Happy Scribe
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Rick Allen Roc's was at his office loft in Trenton, New Jersey, when he first got a call from a prosecutor in Arizona. They wanted to seek expert testimony in the court case or expert consultation.

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Three people had died at an event run by a self-help leader in Sedona, and the local prosecutor had come to Rick for help. Sheila Polk said, we want to understand what goes on inside such large group awareness training from your perspective. And we want to have concrete examples. We want to understand the process. We want to understand the history of such such groups. We want to understand what it's all about, because as we begin to develop, our understanding will better understand how to prosecute this case.

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This kind of request was not that unusual. Since the 1980s, Rick's work had often brought him into contact with some controversial groups from Branch Davidian to Scientologists.

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Well, I've been called a cult deprogrammer, cult buster. I also have used the title Cult Intervention Specialist.

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Rick began to look into the man at the center of this group, a man named James Arthur Ray.

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Well, I began to follow his case very closely through the media. And each time a story or a statement was released, I would archive many of them into the database so that I could construct a chronological history of what was going on with Ray.

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Over the course of several months, Rick worked with Sheila and the prosecuting team to help them try to understand what happened at Spiritual Warrior and how James operated.

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I felt horrible for the family of Kirby Brown and the families that were affected by this. I mean, people's lives were thrown into an incredible disarray over what happened in Sedona. And I felt an obligation really to the families, to the victims to help the prosecution as best as I could.

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From early on, the question of whether James was a cult leader had hung over the case. And it seemed natural, given his expertise, that Rick could answer that question at trial.

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I went through the qualification process and I found out that I had been qualified by the judge.

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But in the end, he was never called to the stand. Rick was a controversial figure in his own right. Over the years, his cult busting has led to kidnapping charges, armed standoffs and even death threats. We are pleased to have simply safe as our presenting sponsor. Here's the thing about home security companies that you might have already learned the hard way. Most of them trap you with high prices, tricky contracts and lousy customer support. So while there are a lot of options out there, there's only one no brainer.

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This is Episode eight, Cult Buster. Rick Ross is the founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute and the author of the book Cults Inside Out. Rick, thanks so much for being with us today. Thanks, Matt. It's nice to join you. So, Rick, you've been called a cult buster, but your actual title is cult deprogrammer. Can you explain what that means?

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So what a deprogrammer does basically is cooperating with a family. I do interventions to help people leave groups at the family's request.

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What eventually led you to take an interest in cults and do this kind of work? Well, now you're going way back to 1982. I was 30. My grandmother was 82. She lived in a Jewish nursing home in Phoenix. And this weird group infiltrated the paid professional staff of the nursing home. And they were targeting the elderly and in specific elderly Jews. And my grandmother was accosted by one of these people. And I came to realize that they were working the nursing home, literally.

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Did you see them as being dangerous? Is that the reason why you took an interest?

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I found that they were very focused on they receive gifts from elderly people as I researched them. And my take on them was that they were anti-Semitic and that they they really said very disparaging, horrible things about Jewish people. And the idea that this group would covertly come into a Jewish nursing home to basically harass elderly residents there. I thought that was a very unethical, underhanded thing. I think initially I was just plain pissed off. My grandmother had left Eastern Europe to flee persecution.

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She came through Ellis Island when she was a teenager. And the idea that this woman could not live in peace or that other people like her that were in the Jewish nursing home were being harassed, I just thought it was uncalled for. So that caused me to become a community activist organizer. I served on various committees and work with other people from various denominations to kind of coalesce around some basic ethical principles regarding missionary work or proselytizing.

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Was this in line with your history before then? I mean, you said you were 30 when this happened. Were you doing this kind of work before that?

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Not at all. I was working for a cousin who owned an auto salvage yard in Phoenix, and I was involved in the auto salvage business, rebuilding cars. Really, I was very fascinated with cars and that was a big part of my life. So this kind of happened serendipitously. And it wasn't something that I that I, I ever imagined that I would be involved in.

