CULT LEADERS are the pied-pipers of America, leading the outcast, the despondent, and sometimes the highly intelligent off into the dark, isolated fringes of society.

And then there's Rick Alan Ross, poking around in that darkness with a flashlight.

From his eclectic office in a former cracker factory in Trenton, Ross, 58, runs the Rick A. Ross Institute, a nonprofit Internet archive on "destructive cults" and "controversial groups and movements."

Attorneys, universities and the media often go to Ross for explanations when seemingly benign groups go off the rails, and parents turn to him when their children fall under a cult's spell.

"I've been quite active in China in recent years," said Ross, who launched his Web archive in 1996 and makes a living as a consultant, expert witness and speaker.

Next month, a computer hacker who unleashed a virus on Ross' website and several media websites will be sentenced in federal court in Camden. Ross will soon be traveling back to Arizona to testify in a case involving three people who died in a sweat lodge during a "spiritual warrior" event.

On a recent afternoon, Ross was on the phone with a reporter from an Oklahoma news station, after a member of the General Assembly Church of the First Born was arrested for failing to seek medical attention for her son before he died.

"There have been many children who have died, needlessly, in groups like this because a creator who leads the group demands that every member adhere to their belief system," Ross said.

It's not uncommon for someone with a television to get sucked in by cults and bizarre movements, at least for an hour or two, but Ross has been researching them since 1982, when someone messed with his grandmother. Ross said the Jewish Voice Broadcast, a fundamentalist group, had infiltrated his grandmother's nursing home looking to recruit elderly residents.

"They targeted Jews to convert them to Pentecostalism," he said.

Ross helped expose the group members working at the nursing home, and his life hasn't been the same since.

"It made me realize that there was a problem in my community," he said.

From there, Ross began appearing on panels and committees, mostly in the Jewish community in Arizona, but his involvement expanded in the late 1980s, when he became a private consultant and intervention specialist/deprogrammer.

He worked with some of David Koresh's Branch Davidian followers before the Waco, Texas, incident and says he has conducted approximately 500 interventions to clean out all the muck shoveled into brainwashed heads. Ross and other intervention specialists used to take part in forced interventions or deprogramming, but they no longer hold people against their will.

Exposing cults, hate groups and frauds has made Ross a target, too, and there's a whole website aimed at "exposing" him.

"There's not a month that goes by where I don't get some kind of physical threat," he said. "Every week, I receive legal threats."

The Church of Scientology has kept a close watch on Ross, he said, amassing nearly 200 pages on him in their files.

Lauded by celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta for its supposed healing ways, Scientology is routinely derided by critics like Ross and former members as being fraudulent, expensive, and possibly even dangerous.

Scientology, Ross said, has publicized his arrests for burglary and conspiracy to commit grand theft in the mid-1970s and his lack of any academic credentials. They even discovered he was medicated for a few months when he was 10.

"I've had Scientology attack me many times over the years," he said. "Did I make mistakes that I regret when I was 22 and 21 years old? Yes. I paid for them. I resolved them and I went on with my life. Whatever exists in your life they will dig up."

Scientology played a big part in a civil case that bankrupted him briefly in 1995, Ross said.

That case stems from the 1991 failed deprogramming of Jason Scott, 18, a member of the Life Tabernacle Church in Washington state. Scott, represented by a prominent Scientology attorney, sued Ross and was awarded millions. He and Scott eventually settled for a few thousand dollars, he said, and are now friends.

Ross' website details all the cults that shocked the world, the leaders who rode into the headlines on a wave of death like Charles Manson, Jim Jones and Koresh. The Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan. - the folks who step on the hearts of the broken-hearted with their funeral protests - sits at the top of his most popular subsections. His archives on the church date from 1993, long before it was in the national spotlight.

Cults and religion are not the same, Ross stressed, but the lines between them aren't always clear. The followers of Osama bin Laden, for example, could certainly be described as cult-like, Ross said, but not Islam itself.

Cults are defined by one charismatic totalitarian who seeks to brainwash his followers, Ross said. It could be for sex, free labor, or money, but it could also be for some higher calling that requires everyone to commit suicide. There's usually no easy way out.

"What we see as crazy, they see as perfectly normal," he said.

Ross believes the Internet is the most powerful tool to drag charismatic and dangerous cult leaders into the light, but they'll always be able to fill their ranks, gathering in compounds, strip malls or one of the many nondescript churchs along any given roadway.

"The reality is the human mind is much more fragile than any of us would readily admit," he said. "It's unsettling to us to think how easily we could be had."