Sign of the Cult-Buster

Sign of the Cult-Buster/October 5, 2005
By Ron Russell

Anti-cult crusader Ford Greene and the town of San Anselmo are staging a nasty public fight over Greene's strident anti-Bush political signs. But is that an old religious enemy we see behind the curtain?

Maybe it was "Defy Evil Bushism" or "Christmas Is No Fun in Fallujah." Or it may have been one of the other not-so-subtle references to President George W. Bush posted on the sign next to his law office; perhaps "Vote the Thug Out." Or was it the sight of the American flag suspended upside down from that same sign, in protest of the outcome of last November's election?

Ford Greene isn't quite sure what sent his opponents over the edge with respect to the giant marquee that hangs from the side of his two-story combination law office and residence along busy Sir Frances Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo. His "Freedom Sign," as he refers to it, has been there for more than a year. Every few weeks, or whenever the spirit moves him, Greene rearranges the moveable lettering to vent his liberal spleen.

Who knew that a few conservative zealots would take offense? Or that the town's elected officials, citing an obscure law, would move to power down the attorney and self-proclaimed anti-cult crusader's public musings? A showdown looms later this month, with Greene, who has already gone to court to protect the sign, threatening to do so again.

It's a minor brouhaha that wouldn't ordinarily garner attention beyond the borders of the affluent Marin County community in which it's playing out. Except that, in their campaign against the controversial cult-busting lawyer's Freedom Sign, Greene's opponents appear to have received some unsolicited help from someone who seems to have some kind of connection to the Church of Scientology.

An outspoken ex-Moonie-turned-cult-deprogrammer-turned-lawyer, Ford Greene has cultivated a reputation that has earned him the ire of Scientologists (who follow the teachings of the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard), the Unification Church (founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claims to have met Jesus on a Korean mountainside in 1935), and other so-called new religious movements.

To the dozens of people he has helped "deprogram" from supposed indoctrination they received in these so-called cults, Greene's a bona fide hero, unafraid to stand up to threats and harassment. Others, including one of his own sisters -- whom he once helped to kidnap in a failed attempt to bring her out of the Unification Church -- view him as a misguided soul who lacks respect for religious freedom. "There's no middle ground when it comes to Ford," says longtime friend and attorney Ed Caldwell. "Having enemies is a natural consequence of the mission he's chosen for himself."

Perhaps chief among those enemies is the Church of Scientology, which over the years has gained a reputation for relentless litigation and other tactics -- including picketing the homes and workplaces of detractors -- aimed at thwarting its critics. That reputation stems, in part, from a 1960s Hubbard edict proclaiming that persons interfering with Scientology were "fair game" for church efforts to discredit them.

Greene believes that he became fair game in 1989 after signing on to represent the church's former head of worldwide security and his wife, who at the time were the highest-ranking officials ever to bolt the Los Angeles-based organization, which is perhaps best known for its celebrity adherents, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Since then, he claims, he's been spied on, his home and office have been broken into, and he's been the subject of smear campaigns targeting his neighbors, clients, and associates.

Greene isn't the only person who has made such claims.

In a 1992 deposition taken in a Scientology lawsuit against two former church members -- a lawsuit in which Greene was not involved -- former Scientologist Gary Scarff related how he posed as a friend to infiltrate Greene's office and rifle through Greene's Rolodex and confidential legal records. Among the more extreme measures that Scarff claimed Scientology officials had discussed in his presence -- and that church officials later denied -- were the possibility of having Greene arrested on drug charges, spreading a rumor that he had AIDS, or tampering with the brakes on his car.

Now Greene is convinced that the church is at it again.

After the tiff over the anti-Bush postings on his office sign erupted last year, a site with anonymous sponsors who bill themselves as the "Friends of San Anselmo" suddenly appeared on the Internet. It delves into Greene's private life in excruciating detail.

It quickly created a buzz in San Anselmo, with whoever is behind the site even leafleting the town to make sure residents saw it.