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It's a huge topic, and I don't want to completely divert the conversation here. But can you can you give us kind of a broad brush description of what it means to actually deprogram someone?

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Of course, it's an educational process. It's not therapy. It's not counseling. It it has to do with sharing information with someone and in specific about what defines a destructive cult. And then what type of coercive persuasion techniques does a destructive cult use to gain undue influence over someone? And then what is there about the group that you've become involved in that you may not know that has perhaps been deliberately withheld from you, that you should know to make a more informed decision about continuing with this group?

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And then finally, why is your family so concerned about you? What about your involvement in this group in in recent months and in recent years has caused your family to stage an intervention because they're so worried about you? So you take those four basic blocks and it becomes a dialogue, a discussion that will go on for about three or four days, eight hours a day with the family present, possibly also other people that have come in. It could be an ex member of the group in question.

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It could be a mentor, a teacher, a grandparent, a different people that are concerned about the person that's become involved in the group. You used this phrase destructive cults.

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Can you talk to us a little bit about what a destructive cult is? I would say the nucleus for a definition of a destructive cult relies primarily on a paper written. By Robert Jay Lifton called Cult Formation, that was published at Harvard University in the 80s, and I think Liftin very succinctly identified the three pillars of that definition, which are number one, and this is the single most salient feature, an absolute authoritarian leader that becomes an object of worship.

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That leader is the defining element and a driving force of the group. And whatever he says is right, is right. And whatever he says is wrong, is wrong. And he has no meaning meaningful accountability. The second criteria would be that the group uses a process of indoctrination that can be seen as coercive persuasion to gain undue influence over its adherents or over the leaders followers. And then finally, if it's to be seen as a destructive cult, the third criteria is that the group does harm.

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Nineteen eighty eight is the first time you had, as I understand it, any interaction with the Branch Davidian. Can you walk us through how that interaction happened and sort of what happened in 1988?

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Let me start off by saying that the Branch Davidian were a relatively benign, peaceful group. So I think there are groups out there that are benign cults and the and the Waco dividend's under the leadership of Victor Howard of the founder, later his wife, and under the leadership of George Roden senior and later his wife, Lois Roden, for decades was a peaceful group that did not hurt anyone. Having said that, around 1988, I was contacted by a family in Rochester, New York, and her son, who was a graduate of Cornell, and his girlfriend, who was a graduate of Brown, had become involved in a rival Davidian sect, not the one led by David Koresh, but another one.

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There are more than one Davidian sects, and I did an intervention successfully to bring this young man out of the dividend group he was in and his girlfriend. And subsequently and through the process of dealing with this intervention, I became aware of a very different kind of group, much more extreme than the dividend group he was in, which were the Waco dividends under David Koresh in Texas. And I started to get calls about them, complaints about them. And eventually, I think it was in 1992, I did an intervention to get a young man out of the Waco dividend's.

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He was visiting his brother in California. And I did the intervention. It was successful. And he did not return to the Davidian compound where he had lived for, I think, almost two years. And then subsequent to that, during the standoff, there was a young woman who was locked out literally by the federal raid, and her family retained me. And I did an intervention in Waco during the standoff to get this young woman on a path to recovery.

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And she did recover and and did really well.

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So obviously, tragedy occurs and I think it was February nineteen ninety three. And you were right there on the front lines, not in not in the siege itself, but you understood what was going on. You had a history understanding this group. Did you see the siege coming?

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Did you get a grasp on how bad things were becoming as it rolled out one morning I was having coffee in Phoenix and I turned on CNN and there was the raid. I saw BATF officers on the roof of the of one of the buildings in the compound. And I was in shock because I had no idea that raid would occur. Not long after I saw it on television, my phone started to ring and I started talking to various people in the media and doing interviews.

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And the idea that the BATF went in the way they did shock me, especially with the information that I knew they had, that this was a very heavily armed group, that it was a volatile group, and that they were ready for war, they were ready for the apocalypse.

