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The Tip of the Spear

In the mid-1980s, journalist Joel Sappell and a colleague began a five-year examination of the Church of Scientology that would ultimately produce a 24-article series. It would also change Sappell’s life in ways both mystifying  and unnerving. Decades later the onetime investigative reporter investigates what happened to him.

I’d never heard my wife so upset. “The dog’s been poisoned,” she said into the phone. Her quavering voice was scared and panicked. Soon I would be, too. It was late 1985, and I’d just checked into a San Diego hotel with Bob Welkos, a reporter—like me—at the Los Angeles Times. Bob and I had been sent out of town by our editors in the turbulent wake of a story we’d written about the Church of Scientology.  In it we revealed for the first time the secret teachings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who traced the origins of mankind’s ills to a galactic battle 75 million years ago, when an evil tyrant named Xenu reigned supreme. The story made international headlines, and the church was angry. The paper thought it would be best if Bob and I disappeared for a few days until things cooled down. So I’d packed a bag and headed south while my wife, Linda, stayed behind with our 13-year-old shepherd mix, Crystal.

Now the loyal dog I’d rescued from a Huntington Beach shelter a year or so after my high school graduation was dying. “She’s frothing and convulsing,” Linda told me from the vet’s office. Crystal’s illness had come on suddenly, she said, and the vet couldn’t pinpoint the cause. All we could do was keep her sedated. “Things like this don’t just happen,” Linda cried. A month or so later, after countless doses of phenobarbital failed to calm Crystal’s frightening seizures, I placed her on a gurney one final time and held her as we put her down.

Did I have proof the Church of Scientology was to blame? No. But I was haunted by the warnings I remembered getting at the start of what would become a five-year investigation of the church. More than one source had told Bob and me to keep an eye on our pets. Others who’d run afoul of church leaders had lost beloved animals under suspicious circumstances, they claim—but I hadn’t listened.

Not long after Crystal fell ill, I got another call—this one from Los Angeles Superior Court judge Ronald Swearinger. I’d never spoken to him, but I was covering a nasty civil trial over which he was presiding that pitted the Church of Scientology against a former church member who claimed he’d been relentlessly harassed. Thousands of Scientologists from across the country had converged on downtown Los Angeles to protest the trial and what they perceived as Swearinger’s religious bigotry. Now he was reaching out to me.

“I hear your dog was poisoned,” the judge said softly. I was startled. It’s highly unusual for judges to contact reporters during a trial, especially when they’ve already been accused of bias. There was a pause as Swearinger took a breath. “My dog was drowned,” he said, referring to his collie. “We found him dead in our pool. He’d never go near the water on his own.”

More than four years later, in June of 1990, the Los Angeles Times published the six-day series Bob and I had written on the Church of Scientology—one of the most comprehensive pieces on Scientology ever undertaken by an American news organization. In 24 stories based on thousands of documents and hundreds of interviews, we tackled everything from Hubbard’s bogus biographical claims to the organization’s high-pressure sales techniques to the intimidating tactics employed against perceived adversaries such as Bob and me. Personal experience had taught us how the church and its leaders—first Hubbard and then his successor, David Miscavige—had made psychological warfare a spiritual imperative.

The usual rules of journalistic engagement didn’t apply. Hubbard was both guru and general to his worshippers, lacing his writings on theological affairs with militant directives on how to blunt enemies. “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace,” Hubbard told his flock. “Don’t ever tamely submit to an investigation of us. Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way.”

And they did. Crystal’s death, as it turns out, was just the beginning of a series of events that rattled through our lives. Which is why, a few days before Halloween, I board a Texas-bound plane from LAX to pay a visit to the man who once ran Scientology’s intelligence operations, the highest-ranking person to defect from the church since our series ran. He is also a man the church now brands “a defrocked apostate” and “pathological liar.” Nonetheless, I’m going to see what he may know about what happened to me.

Throughout my newspaper career—from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner to the New York Daily News to the Los Angeles Times—I was hooked on investigative reporting. I loved its crusading populism and the adrenaline rush of the hunt. Over many years I’d dug into everything from corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department to the stranglehold of the Mob in New York’s Little Italy to the fishy financial dealings of L.A. mayor Tom Bradley during his final months in office. But no story had prepared me for how difficult our investigation of the Church of Scientology would prove to be—or how obsessed Bob and I would become.