The Web site reads like a private investigator's dossier. It lists Greene's shoplifting conviction as a young college student; his hit-and-run conviction; his physical altercation with a traffic cop; and his dispute with an old girlfriend who called the police and had him arrested for trespassing after an unpleasant breakup. There are even links to a sex scandal involving Greene's long-dead father. "It's a really cheap smear job," says Greene attorney and friend Larry Bragman. "Who else but Ford Greene could attract that kind of nastiness, all because of a sign dispute?"

For the record, a Scientology official denies that the church had anything to do with the Friends of San Anselmo project. "I don't want to puncture his paranoia balloon, but the poor guy has lots of enemies, any number of whom could have put up that Web site," says Jeff Quiros, head of the Church of Scientology's San Francisco office. In the course of a brief interview, Quiros referred to Greene as a "mosquito," a "pig," and a "pathetic individual." He insisted that he wasn't aware of the Web site until a reporter brought it to his attention.

Records show that the Web site is registered to a Sausalito man, Allen Long, who did not respond to interview requests for this article. But Greene believes evidence from the site suggests Scientology involvement. The many documents assembled there include a 1992 letter from the State Bar of California in response to someone who had complained about Greene. As reproduced on the Web site, the letter does not show the name of the person to whom it was addressed. However, a copy of the letter that the bar association provided to Greene does identify the addressee. He is none other than Eugene Ingram, a former Los Angeles police sergeant and a longtime private investigator for the Church of Scientology.

Ingram could not be reached for comment for this article.

Although it is possible that someone unaffiliated with Scientology could have obtained the Ingram letter and posted it on the Web site, Greene thinks that happenstance unlikely. Indeed, Ingram has taken an interest in Greene's affairs over a long period of time, several of the lawyer's associates say.

Ed Caldwell remembers Ingram approaching him in the early 1990s seeking dirt on Greene in connection with a legal matter in which both Greene and Caldwell were involved, he says. Similarly, Robyn Kliger, who until recently taught medical anthropology at UC Berkeley, recalls the day years ago when a man identifying himself as Eugene Ingram showed up at her home wanting information about Greene. "He didn't want to take no for an answer," she says. "On his way out, he made a point of letting me know that he knew that both my mother and I had been involved in anti-cult activities. It came across as sort of threatening."

Ford Greene's office is in a century-old storefront that was once a bakery; he lives in the basement. The office is filled with the byproducts of his unorthodox calling. Displayed in a corner is a feather necklace that was the gift of a Tahitian prince he once helped bring out of a cult. There's an entire room devoted to materials pertaining to the Church of Scientology; he calls it his "Scientology War Room." There's even a stack of "cult-buster" T-shirts lying around that he designed himself.

Greene's life -- both professional and personal -- is an extension of the anti-cult mission he's set for himself. It's a mission born of falling under the spell of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church as a young college dropout -- ironically, while trying to extricate his younger sister Catherine from the group.

After breaking free from the Unification Church, Greene joined forces with his mother, Daphne Dibble Greene, the former chairwoman of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union and a leading anti-cult activist in the '70s and '80s. An outspoken advocate for parents convinced that their children had been brainwashed by the Moonies and other sects, she organized parental support groups and, along with her son, testified before Congress.

Ford Greene eventually assumed a more controversial role, becoming a "deprogrammer" hired by parents to pluck their sons and daughters from cults, sometimes employing tactics that bumped up against the law. In 1977, he was charged with kidnapping in Colorado after helping to abduct a rancher's son who joined the Moonies and tried to cash out his share of the family spread. (The charges were later dismissed.) Greene's deprogramming of a young Canadian schoolteacher who fell in with the Unification Church while on a trip to the Bay Area was chronicled in the 1980 film Ticket to Heaven.

