Fishing was fundamental to Reverend Kevin Thompson's ministry, but he kept catching the wrong kind. The easy part was luring young people to the shimmering waters of San Francisco Bay. Thompson and a few of his followers would load the teens onto the church's boat, pull out the angling gear, and start talking about God and committing oneself to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. "In the context of our church, we try to use boats as a training place for young people," Thompson later explained to authorities. But the reverend said he and the hundreds of teens he took fishing over the years kept snagging fish they didn't want. "We'd catch these sharks," he said.
Leopard sharks, also known as tiger or cat sharks, are plentiful in the bay, and at some point in the early 1990s, Thompson and one of his followers realized they could make a lot of money if they stopped throwing them back in the water. Thompson learned that baby leopard sharks were a prized commodity on the black market. Pet dealers would pay handsomely for the exotic and beautiful fish, then sell them to people for their home aquariums.
Over the next decade, Thompson and a few of his fellow Unification Church members hauled at least six thousand of the sharks from the bay, according to an account one of his followers gave to federal investigators. Thompson admitted he sold the animals to wholesale pet dealers, who shipped them around the world. Earlier this year, authorities estimated the street value of the church's operation at more than $1.2 million, making it the biggest baby-leopard-shark poaching ring environmentalists and federal investigators had ever encountered.
In January, a federal grand jury in Oakland indicted Thompson, two of his followers, and three shark dealers on felony charges. According to court documents, Thompson and several cohorts have confessed to at least some of their crimes, one of the dealers pled guilty last month, and the pastor, who is out on bail and has returned to preaching at his San Leandro church, faces up to eight years in prison.
Thompson's fishing ministry, known as the "Ocean Church," clearly enjoyed the blessing of his superiors. Since the 1970s, Reverend Moon, a self-styled Messiah, has repeatedly extolled the virtues of fishing and has referred to himself as "King of the Ocean." In the past three decades, his followers have responded zealously, turning the Unification Church into a major player in the domestic fishing industry — the sushi trade in particular. A giant distributor of raw fish controlled by church members now supplies more than six thousand restaurants nationwide, including some of the East Bay's premier sushi bars.
Moon's seafood empire is part of an ongoing effort by the church to enter mainstream American life and close the door on its cult reputation from the 1970s and early '80s. Back then, its members were widely known as "Moonies," a term the church hierarchy views as derogatory. People who track the Unification Church say profits from its legitimate enterprises, such as the sushi trade, finance money-losing endeavors that further Moon's religious and political agendas. Among them is the conservative newspaper The Washington Times — the Fox News of the print media. Moon apparently doesn't care that the Times loses tens of millions of dollars a year, presumably because the paper allows him to curry favor with Republican politicians by providing both him and them with a national soapbox to voice their right-wing views.
Whether Moon and his inner circle had a hand in Thompson's illegal shark trade is an open question. The Unification Church has a long history of disguising its motives, and Moon is no stranger to lawbreaking — he served thirteen months in prison in the 1980s for federal tax evasion and obstruction of justice. But Moon also is known for rewarding capitalistic ingenuity while operating a top-down organization in which local clergy are devoutly obedient. So did the King of the Ocean or his top disciples sanction Thompson's shark ring, or was the pastor of the East Bay's only Unification Church merely attempting to get noticed by the Messiah?
When members of Moon's flock first arrived in the East Bay in the late 1960s, they set out to convert college students. In 1969, the church established its recruitment headquarters on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus in a house it bought near the intersection of Ashby and Claremont avenues. In the decades since, the two-story stucco house at 2955 Ashby has served as the local offices of CARP (Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles), a church-linked nonprofit with outposts in college towns nationwide.
In 1973, Moon's followers purchased their second Berkeley property — this time just across from the north side of campus. The white-columned historic building at 2717 Hearst Avenue became the offices of New Education Development Systems, another nonprofit whose name provides no indication of its church connection. Recruiters would lure Cal students to the building for a free meal, then engage them with talk of "community," "love," and "self-sacrifice," over a vegetarian dinner. After group singing and holding hands, the recruiters would tell their prospective converts that they belonged to the "Creative Community Project" and strongly urged them to board buses waiting outside. The buses would take them to the "farm" — a communelike piece of property in Boonville in Mendocino County that served as the church's indoctrination facility.
