Court Upholds Damages In Kirkland Teen's Anti-Cult Case

SAN FRANCISCO - A $1.09 million damage award against an anti-cult organization for its role in trying to "deprogram" a Washington teenager at his mother's request was upheld Wednesday by a federal appeals court.

There was evidence to support a jury's finding that a volunteer was acting on behalf of the Cult Awareness Network when she referred the mother, Kathy Tonkin of Kirkland, to deprogrammer Rick Ross, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its 2-1 ruling.

Tonkin had joined the Life Tabernacle Church, a Bellevue branch of the United Pentecostal Church, with her six children in 1991. She left less than two years later, but her three oldest sons wanted to stay. Two, ages 16 and 13, were involuntarily deprogrammed by Ross; but Jason Scott, 18, resisted after being abducted and held captive for five days, the court said.

Ross, of Phoenix, was acquitted by a jury of a criminal charge of unlawful imprisonment. Two other men pleaded guilty to lesser charges of coercion.

In 1995, a federal jury awarded Scott $4.8 million in damages against Ross, his associates and the Cult Awareness Network, an Illinois-based organization formed to advise families who feared their loved ones' involvement with cults.

The organization filed for bankruptcy protection less than a year later, citing the verdict as one of the reasons. A member of the Church of Scientology, CAN's longtime nemesis, then bought the rights to the network's name.

Paul Lawrence, a lawyer for the original network, said Tuesday his client still exists and has a board of directors. But he declined to say what the group was called or whether there was any likelihood the damages would be paid.

The picture was also cloudy on the plaintiff's side. Attorney Eric Lieberman said Scott, after the verdict, sold his rights in the case to a Los Angeles businessman, whom Lieberman identified only as Mr. Beeny. He said he had no information about Beeny, and would not provide any details about the sale.

The status of the parties was not mentioned by the appeals court, which focused on whether CAN was responsible for the actions of Shirley Landa, who referred Scott's mother to Ross.

Landa was affiliated with several cult-related organizations and was CAN's Washington state contact. She knew of Ross' practices, which had been shown on CBS' "48 Hours," the court said. CAN had also referred people to Ross. On the other hand, according to the dissenting judge, Tonkin had never heard of CAN when she called Landa on a local community-service hot line.

The court majority said the jury was entitled to find that Landa was acting on CAN's behalf. CAN functioned through its local contact people, had the right to fire them and authorized them to tell the public they were acting on the organization's behalf, the court said.

The court also rejected CAN's constitutional argument, saying the organization was not being punished for its speech or associations. The opinion was written by Judge Robert Beezer and joined by Judge Mary Schroeder.

In dissent, U.S. District Judge William Schwarzer of San Francisco, temporarily assigned to the appeals court, said there was no evidence that Landa was acting on CAN's instructions or that the organization knew or approved of her referral to the deprogrammer.