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.

Ross insists he's thorough when he investigates a group and decides to call it a cult. By Ross' definition, cults share common traits, regardless of their theology. They have leaders with too much influence and too little accountability. They frequently demand forfeiture of property. They encourage recruits to isolate themselves from family and friends, overwhelming them and robbing them of critical thinking skills.

In deprogramming, the counselor chips away at the wall separating a cult member from independent thought. And the best way to do this, Ross says, is to ask questions.

Sometimes, that isn't easy. For Kathy Tonkin, a Ross client whose sons were in a cult, asking questions had become next to impossible.

She turned to Rick Ross in 1990 to do an involuntary deprogramming--some people call it kidnaping--to force her sons to hear her concerns.

Tonkin had joined a Bellevue, Washington, church to shore up a life that was threatening to unravel. She chose Life Tabernacle, a branch of the United Pentecostal Church International, which mainstream Christian organizations consider "heretical." It didn't take Tonkin long to decide that Life Tabernacle's old-fashioned ways were really a form of oppression.

"Church members would joke that you couldn't pick a toothpaste without the pastor's approval," she says. Women in the church could not wear pants, jewelry, makeup or expose their arms in public. TV and movies were forbidden.

Tonkin also resented the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the church pastor, who demanded large donations.

What bothered her most, however, was the fascination that the 28-year-old youth pastor had for her son, Thysen, who was 15. The youth pastor called "constantly" on her son, buying him clothes and taking him for drives in his Mustang. "At some point," she stated in a court deposition, "he began spending almost every night at our house, in the same bed with Thysen. ... I asked Pastor Kerns to help, but nothing was done."

So, she quit the church. Her three sons, however, decided to keep attending, and eventually moved out of her house.

Rick Ross agreed to help Kathy Tonkin get her sons out of Life Tabernacle, starting with Matthew and Thysen, the two youngest. He flew to Washington with two Arizona friends who would provide muscle.

Employing a ruse to get the boys into their grandmother's house, Tonkin and the deprogramming team entrapped her sons--legally, since Matthew and Thysen were underage.

For the next six days, Ross waged a spiritual war with the boys. While Matthew and Thysen fought back with preaching and insults, Ross doggedly asked them about the beliefs of their church. He talked about cult leaders who twist Scripture to keep members fearful and compliant. He showed videotapes of scam artists who fleece parishioners. And he challenged them with questions about their pastor and his hypocritical lifestyle.

Eventually, Matthew and Thysen lowered their guard and started showing affection for the mother they condemned as a "backslider" only a few days earlier. The deprogramming was working, but Ross recognized in the boys a familiar byproduct of the process--humiliation.

"People who go through deprogramming feel embarrassed coming out of a group. They feel ashamed and they have a hard time with it," he says.

To assuage their shame, Ross told the boys about his own youthful indiscretion, a $50,000 jewelry heist.

Ricky Alan Ross was a discipline problem.
He grew up on North 19th Avenue in Phoenix, the restless child of a Jewish plumber who found the farmland near his house more interesting than school.

So he ditched.
Ricky's teachers weren't sure what to do with their bright but distracted student.

In high school, he skipped school so often that his father sent him to a military academy. "I did very well there," Ross remembers, "because I was told if I did well, I could come home."

After graduation, Ross went to work for a collection agency, then as a loan officer in a bank. In 1973, he was transferred to a branch in Bullhead City, where he lived for a year. He quit that job and returned to Phoenix, "and it was during that period of time when I was out of work when the bad things happened.

"One was an aborted attempted burglary when I was 20 or 21. A friend of mine wanted to break into a model home and take things from it. We never got inside. He broke a window and we were caught. It was pled down to trespassing.

"Then I came up with the astounding feat of being involved in the box of rocks incident." Again, he says, a friend came up with the scheme. "He worked at the Broadway, and I brought in a box of rocks with a note that he had typed. He planned it all."

The box was supposed to be a bomb. His partner in crime handed over $50,000 worth of jewelry, and Ross went home. Later, they got together and split the loot. They might have gotten away with it, too, if another friend hadn't snitched.

Some of the pieces his partner had taken had been melted down, but everything in Ross' possession was returned to the store. Ross was sentenced to four years' probation.

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