Rick Ross is a cultbuster. He's spent the last 30 years squeegeeing mumbo-jumbo from the brains of ex-cult victims, from David Koresh's Branch Davidians to Kabbalists to the Black Israelites. It's made him a lot of enemies. But we're not on that list--we even hung out with him briefly
a few years back
. Scientology has the longest file on him of any of its critics. They once drove him into bankruptcy. He's had threats on his life made regularly, but if you phone his New Jersey office he doesn't even screen his calls through a secretary. Rick Ross (not
) is hard as nails.
Vice: Your life as a cultbuster began when your gran was getting tapped up by a cult in her nursing home. True? Rick Ross:
True. She was in a nursing home, and a group that specifically targeted Jewish elderly people schemed to have their members become staff at the old age home, with the objective of converting them. So after my grandmother told me about it, I worked with the directors of the nursing home to have them fired. There were about five of them. It's grown from there. By the end of the 80s I was a private consultant, working around the country doing interventions.
Is it true you were investigating David Koresh's Branch Davidians long before the Waco massacre?
I was first contacted about five years before the standoff with the federal government. About a year before the raid by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, I did a deprogramming of a young member. Later, I was contacted by the ATF – they wanted any information they could get. I put them in touch with the guy whose daughter was literally locked out of the raid, and I worked to deprogram her during the standoff. As we know, Koresh decided he didn't want to come out. They set the place on fire and about 80 people died, including many children.
Did you have any inkling it was going to end that badly?
I considered them the most dangerous cult in America long before they were known. David Koresh was tried for attempted murder in 1987. After that, I received frantic phone calls from concerned family members who wanted to break their loved ones out of the compound. I remember at least one of those people talking about a large amount of firearms and extreme violence. Later, when I did the deprogramming of one man before the raid, he explained to me just how heavily armed they were. His credit card was used by David Koresh to charge $5,000 for bullets. So I knew before the raid that this was a very heavily armed group, and that it was very extreme – these followers would do exactly what David Koresh wanted them to, no matter how evil.
Who would you say is the most dangerous cult presently working in America?
It depends how you measure danger. There are some anti-government extremists. In particular, groups that are racist or hate groups that have a particular propensity for violence. But then there are other groups that I regard as very dangerous because of what they believe. Groups that teach you can never receive medical care. The followers of Charles Mee. The followers of Christ. Then you get people like the Jehovah's Witnesses – who let their children die rather than give them blood transfusions. Women in childbirth particularly tend to die from loss of blood. Statistically, these groups are still the most dangerous.
And in the UK? Anyone you're keeping an eye on? I continue to follow the Kabbalah Centre. I was brought to England a few years ago and I did an intervention with a girl who worked there. She ran their children's programs for celebrities, including Stephen Spielberg's children and Madonna's daughter. She was a highly respected member of the staff, but she wasn't paid hardly at all – she subsisted on little more than room and board. Her family paid for me to come over, and we ended up meeting in a cottage in the Cotswolds. Ultimately, that was a successful intervention. She left the Kabbalah Centre and got on with her life.
Another time, a man who lived in London called--his non-married partner was involved with a group called the Black Israelites. These were both engineers, highly educated people. The woman was taking their boy to Israel, and the father was very concerned about weight loss, by both the boy and his mother. The child would come back with stories of substandard living conditions, rats, bad food… I went to meet with her in London. But she was very suspicious. I was only allowed to talk to her for 15 minutes, before she cut me off. That case was a failure.
What method do you use to deprogram your patients?
These interventions take about three or four days. The starting point is similar to a drug or alcohol intervention. That is: it's a surprise, and I'm sitting down with the family. The first order of business is usually just to discuss why I'm there. The family will start the talking, discussing their worries with the cult member. Then I pick up the ball, explain what my work is about. Then maybe we get talking about the group very specifically. We work about eight hours a day, from morning until dinner, under the proviso that the cult member is technically free to leave at any time. A few do: in the case of the Kabbalah woman, she ran out of the cottage, and her brother had to talk with her in the street for about four hours before we could convince her to come back. Sometimes, though, they have to talk to me because they're a minor. For example, I was retained by a child protection service in Ohio. This agent had extracted 21 children from a terrible cult group in which kids were routinely beaten and abused. This was part of the fallout from the Charles Keyes case – punch that up on Google and you'll see the
full story of this woman who was murdered
because she wanted to leave this particular group with her children. I met with five of the children while they were contained within a juvenile facility. Not because they were bad kids, but because there was a risk that they might try and rejoin the cult.
You were also successfully sued in 1995 for using more active methods – binding people with duct tape, taking them against their will, that sort of thing?
