Rick Ross, the Phoenix-based cult and militia expert, sat in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last week, listening as a judge revisited the facts in a 1990 Washington state "deprogramming."
In that incident, Ross had watched while three men grabbed 18-year-old Jason Scott, handcuffed him, put duct tape over his mouth and stuffed him into a van. They then drove for more than two hours to an expensive beach house that had been rented for the deprogramming.
Scott was taken into the house and held against his will for days as Ross tried to convince him that the Christian fundamentalist sect he belonged to was a destructive cult. Eventually, Scott escaped, and criminal charges were brought by the Greys Harbor County attorney against Ross and the three "security" men.
A jury acquitted Ross. But in a civil suit Scott filed against Ross, the security men and the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, a Seattle jury agreed that Scott's religious civil rights had been violated, and awarded him $5 million. Ross' share is $3.4 million.
Ross filed for bankruptcy, hoping to discharge the debt, but Scott's attorney asked Judge George Nielsen to rule that Ross' debt was a result of "willful and malicious injury" to Scott, and therefore nondischargeable.
After reviewing the facts, Nielsen agreed with Scott and ruled that Ross could not discharge the debt.
It appeared to be a straightforward conclusion to a straightforward case. But as New Times reported last fall, the Rick Ross/Jason Scott case is not a simple one ("Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatans," November 30, 1995).
Sitting behind Ross, a woman named Kathy Tonkin waited patiently to testify before Judge Nielsen. But she didn't get the chance.
Although it was Tonkin who hired Ross to deprogram Scott, she was neither charged criminally nor was she named in Scott's lawsuit. Yet Tonkin not only paid Ross for the deprogramming, she rented the beach house, she was present when the kidnaping took place, and remained present during the days Scott was held.
Kathy Tonkin is also Jason Scott's mother.
Six years after the botched deprogramming, she still supports Ross, calling him "a professional" who helped her save two younger sons from Life Tabernacle in Bellevue, Washington. Tonkin had asked her entire family to join Life Tabernacle, but when she later left the church, complaining of its oppressiveness, she says the church encouraged her sons to spurn her.
Tonkin says she turned to Ross in desperation, and was encouraged when he successfully convinced her two younger sons to leave the church. While being held in their grandmother's house--legally, since they were minors and their mother was present--Tonkin's two younger boys waged spiritual war with Ross, who is well-versed in the Bible and specializes in Bible-based cults. Ross doggedly asked the boys about Life Tabernacle, a branch of the United Pentecostal Church International, which mainstream Christian organizations consider "heretical." Ross told the boys how certain preachers twist Scripture to keep members fearful and compliant. And he challenged them with questions about their pastor, who required his flock to live in near poverty while enjoying an expensive lifestyle himself.
Eventually, the boys lowered their guard and started showing affection for the mother they had earlier condemned as a "backslider."
Tonkin had hoped the same treatment would work on her oldest son, but, as an 18-year-old, Jason Scott couldn't by law be held against his will. Nationally, deprogrammers say that such kidnapings are rare, and Ross says that he had attempted only a handful in the 300 or so deprogrammings he has undertaken. After the Jason Scott ordeal, Ross says he no longer attempts such kidnapings.
Today, Scott is no longer a member of Life Tabernacle, but relations between Scott and his mother remain rocky.
Since the 1990 kidnaping, however, Tonkin has never been accused of wrongdoing. Tonkin and Ross claim that's because the criminal and civil cases against Ross have had less to do with mistreatment of Scott than an attempt by a powerful church to shut down Ross, one of its hated enemies.
Jason Scott wasn't present at last week's bankruptcy hearing. He was represented instead by his California attorney, Kendrick Moxon.
Moxon also happens to be a Scientologist who has represented the Church of Scientology in many of its most high-profile legal battles. (One such battle occurred after Time magazine branded Scientology a "ruthless global scam.")
It was Moxon and other Scientologists, Tonkin says, who convinced her son to pursue the criminal and civil cases against Ross. Moxon denies the charge, and has told New Times that Scott had come to him for advice.
But a former Scientology operative, testifying in an unrelated case, backs up Tonkin's accusations. The former operative, Gary Scarff, testified that he had been assigned to accompany Jason Scott to rallies and press conferences, and that Scientology picked up the tab. Scarff said Scott told him of his recruitment by the church: "Jason and I discussed . . . the persistent and unwanted pressure he was receiving from Scientology officials wanting him to demand Greys Harbor County prosecutors to reinstate criminal charges against Rick Ross.