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You went from working on cars to being involved with one of the most notorious cult raids ever to happen in the United States. Can any person do the kind of work that you do or is this something that, you know, you have a particular innate. For or is this something that people can be trained for? Well, I think many of the people that do the type of work that I've done approach it from different perspectives. There are mental health professionals who provide counseling to former cult members and people with a mental health background, like a psychologist or a psychiatrist who can be quite helpful.

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My approach is not to offer therapy or counseling, but just be focused on education, though I think that over the years, over the hundreds of cases that I've done, I've really learned how to relate to and to communicate effectively with people that are in this type of situation. So my take on it would be I have learned from experience of directly dealing with cults, dealing with cult leaders, and that has informed my work and allowed me to be fairly successful in my intervention work.

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Jason Scott is one of them. I don't know how many children Kathy Tonken had. Jason was her firstborn, her eldest child. And Kathy was in a group in Bellevue, Washington that was very, very fanatical group. They were affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International, which is a fringe group, and Pentecostalism. But the the particular leader of this church was extremely authoritarian and controlling. And Kathy was a member for, I think, one to two years.

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And she exited, she thought, with all of her kids. But her her two boys and the eldest son, Jason, they refused to leave with Kathy. They stayed in in the church. And in fact, they were placed in homes of of church members. And eventually Kathy retained me. And I did an intervention to get the two younger boys out of the church, which was successful. And then after that, she went to great lengths trying to arrange some type of of of dialogue or discussion or meeting with her son, Jason.

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And she was unable to ever meet with him without an escort. That is somebody from the church. And so Kathy then decided that the only hope she had was to do an involuntary deprogramming. And I agreed to participate. She held her son against his will in a beach house in Ocean Shores. And I worked with him there. And then he decided that he was going to stay with the church. And then after Kathy let him go, he went directly to the police.

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And I was eventually arrested, as were the security people that Kathy hired. And we went through a criminal trial, which ended with me being found not guilty by a jury. And then Jason was recruited as a plaintiff by an attorney for Scientology. In fact, now he's the lead counsel for Scientology, Kendrick Moxon. And he became Jason's lawyer and they filed a civil suit against me in federal court in Seattle. And I went through another trial, but I wasn't as fortunate.

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I I was, quite frankly, broke and was not able to have an adequate defense. And Kendrick Moxon and Jason won. And there was a two and a half million dollar judgment against me. Of course, I I went bankrupt. Subsequently, the bankruptcy court ruled that my judgment was not dischargeable and that I would have it over my head for the rest of my life. At that point, I decided I'm going to keep going, I'm going to keep working.

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And I did. But Scientology with the judgment was hounding me. But at a crucial point, Jason decided to leave the group and he returned to his mom, he returned to his family, and Kathy immediately got on the phone. She called me and she said, Rick, you've got to come here. They were living north of Phoenix in a place called Lake Montezuma. And I went up there and Jason agreed to sell me the two and a half million dollar judgment for five thousand dollars if I would agree to give him one hundred hours of my time as well.

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And so we signed off and the judgment was was was mine. And I came out of the bankruptcy and Jason went on with his life.

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Our interest in this show is in with Guru generally is with James Arthur Ray. And what happened with the Spiritual Warrior retreat in Sedona, Arizona. So let's talk a little bit about that. So tell me, what did you know about James Ray before Sedona? And what was your impression of him before that?

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I recall James Arthur Ray is being prominently featured on Oprah Winfrey Show that I had also appeared on and his association with the release of The Secret, a DVD about the law of positive attraction. And Oprah Winfrey promoted him, promoted the secret on on her program. And so I was aware that Ray was a prominent guru says. Are selling trainer who traveled the country and made a great deal of money doing these these weekend kind of retreats and seminars, and I was very familiar with this this format, and I had dealt with it in other groups, like, for example, Landmark Education, formerly known as Arehart Seminars Training founded by Werner Erhard.

