When cult leader David Koresh and his followers barricaded themselves in their compound near the city of Waco, Texas, in 1993, Rick Ross was called to the scene. A consultant on cults, with firsthand experience dealing with the Branch Davidians, Ross commented on the standoff for CBS television and advised federal authorities on how to handle the group.
The 51-day siege concluded tragically as the Davidians’ compound went up in flames, leaving dozens dead in what many believe was a mass suicide.
Eight years later, in 2001, Ross moved to Jersey City from Phoenix. On Sept. 11, as he watched the Twin Towers burn, his thoughts returned to Waco.
“Having seen [the Branch Davidians] burn the compound down and kill their own children and kill themselves, I understood that the same mindset that caused that tragedy caused the World Trade Center to come down,” Ross said in a recent interview.
Ross said there are common threads of authoritarianism and mind-control connecting various tragedies that, on the surface, may seem different.
“Charles Manson, through Jonestown, through Waco, Heaven’s Gate, and the World Trade Center tragedy – it’s the same mindset, [only] with different leaders preaching different doctrines,” he said.
Ross’s analysis of such groups has been carried by numerous national media outlets, and his frequent lectures on cults have taken him across the country. Recently, Ross traveled to Los Angeles to host a television special on cults for the A&E network. The special is set to air this summer.
In 2002, Ross founded the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “provide a broad range of information and services” about dangerous and questionable groups to the public.
The institute’s primary product is a network of Web sites, including www.rickross.org, www.cultnews.net and www.culteducation.com, which represents a vast repository of information about more than 1,000 controversial groups.
Ross says the sites attract tens of thousands of visitors daily.
Included on the Ross Institute’s Web sites are portfolios on organizations as diverse as Scientology and the Aryan Nations, as well as lesser-known groups like the Order of the Solar Temple and the Aum sect of Japan. There are even a few surprising entries, such as Deepak Chopra and The John Birch Society.
Ross is careful to note that a group’s inclusion on his site doesn’t mean he thinks they’re a cult. For many organizations, he prefers the term “controversial group.”
For Ross, it’s personal
Ross says his journey into the anti-cult fray began in 1982 in an Arizona nursing home where his grandmother lived.
“She was approached by someone within the nursing home that was proselytizing for a fringe religious group,” he said. “The group had actually encouraged its members to become paid staff at the nursing home in an effort to target the elderly. I was really shocked to see this kind of thing going on, targeting the elderly in an attempt to exploit their disabilities.”
His successful efforts to end the group’s proselytizing at the nursing home led to full-time work at several social-service agencies and eventually to conducting “deprogramming” interventions for cult members at the request of their families.
Ross says he has conducted involuntary deprogramming sessions in the past, but says he now only intervenes with the individual’s consent, largely due to the thorny legal issues involved in holding someone against their will. He claims that 75 percent of his interventions have been successful.
Ross told the Reporter about a recent intervention with a 71-year-old man whose children said their father had been taken into a cult.
“As a result of their practices, which encouraged followers not to take their medications, eventually his kidneys shut down,” Ross said. “Now he’s on dialysis. I think he’s doing very well now.”
The backlash against Ross
As it turns out, the man who challenges controversial groups is himself quite controversial.
Some who study what they call “new religious movements” accuse Ross of furthering an “anti-religious agenda.” Ross responds by saying that it’s not a group’s beliefs that he challenges, just their behavior.
“If they behaved well, there’d be no controversy around them,” he said. “When these groups hurt people … that’s when I’m concerned about the group.”
Ross says he make a distinction between religions and cults. He describes himself as a religious person, noting his affiliation with the Union for Reform Judaism. In fact, a mezuzah, a Jewish symbol of devotion, hangs just inside the door of his home.
Some of Ross’s perennial foes in the Church of Scientology and the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre challenge Ross’s credentials, saying he has no formal education or training in dealing with cults.
To this, Ross responds that his credentials have been earned through 25 years of hands-on experience.
“My experience is based on about 500 interventions, and I’ve worked with law enforcement, including the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and local law enforcement, and also I’ve testified in court as an expert witness on cults, and of course I’ve lectured on the university and college level,” Ross said.
Ross’s critics like to bring up his checkered past. Ross admits to two non-violent criminal convictions while in his early 20s, one for attempted burglary in 1974 and the other for grand theft of a jewelry shop in 1975. Ross served probation in each case and has apologized for the incidents, which he calls “mistakes.” He says he’s kept a clean record since then, and he notes that those incidents occurred years before his anti-cult work began.
Ross has also been the subject of numerous lawsuits, many from the groups he criticizes. Luckily for Ross, he receives pro bono legal backing from Roseland, N.J. law firm Lowenstein Sandler.
‘Cults’ in Jersey City?
Ross says his relocation to Jersey City was a strategic effort to position himself in the New York City metropolitan area. Besides the fact that the area is a media hub – perfect for Ross’s regular television appearances – it’s a major cult recruiting ground, Ross says.
“I have [received] complaints about groups that I’m sure have some recruiting going on in Jersey City,” Ross said. “There are groups that recruit in Jersey City that may have a hub in Manhattan or a retreat in upstate New York.”
So, which controversial groups are in our midst? Ross doesn’t hesitate to name names.
First up: Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Moon has been criticized on many fronts, notably for questionable recruiting and indoctrination methods and tax-related crimes, for which he has served time in prison. He is also criticized for his supposedly undue influence in politics, the media, and business.
“Rev. Moon is really big in this area,” Ross said. “A good deal of the time, when you buy sushi, you’re buying from Rev. Moon. He really dominates the sushi market [in this region].”
Moon’s supporters – derisively known by some as “Moonies” – describe him as a vigorous advocate for world peace and “human betterment,” and a subject of decades of religious persecution.
Also on Ross’s radar is a group with a major presence in Journal Square: the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since 1985, Witnesses have used the square’s Stanley Theater as their Assembly Hall.
“I get complaints about Jehovah’s Witnesses all the time,” Ross said. “I don’t consider them a cult, but I do consider them a group that has caused a great deal of grief.”
Ross cited as problematic the religion’s adamant refusal of blood transfusions. This teaching has resulted in numerous court cases, notably ones in which Witness parents have refused transfusions for their children.
Witnesses, however, say their practices are derived from the Bible and are a matter of religious freedom.
Another controversial group with a local presence is Falun Gong, a China-based movement that advocates the use of meditation for physical healing. The movement has faced major – and sometimes violent – opposition from the Chinese Communist government.
The Chinese government has accused the group of illegal activities, but the group suggests that the government is frustrated by the movement’s popularity.
“In my experience, Falun Gong is a rather extreme group,” Ross said. “I just don’t see any meaningful accountability for [founder Li] Hongzhi within the organization. It’s essentially a totalitarian organization.”
Falun Gong officials, however, maintain that Hongzhi “is not accorded special treatment, nor does he accept money or donations from students of Falun Gong.”
Stacks of the free newspaper The Epoch Times are a common sight at area supermarkets. Ross describes The Epoch Times as “largely just a Falun Gong newspaper.”
The paper’s management expresses support for the Falun Gong movement but denies any operational relationship with the group. Christopher Zinsli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.