Mom, Church vie for her Firstborn

Battle moving to criminal trial

The Arizona Republic/July 23, 1996
By Kim Sue Lia Perkes

Even on the telephone, it was clear that Kathy Tonkin was struggling against tears as she talked about the 21-year-old son she wants back.

Jason Scott, 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, is sweet, sensitive and "my firstborn," Tonkin said.

The tears well up because Jason remains in a church his mother considers a cult, despite her enlistment of Valley deprogrammer Rick Ross. Ross had succeeded with two of Tonkin's younger children, but Jason's programming reminded in place. He eluded his mother's hired helpers, who now face criminal charges.

Tonkin had refused to discuss the case until recently, when she agreed to tell her story to The Arizona Republic.

The failed deprogramming effort was an act of love by a desperate mother who only wanted her "whole family back," said Tonkin, who moved to Arizona's Verde Valley two years ago.

She also lives with guilt because she feels she coerced her children to join the Life Tabernacle Church in Bellevue, Wash.

Although the California-based evangelical Christian Research Institute labels the church as "heretical" and "pseudo-Christian," its head, the Rev. Harold Kern vigorously disputes such characterizations.

Kern said his church, a member of the United Pentecostal Church International, is not a cult.

"Nowhere does that word apply," he said. "The charge is ridiculous. I don't have the personality or traits of a cult leader, and I don't intend to."

The story of Tonkin's involvement in the church unfolds like a soap opera.

Even though she was living in a $200,000 home in an exclusive Bellevue neighborhood, Tonkin felt something was missing from her life.

A lapsed Roman Catholic, she began a quest for a spiritual home.

Friendly, warm reception

Then one day in early 1989, her window washer began to tell her about the Life Tabernacle Church. And Kern came to visit her home.

"He really seemed into kids," Tonkin said. "He's a very attractive man, and he's a very charismatic person."

She attended a Sunday service, and congregation members were amazingly warm and friendly. They offered to help with the kids and invited Tonkin to participate in the church's women's group.

In return, Tonkin said she gave about $8,000 to the church within a year. She got rid of an expensive big-screen television her kids had enjoyed because the church believes it is a tool of the devil.

If you have money, Tonkin said, "you are more attractive" to the church.

She gave up wearing makeup and pants, and she wore her hair long, as Kern required.

At his urging, she went into a carpet and floor-covering business with one of the church's leaders, Tonkin said.

"By doing so, Kern could keep track of everything I was doing," she said.

She won't talk about guest

She later discovered her 28-year-old male business partner was coming over to her house to sleep in one of her minor son's rooms.

She said her son refuses to talk about it.

She pulled her children out of public schools to attend the United Pentecostal school, only to learn later that the school was not accredited and that her sons would graduate from high school without diplomas.

When her children began to turn on her, Tonkin said it was almost more than she could bear.

The children would tattle to Kern if their mother would do such things as wear a T-shirt to clean the house. Women members of the church are barred from exposing their arms.

Tonkin would be chastised and reprimanded during church services for the infractions.

"Constantly, you are told you're going to hell, going to hell, going to hell - obedience, obedience, obedience," she said.

A woman friend in the church confided to Tonkin that she had been sexually abused by her father as a child and that her husband was constantly forcing her to have sex. The woman told Tonkin she sought help from a church leader but was told "she had to be submissive to her husband."

Tonkin's resentment deepened.

"I felt like I was being spiritually raped," she said.

But she kept going to church and going to church.

She couldn't leave, she said, because she was told stories about a member who left the church and was killed in a motorcycle accident and a family who left and saw their house burn down.

Then one day, she noticed something unusual inside the church sanctuary.

I remember sitting in the pew and realizing there were no crosses, no pictures of Jesus in the church. Kern'' picture is on the wall.""

Sons taunt 'backslider'

She broke away from the church after being in it after a year, but her three elder children, Thysen, Matthew, and Jason refused to leave.

"As soon as I decided not to go to the church, my life went into a tailspin," she recalled.

