Q & A Brainwashed

Rick Ross talks about deprogramming members of religious cults

Willamette Week/November 1, 1995
By Judy Narinsky

Portland, Oregon -- When Phoenix cult deprogrammer Rick Ross spoke to students at the University of Portland earlier the month, he was met by protesters claiming religious discrimination. As the 150 or so listeners streamed into the auditorium, the small group held signs that said "Rick Ross go home" and "Religious Freedom Now!"

The protesters joined the audience as Ross began his talk. After his speech, he fielded questions from interested listeners as well as heckles from some of the protesters, who shouted statements such as "You're a convicted felon, aren't you?" They also accused him of being a liar and of engaging in the same brainwashing tactics that he says the cults use.

When pressed by a reporter, the protesters revealed that most of them were affiliated with the Church of Scientology. They passed out literature that included information about a felony conviction in Ross' early life, which they claim permanently smears his credibility.

Ross say he's accustomed to harangues during his lectures, but that this was the first time there were protesters outside. They were probably buoyed by a recent $3.1-million civil judgment against him for a failed deprogramming effort that was labeled brutal by the plaintiff, 23-year-old Jason Scott of the Seattle area.

In 1990, Ross had tried to deprogram Scott at the request of the young man's mother. Although Scott was never a member of Scientology, he was represented at the civil trial by a lawyer for that group. Ross claims the groups' strategy is to bury their opponents in legal costs.

Although Scott and the Church of Scientology claim a clear victory, Ross told contributor Judy Norinsky that it "lacks potency" because they lost a criminal case against him for the same incident. Ross is appealing the verdict.

How did you get into this line of work?

I had been in business with some cousins in Phoenix when a cult infiltrated my grandmother's nursing home. Having gotten jobs as nurse's aides with the help of the program coordinator, who was a member, they harassed the residents with threats that they would burn in hell if they didn't renounce their faith. I can't tell you what that did to many of these elderly people who had survived persecution in Europe.

How do you define a cult?

We're talking about a group with an absolute authoritarian leader who is seen by members to have an exclusive position as a mediator between God or the higher power and all the world, an ascending hierarchical structure, beliefs in their own elite status and malevolence of all outsiders who oppose the group.

Typically, recruitment is deceptive, with the groups withholding information about themselves and discouraging critical thinking. The idea is to strip the mind of all thoughts that are not consistent with the group think.

How big a problem are cults today?

I would say that in the 13 years that I've been watching this problem, it's escalated to a much higher point in recent years than ever before.

Why? What's different now than, say, 20 years ago?

What's different is that there are more people involved , more families affected and increased violence.

Nowadays, we have cult incidents following in quick succession: The Solar Temple mass suicide outside of Geneva, Switzerland; Waco and David Koresh; and most recently, the gassing of 5,000 people on the subway system in Tokyo by the followers of Shoko Asahara of Japan.

Never before in our time have cults attacked a nation. The Waco Davidian tragedy brought home the cult issue, to our own Texas backyard.

Who joins cults?

Although some cult groups target a particular community, ethnic group gender or age group - the latter often because of their wealth - the majority are a wide cross-section of people representing the average American population. The target group remains those 18-30 - usually at universities - people who are young, in transition and discovering who they are.

How do thinking people get pulled into these groups?

One mistaken idea is that the people who join cults come up short intellectually or mentally. None of the studies I've seen over the years indicate that.

What the most successful groups have in common are very well worked out recruitment and indoctrination approaches. Cults deceptively pull people in and don't expose them to extremities in the beginning. They come on very low-key. People find out their agenda in small increments. So as they are drawn in deeper and deeper, they are never able to make a decision based on all of the information.

Why don't cult members see through the rhetoric, even if their leader has been convicted of crimes, as in the case of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church?

Because they are estranged from family, friends and the feedback we all need that stimulates continued critical thinking. Trapped in a milieu where they have no outside frame of reference, they turn to cult members for feedback.

They don't have time to think. They're constantly involved in cult-controlled activities. The cult dismisses things outsiders might say, while instilling shame and guilt in members.

And what about cult leaders? What's their mental state?

I've sat and talked with many of these leaders at great length. I'm struck by their numbness and seeming lack of conscience. They are megalmaniacal, sociopathic individuals who feed off the dependency of the members and their adulation.

Many leaders become delusional because they live in a vacuum, are surrounded by sycophants, are constantly told they are god-like and are never challenged.

Did the FBI consult with you in the Branch Davidian case in Waco?

Yes. I urged them to be very cautious. I told them that David Koresh was very much in control, that the people were very obedient to him, and that he had a propensity for violence. I connected them with a former member who told them about all the weapons stockpiling.

I advised the FBI that these people were victims and to treat them as such. I told them they might be responsive to their loved ones, friends and former members, and I urged them to facilitate that kind of communication to encourage them to come out.