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

"After countless doses of Phenobarbital failed to calm Crystal’s frightening seizures, I placed her on a gurney one final time and held her as we put her down."

When I first pitched the idea to the Times’s city editor, I envisioned something far more modest. I’d learned that a fired LAPD sergeant had been hired as the church’s top private investigator and had tapped a former colleague for help. The police department was disciplining that officer for improperly authorizing the Scientology investigator to covertly videotape a hostile ex-church member. Good story, my editor agreed. But there was a bigger one to tell. Scientology at that time was facing a wave of litigation; just two months earlier an Oregon jury had awarded $39 million to a woman who said the church defrauded her with claims it would improve her eyesight and make her more intelligent. My editor brought Bob, a fellow Metro reporter, on board and told us to start digging. He wanted the definitive portrait of Scientology.

Back then I knew nothing about the church other than that actors John Travolta and Kirstie Alley were among its members. While in high school, I’d once wandered into a Scientology outpost on Hollywood Boulevard and agreed to take a free personality test. But I headed for the door when they tried to sell me one of their courses—a first step along the church’s “bridge to total freedom” that I today know can cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to complete.

At the heart of the church’s teachings, which are based on the writings and lectures of Hubbard, is a belief that a person’s spirit, or “thetan,” is immortal and passes from one body to the next through reincarnation. The goal of Scientology is to liberate the thetan from painful experiences that over the ages have diminished its powers and created emotional problems in the individuals it has inhabited. These painful experiences are known as “engrams,” some of which, Hubbard preached, were the result of galactic wars and bad guys like Xenu. Through one-on-one counseling sessions, or “auditing,” adherents identify and purge these engrams, thus restoring power to the thetan and spiritual and physical health to its host. This is accomplished with the help of a lie detector-type device called an E-meter.

Today the church says Hubbard’s theology has millions of followers across the world, with the highest concentration in L.A., where Scientology has amassed vast real estate holdings as well. But high-level defectors have put the number of active members closer to the tens of thousands.

For most reporters who’ve gone toe to toe with Scientology, fascination with the group doesn’t end with the publication of their stories. I’ve followed Scientology for years. But that’s only part of the reason I’m headed to Ingleside on the Bay, a tiny enclave (population 615) a half hour from Corpus Christi on the Gulf Coast that’s now the home of Mark “Marty” Rathbun. For me this is personal: I want some answers.

Bob Welkos and I used to joke that sooner or later all Scientology executives end up defecting from the church, despite their signed commitments to serve the organization for a billion years—from one reincarnation to the next. And that’s exactly what Rathbun, the 55-year-old former Scientology spymaster, did in 2004 after an ugly falling-out with Scientology’s top executive, David Miscavige, a high school dropout whose rise to power after Hubbard’s death Bob and I had been among the first to chronicle.

Miscavige had grown up at Hubbard’s knee, one of the elite “Commodore’s Messengers” who were charged with ferrying Hubbard’s orders throughout the Scientology empire. While Hubbard was on the lam in the early 1980s, dodging lawsuits and investigations, Miscavige became his only link to the outside world. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, Miscavige, a fierce infighter, consolidated the unrivaled power he enjoys today as chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, which controls the copyrights and trademarks of Scientology. Rathbun was Miscavige’s handpicked choice to confront “external threats.”

For nearly five years after his defection, Rathbun kept silent about his 27 years as a church member. Then, in a 2009 series in the St. Petersburg Times, he surfaced with a vengeance. He alleged—with witnesses to back him up—that Miscavige had unleashed a reign of terror on the church’s upper managers, punching, kicking, and choking them when they failed to follow orders or perform to his exacting standards. Next came CNN’s Anderson Cooper with a week of reports called “Scientology: A History of Violence.” Rathbun again took aim at Miscavige (even as he admitted to Cooper that he, too, had beaten up Scientology executives). On CNN and in the St. Petersburg Times, the church countered that Miscavige had harmed no one and has numerous affidavits from church members to support him. They say Rathbun was the violent ringleader, one of the reasons he was expelled.

Then in a Vanity Fair cover story this past October, Maureen Orth wrote of a bizarre effort by Miscavige to find a gorgeous Scientology bride for his best friend, Tom Cruise, before he’d married Katie Holmes. Rathbun was identified in the story as Cruise’s auditor, entrusted with guiding the star through confessionals to unburden his thetan. Among other things, Rathbun accused Miscavige of violating the sanctity of these sessions by using what Cruise revealed about himself to manipulate the A-list actor. (The church has denied Rathbun’s allegations, calling Orth’s account pure fiction.)

