In 1995, a jury awarded Jason Scott $5 million, ruling that his civil rights had been violated during an involuntary "deprogramming" by Rick Ross, a Phoenix resident and well-known cult expert. That judgment eventually forced Ross into bankruptcy court, put an anticult group out of business and made national news.
Last week, however, the case made a sudden and surprising about-face.
Scott and Ross reached a settlement that requires the deprogrammer to pay Scott not $3 million--his share of the judgment--but a mere $5,000. As part of the agreement, Ross will also give Scott 200 hours of professional services, free of charge.
Meanwhile, Scott has reunited with his mother, who hired Ross to do the deprogramming, and has fired his attorney, Kendrick Moxon, a member of the Church of Scientology, which has a history of opposing Ross. Scott's new attorney is Graham Berry, who is well-known for his role in litigation against the Church of Scientology.
The sudden settlement and lawyer-swap is just the latest twist in a hotly contested case full of clashing allegations by anticult activists and representatives of Scientology.
The case springs from a 1990 incident in which three men grabbed 18-year-old Scott, handcuffed him, put duct tape over his mouth and stuffed him into a van. Looking on were Rick Ross and Kathy Tonkin, Scott's mother. Tonkin had asked Ross to perform the involuntary deprogramming of Scott after Ross had persuaded her two younger sons to leave a Bellevue, Washington, Pentecostal church. Tonkin had asked her entire family to attend the church but later left.
Scott was taken by Ross' "security" men to a beach house and held against his will for days as Ross tried to convince him that his church was a destructive cult. Eventually, Scott escaped, and criminal charges were brought against Ross and the three men. All four were acquitted in 1994.
A year later, however, a civil-court jury in Seattle found that Ross, his three accomplices and the Cult Awareness Network had violated Scott's civil rights, and ordered them to pay Scott $5 million. The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was included as a defendant in that lawsuit because a former member of the network, which acts as a clearinghouse for cult information, had referred Tonkin to Ross.
CAN's share of the civil penalty--more than $1 million--forced the Chicago-based organization into bankruptcy. The Washington Post recently reported that CAN's assets--everything but its confidential files--had been sold by the bankruptcy estate for $20,000. The purchaser was Steven Hayes, a Scientologist attorney whose partner, Timothy Bowles, once shared offices with Kendrick Moxon.
But that asset sale seems to have sparked the settlement between Ross and Scott--a settlement that is unlikely to please the Church of Scientology.
Kathy Tonkin has repeatedly claimed that her son pursued his lawsuit against Rick Ross and CAN only at the urging of his Scientologist attorney, Moxon. (Moxon insists Scott came to him for help.) Scott and his mother reunited several weeks ago, and she persuaded him to contact Ross to work out a settlement. As the settlement was being negotiated, the sale of CAN property became public.
"When he became aware that the CAN asset sale was occurring without seeing any benefit himself, [Scott] began to wonder if Mr. Moxon's interests were different than his own. And that thought was confirmed when he read the Washington Post article," says Graham Berry, Scott's new attorney.
"The Church of Scientology has had a long-standing campaign to destroy the Cult Awareness Network. It was in the interests of Mr. Moxon's major client, the Church of Scientology, to destroy CAN totally and to do what has occurred. It was not in Jason Scott's interest at all."
Scott has not just fired an attorney with ties to Scientology; he has hired an attorney with a history of opposing that church.
"In my very first conversation with Jason," Berry says, "within the first minute of that conversation, I advised Jason that he was talking to someone Kendrick Moxon would consider his archenemy. Jason understood that and continued to talk to me for nearly an hour. I also disclosed to Jason that I have a long history of litigation against the Church of Scientology which considers me to be one of its major enemies, and that I have acquaintances in CAN and who represent CAN. As a result, I not only insisted on a very comprehensive retainer agreement, but insisted that he receive independent legal advice before he retained me."
Berry suggested that his new client may take legal action over the handling of the bankruptcy case. "I have put both the trustee in bankruptcy and Mr. Moxon on notice of a possible lawsuit by Jason Scott for what has been done."
Moxon counters with claims that Jason Scott has been coerced into firing him.
"Jason Scott was kidnaped by these people. He was deprogrammed. I think he's being held prisoner," Moxon says, but he admits that he has no proof that Scott is being coerced or imprisoned.
He also claimed not to know where Scott was being "held." However, Moxon knew enough, apparently, to show up at the home of Kathy Tonkin in Lake Montezuma December 6 where Jason Scott is presently staying. Accompanied by a Yavapai County sheriff's deputy, Moxon served subpoenas on Tonkin and Scott and engaged in a heated discussion with them. The sheriff's office confirms that, at Tonkin's request, Moxon was then escorted by the deputy from her property.
Berry says that Scott talked briefly to the Washington Post last week to make it clear he has not been kidnaped or coerced. Scott is not making futher comment to media inquiries, Berry says.
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"Mr. Moxon has refused to turn over any [of Scott's legal] files and has filed a motion in the federal district court in the state of Washington requesting a hearing on whether or not Jason Scott is being held captive and is acting against his will," Berry says. (On December 5, the federal court refused to consider Moxon's motion.)
"I, in the meantime, have filed a complaint with the California state bar, asking the state bar to intervene on the question of turning over the files to me. And I'm also urging the state bar to turn the matter over to the U.S. attorney for further investigation."
Ross expresses relief that the case has been settled, but acknowledges that his own carelessness with the settlement has produced problems. "I shared the agreement with a friend who apparently leaked it, and it ended up in the hands of the Washington Post," he says.
The premature announcement of the settlement, Berry says, made Scott so angry he may ask Ross to renegotiate terms. Berry refused to say what services Ross would provide to Scott under the agreement. But, the lawyer said, it would be a mistake to assume that Scott's decision to make use of Ross' time was a vindication of Ross or his deprogramming methods.