Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatans
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rick Ross believes it never would have happened without the meddling of Scientologists.
Based on science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics, the Church of Scientology has struggled to escape the image of a litigious cult that vigorously pursues its enemies with harassment and intimidation. In 1990, Time devoted a cover story to Scientology, calling it a "ruthless global scam." The church sued, asking for$415 million in damages. The case still hasn't been resolved, although on November14, a federal judge dismissed all but one of the many statements Scientology claimed was libelous.
The Internet has spawned the church's latest legal and holy war. Former Scientologists have gone online to post sensitive teachings that the church claims are copyrighted and are only revealed to adherents after extensive (and reportedly expensive) training. In this closely guarded data, Hubbard supposedly reveals that humans contain clusters of "body thetans"--75-million-year-old aliens banished to Earth by Xenu, the galactic overlord. In some cases, courts have sided with the church, ordering offenders to forfeit computer files.
Arizona's only Church of Scientology, located in Mesa, claims a mailing list of 9,000 names, according to church spokeswoman Jennie Leason. The number of active Arizona Scientologists is probably much smaller. When asked how many people actually show up for weekend service, Leason says "60 to 100."
Leason attended Rick Ross' November 14 lecture at ASU, and disagrees with his assessment of Scientology. "There are religions out there that are very destructive. But Scientology has only bettered us. My children are not in gangs. They're healthy boys. I don't perceive the signs of mind control that Ross talked about in his lecture. We are a church, and we are in the mainstream."
Advancing a perception of normalcy is a primary goal of Scientology. Critics of the church say that to do that, they attempt to discredit and hector deprogrammers and anyone else who calls Scientology a cult. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported that Hubbard had told his followers "The purpose of the [lawsuit] is to harass and discourage rather than win. ... If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace."
So the church employs attorneys like Kendrick Moxon, a longtime Scientologist who's been involved in many of the battles over the Internet and with the Cult Awareness Network.
Kendrick Moxon also happens to represent Jason Scott.
"One of the reasons Jason wanted to pursue this case is that he didn't want to see this happen to anyone else," Moxon says. "He came to us for advice, and he hired us."
Attempts to confirm this with Scott were unsuccessful. Moxon, who is based in Los Angeles, has advised his client not to talk to New Times.
Kathy Tonkin believes the Scientologists recruited her son and encouraged him to pursue the case against Rick Ross. She says they coddled Jason to gain his trust, and coached him to be a good witness.
Former Scientology operative Garry Scarff says Tonkin is correct. He says he should know--he was doing the coddling and coaching.
Scarff says it was Friends of Freedom, a Scientology front operation, that first contacted Jason after news of Ross' arrest in January 1991. Scarff says he was assigned to accompany Jason to anticult rallies and press conferences, and Scientology picked up the tab.
In a sworn testimony related to Ross' criminal trial, Scarff says that during one such assignment in Oklahoma City in 1991 "while Jason Scott was physically present in our hotel room, I, under the direction of my supervisor, ... telephoned Rick Ross in his room and threatened to kill him."
Scarff also accompanied Jason to Portland, Oregon, to disrupt a cult education forum where Jason's brother Thysen was scheduled to speak on behalf of the Cult Awareness Network.
The brothers had become dueling icons for the debate over cults.
"Following the forum," Scarff continues, "I traveled with Jason. ... During our five-hour road trip to Seattle, 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."
Kendrick Moxon says, "Garry Scarff is a liar." He says Scarff was a deprogrammer who became disenchanted with Cult Awareness Network and came to Scientology begging to be used against his former allies.
Priscilla Coates, Los Angeles director of the Cult Awareness Network, confirms that Scarff was associated with CAN before he switched to the other side. She says he's a problematic figure who's flip-flopped several times. But, she adds, there's no reason to doubt the veracity of what he's testified to in regard to Jason Scott.
Moxon disagrees. "Scarff's own father says he's a scumbag."
Scarff is accustomed to being called a liar. "That doesn't bother me anymore," he says. "Just look who's calling me a liar--key people in Scientology--and that should tell you I'm telling the truth."
