Cults in the Courtroom

Scientologists find an unlikely ally in the Constitution

The Stranger/October 25, 1995
By John Colwell

CULT MEMBERS, TAKE HEED. If the enlightenment you seek proves a bitter pill; if a brainwashing and abuse leave you enslaved; if you wind up drinking Guru's bath water, cleaning carbines in a Texas bomb shelter, or playing host to the Divine One's sacred seed - too bad. As a result of a judgment recently passed down in a Seattle federal court, Mommy and Daddy are going to find it harder than ever to find someone willing to get your sorry ass out of trouble.

Somewhere between a bucket of cold water and a coercive abduction lies the ill-defined art of deprogramming, which practitioners use to isolate one brain from a collective mind. It's something like un-brainwashing; the deprogrammer's job is to place a few nagging, cynical questions into a head full of blissful answers. Of course not everyone agrees that a mind can be programmed in the first place, that critical thinking can be so completely erased. But there are professionals out there who can be called upon by families to slap some sense into their weak-minded, cult-following loved ones.

One of these deprogrammers is a slight, well-spoken, somewhat humorless 42-year-old man named Rick Ross. On September 29, a jury in Seattle's U.S. District Court convicted him of conspiring to violate the constitutional protected right to practice religion of Jason Scott, a Bellevue fundamentalist church at the request of Scott's mother.

Convicted along with Ross were two assistants ( a third switched camps, testifying against Ross, for an undisclosed amount of money) and the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based group whose local representation originally put Scott's mother in touch with Ross. After hearing testimony describing 18-year-old Jason Scott's five-day ordeal, which began with a violent abduction and ended after he apparently renounced the church - but then called the police - the jurors awarded Scott, now 23, nearly $5 million.


[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.]

Though none of the guilty parties have anywhere near this kind of money, the message to deprogrammers was clear; Hands off. Big kids get to make their own mistakes. And behind this message lay an ominous warning to anyone who dares to expose the dark side of such groups: If you try to interfere, you might be taking on more than you bargained for. Though Jason Scott was a member of a small Christian fundamentalist group, the Church of Scientology ran to his side when the Cult Awareness Network and Ross tried to interfere. It didn't seem to matter that Jason was following God and not L. Ron Hubbard; he made a good hood ornament for Scientology's legal machine. In picking up Jason's case, Scientology found a way to run down the anti-cult groups and deprogrammers who threaten their lucrative secrecy.

The verdict in this case dumbfounded Ross' supporters. After all, it's Ross who takes credit for deprogramming a man whose religious fervor brought him to the brink of bombing an abortion clinic as part of a "justifiable homicide pact." It was Ross who deprogrammed a couple of Branch Davidians who could have perished in the flames of Waco. (Ross then provided the government with information about David Koresh and his arms cache, becoming a media consultant in the process.) Ross has assisted scores of families throughout the country, stirring up plenty of controversy along the way. His champions praise him as a class act, saying his even-tempered tactics and religious expertise are remarkable.

But in Jason Scott's case, Ross blew it. By joining in the abduction of an adult he exposed himself to both criminal and civil claims. Though various courts have said forcing an adult to listen to a deprogrammer is acceptable in extreme situations, the Seattle-area jury took about five hours to label the actions of Ross and two of his assistants "outrageous."

Courtroom confrontations

The ongoing battle between anti-cult forces and the defenders of religious freedom would be strangely entertaining; if not for the personal tragedies, familial strife, and ugly confrontations involved. The spite between the parties in the Seattle courthouse was palpable. Loaded barbs and derogatory comments were the rule during recesses. The slime factor was high, as players from both sides of the aisle offered to share information on the sexual indiscretions of their opponents.

Facing off in the formal atmosphere of the federal courtroom were two teams. At one table, facing U.S. District Judge john Coughenour, sat Jason Scott; six-foot-two, about 200 pounds, clean cut, overly dramatic, and always an intellectual step or two behind his Scientologist lawyer who has long been part of Scientology's fight against the Cult Awareness Network.

Along the windows, at 90 degrees to Scott's small crew, sat the defense. There was Cynthia Kisser, a stone-faced executive director of the Cult Awareness Network {known as C.A.N.), with her local attorney. Ross, always neat, sometimes angry, and often wide-eyed with disbelief during much of the testimony, sat next to his two young, less-than-riveting Seattle lawyers.

The defense's star witness was Scott's estranged mother, Kathy Tonkin. The daughter of Frank Tonkin, owner of Taco Time and one of Seattle area's wealthy players, Tonkin had the financial resources to fight this expensive case. In dark clothes and frequently tearful, Tonkin was there defending Ross against her own son. Tonkin contracted Ross to deprogram two of Scott's brothers - both minors- before asking him to abduct Scott, an act she knew to be illegal. She thinks Ross is a "brilliant man and a great deprogrammer," while Scott describes Ross as "a shifty guy with really bad vibes coming off him." Moxon called Ross, at various times during the trial, a "bounty hunter," a "liar," and "a mercenary kidnapper."

Life Tabernacle

The now seemingly irreconcilable family division stems from events in 1989, when Tonkin enrolled herself, her children, and her abusive, alcoholic third husband in Life Tabernacle, a United Pentecostal church on Newport Way. Admittedly compulsive and spiritually adrift since her second husband's accidental electrocution, Tonkin was a mess well before she joined the church. However, she found solace there. Her family was quickly accepted into the flock of Pastor Harold Kern, a minister out of California.

In testimony, Tonkin described the way she and her children were absorbed into a world of extreme devotion as members of Life Tabernacle. Services were frequent and mandatory. Obedience to the pastor was paramount. Parishioners were held to "holiness standards" :no television, no movies, and a clean-cut appearance, which for women meant no pants, no short sleeves, no jewelry - not even a wedding ring. Tonkin said emotional and spiritual abuse were heaped on the congregation and that hypocrisy and "twisted scripture" were standard fare. The congregation, Tonkin says, was told the story of a non-believer who was killed by God on the Evergreen Point Bridge. (That testimony was stricken from the court record.)

Evening services featured churchgoers speaking in tongues, which, as the Holy Spirit took charge, evolved into a dramatic "running of the aisles." Diane Tremaine, a former member of the church, testified about various frenzied rituals, like the time a group of excited teenagers were "laying hands" on a possessed man in order to cast out his demon.

Officers did have to contend with Jason and other church devotees, who kept a noisy, 24-hour vigil around the house.

"Hey, I'm 18, you can't do this to me!…I'm going to prosecute to the fullest!" This is what Scott claims he yelled when he too was suckered into a trap a month later, on Jan. 18, 1991. Tonkin gave the green light for his deprogramming when she heard the church had arranged for him to leave the country on a religious journey. Under the watch of Tonkin and Ross, three men subdued and restrained Scott, who admits that he'd anticipated the event, and who, according to his captors, fought furiously, prayed, and began speaking in tongues. After handcuffing him and placing duct tape over his mouth, the men dragged him to a waiting van. Then Scott was driven to a rental beach house in Ocean Shores for five relatively uneventful days of video tapes, lectures, and discussions aimed, the participants say, at reuniting Scott with his family. The jury was it as an attempt to deprive Scott of his free exercise of religion.

On the last day, a tearful Scott seemed capitulate; he claims he was faking. Ross believes the boy's momentary rejection of the church was genuine. Either way, that evening he fled a restaurant and called police.

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