From his earliest days in the alt newspaper business, Tony Ortega has loved and praised bad guys.
He has made a career of defending the indefensible, dishing out forgiveness to the unforgiveable, and justifying the behavior of some really terrible people, no matter how much damage they cause.
Ortega got his start first real job in alt media by writing a freelance article on a very bad guy with an infamous career and a rap sheet—self-described deprogrammer and “cult expert” Rick Ross.
“It was the story that basically got me my full-time job there [at Phoenix New Times],” Ortega said. “So it was a huge deal for me.”
Phoenix New Times cofounders Michael Lacey and James Larkin hired Ortega in 1995 and then moved him around to their other alt weeklies for the next decade until they dropped him in the editor chair at Village Voice Media in 2005. Lacey and Larkin went on to build the biggest and most notorious internet brothel in history, publishing millions of ads and pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars, much of the revenue from sex ads, some of which sold prostitution, including children.
Ortega’s cover boy Rick Ross is a convicted felon, first arrested for breaking and entering a model home with intended theft, then for robbing a jewelry store of $100,000 worth of merchandise. Ross pretended to hold up a friend who worked in the jewelry store and the two absconded with the loot, soon apprehended and arrested by police.
Earlier, an Arizona Department of Health Services psychological evaluation found Ross had “sociopathic inclinations” and “does not seem to profit from his past experiences and cannot realize that what he does is socially unacceptable and dangerous and does not realize that he has a responsibility to society to control his behavior.”
For his New Times profile, Ortega went to work cleaning up Ross’ record, setting a pattern of false reporting that characterized his career. He tried to turn a serious crime by an adult into juvenile delinquent mischief, reducing Ross’ felony conviction to he “had gotten in some trouble as a teenager … when he was 16 years old.”
Ortega also wrote: “When he was 15 years old … he had stolen something from a department store he worked at.” Besides getting the basic facts wrong—it was Ross’ accomplice who worked at the jewelry store, not Ross—Ortega failed to mention that Ross was charged with this grand theft when he was 22 or 23 years old, not 15 or 16.
By 1990, Ross was a well-known deprogrammer, dedicated to attempting to forcibly remove individuals from their chosen religion—for a price. As a go-to deprogrammer for Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the clearinghouse for violent deprogrammers, Ross and three thugs kidnapped 18-year-old Jason Scott, hired by Scott’s mother for $25,000 to kidnap and “deprogram” him from the Pentecostal Church.
Scott was grabbed as he approached his mother’s home, handcuffed, thrown into a van and his mouth covered with duct tape. He was driven to a remote location where he was imprisoned and subjected to nonstop denigration of himself and his religious beliefs for days. Scott finally convinced Ross and his henchmen that they had succeeded in breaking his faith. When they took him out to a restaurant to celebrate, he bolted and ran to the police.
Ross was acquitted of the unlawful imprisonment charges in the ensuing criminal trial, but in a civil suit, the jury awarded a multimillion-dollar judgment against Ross and his codefendants for depriving Jason Scott of his religious rights. Ross—and Cult Awareness Network—declared bankruptcy and CAN was shut down.
In denying Ross’ motion for a new trial, Judge John C. Coughenour stated:
“Finally, the court notes each of the defendants’ seeming incapability of appreciating the maliciousness of their conduct towards Mr. Scott. Rather, throughout the entire course of this litigation, they have attempted to portray themselves as victims of Mr. Scott’s counsel’s alleged agenda. Thus, the large award given by the jury against both CAN and Mr. Ross seems reasonably necessary to enforce the jury’s determination on the oppressiveness of the defendants’ actions and deter similar conduct in the future.”
Ross went on to greater infamy, posing as a “cult expert,” advising the FBI and BATF on actions that led to the 1993 government attacks that killed some 80 members of the Branch Davidian community, including 25 children and two pregnant women, at Waco, Texas.
None of this stopped Ortega from using Ross dozens of times as a source in Ortega’s bigoted, antireligious war against Scientology and other people of belief.
When Ross self-published a book about “cults,” Ortega became a shill for Ross, promoting the book and its author, in effect supporting Ross’ nefarious deprogramming and other antireligious activities.
Ortega’s longtime support of Rick Ross and his antireligious campaign is in the same vein as Ortega’s support of another set of bad guys—Michael Lacey and James Larkin—who ran their profitable and scurrilous website Backpage.com for 14 years and half a billion dollars before it was shut down by the government in 2018.
As protests and legal actions assailed the online brothel, Ortega defended the website, just as he defended Rick Ross through his criminal career, turning heinous acts into bland justifications: “The whole point of Backpage.com is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board.” The site, he said, “exists solely so that people can freely express themselves, sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable.”
Yes, in the same vein as Rick Ross conducting a violent deprogramming of a believer and contributing to the fatal inferno at Waco. They all add up to creating human misery and death, with Tony Ortega as their shill.