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So there are a number of groups that do what Ray does. In fact, generically, he fits into what's called large group awareness training or what I would call Lorgat Elgart. And I. I thought of Ray as an elegant guru. Can you tell me a definition of large group awareness training or Algate that everyone can understand and really, really think about?

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Well, it's simple. You pull together a large group and what you want is to train them to be aware of something. So it's called large group awareness training. I'll give you what I think is a practical analogy. You come to the large group awareness training. Initially, everything is wonderful. Everybody's being very sweet and welcoming and you feel like what a wonderful group of people. And of course, many of the people that are there are very nice people pursuing some idealistic goal in a sense.

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But once you get in, they begin to break you down or they begin to throw people overboard and you start treading water and you go under occasionally and you start feeling like I'm I'm drowning, I'm drowning, I'm desperate. And there's no one there to pitch you a life preserver until finally someone like James Arthur Ray throws out the life preserver on on a rope. And you grab it because you've gone under repeatedly and you're feeling like you're struggling, you're going to drown.

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And at that point, he's got you and he pulls you in with that program, with that awareness that you think is going to cure you or save you from drowning. And then he locks, you win.

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So talk to us about how you first found out about the tragedy in Sedona. The first time that I found out about the tragedy in Sedona, I think it was through the news, as many people did. I thought what a horrible way to die, you know, being baked to death in a so-called sweat lodge. And I had worked with Native American medicine men through my work in the Arizona State prison system. And I knew that sweat lodges were good, not bad, and that the one Ray had created was a nightmare.

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And I thought, what a what a terrible thing for Sedona. This was a place that I had gone fishing with since I was a child. I had gone fishing with my father in Sedona. And I thought this beautiful place that these people came looking for joy and to end their life in agony like that, it was just horrible.

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So you mentioned reading it on the news. You run an organization called the Cult Education Institute. Had that organization started at that point and were you doing kind of your daily news scroll in support of that work, or is this just something random that you saw?

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No, it is part of my work daily to follow stories about controversial groups and movements, many that have been called cults. And so for Ray to come up on my radar at that particular time was not a coincidence. I mean, I would be going through the news every day monitoring groups like this. So when Ray's group imploded, it was part of my work to chronicle what was happening, to write about it, to follow it and and to archive whatever information I could within my database.

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So you followed this case through your daily news consumption, through mainstream media reports. At what point are you contacted to become a part of the prosecution of James Price? At a certain point, the prosecution in Yavapai County contacted me. It would be a person from Sheila Polk's office who initially contacted me, keeping in mind that beginning in nineteen ninety, I began to do expert witness work as a qualified and accepted expert in court cases. This included custody cases, civil lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and and also working at times for the defense in mitigation involving someone under under.

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Influence and so I have testified as an expert in 10 states, including United States federal court. So at the point that the office of Sheila Polk contacts me, they know that I have done expert witness work. They know about my work as a researcher and so on. And so they they then contacted me in an effort to learn more about groups like the group that James Arthur Ray led.

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You ended up not being involved in the trial, though. The prosecution did come to you for information, as you described. Why is it that you were not involved in the trial?

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Well, I was qualified to be an expert in the trial. The judge ruled that I could be called as an expert witness. I was not called at the time. I thought that that this was because of how long the trial dragged on. It had it was a very long trial. But later I learned that someone in Sheila Polk's office said that the reason that they did not call me was in the motion to exclude me as an expert filed by race lawyers.

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They mentioned the Jayson Scott case and a litany of things to try to preclude me from testifying. They they adamantly wanted to avoid my testimony in court. In fact, they deposed me for a period of time, as in the process of the court proceeding, in an effort to gain more information and try to knock me out. And so someone and Sheila Polk's office said that apparently they felt that the amount of of cross-examination and how Ray's legal team would attack me would make it less productive having me on.

