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.

To reach his assessment, Ross watched videotapes of Steven Kamp's wife, Trina, as she issued church teachings by "trancing" thespirit of a dead Englishman named Dr.Duran. He viewed tapes of Channel 15's interview with an ex-church member who claims to have lost more than $70,000 to the Kamps. Ross also pored over depositions filed in the many lawsuits the church has filed.

Channel 15's Tony Kovaleski, who spent a week filming at the Tonto Village commune, says that he was impressed by the work that Ross did to prepare for his interview. "He didn't want to come in and give us an opinion without preparing thoroughly," Kovaleski says. "Rick was as prepared as anyone I've ever dealt with."

The Kamps say that Kovaleski burned them after they gave him unrestricted access to their organization.

"He raped us, I feel," Trina Kamp says.
Steve Rensch, a church member and one of the Kamps' attorneys, says that the church intends to expand its defamation suit to include Channel 15.

Trina Kamp has been a minor celebrity ever since she went into a trance in a Gila County courtroom last July so that Dr.Pahlvon Duran, who supposedly lived in the 14th century, could testify.

Until then, relatively few people knew what kind of theology was practiced at the Church of Immortal Consciousness. Trina and Steven Kamp say it's Dr. Duran, not the Kamps, who runs the church.

The Kamps began moving their commune to Tonto Village about eight years ago. Now the church owns 15 of the Village's 250 lots, and plans to purchase more. That's caused friction with the neighbors.

What really made the neighbors howl was the Kamps' plan to get a state charter for the church-operated Shelby School. In its application to the state, the Kamps claimed that the school was nonsectarian. Citing credit problems, the state ultimately denied the charter, which would have qualified the school for $180,000 in state funds. The Kamps are suing the state.

Steven Kamp thinks most of the animosity in Tonto Village comes from intolerance. Gila County is born-again Christian and militia country, he says. If the Church of Immortal Consciousness had set up shop in California, he says, nobody would care.

"I think a lot of [the people who complain] have boring lives and we gave them something to talk about," Kamp says.

In 1993, the Church of Immortal Consciousness sued Connie and Dave Miller, claiming that the Tonto Village couple had spread rumors that the church was involved in "devil worship, satanic rituals including the sacrifice of animals, nude dancing, rituals involving children, the drinking of blood and the selling of children."

Actually, several villagers claim, the Kamps used the suit as an excuse to subpoena everyone in town. If rumors were flying in the village, they had less to do with devil worship than with complaints about harassment and intimidation.

"There was a peaceful, country quiet here, but now there's a stomach-tightening anxiousness," says Rita Spalink, one of the Kamp's most outspoken critics in the village. "The problem up here is not with religion. The problem is with overbearing, harassment and attitude."

Linda Staley agrees. "They're affecting a nice neighborhood in a bad way. When they sued Dave and Connie Miller, it really rubbed people the wrong way. We don't have lawyers like they do."

The nervousness has spread to nearby Payson. Residents there fear something bad could happen in Tonto Village. That talk escalated when it was learned the Kamps had hired three armed private investigators to provide security.

For some, the events in Tonto Village evoke memories of Miracle Valley. In the early 1980s, the Reverend Frances Thomas and her Christ Miracle Healing Center moved from Chicago into the established village near the Mexican border in Cochise County. The church operated its own school. Church members intimidated and harassed residents, buying up the homes of those who left. Tensions mounted when armed church members began to patrol the streets. On October 23, 1983, heavily armed lawmen invaded Miracle Valley to serve traffic warrants and all hell broke loose. Two church members were shot and killed, and one deputy died months later from injuries sustained.

If trouble erupts in Tonto Village, say the Kamps, it won't be their fault. They say they're peaceful people who hired armed guards only because the children of church members have been assaulted. They've heard the talk that their commune is a "little Waco," and they don't appreciate it. The last thing they need is for Rick Ross to call them a cult.

"We don't necessarily disagree with him on the groups he names; he just made a mistake about us," says Steven Kamp.

Ross is certain he didn't.
Pointing to the Kamps' litigiousness, Ross says, "The Church of Immortal Consciousness is starting to look like a little Church of Scientology."

When Ross goes to bankruptcy court this week, he expects representatives for Scientology and the Kamps to fight his attempts to discharge his debts.

"Scientology thinks they can crush me and shut me down with harassment and lawsuits," Ross says.

As long as his expertise is needed, he will provide it.
"The reality is that what would do me in isif the phone stopped ringing. And it's not, because there are people out there who need help. I don't make it so, it's the cults that do. And that's what causes me to work.

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