During the five years I investigated Scientology, Rathbun had been the tight-lipped chief of Scientology’s operations to monitor, track, and intimidate people like me. Now, even as I watched him reinvent himself in the media as a self-styled Martin Luther, leading a reformation of the church by encouraging members to join him as an “independent Scientologist,” I couldn’t forget what had been done to Bob and me on Rathbun’s watch.

Although I work in government as a deputy to Los Angeles County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky these days, I’m still a reporter at heart, and my adventures with Scientology were like an unsolved cold case. When I saw Rathbun quoted so widely, my journalist’s instincts took hold. After so many years, Rathbun’s emergence from the shadows represented my first and best hope at getting the truth from someone who was at the tip of Scientology’s spear.

So I tracked down his e-mail address and reached back across the decades. “When last we spoke,” I wrote, “we were, to put it mildly, on opposite sides.” I proposed a meeting, saying only that I’d like his help with an idea I had for a personal story. In three minutes he was back to me, polite and friendly. “All in all I think you all did some pretty balanced work,” he wrote. “Sure, let’s talk.”


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

"My wife, a kindergarten teacher, was leaving for work when a process server sent by the church’s lawyers jumped out from behind a hedge with a subpoena for me."

Even before I arrive, my communications with Rathbun make me feel as if I were an old college buddy coming to visit. First he offers to put me up in his guest apartment (I decline). Then he says he can pick me up at the airport and drive me each day between his house and my hotel (I rent a car).

As I pull up to Rathbun’s white wood-sided home at the end of a cul-de-sac along a canal, he heads down the front steps and greets me in the driveway with an enthusiastic handshake. He looks like a regular guy—cargo shorts, sandals, a well-worn plaid shirt covering a middle-age paunch. The last time I saw Rathbun he was in his twenties. His athletic six-foot frame was clad in the strange spit-and-polish mock Navy uniform of Scientology staffers, members of the so-called Sea Organization, or Sea Org—and he was glaring at me. Today he reminds me of a high school gym teacher. His blue eyes have a friendly crinkle at the corners as he smiles at me for the first time, ever. “You look great—the same, except for more gray hair,” he says, not mentioning that we both are showing a lot more scalp than we used to.

He invites me inside, and soon I’m being fed a home-cooked spaghetti lunch by his wife, Monique. I can’t remember feeling a bigger disconnect between the trappings of an interview and the subject matter I plan to cover. I’ve come here to interrogate a man about the way I think he and others tried to make my life miserable, but first I’m sharing a meal with him at his kitchen table. Sitting across from each other, I’m struck by something else: the aura of intimidation Rathbun once cultivated is utterly gone. Without the power and resources of the Church of Scientology behind him, he is just another baby boomer like me.

I can remember when the playing field was not so even. Bob and I were subjected to everything from spurious legal actions to plain bullying. We knew of three separate sets of private detectives who were rummaging through our lives, questioning old friends, bosses, and people we’d interviewed. Our credit reports, meanwhile, showed numerous inquiries from an assortment of car dealerships. When we contacted them, all insisted they had no idea who among their employees had made the illegal checks—or why.

Almost overnight our lives were plagued by mysterious, untraceable events. Bob and I were a team, and what happened to one felt like it was happening to both. This “patina of terror,” Rathbun tells me, was Scientology’s desired impact. “You were everywhere,” he recalls as we drink water out of jam jars. “And it was really pissing off Miscavige…. ‘Fucking weasel Sappell. Fat fuck Welkos.’ This is the way the guy talked.” The message, Rathbun says, was clear: “Crush them.”

Our spouses were affected, too. One morning my wife, a kindergarten teacher, was leaving for work when a process server sent by the church’s lawyers jumped out from behind a hedge with a subpoena for me. Another day I listened to Bob on the phone at work as he struggled to calm his wife. She was home alone and somebody had dropped Forest Lawn burial brochures on their doorstep. It would happen more than once, and one afternoon she even saw somebody scurrying away. Then there was the night when upwards of four California Highway Patrol cars, lights flashing, pulled Bob over as he drove home on the 710 freeway. He was ordered out of his car and given a sobriety test. After he passed, Bob asked why he’d been stopped; an officer said they’d been told he was weaving dangerously.