They never told us that they were planning a raid. We were shocked when the raid occurred. If they had, we would have strongly discouraged it. It was a very foolhardy and incompetently staged raid.

Father William Kent Burtner of the Positive Action Center, a cult-counseling center in Portland, has said that we are all vulnerable to cults at certain times in our lives. Do you agree?

I think that's very true. People are most vulnerable when depressed, in transition, or new to a community. One thing that makes cults so successful is that they have the ability to identify those difficult times in people's lives. Almost like a sixth sense, like a bird of prey.

What's different about behavior modification principles such as those used in 12-step programs and those used by cults?

When people join these [12-step] programs, they do so with informed consent. The program is revealed openly, up front. They understand the agenda, the program. There is no leader at the top telling them to cut ties to their family or old friends.

Which type of cults are most destructive to society?

Militia groups are very dangerous. When groups begin to isolate themselves, withdraw from society, stockpile weapons and increasingly preach a kind of paranoid rhetoric of imminent doom and gloom, with a permanent crisis mentality permeating the group, then you have the element that can lead to disaster.

Twenty years ago, the Unification Church was called a cult. These days it isn't described that way quite as often. When does a cult become an organized religion?

Cults begin the transition to established religious once the original leader of a group dies. Then typically, the power structure begins to break down, authority is more widely delegated and power more widely dispersed. There is then increasing accountability among members with checks and balances, and a decreasing view of society as threatening and evil.

Do cults try to legitimize themselves through companies of other mainstream-type fronts?

Yes. Moon spends millions of dollars to gain a patina of respectability. At last count his organization had 375 front organizations, one of which is the Washington Times, an ultra-conservative newspaper.

William Cheshire, a former editor-in-chief of the paper, became a visceral critic of it after his editorial prerogatives were circumscribed by Moon. He had been misled into thinking it was a legitimate newspaper, found that it was not and quit under very public protest.

Let's talk about the judgment against you won by Jason Scott. It followed your acquittal on criminal charges of unlawful imprisonment.

They won that [civil] round. But most importantly, they lost - flat out - the criminal case, which meant everything to them.

In the civil case, the judge would not allow any testimony about Jason Scott's collaboration with scientology, which went directly to his credibility as a witness. In the criminal case, a former Scientology operative said under sworn deposition that he was assigned to Jason Scott to help destroy me and go up against the Cult Awareness Network.


[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.]

All of the 40 lawsuits Scientology has filed against the Network have been dismissed.

The Scientologists claim that you "brutally" kidnapped Scott in order to deprogram him.

First, there was no kidnapping. Jason's mother was there and in control at all times. She hired me. Prosecuting me instead of his mother was a strategy [of Scott's legal team]. They knew they would lose that case.

Second, there was no brutality. The two men hired by his mother seized him outside her house. He was restrained after becoming violent. He was handcuffed but never struck. After he bit one of them, they taped his mouth, and both the handcuffs and tape were removed after he was put in the van to go to the hotel where we held the deprogramming. Jason was not free to leave for five days, but at the end he told us he was going to leave the cult, and when we went out for dinner, he "escaped" - as he called it - instead of going to the bathroom. At that point, he was free to go at any time.

This was the only case I have been involved in where I have seen security use handcuffs.

Do you have to abduct people, deprogram them, against their will?

I am no longer involved in involuntary deprogramming of adults. Out of hundreds of cases, only a handful were involuntary.

But you've said you're not against it.

No, I'm not against it because I understand why parents want it.

Let's take Jason's case. The jury acquitted me of criminal charges because they realized that Jason's mother had gone to great lengths to rescue her son from a destructive group and meet with him on a voluntary basis. The leader of the group refused to allow her to do that and interfered with her communication.

Also, realize that Scientology is against all interventions, and they simply try to latch onto the few involuntaries I've done in an effort to discredit all deprogramming.

Scientologists also say you were convicted of theft for stealing $100,000 worth of jewelry.

Yes. About 20 years ago a friend of mine embezzled money from a jewelry store he worked for, and I was involved. I deeply regret that. We pled guilty, returned everything. It's a matter of court record that the store said they were satisfied.

I don't shirk an y responsibility for that. I received probation, which was terminated early, and I received a vacating of guilt on that charge and restoration of my civil rights in 1983.

I did everything I could to rectify the crime, and I never again was convicted of any crime.

What do you say to people who question your credibility because of this?

I would say that in 1982, I founded the Jewish Prisoner Program for Arizona, which was given several citations. I was given full security clearance to enter maximum-security facilities at county, state and federal prisons, and ran the program for several years, trying to help people who had made mistakes like I had. I tried to pay back what I had done through community service.

Subsequently, I was elected to serve as chairman of the religious advisory committee to the prison system. Everyone involved knew that I had made mistakes as a young man.

I have never hidden from my past. I have not only learned from my mistakes, but used my experience to help other people.

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