"Jason expressed very clearly, at that time, that he wanted to put his deprogramming behind him . . . Jason, however, expressed fears of losing his friendships with Scientology officials if he did not follow through on their directives," Scarff testified.
The jurors who acquitted Ross in his criminal case were told about Scientology's involvement. The jurors in his civil case who awarded Scott $5 million, however, weren't.
Although Ross specializes in Bible-based cults, he says the Church of Scientology--which is based on the writings of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard--has long considered him an enemy. But more important, Ross says, the church saw in the Scott case another possibility to sue the Cult Awareness Network.
Scientology and CAN have tangled repeatedly. The Scott case, however, finally put CAN out of business. Because a CAN member had referred Tonkin to Ross, the Seattle jury found CAN liable for $1 million. The judgment forced CAN into bankruptcy, and now Moxon acknowledges that he is asking an Illinois court to allow him to sell CAN's confidential files as an asset. That prospect is chilling to anticult activists.
Moxon says that about 20 organizations have contacted him about obtaining the files, from "mainline churches" to the John Birch Society. He says the Church of Scientology, however, hasn't asked him about the files.
Moxon's prominence in the church--the church's own publications have cited his importance--lead Scientology observers to assume the church will attempt to get the CAN files for itself.
Those files contain confidential information about thousands of families that have made complaints about hundreds of the nation's churches, therapy groups and political organizations.
"Unfortunately, we're in bankruptcy, so there's no one to stand up for these families," says Priscilla Coates, a former Los Angeles director of CAN. She says that various groups are so eager to get a look at the files, it's producing a feeding frenzy with unanticipated results.
According to Coates, Landmark Education Corporation, a "self-empowerment" organization that rose from the ashes of Werner Erhard's est movement, is also anxious to see CAN's files.
CAN officials have said that Scientology and Landmark were the two groups about which it received the most complaints.
But if there's one group that Landmark dislikes more than CAN, it is reported to be the Church of Scientology. Landmark has accused Scientology of spreading bad publicity about it. Neither organization wants its CAN file to fall into the other's hands.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, Kendrick Moxon relaxes after Judge Nielsen rules that Ross can't discharge his debt to Scott.
"You can't kidnap people and then run into bankruptcy court for protection," Moxon says. "Ross is so arrogant. He says he's going to keep doing what he's doing. He feels he's outside the law."
Moxon is asked if those statements don't suggest that shutting down Ross' operation is his primary motive, rather than helping Jason Scott recover damages. "My intention has never been to shut down Rick Ross," he answers. "My intention was to get compensatory damages for Jason Scott."
Kathy Tonkin, Jason Scott's mother, disagrees, saying, "This case is about shutting Rick Ross down as a deprogrammer. And for Jason, his motive is money.
"[Jason] did not seek them [Scientologist lawyers] out. I know my son well enough to know that is something he wouldn't do.
"Rick got two of my sons out. They have productive lives now, and they're not giving up all their money to a destructive cult. And they're very thankful for the things Rick did for them."
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Ross himself says he was expecting Judge Nielsen's ruling after Nielsen made a similar decision in the bankruptcy of Charles Simpson, one of the security men, just weeks earlier. (Simpson reportedly brought up the subject of Scientology's involvement in the case to Judge Nielsen; Ross didn't.) Simpson and Mark Workman, two of the men who actually grabbed Scott, are facing $1 million judgments. The third man, Clark Rotroff, agreed to testify against the other men in the Seattle trial and settled with Scott for an undisclosed amount. Court records, however, indicate that Rotroff's testimony was appreciated: Moxon admitted to a judge that Rotroff has had to cough up only $800.
Ross says there's no way he'll be able to pay the $3.4 million judgment, and he's produced tax records to show that as a deprogrammer he's rarely netted more than $20,000 in a single year. But the prospect of sending most of his income to Jason Scott for an indefinite period isn't daunting enough to keep him from giving up his career.
"I'm going to keep doing my work, keep lecturing. I'm booked for the near future," Ross says, and then he asks jokingly, "Got three million bucks on you?