The next day the Times’s security chief, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official, made some inquiries and discovered that the pursuit had begun when a man called the CHP and said he was tailing a drunk and would direct units to his location. The caller said he was a Los Angeles police officer.

I’ll never forget the night I came home to my second-floor apartment in the Fairfax District to find an LAPD detective’s business card stuck in my doorjamb. “Call me,” he’d written on the back. When I did, he said I’d been accused of a serious assault that required investigation. A man complained that I’d pushed him down a flight of stairs after he knocked on my door to inquire about a vacant apartment. I then allegedly chased him onto the front lawn, where I kicked him and smacked him with a rental sign.

I told the detective that at five-feet-six and 130 pounds, I was a talker, not a fighter. I also informed him I was working on a series about the Church of Scientology and suspected a connection. About a week later the detective called back. He was recommending that prosecutors take no action, he said, because the complainant couldn’t be found; he’d lied about his name and address. And so it went, one crazy-making episode after the next.

The reporting process was exceptionally contentious. We had hostile face-to-face sessions with church leaders and their battery of top-dollar lawyers, one of whom bellowed at us, “If you want a fucking war, you’ve got one!” Miscavige, who in those years had yet to publicly take the helm, refused to talk to us at all. It took us months of grinding negotiations to schedule interviews even with the church’s PR squad, whose primary objective seemed to be to scare the newspaper’s lawyers and kill the series.

When Bob and I arrived at one of Scientology’s many well-appointed Hollywood buildings for the interviews, we were ushered into a large room and told to sit at a table barely large enough for side-by-side chairs. Several church representatives were seated behind a roomy table on a dais in front of us. Hot, blinding klieg lights were aimed at our faces, as were an array of video cameras, in violation of our negotiated agreement that allowed for only one. Our hearts racing, we walked out, returning a few days later only after the lights and extra cameras had been removed.

We weren’t the first reporters to suffer Scientology’s wrath. In the 1970s, the church’s Guardian’s Office—or GO—undertook a massive campaign of burglaries, harassment, and dirty tricks against foes in the government and the press. Nobody got it worse than Paulette Cooper, who in 1971 wrote the book The Scandal of Scientology. She was framed by GO operatives, who obtained stationery with her fingerprints on it and mailed a bomb threat to the church. Cooper was indicted but later cleared. Eleven ranking members of the church were sentenced to prison, including Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, who oversaw GO’s many criminal acts.

In the early 1980s, the Guardian’s Office was replaced by the Office of Special Affairs, with Rathbun at the helm. Scientology executives insisted that investigations into perceived enemies, if necessary, would henceforth be handled by private detectives hired and overseen by attorneys representing the church—or so went the cover story. Rathbun says the investigators were paid through the church’s attorneys but reported directly to him and his staff. “We had to pretend like all that stuff was behind us,” Rathbun says of the church’s covert operations. “But that was total subterfuge.”


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

Rathbun is pacing in his living room, taking drags off an electronic cigarette. He’s got a bad back and needs to keep moving, which means I’m mostly looking up at him from his couch. He might as well be on that dais. Monique—a dark-haired woman with a soft voice and watchful eyes—sits close by, perched at a small table near their front window, quietly tapping away on a laptop. The “catbird seat,” they call it. I get the feeling she’s listening as a witness.

As our interviews stretch over hours, I strug-gle to control the conversation. It’s not just Miscavige’s alleged wrongs or the future of the church that Rathbun is hell-bent on discussing. In wandering monologues he swings between riffs on the secret to B.B. King’s creative longevity to the genius of Ronald Reagan’s PR advisers to the “dictatorial evolution” of Hubbard in the 1960s. I’m not sure whether he’s using his old Scientology tricks to dominate our communication, but this long-awaited sit-down soon begins to remind me of my last meeting with church executives.

Yet slowly I make progress. I recount the saga of our hostile interviews with the church, and Rathbun nods, as though he still appreciates a job well done by the old team. “The whole idea was to make you feel small—intimidated—and to back you off,” he says. Videotapes of our interview sessions, he says, were promptly delivered to Miscavige, who micromanaged the church’s response to our every inquiry. “He got off on seeing how uncomfortable you [were].”