It's not surprising that Unification Church recruiters trolling such a liberal campus would keep Moon's beliefs and politics hidden. Reverend Moon was an unwavering Nixon supporter, and continued to be so post-Watergate. He has a strong aversion to communism, which he has equated with Satanism. And, like other right-wing Christian leaders, Moon has been an unfailing advocate of abstinence until marriage, has crusaded against abortion, and has angrily denounced gays and lesbians — in a 1997 speech, he called gays "dung-eating dogs."
But all that was kept from the college students — not to mention that the Korean-born Moon touts himself as more important than Jesus Christ. His spiritual quest began in 1935, the church leader professes, when he claimed Christ appeared to him and asked him to carry on the Savior's "unfinished" work. Ever since, Moon has considered himself the new Messiah, and he contends that all Christian denominations will eventually unite under him. He founded his church in 1954 as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the church's recruiting tactics were fully exposed. In a landmark legal case filed in San Francisco, two former Moonies sued the church, alleging they were victims of fraud and brainwashing at the farm. Marin County attorney Ford Greene, himself an ex-Moonie who spent time on the farm in the mid-1970s, represented the former church members. In a recent interview, Greene said that after he "escaped" from the church, he helped "deprogram" more than 130 members and then obtained a law degree so that he could battle Moon's minions in court.
But before Greene's case made it to trial, Moon's lawyers tried to quash it on First Amendment freedom-of-religion grounds. Moon lost that bid in 1989 when the state Supreme Court ruled that his church could be sued for fraud because of its practice of disguising its identity to recruits. "There's no question that they're a cult," Greene said.
Moon's followers see themselves as enlightened Christians, and consider it the ultimate measure of faith to marry a spouse chosen directly by Moon. The reverend is perhaps best known for orchestrating mass marriages, including a 1982 ceremony at New York's Madison Square Garden in which he wed more than eight thousand couples simultaneously. Many of these arranged marriages, conducted over the past three decades, have been between Korean and Japanese church members and Americans. The couples are urged to live in the United States and have lots of children — a not-so-subtle attempt to expand church membership here. Moon also has matched Japanese fishermen with American wives as a way to grow his church-connected fishing industry.
In Korea and Japan, the Unification Church has blossomed, but even with the arranged marriages and college recruiting, its United States congregation has remained small. "The movement never really took off," said David Bromley, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, who has written extensively about the Unification Church. "There were never more than ten thousand [US] members at any time."
So Moon may have largely failed to harvest the souls of young liberals, but he did devise a plan that let him reap their cash.
In a series of speeches in the 1970s and early '80s, Moon outlined his dream of dominating the US fishing industry with a vast enterprise that would fund his church and feed the world. Church members then quietly began to purchase boat-building plants and establish fishing industries in Hawaii, Alaska, Louisiana, and the classic American fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
This was just part of Moon's grandiose empire-building activities. Over the years, he reportedly has become a billionaire thanks to the thousands of private businesses and nonprofits his followers have launched nationwide. According to Bromley and others who follow the church's business dealings, its members' private companies have helped fund nonprofit organizations such as the Pure Love Alliance, a pro-chastity, anti-abortion, anti-gay group. "He has created an international corporate empire that in essence is used to fund the religious outreach," Bromley said.
The church's domestic fishing businesses are controlled by True World Foods. (Moon's followers call him "True Father," his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon, is "True Mother," and, along with their children, they are the "True Family.") True World Foods is owned and run by high-ranking Japanese-American church members. It has made significant inroads in the US shrimp and lobster industries, but its main moneymaker is sushi. The New Jersey-based company has warehouses around the country. Its Bay Area distribution center was established in 1978 in San Leandro, less than two miles from Moon's only remaining East Bay church — the Bay Area Family Church — where Reverend Kevin Thompson has been pastor for fourteen years.
