San Anselmo resident Ford Greene sounds like a typical Marin County lawyer, what with his outspoken liberalism, scruffy hair and a white Porsche in the garage. But this self-described “cult buster” is anything but that.
Greene was in the spotlight recently for posting a large political sign on the side of his office building along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, where commuters are faced with messages against the Iraq war and President Bush, among other things. At one point, he flew the American flag upside-down.
The high-profile public expressions, and the town of San Anselmo’s efforts to stop them, have resulted in a lengthy lawsuit that continues to this day.
But the furor surrounding the sign doesn’t compare with what’s been stirred up in Greene’s professional life: He has been prosecuted for kidnapping in Colorado and has won a landmark case before the California Supreme Court against the Unification Church that enabled former followers to sue for damages. Greene says he has de-programmed more than 100 followers – often called Moonies – of the church, which was founded in 1954 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Those professional chops made Greene one of six finalists for the honor of Trial Lawyer of Year in 2003 by the organization Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. But his drive stems from an experience many people would try to forget.
“I was a Moonie slave,” he says. “The Moonies’ nickname for me is a special servant of Satan.”
Greene’s “cult-busting” and colorful past, however, have turned him into a lightning rod for criticism for the organizations he targets.
“He’s a wing nut,” says Jeff Quiros, president of the Church of Scientology of San Francisco. “He really is.”
Aylesworth Crawford “Ford” Greene III, 52, comes from a family whose Ross Valley roots can be traced to the 1880s. Natalie Coffin Greene Park was named after his grandmother and, according to Greene, evidence suggests that the family was partly responsible for planting the famous elms that line Shady Lane.
Greene grew up the oldest of four privileged children who were raised around San Anselmo and Ross. The nuclear family expanded when two cousins needed a home after their mother died of cancer.
Greene’s father was a successful corporate lawyer who attended Yale University with former New York Sen. James L. Buckley, who became the young Greene’s godfather. His mother served as chairwoman of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and was on an advisory commission for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Greene attended Ross School before being sent to The Thatcher School in Ojai, near Ventura, for high school. But he ran away during his freshman year in 1969 and came home.
“I wanted to be a hippie at Redwood with my friends,” he says.
Greene says he “terrorized” his parents while attending Redwood and ultimately graduated from Woodside Priory in Portola Valley. He briefly attended college in Southern California but left, depressed over a difficult romantic relationship.
Back in Marin, Greene bucked hay, milked cows and unclogged sewers at Straus Family Creamery before taking a backpacking trip in which he climbed 16 14,000-foot peaks in three months. At about that time, his sister Catherine, 18, disappeared.
The year was 1974 and the Rev. Moon was expanding his Unification Church in the United States. Moon, who is from South Korea, was a wealthy but controversial figure accused of brainwashing young people to support his religious organization by selling flowers among other items.
Catherine – the second youngest child and closest in nature to Greene – had joined the Unification Church and gone to a camp called New Ideal City Ranch, outside Boonville in Mendocino County. When she finally called her family, Greene says she had changed.
“It sounded like her loyalties were being split,” he says. “She sounded torn up.”
Greene traveled to the Boonville camp a few days later to confront Catherine, but it was difficult; she was surrounded by Moonies at all times. A church leader invited Greene to return the following weekend for a training session.
Greene drove home, still depressed and, he recalls, even suicidal because of a difficult relationship with his father. He decided to hear Moon speak in person at the San Francisco Opera House. Greene recalls that Moon sounded Hitlerlike, “but there was a calmness afterward, and that appealed to me.”
Greene went to the training camp with two friends, but he says they were separated and escorted everywhere – including the bathroom – by at least one church member, a process he says the Moonies called love bombing. Joined by new recruits from all over the Bay Area, he attended a group session at which he explained that he’d come to rescue his sister. But then everyone turned toward him and began singing about how much they loved him.
“Holding hands and singing with 200 people felt really good to me,” he recalls. “My programming had begun.”
Greene’s friends left the camp after the weekend, but he stayed behind to listen to lectures, singing groups and discussions about personal experiences. Although images of Hitler Youth kept popping into his mind, he says church leaders poured on the love when he confronted them about the program – a strategy that helped reinforce the power structure and created self-doubt. After all, says Greene bluntly, “You’re being an a–hole to someone who’s being nice to you.”
Still unable to fully believe what he was being told – that Moon was the second coming of Christ- Greene went to a nearby creek to pray. But later that afternoon, Greene says he received an affirmation from God.
Faith begins wavering
Greene moved back to the Bay Area to live in Unification Church dorm houses in Berkeley and San Francisco, where members were expected to share toothbrushes stored in a bucket and hand over the keys to their cars. He took a job at a church-owned gas station on Market Street and, when his faith wavered, he returned to the ranch for re-education.
The re-education periods reinforced a belief that anyone against the church was Satan, he says, but it also gave him some perspective on what was happening. He remembers seeing new recruits arrive with doubts but eventually snapping under the pressure, turning their minds over to the church. It provided him with a guilty pleasure that they, too, had been unable to resist.
“That bothered me a lot,” he recalls.
It took Greene three attempts to leave the church before he was successful. In July 1975, he drove his BMW back to his parents’ house in Ross and began working with his mother, who was an outspoken critic of the Unification Church and supporter of deprogramming.
“She was a one-woman clearinghouse,” he says.
Testifying before Senate
At the request of his godfather, he testified about cults at a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1976. On that day, he says, about 50 Unification members – wearing matching blue suits with red flowers in the lapels – walked into the Senate chambers to listen.
“It was hairy,” he says.
Greene says he never worked with a deprogrammer. Using therapy, he deprogrammed himself. “It was an experience that hurt me but I was able to overcome,” he says.