Getting Rathbun to take responsibility for his own actions proves harder. Case in point: When I ask about the private investigators who dogged us, he quickly asserts, “I never hired an investigator to investigate you.” A moment later, however, he concedes that what he means to say is that he never personally hired an investigator. He says the “intel” guys under him took care of that job for him. “It goes through that machine, and I’m just getting reports,” he says so matter-of-factly that we could have been talking about the weather or holiday plans. “It’s all a blur, but I remember beaucoup intelligence reports on you guys during that entire era.” After Miscavige read those reports, Rathbun says, “I shredded all that stuff…. There could be no trace of it.”

Rathbun’s answers to questions about Bob and me often are like that—they begin as denials and after some pushing and prodding from me, end up as vague confessions. Sometimes he seems to be having a dialogue between the new Marty and the old. My questions, he tells me at one point, make him feel like he’s undergoing Scientology auditing, triggering memories of troubling events so he can be freed of their sway—only without the E-meter.

Rathbun says, for example, that the church obtained Bob’s and my personal phone and financial records from private detectives who bought them from sources specializing in that sort of skulduggery. “It had to be two or three steps removed,” Rathbun says, so the church would be insulated from the covert transactions. In that way, he reasons, the church did nothing illegal to us.

“What you were doing was still illegal,” I counter. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “You accused me, and I’m not denying it. I guess the lines got blurred over time.”

When I bring up the phony assault complaint and Bob Welkos’s CHP stop, Rathbun says he would have never tolerated such things. But then he acknowledges there were “volunteers” in his shop who’d come from the church’s disbanded Guardian’s Office and who continued to harass people, possibly us. “That really bothered me. It couldn’t bother me if it didn’t happen. It happened a lot,” he says, employing his odd, circular reasoning. “So here I am defending myself, but at the same time I gotta say…I’m not perpetuating that. But, of course, I am because I’m allowing it to continue.”

Rathbun insists he was only following orders. Miscavige, he says, nurtured a “real hatred” for Bob and me. “He’s got everyone in the conference room trying to figure out how to stop Welkos and Sappell,” Rathbun recalls. “You’re working for the enemy…. You were part of this machine, a deployed agent. The L.A. Times was demonized.”

For Miscavige the stakes were high, Rathbun says, higher than we knew. Our series represented an early test of the young firebrand’s ability to navigate a serious challenge at a time when the church was trying to emerge from scandal and enter the mainstream. Among other things the church had paid millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements to ex-members to keep them quiet about their run-ins with Scientology and to avoid even bigger financial and public relations hits down the road.

“We need to back the Times and Sappell and those guys down,” Rathbun remembers Miscavige ordering. But they couldn’t. Rathbun says the church hoped to get us to believe that with “the kind of intrusion we’re going to do in your life, it’s not worth messing with us.” That intimidation didn’t work with Bob and me, though Rathbun says it usually did. Of all the journalists who make inquiries into the church, he says, “you guys who write are the exception, not the rule.”

The Church of Scientology did, however, get the last word—with our words. After the series was published, the church blanketed Southern California with a three-month ad campaign that quoted positive-sounding snippets from the series. These edited quotations—words that Bob and I wrote—were plastered on more than 120 billboards and nearly 1,000 buses. Typical was this one: “The Church of Scientology…has weathered crises that would have crippled, if not destroyed, other fledgling religious movements—testimony to the group’s determination to survive.” The billboards included the story’s date, the newspaper’s banner, and our bylines. The church even bought an obscure sign a block from my house in Silver Lake, on a street I drove every day. I had a hunch that was no coincidence and later was told by a church insider I was right.

Rathbun volunteers that he was responsible for plucking those passages out of the stories but credits Miscavige with the concept. “He saw the series as a loss, but he turned it into a win because the billboard campaign was his idea,” Rathbun says. “In his version of reality, he has ‘outcreated’ you.”


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

From top: Marty Rathbun (far left) and Miscavige (far right) with a colleague, in earlier days; the church’s International Base in Hemet, California; Tom Cruise, Scientology’s best-known adherent, and Miscavige. Photographs by from top: no credit; banks/splash news; paul white/ap photo

Today David Miscavige is no longer secretly pulling Scientology’s strings, the way he did in the days of Bob’s and my reporting. Back then the only time we glimpsed him was in a Los Angeles courthouse hallway as he rushed past, refusing to utter a word as our photographer snapped a rare shot of the small but powerfully built young man. Now 52, Miscavige, who’s always immaculately tailored, travels the world from Hamburg to Pasadena, officiating at gala dedication ceremonies for dozens of new or lavishly restored churches of Scientology. He’s described on the church’s Web site as Scientology’s “ecclesiastical leader” and perhaps more important, as “L. Ron Hubbard’s trusted friend.”