True World has earned a reputation over the years for dealing in high-quality fish. It supplies some of the East Bay's more popular sushi restaurants, including Berkeley's Kirala, Alameda's Angelfish Japanese Restaurant, and Tachibana Sushi Bar and Grill in Oakland. Representatives from all three restaurants said they were aware True World is controlled by Unification Church members but were unconcerned. "They have good-quality fish," explained Kimiko Bosset, a Kirala partner. "And business is business."
And a profitable business it is. According to an April Chicago Tribune report, True World officials said they reaped $250 million in revenues last year. The company's growth over the past two decades has been fueled by a nationwide sushi craze, especially among upscale urban dwellers in the Bay Area, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In other words, sushi-loving liberals coast to coast have for years unwittingly helped fund a right-wing Christian empire.
As the sushi business grew, Moon forged substantial ties with the Bush family and other Republicans. In the mid-1990s, former President George H.W. Bush delivered a series of speeches to Moon-connected groups in Japan. The Houston Chronicle reported in June that Moon's Washington Times Foundation had given $1 million to a Houston nonprofit, which in turn donated more than $2 million to the elder Bush's presidential library. Moon also has plenty of friends in Congress. In March 2004, at least a dozen congressman and senators, mostly Republicans, according to news reports, were on hand at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in DC for a fawning event held to coronate Moon as "The King of Peace."
Moon's East Bay disciple, meanwhile, was the king of sharks, even if the aquarium buffs who ended up with his pups never knew it. People who covet leopard-shark pups are kindred spirits with the owners of piranhas and baby pythons and crocodiles. They're drawn to pets that are exotic, dangerous, and illegal, said Crawford Allan, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America and the World Wildlife Fund, which tracks the unlawful sales of exotic species. "It's an edgy type of fish to have," he said. "And there are a lot of people out there who have very large aquariums. They're hobbyists who go beyond the average hobbyist."
Leopard sharks are particularly desirable because they're rugged pets that can survive neglect, and because they stay small for a long time. Males don't reach maturity until they're seven years old; females, ten. That means a young shark can stay in a home aquarium for several years before it becomes a so-called tank-buster, too large for even the biggest home aquariums. Leopard sharks can reach six feet and, according to TRAFFIC, adults cannot survive unless they have room to swim in a tank of at least five hundred gallons.
It's probably safe to say the thousands of pups captured by East Bay Unification Church members eventually met an ignoble end. As the sharks mature, their owners must scramble to unload them. At best, some people attempt to release them in the ocean. "I've heard of people backing up their trucks on the beach and trying to let them go," Allan said. Others try to sell their sharks to public aquariums, or, if that doesn't work, pawn them off on other unsuspecting hobbyists. It's not unusual, Allan said, to find owners shilling their adult pets in Internet chat rooms.
Federal investigators know the fate of at least 101 sharks sold by Reverend Thompson's shark ring. Those pups were put in large water-filled plastic bags, which were stuffed into cardboard shipping boxes and flown on a commercial airliner to an Illinois dealer. The bags, however, apparently contained insufficient water and oxygen, and the pups suffocated. Despite such incidents, baby leopard sharks can produce higher profit margins than illicit drugs. They sell for as much as $450 apiece, Allan said. Reverend Thompson pocketed far less, since he was selling directly to wholesalers and retailers, but still he was taking a 1,000 percent markup. Financial records obtained by federal investigators show that he paid his fishermen $2 to $3 per pup and sold the sharks to dealers for $20 to $35 each.
If attempts by Thompson and his cohorts to disguise their activities are any indication, it's clear they knew for years that they were breaking the law. In 1994, the state Legislature banned the taking of juvenile leopard sharks — defined as those less than 36 inches long. Environmentalists had been fretting that overfishing the sharks before they were old enough to reproduce would eventually lead to their demise. Nonetheless, it was easy for Thompson's ring to escape detection while shipping baby sharks as small as eight inches. According to court documents, the reverend and his helpers would simply mark the boxes "live tropical fish."