In January 1993, an attorney from Moxon's firm had begun a letter-writing campaign to convince Greys Harbor prosecutors to put Rick Ross on trial. The prosecutor, Joseph Wheeler, downplays its importance. "It is typical in a criminal case for attorneys to be concerned about the case. The letters were read, and they were put in a file. Ross says that the letters were a major reason we pursued a conviction. That's not the case. We prosecuted because we believed we could prove without a doubt that a crime had been committed. The jury felt otherwise."
On January 18, 1994, after just two hours of deliberations, a Greys Harbor jury acquitted Rick Ross of unlawful detainment.
But Jason Scott and Kendrick Moxon had a contingency plan. Four days before the acquittal, they had filed a civil suit against Rick Ross, the Cult Awareness Network and two of the security aides who had detained Scott (the third security aide was not sued, and, in exchange, gave damaging testimony against the others).
Moxon convinced the judge to exclude Garry Scarff and Matthew and Thysen Scott--whose testimony had helped Ross win acquittal in the criminal trial. The judge in the civil case also prohibited Ross' attorneys from pointing out that Jason was being represented by Scientologist lawyers.
On September 15, 1995, a Seattle jury agreed that the defendants had conspired to deny Jason Scott of his civil rights. The jury awarded Jason $5 million.
Ross' share was $3.1 million.
Rick Ross' bankruptcy won't affect his lifestyle much.
He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment that doubles as an office. He keeps the location of his apartment a secret, because he fears what might happen if his enemies learned where he lives.
When he wants company, he visits his mother, who lives nearby. "One of my blessings in life is that I have a great family. If I didn't, I'd be in a world of shit," he says.
Many of Ross' closest friends are people he's counseled. Encouragement from them, he says, has buoyed his spirits during his recent travails.
He keeps the ignition key to a long-gone BMW, a memento of his pre-deprogramming days, when he made more money. He says his only luxury was an annual birthday excursion to Mexico, but this year he couldn't go.
"I was becoming one of the most outspoken, high-profile cult commentators in the United States. They felt it was a threat to them," Ross says. "I would briefly mention the Church of Scientology on a list of destructive cults, but I don't think that I've ever mentioned them on a national television show."
After Jason Scott's aborted deprogramming in 1991, Ross says, Scientology stepped up its efforts to harass and discredit him.
One episode in particular stands out. In 1992, he deprogrammed a man named David Block in Los Angeles. During the five-day-long deprogramming, he says, the house was under surveillance by a private investigator who had been hired by Scientologists. The private eye contacted Block's pastor to say that a member of his flock was in Ross' evil clutches.
The church was located in Waco, Texas, and its pastor was David Koresh.
David Block says that today there are plenty of cult apologists--he singles out Idaho's Bo Gritz--who portray the Branch Davidians as an independent group with unwavering commitment to its beliefs who should have been left alone.
"Gritz doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about," Block says from his Los Angeles office.
"You have to understand, most of the people at Mount Carmel didn't like living that way. They didn't like [Koresh's] ways. He was rude. He was abusive. But they believed that it was the way. Are you familiar with the Bible? There's a verse that says something about 'prisoners of hope.' We had to deal with the idea that leaving the group meant the devil would get you.
"You were told when you could eat and when you couldn't. When you could go out or not. We were told 'If you're having doubts, don't discuss it with each other.' Does that sound like a healthy environment? I can remember not eating for quite a while. We were usually fed once a day. And you didn't know when the meal was coming. It might be the morning or the afternoon, it could be three in the morning.
"I remember being outside the building that we called the gymnasium. We're all out there working in the heat, and none of us has eaten all day. Above us is the balcony or window or whatever you want to call it where Koresh's bedroom is. And I'll never forget, he comes out on his balcony and he's throwing sweet rolls in individual packets, and we're jumping for them like animals. At the time, it didn't seem unusual. It was just the way things were."
Rick Ross first encountered Davidians, an offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventism, in 1987, when he deprogrammed a couple in upstate New York. But after 1988, he says, the calls he received about Davidians all dealt with Koresh's Mount Carmel group.