Under Miscavige’s stewardship, the Web site says, Scientology has doubled in size during the past five years and has positioned itself as a true “21st Century religion” through its stunning state-of-the-art multimedia operations, some of which will be based in a Hollywood studio the church bought in 2011 for $42 million. But in some ways Miscavige and the church he rules remain unchanged. Combativeness is in their DNA.

Rathbun once enjoyed the perks of riding shotgun with Miscavige, who lives in a well-appointed bungalow at the church’s “International Base” outside the Riverside County city of Hemet, 80 miles from downtown L.A. But not anymore. For the past three years, ever since Rathbun was quoted in those St. Pete Times stories about Miscavige’s alleged violent streak, the defector has been hunkering down in Ingleside on the Bay, warding off blows from church members and operatives.

In a boxy, two-story house across the cul-de-sac from his home, Rathbun says, a private investigator has set up shop, installing video cameras behind reflective windows. The P.I. in question is the same one Rathbun says he hired in 1988 to dig up dirt on two high-level Dallas defectors, a husband and wife whom Bob and I interviewed. One evening, while driving the narrow road that leads from Rathbun’s house to the main highway, I see a man in a silver Crown Victoria fly past me in the opposite direction while talking on a cell phone. It’s the private detective from across the street.

The church isn’t hiding the fact that Rathbun is being watched; a surveillance photo of him having lunch with The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright on the patio of a restaurant was published in a 2011 special edition of Scientology’s Freedom Magazine. The publication skewered a 24,000-word piece Wright had written that same year on Scientology, an article he’s expanded into a book due out this month. When I contact Wright, he says of the photo, “Marty had told me he was being watched, but it seemed brazen to publish it.” Wright says he was left with the impression that “the church had hired a private investigator to stalk one or the two of us and was proud of that.”

Similarly, for six months straight a video crew from an outfit called Squirrel Busters Productions shadowed Rathbun around town, provocatively pushing video cameras in his face. It got so nutty that neighbors began putting up “No Squirrel Busters” signs and turning on lawn sprinklers to shoo them away. (A “squirrel,” in Hubbardspeak, is someone who provides Scientology services outside the technical expertise of the mother church. By that definition, I think Rathbun is a squirrel. He calls himself a “heretic.”)

An edited compilation of the Squirrel Busters’ footage comes to life when you click on the Web site whoismartyrathbun.com. “Marty Rathbun may see himself as a peaceful and honest good old boy who wouldn’t harm anyone,” the video’s voice-over says. “But if he took a good look in the mirror, he’d see his true image: an unhinged leader of a small, South Texas cult. A man with a militia mentality and a long history of violence.”

During my visits, whenever a car starts or a door slams, his eyes dart toward the windows, often in sync with those of his wife. I keep wondering how traumatic this must be for the quiet Monique, who met her husband on Match
.com in 2006, before all hell broke loose. Today she sits in that catbird seat like a sentry. Rathbun says the message he’s being sent is this: “You think you can leave the cult? The cult will follow you to your freakin’ grave.”

I tell him that readers of this story will probably think he’s getting what he deserves. After all, this is the same treatment he once dished out. For the first time during my visit I see a flash of the aggressive Marty I remember. He stops pacing in the kitchen, where I’m seated, and stares at me. “That’s what they’ll think if that’s what you write!” he says, his voice rising as he points a finger at me. It’s not a matter of opinion, I say. Those are the facts. “I’ve taken a lot of hits in the last three years,” he says, softening his tone. “I’ve been working off a lot of karma for what I’ve done.” Now, he says, “the scales are even. I’ve built up a reservoir of good karma that I can draw on.”

These days Rathbun’s self-professed good works involve “decompressing” people who’ve left what he calls “corporate Scientology.” He audits them, as he once did Tom Cruise, to help identify traumas that are holding them back from a state of “clear.” Rathbun is still a true believer in Hubbard and the value of his writings, but he makes a distinction between the scripture and the structure of the church. A bookcase in his living room is lined with Scientology’s tomes on spiritual and managerial matters, along with the book that started it all for Hubbard in 1950, the best-selling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Rathbun has self-published two scathing books on Scientology’s management and maintains a popular blog called Move on Up a Little Higher, on which he encourages readers to flee “Scientology Inc.” and publicly profess their independence. Preaching the inevitable collapse of Miscavige’s Church of Scientology, Rathbun seems intent on positioning himself atop a rival movement of disaffected Scientologists, wielding the same take-no-prisoners style he once did against reporters and church critics.