The fishermen knew, of course, that leopard sharks aren't tropical. They inhabit shallow West Coast waters, favoring sloughs and muddy bays from southern Oregon to northern Mexico. They're bottom feeders, subsisting on worms, clams, octopi, and small fish like herring and anchovy. Pregnant females typically carry their young ten to twelve months and then bear live pups in spring and early summer. There are usually so many baby leopard sharks in San Francisco Bay during summer months that one of Thompson's fishermen told authorities his record single-day catch was 202.
Originally from Britain, Thompson arrived in the East Bay in the late 1980s. At that time, the local Unification Church was holding Sunday services in its Hearst Avenue building. According to excerpts from Thompson's federal confession, he spent time working in the church's fishing industry before coming to Berkeley and launching his "Ocean Church" ministry as the local church's youth pastor.
In the Bible's Book of Mark, Christ tells his apostles: "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Christ was saying he would train his disciples to attract more followers. Likewise, Thompson and other church leaders used the fishing ministry to recruit, and to solidify members' allegiance to Moon. "That's part of our faith," Thompson told investigators. "That's what Rev. Moon taught us. You know I've done it in Gloucester, Alaska, other places. So that was what I was into — the fishing side of our church activity."
In 1992, Thompson became the head pastor of Bay Area Family Church during what appear to have been prosperous times. In 1998, the church purchased the old Calvary Temple on Washington Avenue in San Leandro for $1.55 million. The large two-story stone building two blocks from the elevated BART tracks features simple 1970s decor, several rows of wooden pews, and two big video screens. During a recent Sunday service, the words of church hymns flashed on the screens to help the two hundred attendees — mostly white men and their Asian wives and children — sing along. One hymn that especially roused the congregation talked of Unification Church "soldiers" who "win victory" for God.
The 48-year-old Thompson, who speaks with a Scottish accent, has a round boyish face, stocky build, and short brown hair he parts down the middle. Like many of the men in his church, he's married to a woman of Japanese descent; they have five children together. Thompson is clearly loved by his followers, and in his sermon he spoke with a mix of poise, confidence, and youthful charm about having a "personal relationship with God." One of the keys, he said, is avoiding "selfishness and laziness." Not until after the service, when a reporter extended his hand and introduced himself, did the reverend betray a hint of the nervousness or angst that might accompany a recent federal indictment. Thompson recoiled angrily. "I don't need to talk to you," he said, before turning and walking away.
Thompson did, however, talk extensively with federal investigators. He told them it was 1990 or 1991 when he and fellow church member John Newberry discovered they could make money selling leopard-shark pups. "By accident we found out — by accident — I don't even remember how. I think it was in a magazine," Thompson said, according to excerpts of his confession filed in federal court. "Somebody said: 'Look, they're selling these things.' And wow. You know — why would anybody want them? So we found out that pet stores sold them for home aquariums."
For the next thirteen years, Thompson, Newberry, and at least two other church members who were also fishermen secretly ran their leopard-shark business. They might still be in operation if not for three shark dealers — one in South Florida, and two in Chicago. Court records show that the entire federal probe unfolded much like a drug investigation. The suppliers weren't caught until the middlemen rolled on them.
The beginning of the end came on April 28, 2004, when Special Agent Roy Torres of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement in Pacific Grove was contacted by a fellow agent in Miami. A South Florida probe into the illegal sale of baby leopard sharks had resulted in the prosecution of wholesale pet dealer Ricky Hindra. In December 2003, Hindra was convicted in federal court in Miami of purchasing and selling leopard-shark pups from California, and he was now cooperating with investigators. Hindra had provided law enforcement with an American Airlines shipping bill and a cardboard box he said he found while dumpster diving outside a Miami area pet store. He'd been sifting through the store's garbage, he told investigators, because he'd noticed it was selling baby leopard sharks and wanted to know who else was in the business.
Two days after receiving the tip, Torres walked into an American Airlines cargo shipping office in San Francisco and traced the shipping bill Hindra had recovered back to Thompson. Torres knew neither that Thompson was a pastor, nor the extent of the reverend's operation. He knew only that Thompson was the shipper of record on six boxes labeled "live tropical fish" delivered the previous year to an aquarium store in Pompano Beach.