By his estimate, Greene deprogrammed more than 100 young people, scaling back only after managing to talk his way into law school at San Francisco's New College of California. It was hardly the Ivy League track that his influential parents had imagined for him. But for Greene, who had bounded from one expensive boarding school to another as a teenager and was without a college degree at the time he was admitted, the tiny, little-known law school suited his purposes. He chose law not for the sake of becoming a lawyer, he says, but as a way to better equip himself for the anti-cult crusade in which he had already enlisted. "Ford is one of those people for whom the law is a means to an end, and in his case that has meant going after groups that he considers to be cults," says Murray Orrick, whom Greene helped deprogram from the Moonies and who is a Bay Area music producer and nephew of the late federal judge William Orrick.

As a lawyer, it didn't take long for Greene to make a mark.

For example, in 1979, a young law school graduate named David Molko and another former Moon follower sued the church, claiming to have been coerced and brainwashed. Lower courts ruled that constitutional guarantees of religious freedom barred such suits. But in Molko v. Holy Spirit Association, Greene prevailed before the California Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Justice Stanley Mosk in 1988 that would bear on the tactics religious groups use to attract followers, the court said that any burden on the free exercise of religion was outweighed by the state's interest in protecting against "fraudulent induction of unconsenting individuals into an atmosphere of coercive persuasion."

A year later, Greene scored another victory against the Unification Church, persuading a Colorado jury to acquit two deprogrammers of kidnapping a woman who became a Moonie. In that case, he and another lawyer successfully used a "choice of evils" defense to argue that the deprogrammers were forced to capture the woman to prevent her from being brainwashed.

About the same time, he agreed to represent Richard and Vicki Aznaran, the high-ranking husband-wife duo whose departure from Scientology sent shock waves through the organization. In the mid-'90s, he helped represent ex-Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim, to whom the church agreed to pay an $8.7 million judgment after Wollersheim claimed that Scientology operatives had subjected him to numerous deprivations, including being held as a church prisoner on a ship off the California coast. Greene also successfully represented a partially brain-damaged former Scientologist named Raul Lopez, who contended that church officials in Southern California had bilked him out of nearly $3 million from an insurance settlement.

In a 1998 case involving the Ananda Church of Self Realization, Greene won a $1.7 million judgment against the church and its spiritual leader, J. Donald Walters, aka Swami Kriyananda. In that case, a jury found that Walters and another church official had sexually exploited a former Bay Area devotee, Anne-Marie Bertolucci, under the guise of helping her to make spiritual advancement.

"Fighting cults comes from deep within Ford's own experience," says Vermont attorney Max Taylor, whom Greene helped bring out of a group called Fellowship of Friends years ago. "In his mind there's nothing worse than using spirituality to take advantage of people."

The eldest of four children born to wealth and privilege in Marin County, Greene has a rogue reputation as a cult-buster that could hardly be more distant from the legacy of his corporate attorney father, the late A. Crawford Greene Jr. Both his father and grandfather were partners at San Francisco's venerable McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen. At Yale Law School, Craw Greene, as Ford's dad was known, was part of an enduring clique that included former Reagan administration Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge and ex-New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Another of Craw's pals, former U.S. Sen. James Buckley, was Ford's godfather.

Craw and Daphne Greene were a dynamic duo. He served for years on the boards of both St. Luke's Hospital and the Legal Aid Foundation of San Francisco; she was a charter member of the advisory panel set up for the fledgling Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They raised their son and three daughters in a late-19th-century mansion atop Willow Hill, in the upscale community of Ross, where one or another Greene had been prominent in local affairs since the 1880s. Ross' Natalie Coffin Greene Park, a redwood and eucalyptus oasis, bears the name of Ford's paternal grandmother.

The fortresslike house, with its expansive views of Ross Valley, became a kind of intellectual crossroads during the Greene children's formative years. The parents played host to the likes of architect Louis Kahn, existential psychologist Rollo May, Catholic diarist John Tracy Ellis, "and countless other fascinating people my mother gathered 'round the dinner table," recalls Tina Greene, a Sacramento attorney. It was at the house, she says, that Joseph McGucken, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, and C. Kilmer Myers, the Episcopal bishop of California, met for the first time.

