Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatans

Clients of deprogrammer Rick Ross call him a savior. Perhaps that's why people he's branded cult leaders want to crucify him.

Rick Ross is describing how Arizona's cults use mind control to exploit their members. He warns about 70 people gathered at Arizona State University's Memorial Union that they are prime targets for groups that tend to prey on university students.

The Moonies have a house on North Central. Scientology has a church in Mesa. There's Scottsdale's CBJ, whose members believe they will live forever. And at ASU itself, there's a chapter of the ICC, which, Ross says, has been booted out of 12 colleges, including the University of Arizona, for its aggressive recruitment techniques.

The list grows as Ross turns over his carefully prepared note cards.
Rick Ross looks more like an advertising executive than one of the nation's foremost "exit counselors"--as deprogrammers prefer to be called--with more than 250 deprogrammings on his resume.

The well-groomed 43-year-old is giving his fifth lecture in a month that's taken him to universities in Oregon, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alabama. And now the Phoenix resident is back home, speaking at ASU for the first time in ten years.

Since his last lecture at ASU, his notoriety as an expert on Bible-based cults, New Age groups and the militia movement has made him a national figure and a regular on the talk-show circuit.

It's also made him many enemies, and even now he is in their midst.
Unbeknownst to Ross, the "student" in the front row taping his lecture, the one with a bandanna on his head, is actually a private investigator. Ross doesn't realize that a process server is sitting near the door. Nor is he aware that a pile of documents containing intimate details of his life are stacked in bundles on a table. He has no clue that Steven Kamp, the man responsible for this ambush of sorts, is sitting patiently in the back of the room.

When Ross ends his presentation, Kamp stands to speak. He's a large man, with copious amounts of graying curly hair and a bushy mustache.

"Remember me?" Kamp asks.
"No," Ross answers.
"You brought my church up in your lecture tonight. You called my church a cult."

It isn't the first time Ross has made that allegation. Two months earlier, on a television news broadcast, Rick Ross had labeled Kamp's Tonto Village commune, the Church of Immortal Consciousness, a destructive cult. Enraged, Kamp has followed Ross to ASU looking for satisfaction. And he's brought along his son, his attorney, the undercover investigator, the process server, the incriminating dossiers.

Kamp says he doesn't like to be lumped in with skinheads and Branch Davidians.

Ross responds by citing cultish activities Kamp's neighbors have accused him of.

"Look, maybe we can resolve things in a human-to-human moment," Kamp says, offering to come up to the podium to "work out the conflict."

It's not clear whether Kamp means to hug Ross or deck him, but the deprogrammer wants no part of it.

Ross tells him to sit down, and the confrontation becomes a shouting match.
The audience cringes in embarrassment.
Although Ross is used to being heckled and harassed, he's grateful when a sympathetic professor wrests control of the floor with a question of his own. Kamp sees that he's getting nowhere, and he stalks out with his son and his lawyer.

As the gathering breaks up, the process server hands Ross a copy of a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against him that day, November14, by Kamp.

If Steven Kamp is looking for a quick payday, he may be too late.
Ross has filed bankruptcy after getting hit with a $3.1 million judgment in a civil suit brought by a Washington man who says a Ross deprogramming deprived him of his civil rights.

Ross has been reviled in print as a kidnaper and a vicious religion-hater. Some even blame him for the disaster at Waco, Texas. He's been hounded by private investigators and threatened with violence. Some of his friends fear for his life.

But the day after his confrontation with Steven Kamp, Ross is back to work, fighting mind control. He begins deprogramming a California woman whose husband wants her to leave a strict Pentecostal sect--a cult, Ross insists--that's convinced her she'll rot in hell if she leaves the fold.

For three days, Ross will meet with her in a hotel room near Sky Harbor International Airport, hoping to convince her that God is not the man in Redding to whom she's been sending so many checks.

Ross is known for his facility with the Bible. His talent for untwisting the Scripture that cult leaders employ to justify exploitative or even criminal behavior has put him in great demand. And, after 13 years and some of the most notable cases in American cult history, when Rick Ross calls a group a cult, people listen.

Therein lies the rub. What goes into making that call--pronouncing whether a group is destructive or merely eccentric--is the subject of wide disagreement among deprogrammers like Ross, academics, church leaders and believers. One man's salvation is another man's enslavement.

Steven Kamp says that in the case of his church, Ross hasn't done his homework, that he relied on secondhand information and unfounded allegations by intolerant neighbors.

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