Torres, who declined to comment for this story, has been a federal environmental law enforcement officer for fifteen years. One colleague described him as earnest, methodical, and persistent. In fact, Torres stuck with his federal investigation even though it appeared Thompson had merely violated the 1994 state law barring the taking of juvenile leopard sharks. Torres knew the federal Lacey Act allowed for prosecution of anyone who possesses or sells fish or wildlife in violation of any state or foreign law. Hindra, in fact, was convicted on one count of violating the Lacey Act.
Less than two weeks after Torres began his probe, he learned of a US Fish and Wildlife investigation in the Midwest that also led back to Thompson. Pet dealers Joe and Aurora Okine of Chicago, who were cooperating with investigators, had handed over documents showing that Thompson had shipped them more than one hundred baby leopard sharks the previous month. Okine also gave investigators a canceled check he'd written to Thompson for a shark deal the year before, and tried to help them by calling Thompson's home phone and asking to buy more. A woman with an Asian accent answered, Okine told authorities, and asked how many he wanted. Okine said the woman told him he would receive a return phone call, because at that moment they didn't have any sharks.
It wasn't until mid-May of 2004 that Torres got his first clue that he was investigating Unification Church members. While staking out a San Leandro home listed as Thompson's address in public records, he noticed a small flag in the window. The flag, depicting a family on a yellow background, is the emblem of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — Moon's new preferred name for his church. At another house listed as one of Thompson's previous addresses, Torres watched a man in the driveway pour water from white buckets into plastic bags. The man tied the bags with rubber bands and placed them in cardboard boxes. Torres later tracked the man to the church's Hearst Avenue property.
Over the next several weeks, Torres continued to stake out San Leandro houses that commercial database records associated with Thompson. At one, he saw a man who matched the reverend's DMV photo get into a car. That home and another had the same yellow flag. Then, on June 7, Torres received troubling news. Thompson and his cohorts had learned of his investigation; he would have no hope of catching them in the act.
The reverend was tipped off by one of the Chicago shark dealers. Aurora Okine later admitted to investigators that she'd called her California supplier several weeks earlier, just after she and her husband were contacted by the feds. She admitted telling the supplier: "Fish and Wildlife is here." When she called Thompson's home on June 7, this time with the approval of federal investigators, the Asian-accented woman said they were no longer dealing sharks.
But Torres didn't give up; there was still plenty of evidence to collect. In the coming weeks and months, he subpoenaed bank records of Vincent Ng, who owned Amazon Aquarium on Park Street in Alameda and had dealt leopard sharks with Thompson's follower Newberry. Torres also learned of a Southern California shark dealer named Ira Gass, who was supplied by Newberry and Thompson. He talked to the owner of the Pompano Beach pet store, who said she purchased four shipments of sharks from Thompson and Newberry in 2000.
But the scope of the ring came from airline shipping bills. Southwest Airlines showed Newberry making twenty shipments between June 2000 and August 2002. American Airlines recorded 69 shipments by Thompson and Newberry from June 1999 to April 2004 to dealers in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Manhattan, and Philadelphia. Finally, Torres discovered that Thompson and Newberry had a joint account with Northwest Airlines that showed 101 shipments dating back to June 1996.
In September 2004, Torres got a search warrant for Newberry's Hayward home and Thompson's in San Leandro. In addition, he searched Ng's Alameda aquarium store, an apartment inside the Hearst Avenue building, and a boat Thompson co-owned with the church that was docked at the Berkeley Marina. Court records show Torres confiscated airline shipping bills, bank records, computers, and fishing gear. Torres also interviewed Sion Lim, an Oakland pet dealer who bought sharks from Ng, and Aaron Stadler, a young former church member who'd caught sharks for Thompson and Newberry, and told Torres he'd started fishing with Thompson when he was just fourteen.