Calling their mother a "backslider," the boys told Tonkin how afraid they were that she would burn in hell. Although they were minors, they moved out of Tonkin's house, refusing to live with a mother who had fallen out of grace.

Tonkin learned about Rick Ross through a Washington affiliate of the Cult Awareness Network. And she began to hope she could bring her children home.


[Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

The first deprogramming, in December 1990, went well.

Thysen and Matthew were offered $50 apiece to help their grandmother move some furniture. When they arrived at the grandmother's house, Ross was there to do combat.

Not physical combat, Tonkin said, but a war of Scripture where Ross goes verse for verse against the biblical views of the church.

"Rick has a way," Tonkin said. "All he is doing is de-twisting the Scriptures."

"He talks the mainline view of Christianity and says, 'This is what 90 percent of Christians believe.'"

The idea is to lead cult members to rethink what they have been trained to accept as the gospel.

The United Pentecostal Church has many beliefs not shared by mainline Christians or the majority of Pentecostal denominations. One of the most notable is the church's belief that Jesus is God, rejecting the notion of the Trinity - God, Jesus and Holy Ghost - as a belief in multiple gods.

Younger boys resist

Kern maintains that if any "brainwashing" was going on, Ross was the culprit.

In the beginning, Thysen and Matthew resisted the deprogramming.

When church members realized the pair was missing, they assembled outside the grandmother's home, shouting, "Thysen, Thysen, we want Thysen!"

Tonkin began getting harassing phone calls from members and finally had to obtain an anti-harassment court order against the church.

"That did not stop them," Tonkin said.

Despite the church's efforts, the deprogramming worked.

"By the third or fourth day, I walked in and it was hugs and kisses," Tonkin said. "I was elated. I got my kids back."

They tried to get Jason to participate in the deprogramming, but church members would not allow him to visit family members without a church chaperon. So in January 1991, when Tonkin brought Ross back to deprogram Jason, it was considered necessary to take him to Ocean Shores, about 2 ½ hours from Bellevue.

"I knew I had to take him to a real secure place," Tonkin said. "I paid $1,200 a week for the beach house. It was beautiful. It was an elite beach house."

Son charges kidnapping

When Jason was first brought to the beach house, she said, she told him how much she loved him and that she just wanted him to listen to what Ross had to say.

Tonkin also had hired Mark Workman of Sedona, Charles Simpson of Flagstaff , and Clark Rotroff of Flagstaff to provide security for the deprogramming.

Jason's version of events is different.

He says the deprogrammers kidnapped him after his brother lured him to his mother's house.

"These guys jumped on me," he said. "They handcuffed me and put duct tape on my mouth."

He said he was taken to a cabin where the handcuffs were removed, but they were kept in sight to intimidate him.

"They said this is going to take as long as you take," Jason said. "He (Ross) went through five days torturing me. They even went into the bathroom with me. I was under 24-hour surveillance."

Initially, Jason was violent - kicking and biting, according to Workman. By the fourth day, Tonkin said Jason asked for her.

"I held him in my arms for an hour, and he just cried, 'I'm so sorry, Mom.'" Tonkin said. "I thought 'Wow, gosh, this kid is going to be receptive.'"

Jason began to play ping-pong with his brothers, Thysen and Matthew, who were at the beach house. He stayed up late; he slept in late.

2 facing court hearing

Then he escaped, fleeing a restaurant and calling police.

"I came up with a scheme and I faked them out," Jason said. "I just played it out. I escaped and called the cops."

Ross, Workman and Simpson have been charged with unlawful imprisonment. They have a court hearing Aug. 2. Rotroff of Flagstaff has not been charged because he has turned state's evidence, according to Ross and Workman.

Rotroff could not be reached for comment.

The legal difference between the Jason's deprogramming and that of his brothers is that Thysen and Matthew were minors at the time and Jason, at 18, an adult.

Tonkin has not been charged in the case.

She said the law may look at her son as an adult, but he is still "her baby" to her and she had to exhaust every means possible to help him.

"I thought, 'If I don't try, what's he going to think? That I don't love him.'"

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