"From the outside, our lives growing up appeared really enviable, but the reality is that we were a family of secrets," Tina says.

A particularly explosive secret involved Ford Greene's father, whom both Greene and his sister describe as "emotionally remote" and who, despite his professional and social success, never forged a bond with the children. After nearly 40 years of marriage, Craw Greene dropped a bombshell on his wife shortly before Christmas of 1990. Acknowledging that he was gay, he confided that he had been in a 17-year relationship with a heroin addict three decades his junior named Joseph Miller. They'd met during one of the elder Greene's clandestine trips to Cape Cod when Miller was still a teenager. Craw Greene brought Miller to San Francisco and set him up in an apartment in the Richmond.

Shortly after her husband's revelation (he had already become sick and three years later would die of AIDS), Daphne Greene summoned her children to the office of a family counselor and broke the news. She then scribbled letters to two dozen of her closest friends to inform them of the circumstances of the couple's separation. After someone gossiped to Herb Caen at the Chronicle, news of "the senior partner in a most prestigious law firm" taking up with his gay lover became the talk of the town.

But Ford Greene says he carried an even darker secret.

He says his father's incestuous inclinations toward him were first manifest during a fondling incident when he was 12, recurred when he was 16, and culminated in his father's performing a sex act on him when he was 19. The latter incident occurred after the two of them had smoked marijuana while sharing a hotel room in Monterey during a weekend event at his sister Catherine's boarding school, he says.

Although Greene told no one at the time, the ordeal helped to send him into an emotional tailspin. He tried college but couldn't focus on studying. Determined not to return to Willow Hill, he lived for a time in a fleabag hotel, did a stint in a hospital psychiatric ward on suicide watch, and had several run-ins with the law. He was arrested for shoplifting bedsheets from a department store, cited for assaulting a police officer after a traffic stop, and arrested for hit-and-run after he panicked following a traffic mishap. (Nobody was injured, he says.) "Desperate and depressed," he went off to climb mountains in the summer of 1974. (He says he and a friend scaled 16 peaks of at least 14,000 feet in elevation in the span of three months.) "I hit all the rocks in the bottom of the river, with the last one being the Moonies," Greene says.

Ford Greene's experience with the Unification Church is inextricably linked to Catherine, the sister with whom he was closest growing up. She met the Moonies while hanging out in UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in the fall of 1974 and moved to a church commune near Booneville in Mendocino County. Moon, the controversial Korean-born religious figure accused of brainwashing young people into selling flowers to support his movement, was rapidly attracting converts in the United States at the time.

Greene went to Booneville to "rescue" his sister. Instead, he succumbed to the group's indoctrination after several days of being showered with love and affection, he says: "I was in a lot of emotional pain and was vulnerable." He lived in church dorm houses in San Francisco and Berkeley and took a job at a church-owned gas station on Market Street.

After being unable to accept Moon's messianic pretensions, however, he left the Moonies eight months later and joined his mother's anti-cult crusade. "Having been through it, Ford was able to reach people in ways that few others could," says Michael Daly, 51, whom Greene helped bring out of the Moonies in Nebraska in 1976. (Daly and his then-wife had joined the group in San Francisco during an intended trip to Alaska and ended up moving to the Booneville commune.)

But Greene's biggest failure as a deprogrammer was with his sister.

Using his mother as bait, he and other family members lured Catherine to Willow Hill in 1977. They handcuffed and blindfolded her and whisked her into a van that drove to the home of relatives in rural Marin County. But things went badly. On the second day of her captivity, Catherine stabbed herself in the stomach with a broken juice bottle and had to be taken to a hospital. From there, she notified the police and friends from the Moonies. The account of her kidnapping and escape from her own family was all over the news the next day.

The district attorney declined to bring criminal charges, and Catherine did not follow through in pressing a civil suit she initially filed against her brother and other family members. Today she lives near Boston, is married, has two daughters, and remains a member of the Unification Church. "She's like a zombie," Ford Greene says of his sister. "I still love her, but she's not the bright, effervescent person we all knew growing up." She sees her mother and other family members once every year or two. "It's strained and polite, and we never talk about anything of substance," Ford Greene says.

