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.

Although his brief criminal career occurred nearly a decade before he became a professional deprogrammer, his detractors try to use it to discredit him.

Hecklers at his lectures and speeches shout out, "Aren't you a convicted felon?" and send copies of 20-year-old arrest reports to news organizations.

Ross says it's annoying, but then it also helps remind him of the circuitous route he's taken.

It was during the month Ross spent in jail awaiting sentencing that he hit bottom. A rabbi convinced him to get himself in shape, reaffirm his Jewish faith and, most of all, give his grandmother something to be proud of.

"She was a true bubie, which is 'grandmother' in Yiddish," he says. "She was Polish and spoke with a heavy accent." He visited her in a nursing home every week, Ross says, and it was during one of those visits in 1982 that Ross made a discovery that would lead him to his life's work.

"I went over for lunch one day, and she was upset. I asked, 'What happened, Bubie?' and she said, 'That meshugana is yelling at me how I'm going to burn in hell.'" Ross learned that the nursing home's program coordinator was a fan of Jewish Voice Broadcast, a radio program that proselytizes Jews to accept Christ as the messiah. Other residents confirmed that they were getting mail from groups such as Jews for Jesus. Ross was outraged, and he organized the Jewish leaders in his temple to do something about it.

It piqued his interest in extremist organizations. Three years later, Ross dedicated himself full-time to the study of cult groups and deprogramming. Since then, he's handled some celebrated cases:

* In 1985, Ross deprogrammed Joyce Lukezic, who was accused and later acquitted in the famous Redmond murder case. While awaiting her three trials, Lukezic had fallen into a radical Pentecostal jail ministry and given up Judaism. Ross was hired by Lukezic's daughter, and persuaded Lukezic to leave the sect.

* One California cult believes that children are a stumbling block to salvation and asks married adults to undergo sterilizations. In 1991, Ross talked a 25-year-old woman into leaving the group before she tied her tubes for the Lord.

* In January 1991, Ross was hired by a Wisconsin family to deprogram a son who had become a "robotic" member of Missionaries to the Pre-Born, a radical antiabortion group. He was being trained to carry out violence against doctors, and his journal contained plans for bombing clinics. Today, after Ross' counseling, the young man is in graduate school, still very much pro-life, Ross says, but no longer likely to join a group bent on violence.

* During the 1993 Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas, Ross acted as a consultant to the FBI.

In the 13 years since someone told his grandmother she was going to burn in hell, Ross has counseled 250 to 300 cult members, and he estimates that 80 percent left their exploitative gurus. Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN)--a clearinghouse that monitors the activities of cults--has called Ross one of the six best deprogrammers in the country.

It hasn't made him rich. Although his deprogramming fee is $500 a day, plus expenses, he never has earned more than $31,000 in a single year, and he rarely makes more than $20,000. He's motivated not by money, he says, but by the calls he gets from distraught parents--and the debt he believes he owes those who helped him get out of jail and get his own life in order. Since then, he had managed to keep from running afoul of the law.

Until, that is, he tried to deprogram Kathy Tonkin's eldest son.

In the month after Ross had talked Matthew and Thysen Scott out of Life Tabernacle, church members had taken special steps to keep their grip on Tonkin's 18-year-old son, Jason Scott.

Tonkin says they prepared Jason to resist his impending deprogramming, drilling him on the questions Ross would confront him with. When she heard rumors that Jason planned to go overseas as a missionary, she asked Ross to deprogram him immediately.

Ross agreed, and took extra precautions, including three security aides from Arizona. The three grabbed an unsuspecting Jason in the presence of his mother, his brother and Rick Ross. They handcuffed him and put duct tape over his mouth, then stuffed him into a van and drove for more than two hours to an expensive beach house Tonkin had rented specifically for the deprogramming.

Held against his will, Jason fought back. But after several days, he seemed to relent and renounce the church. They all went to a restaurant to celebrate, and Ross and his crew let their guard down. Jason bolted from the restaurant and went straight to the Greys Harbor Police Department.

Tonkin, Ross and two of the security guards went to the police station, too. Ross and his two men were booked on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment, then released.

The charges were soon dismissed. But more than two years later, the Greys Harbor prosecutor had a change of heart and ordered Ross and his confederates back to Washington for arraignment. He'd decided to try the case after all.

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