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[00:30:16]

So we've spoken to people who are connected to that office and that government agency, they mirrored what you say about why you weren't called. And another point that they bring up is that they didn't necessarily want to get into the discussion of whether James Arthur Ray had perpetuated a cult, whether he was leading a cult. And so I want to talk to you about that. Do you believe that James Ray is a cult leader? No, I don't. But I will say this, that I think that he had become to many of the people that kept taking these training seminars, an object of worship.

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And he he hadn't quite crossed that line yet. But I honestly think that he was moving in that direction. I mean, so much of what he was doing was all about him, his biography, his claims for almost really supernatural, a kind of supernatural ability to see what people needed in their lives. But I think that it was more of a business for Ray than it was any kind of personality cult.

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I'm wondering, do you consider James Ray to be unique in the canon of self-help? No, not at all.

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I see him as just one more. And honestly, they're they're getting to be like a dime a dozen because it's an unregulated industry. It's a lucrative business. You can make a ton of money. I mean, at one point, Ray had his home in Beverly Hills and he was making millions of dollars a year, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey being on that show and her promoting him. He was able to have that cachet. I think that Ray is just one more of these ELGART gurus in just a burgeoning business that has expanded greatly in the United States and around the world.

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There are quite a few groups that focus on some kind of weekend retreat in which they control the environment. And I would call it engineered enlightenment because they know what they're doing. They understand the pressure they're putting people under. They understand the tricks of the trade, how to up sell them, how to push them along and get the most amount of money from them. And it's it's it's a very contrived way that they have of of orchestrating this. And what what they don't have is they don't have any really solid scientific objective evidence that their training really changes people for the better.

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What do you think people misunderstand about these large groups and group dynamics? What is most important for us to understand?

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I think most people don't realize how fragile we really are and how easily manipulated we are and that people can be tricked and trapped into this type of training without their knowledge. So often they're brought in by a friend, a family member or somebody they trust who doesn't really tell them that much about what's happening and what they're going to be subjected to. So they get involved with limited information. And I think that what people don't appreciate is how fragile we all are, and that if we are cocooned in a kind of bubble, an environment controlled by someone like James Arthur Ray and his people, that we can be manipulated.

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And I think what most people don't get is that it could be you you think that you're invincible. You think you're not vulnerable to this type of training and persuasion. Think again, because let's say that you're going through a rough patch in your life and somebody approaches you that you trust somebody that that you know, and they tell you, I think I know a way to solve your problem. There's a seminar. It's wonderful. I've taken it. It's great.

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And you can get involved and with limited information and based on trust, you become involved and you are vulnerable because you're going through a difficult time. At that point, a guru like James Arthur Ray can come along and tell you, I've got it. I've got to cure all the the one size fits all that will solve your problem. And that's a very appealing message. And so what I think most people don't get is how easy it is to be had and that you can be had, you can be tricked and you can get trapped in one of these seminars, sell in groups and become kind of a course junkie and keep taking.

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One after another, after another, and I've seen people do it and I've seen them pay the price for it, and it isn't pretty.

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Well, Rick, thank you very much for this conversation. Thank you for sharing those experiences with us. Thanks, Matt. From one to three, this is a special bonus episode of Gurum, a story about the dangers and the dark side of enlightenment. If you want to help us spread the word. Please give us a five star rating and a review on Apple podcasts and be sure to tell your friends, subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now.

[00:35:58]

Join Wonder E-Plus in the Wonder app to listen ad free. In the episode notes you'll find some links and offers from our sponsors. Please support them. Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at Wonder eCom survey. If you have a tip about a story you think we should investigate. E-mail us at tips at wondering dotcom. That's tips at wondering. Dotcom Guru was written and reported by me. Matt Stroud, associate producer is a SEAL keeping story.

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Editor is Casey Miner. Sound Design by Jake Gorski, managing producer is Latha Pandya and executive producers are George Lavender Marshmallowy and Hernan Lopez for wondering.