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."
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