For her part, Catherine Greene Ono says she prefers not to discuss her brother. She says she made peace with her family long ago despite the trauma caused by the kidnapping, and she is following a religion she believes in. "He still thinks I'm brainwashed," she says. "What else can I say?"

When it comes to Ford Greene, however, others from groups often accused of being cults have plenty to say.

"I view the man as dangerous. He definitely has issues," says Allen Seher, a Bay Area attorney and Unification Church member. Quiros, the Scientology official in San Francisco, is even more vociferous. "In my estimation the guy is a nut case," he says. "I don't think condoning or advocating kidnapping against people trying to practice what they believe is something that anybody ought to admire."

In 2003, San Anselmo police pulled a political banner from the side of Ford Greene's law office. The sign supported a friend of Greene who was running for a seat on the Town Council of nearby Fairfax.

After Greene sued San Anselmo, saying his free speech rights were violated, the town passed a new sign ordinance. It declared that residents couldn't have more than one sign bigger than 6 square feet. Greene circumvented the law by stringing together a series of 16 "signs," inches apart, that, in sum, covered about 100 square feet. In a ruling favorable to him, a judge declared that the town could limit the size of signs, not the number.

San Anselmo officials insist that their response to the sign has nothing to do with Greene's provocative political messages. "We're being as fair to him as anyone else," Mayor Peter Breen says.

Yet the dispute clearly has political overtones.

A chief opponent of the sign, attorney John Newell, a partner in the San Francisco office of Latham & Watkins, has been openly critical of the content of its messages. In an e-mail to the San Anselmo Town Council earlier this year, he accused Greene of using the sign to "regularly incite people to commit violent acts," an accusation that Greene dismisses as "the ranting of an uptight Republican." Newell declined to comment for this article.

In August, Newell helped persuade the town's Planning Commission to revoke a previous variance it had granted to Greene to keep the sign in place. Since then, Greene and the town's elected officials, who acknowledge having spent $50,000 so far on legal fees in the dispute, have declared a temporary truce in hopes of working out a compromise.

As part of the cease-fire, Greene agreed to use only about half of the sign's available space for messages. Meanwhile, he has added his name to the list of candidates for the Town Council in November. As a prelude to his campaign, Greene invited the public to a "free speech soul party" at his place. About 150 people showed up. The invitation, as displayed on the sign, read "Eat an Oyster. Meet the Hoister."

In his anti-cult crusade, however, Greene exhibits little mellowness or tendency toward compromise. He wears the derision of his critics as a badge of honor. "It tells me that I've made a mark; that I've gotten to them," he says. In his usual work attire of blue jeans and a sweat shirt, he looks remarkably boyish, not at all like a 52-year-old lawyer who is due in court in a couple of hours. It's noon, his part-time assistant is at lunch, and he's sifting through stacks of legal briefs while recounting his most recent skirmish with the Scientologists.

The case involved a young San Francisco woman who sued the church after claiming that a former Scientology official in Mountain View used her as a sex slave with the knowledge of local church officials. The woman contended in a court declaration that she was raped and sodomized dozens of times over the course of a year after being ordered by her Scientology superiors to move into the one-bedroom apartment of the man accused of assaulting her. As part of a deal with prosecutors, the man pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual battery in 2003 and was sentenced to prison.

The lawsuit was recently settled, but a confidentiality agreement bars Greene, who represented the woman, from talking about it. He suspects (but can't prove) that his acceptance of the Mountain View case, his first legal tangle with Scientology in years, is linked to the Internet smear campaign that the Friends of San Anselmo have run against him. "They saw the chance to discredit me, and they took it," says Greene, who doesn't shy away from his controversial and colorful personal history.

In fact, he says, by throwing all his missteps onto the Web, his enemies have done him an unintentional political favor.

"I'm a man with no skeletons in the closet," he says. "They're all dancing around in public."

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