Throughout his time in the Unification Church, Greene says he rarely saw Catherine. While he was working at the church-owned gas station, he says the church put her youthful good looks to work as part of a team that traveled the country raising money and bringing in new recruits.
“She could make a $1,000 a day selling flowers,” he says.
From 1976 to ’78, Greene says he deprogrammed Moonies, including the Prince of Tahiti with the cooperation of the royal family. He was even mentioned in journalist Josh Freed’s book “Moonwebs.”
One of his biggest failures, however, was an attempt to deprogram his own sister.
Greene set up a plan, using his mother as bait, to capture Catherine. Handcuffed and blindfolded, Catherine was taken by family members to a boarded-up house in Lucas Valley. But deprogramming his own sister proved harder than deprogramming strangers, with whom he could be tougher, he says.
He eventually let Catherine go after she intentionally cut her hand and had to be hospitalized. By then, Moonies were picketing his father’s law office in San Francisco and pressing the Marin County District Attorney to file kidnapping charges against the family.
No charges were ever brought against the family, but Catherine returned to the church and filed a $5.2 million lawsuit against Greene, his parents and others who helped with the abduction.
“It was horrible,” he says. “The experience is that they’re dead but you can’t put them in the ground.”
In 1977, Greene says he was hired by Colorado authorities to kidnap and deprogram a man who tried to sign over the family farm to the Unification Church. Greene worked with police officers and private investigators, but was arrested and prosecuted for kidnapping after the man ran away and returned to the church. He successfully fought the kidnapping charge because he was acting under a court order.
Off to law school
Although he never earned a bachelor’s degree, Greene was enrolled in the New College of California Law School in 1978. During that time he started getting death threats, but he was determined to go after Moon.
“This man is no different than Adolf Hitler and, as an American, I had to do something,” he says. “To play in that arena, you had to be a lawyer and I went to law school.”
After passing the California State Bar exam, Greene worked as a criminal defense attorney with San Anselmo attorney Carl Shapiro, who had developed a reputation for working with families to reclaim family members who joined cults.
With Shapiro’s help, Greene argued and won a case in 1988 before the California Supreme Court that opened the door for former Moonies to sue the Unification Church for damages and, he says, “put cult-busting on the legal map.”
In 1989, Greene says he sued the Church of Scientology on behalf of the church’s head of worldwide security and his wife. In 2002, Greene celebrated his biggest victory against Scientology, when he and two other lawyers received an $8.7 million judgment in another case.
For Greene, religious organizations must be held accountable for any socially destructive conduct that exploits the best in people. “In my book there isn’t anything worse than that,” he says.
But Scientologists say Greene’s crusade against them isn’t very effective.
Quiros, of the church’s San Francisco branch, likens Greene to someone shooting Scientologists in the back with a BB gun. Greene may be a hassle, Quiros says, but he represents nothing in the grand scheme of things for an organization that has 8 million members worldwide.
“This is a one-man campaign to discredit the fastest-growing church in the world,” Quiros says.
Quiros likes to direct people to a Web site – www.friendsofsananselmo.org – that seeks to discredit Greene. Posted on the site are Greene’s run-ins with the law, ranging from shoplifting to kidnapping to stalking, along with a host of other critiques.
According to internic.net, an Internet domain name information site, www.friendsofsananselmo.org is registered to Allen Long at a private postal box at 10 Liberty Ship Way in Sausalito. Long did not answer requests for an interview sent via e-mail or in a note left at the postal box.
Web site counterattack
Quiros says Scientology has nothing to do with the Web site, although he appreciates what it brings to light. “That is a great summary of Ford Greene,” he says. “He’s a nut case. I’m trying to think of a better word but there isn’t one.”
Greene eagerly and openly explains every claim on the Web site. He says he was guilty of shoplifting a set of sheets in college, pleaded guilty to trespassing over a dispute with a former girlfriend he handled poorly, was never charged with burglary or stalking, and a driving under the influence conviction listed on the Web site is actually his father’s.
“It’s all a big smear,” he says.
Reached at a Unification Church site, Catherine – who was married during a mass wedding of 1,275 couples and is now Catherine Ono – says although Greene may continue thinking she’s brainwashed and not in control of her mind, she still cares for her brother. “To me it’s like, come on,” she says. “That’s old.”
Ono, who remains a Unification Church member, lives in Somerville, Mass., with her husband and their two daughters. The couple will celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary next week.
Ono says she didn’t see her family between 1977 and ’83 because she feared they would try to kidnap her again. She says she began seeing them again after Greene and her parents apologized – a claim Greene disputes – and visited Greene with her daughters last August.
“The aftermath was pretty devastating,” she says. “They realized they had betrayed my trust.”
But Greene says the entire family rarely speaks with Ono anymore and that he never apologized for the kidnapping, and his mother didn’t either. “Catherine may be nice, but she makes me sick,” he says with a laugh.
Although he says it was good to see her last summer, he can’t relate to her because her entire world view is defined by Moon’s ideology.
“Catherine thinks I’m Satanic at the core,” he says.
In his San Anselmo office, Greene has created a Scientology war room lined with volumes of books, stacks of promotional and instructional videos and an enormous flow chart that illustrates the command structure of Scientology. Asked whether he is just going after Scientology’s money, Greene makes no qualms about it. “I have every intention of trying,” he says.
Even though he was once a devoted member of an organization he calls a cult, Greene says he isn’t worried about surrounding himself with information about Scientology and other organizations he targets.
“I’m confident in my instincts and I trust them,” he says.
Jan. 9, 2005
Tad Whitaker, IJ reporter