The investigator, however, was able to recover just nineteen of the six thousand baby leopard sharks Thompson and his followers extracted from the bay. Those pups were in the possession of Joe and Aurora Okine, who handed them over to authorities when they pled guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Lacey Act and were fined $10,000. In July 2004, the sharks were shipped to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where staffers released nine of them back into the Pacific, and still had three on display as of last month. The other seven died, said Ken Peterson, aquarium spokesman.
Evidence in hand, Torres was able to get confessions from Thompson, Newberry, and Ng. Among other things, the reverend admitted that his wife, Masako Thompson, was their bookkeeper, and that one of the three boats they used came from Gloucester. Ng, the Alameda dealer, said he obtained sharks not just from Newberry, but also from two commercial fishermen he knew. On one occasion, Ng said, one of the commercial fishermen told him that they caught a pregnant female and when they cut her open, "all these little babies fell out." Ng said he took them and sold them.
But the most damning details, as far the Unification Church was concerned, came from Newberry, who was eighteen when he started shark fishing with Thompson. For decades, Moon and his top disciples have prided themselves in keeping church-connected businesses legally separate from church activities. When questioned, they have repeatedly maintained that even though church members own and operate the businesses, there are no formal ties to the church. But Newberry pierced that veil when he revealed that he and Thompson stowed their fishing poles, line, hooks, and bait, along with three of the church's shark boats, at the San Leandro sushi warehouse owned by True World Foods. Newberry also disclosed that at the rear of the True World property was a large shack where they kept their live baby leopard sharks.
This past January, a federal grand jury in Oakland indicted Thompson, Newberry, Ng, Oakland shark dealer Lim, Southern California shark dealer Ira Gass, and Hiroshi Ishikawa, a church member and longtime shark fisherman. According to the indictment, the ring had sold to pet dealers in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. The grand jury charged Thompson and Newberry with four felonies each, Ng and Ishikawa with two, and Gass with one. Lim also was charged with one felony count, but last month cut a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to plea to a lesser charge, and accept one year of probation and a $25,000 fine, in exchange for his cooperation.
Newberry and his attorney did not return phone calls for this story, but court records indicate that Newberry also may be cooperating. Meanwhile, Ng's attorney, Garrick Lew, filed a motion last month to try his client separately. Among Ng's concerns is that jurors will lump him with Thompson, Newberry, and Ishikawa even though he is not a member of the Unification Church. "The jury will likely hear evidence that fishing is an activity that is important to the teachings of the church," Lew wrote in court papers. "The fact that the alleged shark poaching took place under the auspice of 'faith' will not likely bode well with jurors."
Thompson's court strategy remains a mystery. Asked whether the reverend plans to demand a trial or seek his own deal with prosecutors, Thompson's attorney, Frank McCabe, said his client hadn't yet made up his mind. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could face a maximum of eight years if convicted on all counts. He could shave a few years by pleading guilty, and could reduce his sentence substantially if he rolls on his superiors — if they were involved, that is. Unification Church attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Professor Bromley, the Unification Church expert, thinks the shark ring was probably too small to have been sanctioned or even noticed by church officials. "In Moon's budget, it just isn't a lot of money," Bromley explained — indeed, the ring at best pulled in a little more than $200,000 for Thompson and his congregants. It's more likely, Bromley said, that Thompson was just following Moon's fishing dictates and was trying to impress his superiors with his entrepreneurship. "You've got these junior executives," he explained, "who think they need to do what they think the boss wants."
But two former church members, along with an East Coast private investigator who has closely tracked Moon's many businesses, disagree with Bromley. They all point to Moon's reputation for running an operation in which little escapes the attention of his top disciples. "Local reverends rarely operate independently from the church hierarchy," said Louis Desloge, who said he was a member of the church for twenty years and was married by Moon at Madison Square Garden. Larry Zilliox, a private investigator who has identified more than two thousand church-connected enterprises over the years, added: "I would think a number of people above the local level would have known about the shark ring." For his part, Marin attorney Greene, the ex-Moonie who defeated the church at the state Supreme Court, said bluntly: "You don't do anything in that organization without the okay from your superiors. You don't fart without permission."