That was the story of
. Who, coincidentally, ironically, recently called me to help him to deprogram his own daughter. What happened was Jason and his brothers were all in a cult, and, while his mother was desperate to get them out, he didn't want to leave. One of his brothers had been sexually abused by a minister in the group; he was 14. And the other one was about 12. I worked with those two successfully and they left the group. But Jason, meanwhile, had turned 18. And his mother very much wanted to get him out of the group. She was worried that they'd put him in an arranged marriage and that he wouldn't get an education. So Jason was taken to a beach cottage by his mother's hired security, on the understanding that, at the end of that time, he'd be able to do whatever he wanted, but she just needed a few days to talk this through with him. But the intervention failed in Jason's case. He went back to the cult. Told them what had happened. But they did not arrest his mother. They arrested me. There was then a trial, and I was acquitted of all wrongdoing. In fact, a number of the jury shook my hand as I left the courtroom. But then the Church of Scientology decided to champion Jason Scott's case. Then I went through a civil court battle, and then I lost – to the tune of $3 million. And even though I went bankrupt, they were assured that the judgment could not be discharged. Well, it doesn't end there, because a few years later, Scott became increasingly disenchanted with the group, and especially with the Scientologists – who he felt were using him as a pawn to get at me. He sold me the judgment for $5000, with the provision that I give him 200 hours of counselling. Which meant that he was effectively settling the lawsuit for what he had objected to in the first place. He fired the Scientology lawyer, Kendrick Moxon, who then tried to have him declared mentally incompetent, which I thought was ironic, because the central issue of the case was that he was mentally competent to make all his own choices in the first place. Now he lives in Oregon and it's turned out that all the fears of his mother came true. He married an older woman in what, in my opinion, was an arranged marriage. When Jason left the group, he hoped I might deprogram his wife. But she wouldn't meet with anyone, so Jason and his wife divorced, and he became estranged from his children in the way that his mother had from him. But as they grew up, one of his daughters ran away and came to stay with their father, who then came and asked me for help. I thought at the time, how interesting it was this had all come round.
I assume you get a lot of headaches from Scientology.
Scientology has harassed me a great deal. But my career now is almost 30 years long – in the scheme of three decades. It's been a nuisance, but recently they haven't bothered me that much. They thought they'd destroyed me with the Jason Scott case. They've hired private investigators to do what's called a "noisy" investigation, where they go door-to-door and make questions for your neighbors, make outrageous statements, and ask extremely nosey questions. They want you to know about the whole thing. Why do you say that? That happened shortly after I was quoted for criticizing these detox centers that Tom Cruise was setting up in New York. Firemen were being encouraged not to use inhalers or anti-depressants and eventually they were shut down. It wasn't long after that that my neighbors called me up and said that Scientologists were going door-to-door in my block, "investigating" me. Scientology's largest file on any critic they have is mine. It's called a "Dead Agent File," which is a Scientology term for their way of discrediting a prominent critic – you kill the messenger. So… I'm flattered! Apparently they think I'm worth it…
I'm sure they always pick you up on your felony charges you sustained in your youth – I think it was an attempted burglary charge, and one for conspiracy to commit grand theft?
Listen, that was from when a friend of mine embezzled from his employer, and I was involved. But I made full restitution to the company concerned. I applied to have my civil rights restored, and these verdicts expunged in 1982. I regret that I did those things, but I did the best I could to restore myself on those issues. I did the best I could to restore property. I did volunteer work, and I later headed the Jewish prisoner program, state-wide in the Arizona prisons system. I like to think I did the best I could to set things right. It's been 35 years. But, needless to say, Scientology always brings that up: the first two words they always say to me is "convicted felon."
Is Scientology actually more benign, or more malevolent, than is popularly supposed?
I think it's gradually coming out now that they're more malevolent than even I imagined. Mike Rinder – I had no idea that he was being subjected to brutal beatings. Rinder, Marty Rathbun, and others have talked about how they were routinely beaten by [Scientology World Head] David Miscavige. This was part of what they endured in order to be top staff in Scientology. I had no idea of the pain that was going on behind the scenes. And a lot of these stories that have come out in recent months – literally just the last few months. I had no idea how bad it was internally. People being made to have abortions, people being prevented from running away. Things that I've read – it's shocking.
Do you think they've reached a sort of tipping-point recently, that they're now spiralling towards insanity as the executive struggle to hold onto their ebbing power base?
I think you may be onto something. When Mike Rinder, a guy I remember as a really top level Scientologist, breaks ranks with them, at enormous personal cost, I think it may be a tipping point. And I think that the
fraud conviction in France
was something quite significant. It underlines that the claims made in Germany and Spain also have good grounds. I was actually a part of that BBC
Scientology and Me
] where the reporter was intimidated. He met with me in Los Angeles during the taping, and he was
upset, because they were following him wherever he went, including the urinal. I don't think he'd ever been subjected to that kind of pressure.
Scientologists sound like dicks. It's a shame you never met this guy. You could have helped him.