“There is a reason DM fears me like no other,” Rathbun says, referring to Miscavige by his initials, as do many in the church. “Because he knows in his heart of hearts…that I’m his worst nightmare for one reason and one reason alone: I have no price.” Unlike other ex-church members who reached out-of-court settlements in the mid-1980s, Rathbun says, he can’t be bought. “Everybody has a price and I don’t.”

He says Miscavige used to be what the church needed: a leader who was “really accomplished at this whole Machiavellian maneuvering in times of power pushes and power plays.” He credits Miscavige with going straight to the top of the IRS to finally obtain tax-exempt status for the church in 1993, agreeing to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement.

But Rathbun says Miscavige is undermining the movement, embodying the secretiveness and combativeness that had become the defining traits of his reclusive mentor, Hubbard, in the final years of his life. What’s more, he accuses Miscavige of taking the church’s “greatest PR asset and turning it into its greatest PR liability.” He’s talking about Cruise, “the epitome of the wound-up Scientologist.”

Rathbun accuses Cruise and Miscavige of creating a distorted public perception of Scientologists as condemning and self-righteous, full of “synthetic enthusiasm.” Take Cruise’s run-in with Matt Lauer on Today a few years back, when he accused Lauer of being “glib” and of promoting the use of antipsychotic drugs among kids. Or the widely viewed video of Cruise at a Scientology gala, where Miscavige awarded him the church’s first Freedom Medal of Valor. In the video Cruise suggests that Scientologists are so powerful that they should feel obligated to stop at traffic accidents because only they can truly help in such situations.

But it was Miscavige’s alleged behavior at the church’s sprawling management and residential compound outside Hemet that Rathbun says prompted his defection. He says he saw violent abuses inside the walled-off “Int. Base,” where top executives who were deemed  underperformers by Miscavige were allegedly placed in confinement and subjected to beatings and forced confessions. This occurred, Rathbun says, in a double-wide trailer called “The Hole.” “Anybody who was anybody got holed,” he says. He admits he delivered some of those beatings but says he took some, too. Although the church insists Miscavige never laid a glove on anyone, Rathbun alleges that the chairman of the board punched him in the midsection and ended up hurting his own hand. “He started freaking out, screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘The motherfucker wants to kill me! He’s evil!’ ” Rathbun says. “Just because I didn’t take it.”


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

When I leave Rathbun’s house each evening, I head to my hotel and start what feels like a second workday. Behind a little desk, I listen to Rathbun’s recorded voice for hours while transcribing our interviews. Then I stay up way too late reading his new book, The Scientology Reformation: What Every Scientologist Should Know. In other words, I’m all in again, and it’s stirring up memories of the last time I was in this world of doublespeak, character assassination, private investigators, and paranoia. Each night before I enter my hotel lobby, I scan the parking lot to see if I’m being watched. Inside Rathbun’s house, whenever there’s a noise outside, I find myself peering out the windows just like him and his wife.

Throughout my time here I can’t help noticing that Rathbun’s dog, Chiquita, is often at my feet. In fact, the plump little Chihuahua-chow-corgi mix has been a constant presence—on our walk along the bay, on our talks on the deck outside, sometimes just sprawled on her back, paws in the air, on the couch next to Rathbun, who clearly adores her. She’s also there when I raise the issue of dead pets.

We’re sitting facing each other in the living room. He’s on one well-worn couch; I’m sinking into the cushions of another. I decide not to start with Crystal. Let’s talk about dirty tricks, I say. What about animals? Before I can get out another word, Rathbun sits up straighter.

“No fucking way,” he says. “It just couldn’t happen.” If pets were harmed, he speculates, it was probably by some “third party” who wanted to make the church look bad, a frame-up job. He says IRS agents investigating the church in the mid-1980s “were certain we were involved with chopping up animals.” What? That’s something even I hadn’t heard. Then he mentions the late judge. “Swearinger said his freakin’ dog got drowned.”

My heart pounds. I’ve waited nearly three decades to confront someone from the Church of Scientology about Crystal. “I know about Swearinger’s dog,” I say. “He called me.”