Two months before David Block escaped from Mount Carmel and underwent deprogramming, he and Rick Ross had spoken on the telephone. Block says Ross' advice helped him to break away from Koresh.
"Koresh was going after a 14-year-old girl because she didn't believe in Psalm 45 (the Scripture Koresh used to justify his polygamy). But the 14-year-old said she didn't want to do that. Koresh was coming after her, and something just snapped in me. I thought, 'If this is God, I don't want to have anything to do with him.'"
Block drove nonstop from Mount Carmel to his brother's house in Los Angeles, called Rick Ross, and asked for his counseling.
Once the deprogramming began, Block says, he was approached by a private investigator who said she had been hired by Scientologists. CAN's Priscilla Coates, at whose home the deprogramming occurred, confirmed Block's account.
"Shortly after one of the deprogramming sessions, I went home to my brother's house and someone was sitting in a car about two houses away," Block says. "I watched her as she came over and asked me if I was my brother. No, I'm David Block. 'Oh, even better,' she said. 'Do you know Rick Ross?' she asked me. 'Do you know he was convicted of a jewelry theft?'"
Block says the investigator told him she was working for J.J. Gaw Investigations, which in turn had been retained by Kendrick Moxon's law firm, called Bowles and Moxon at that time. "She told me she was in contact with David Koresh and the compound, and she told me they were concerned about me," Block says.
Jon Gaw tells New Times that the female investigator was, in fact, from his agency. While he would not say that his investigator's contact with Block was at the behest of Bowles and Moxon, he confirmed that his agency was working for Moxon's law firm at the time of Block's deprogramming. Gaw also says he personally was in contact with the Branch Davidians in Waco at about that time.
Meanwhile, Block says he got calls directly from the Waco compound. Koresh allowed a friend of Block's named Margarita, who would later perish in the fire, to call him in Los Angeles. On one occasion, she told him that a private investigator had called Koresh to say that Block was being deprogrammed.
He says he tried to convince her that he hadn't been kidnaped, that he'd hired Ross voluntarily.
In January 1993, Ross was contacted by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who were investigating Koresh.
"I told the ATF that the group was very volatile," Ross says. "I reminded them of the gun battle in 1987 [between Koresh and the previous Branch Davidian leader]. I described cults in general, and talked about David Koresh's control over the group. I told them to be very cautious."
When he turned on his television the afternoon of February 28, 1993, Ross says he was shocked by images of the failed BATF raid on the compound.
"Why would they do something like that with a group [they knew] was so heavily armed?" Ross asks.
Ross made two trips to Waco during the siege and one after the fire. During negotiations with Koresh, the FBI consulted with Ross, as well as 60 other experts.
"I told them to work through the Bible and don't upset Koresh. Accept that he's the lamb of God and give him a way to come out with his head up as a cult leader."
Yet, he concedes, "If they had followed my suggestions to the letter, it probably would not have resulted in a more peaceful resolution."
Ross is convinced that Koresh was determined to die. "It's clear he wanted everyone to stay," he says.
In January, Freedom magazine, which is published by the Church of Scientology, carried an article suggesting that Ross was responsible for the deaths at Waco.
David Block, who left the Mount Carmel compound less than a year before it was raided by the BATF, says he's grateful for Ross' counseling. For a time after the raid, Block was inundated with requests for interviews. "I didn't want to talk about Waco," he says. He asked Ross not to call.
"Eventually, I called him," Block says, "because I heard Scientology was really coming after him."
Rick Ross says groups he opposes are beginning to work together, despite their doctrinal differences.
When a local Christian church found out that Ross would be an expert in a trial involving one of its members, for example, it submitted documents about Ross' criminal history that had come from a Scientology publication.
And Steven Kamp of the Church of Immortal Consciousness admits that the dossier of Ross documents that he gives to the press was put together by Kendrick Moxon, the Scientologist attorney representing Jason Scott.
Kamp says Ross knew too little about the Church of Immortal Consciousness when he called it a destructive cult for a KNXV-TV Channel 15 piece in August.
Ross defends his characterization.
"It is a new group and the file on them isn't an inch thick yet. But the evidence that's coming in is very solid and indicates that this is a destructive cult," he says.
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.
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.