend, Mikayla Paulus, had no idea that their trip would end, according to authorities, in a sudden and deadly shootout with bandits living in the nearby woods.

Related: ‘Cold, cold blood’: why were eight Ohio relatives killed the same night?

Now the story has grown even stranger: the two women who allegedly ambushed Simjee and Paulus, killing Simjee, appear to be fans of a growing religious sect, the University of Cosmic Intelligence, whose leader is currently awaiting trial for child abuse in Georgia. Another adherent was charged earlier this year, in a separate incident, with having murdered his mother with a sword.

There is currently no evidence that the organization ordered or was aware of the alleged acts of its adherents, or that its teachings condone violence.

On 14 August, Simjee and Paulus, who were students at the University of Central Florida, were on a roadtrip they had planned as a final getaway before the start of the fall semester. The couple were victims of their own kindness, according to police. While driving on a road in the Talladega national forest, a 400,000-acre nature preserve, they stopped to aid a woman who said she was a stranded motorist.

That woman, Yasmine Hider, allegedly drew a gun to rob them and ordered them into the woods. Simjee, who had a concealed pistol, tried to fight back. He and Hider shot each other, according to police. Simjee succumbed to his wounds as his girlfriend frantically gave CPR.

A companion of Hider’s, Krystal Pinkins, was allegedly watching nearby and fled into the forest. Law enforcement trackers later discovered a camp in the nearby woods where people appeared to have been living. Police said that they disarmed Pinkins’s son after the five-year-old approached with a loaded shotgun.

Hider and Pinkins were arrested at the scene and Hider taken for gunshot treatment. Both were charged with murder, kidnapping and robbery. Pinkins was also charged with child endangerment.

It is unclear if and how they have pleaded. Due to a gag order, no one involved in the case, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses, can speak to the press.

“Rest in peace,” Paulus wrote in a Facebook post announcing her boyfriend’s burial. “I’ll carry you with me every single 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 mix New Age mysticism, polygamy and Afrocentric and black nationalist ideas. Jamal and his followers believe that they are demigods descended from aliens. Adherents refer to themselves as 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, killing his mother.

He had absolutely no remorse whatsoever

Capt Paul Burch

Paul Burch, a captain at the Mobile county sheriff’s office, told a local news outlet that there did not appear to be anyone else involved. Washam did not have a known history of violence or of mental illness. He had apparently recently argued with his mother about his marijuana use.

“He had absolutely no remorse whatsoever,” Burch said. “That’s probably the most shocking part of it.”

“He was listening to those conspiracy kind of videos and it was dumb as hell,” Washam’s father, Hubert Washam, told Vice. “I tried to look at some of these videos and I can’t even listen to them, it’s so dumb. Lizard people and aliens.”

The University of Cosmic Intelligence is prolific on social media and has what appears to be a growing following. Its 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 got really strange,” he added. “And it didn’t seem like, you know – it was strange, but it wasn’t like a mental illness to 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 the 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 is no reason to regard these movements as more violent than other religions, Stephen Finley, a professor at Louisiana State University, told the Guardian.

Such groups “look outward to other planets and the cosmos and UFOs” because it gives “a sense of transcendence” over the history of race and racism in the US, Finley said. “These ideas come to symbolize a new way of thinking about themselves, a new sense of depth and complexity.”

Over the past couple of years Hider and Pinkins began following the University of Cosmic Intelligence and sharing its content

According to reporting by Vice, Hider previously worked at a Walmart in Oklahoma, where she also attended a college but did not graduate. Pinkins is a certified home health aide who had worked for a health company in Tennessee, her LinkedIn account says.

Over the past couple of years both began following the University of Cosmic Intelligence and sharing its content. Hider left home and stopped talking to her family. She and Pinkins seem to have set out on some kind of trip, run out of money, and been ejected from a hotel.

Scholars who study new religious movements tend to be skeptical of the idea that people who join such organizations are brainwashed or coerced; rather, they’re spiritual seekers drawn to gurus with compelling and attractive world views – “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 that they care about you and that you’re close to them”, Palmer said. “I mean, I’ve felt it listening to leaders whom I totally disagree with – I still feel swept up in it.”

Rashad Jamal was arrested earlier this year for child abuse charges including a charge that he molested an ex-girlfriend’s child. He denies those allegations, and has said that he has “never, and will never, harm an innocent child”.

According to Vice, Jamal previously pleaded guilty to battery and strangulation. He was also previously charged with murder and attempted murder but not convicted. He has not been implicated in the allegations against Hider and Pinkins or Washam.

Jamal, who is jailed in Georgia pending the outcome of the child abuse case, denies that his organization is a cult. “I’m not a cult leader,” he told supporters earlier this year. “I stand for righteousness.”

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