“He told you privately?” Rathbun asks.

“Yes,” I say, my spine stiffening. “He heard that my dog was poisoned.”

Rathbun’s face falls, and for a moment he grows quiet. “Your dog? Are you kidding me?”

“No, I’m not kidding you,” I say. He looks rattled. “I’m telling you,” he insists, “this was absolutely verboten.”

I tell him I don’t buy his blaming third parties. That’s when Rathbun changes course entirely. “Before you even came here, I’m telling you, I watch out after my dog,” he says, as Chiquita lounges nearby. “I don’t put it past the sons of bitches, you know what I mean?”

////

By late afternoon of our third day together, I start to sense that the mood isn’t as chummy as when I first strode up the steps of Casablanca, as Rathbun calls his home. I turn off the recorder and snap shut my notebook in a gesture that says I’m done. I tell Rathbun it’s time for me to get rolling, even though my flight won’t be taking off for a couple of hours. As I make my way to the door, Monique gives me a hug, and I thank her for opening her home to me. Together Rathbun and I walk out into the Texas heat. “This has been kind of fun,” he says. Fun isn’t exactly the word I’d choose, I think to myself. Rathbun nods in the direction of his Ford F-150 pickup. “I’ll follow you out to the road to make sure you’re not being followed by anyone else,” he says. When we get to the main highway, he turns one way and I turn the other. I watch him disappear around the bend in my rearview mirror.

Heading for Corpus Christi International Airport, I’m nervous again, hyperaware that my determination to land this story—like the original story—may have reverberations in the lives of others I care about. Before embarking on this effort, I’d run the idea past my family. “Are you sure you want to do this?” my second wife, Mona, asked. Yes, I assured her. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to investigate my own story. I also talked to my two grown kids. My son was one month old when the L.A. Times gave birth to our series, and my daughter had yet to arrive. I didn’t want to scare them, but I advised them to keep their eyes open. Same with Bob Welkos, my reporting partner. I’d given him the heads up, too.

As I hit the tarmac in L.A., I realize I need to make two more calls. The first is to my ex-wife. It’s been years since I’ve spoken to Linda. I’m concerned that if I write about her and Crystal, she may get a visit from church agents in the forests of Colorado, where she now lives.

Linda and I split in 1987, when I was more focused on Scientology than on our marriage. That period was brutally hard on her, too, although I’m embarrassed to say I never deeply reflected on how much so until a couple of years ago. Going through some old papers at home, I found a carefully handwritten log Linda had kept of the phenobarbital doses she gave Crystal during the weeks we tried to keep her alive. I say “we,” but looking back I know that it was mostly Linda. I was too busy with Scientology. As much as any church member, I was immersed in the universe Hubbard had created—often to the exclusion of the people and events of my own world.

When I get Linda on the phone and tell her I’m writing about Scientology again, she lets out a knowing “Oh, boy” and recalls that process server who jumped out from the bushes and gave her a start. We laugh about how crazy things were during that period, but there’s no laughing when we talk about Crystal. “It was so sad,” she says, “so horrible to watch.” I begin to tear up. I tell her I’ve always felt guilty that my job may have brought harm to the dog we both loved. I thank her for taking such good care of Crystal. Tacitly I’m also thanking her for putting up with my obsessive pursuit of a story, for her patience, for talking to me now. Before saying good-bye, I make her promise she’ll call if she gets any uninvited visitors.


 This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

My second call is to the Church of Scientology. The church’s international spokesperson frostily directs me to e-mail a description of what I’m writing, along with specific questions. Six days later I receive an eight-page letter that begins with a question of its own: “Why is it that 22 years after you spent an epic five years writing your insufferable six-part opus for the Los Angeles Times you still are unable to give it a rest?” It goes on to call Rathbun “obsessed like a stalker.” Neither Miscavige nor the Church of Scientology has done anything wrong, the letter says. That punch in the stomach from Miscavige? “False and defamatory.” Miscavige’s “real hatred” toward Bob and me? “We can assure you Mr. Miscavige never said such a thing nor did he spend time obsessing over the two of you.” The purloined phone and financial records? “Once again, we can only say that Rathbun is telling you what he thinks you want to hear.” The CHP stop? “The Church had no knowledge of or involvement in Mr. Welkos’ traffic stop and we have no idea whether Mr. Welkos drives dangerously or in a safe manner or not at all.” The fake assault complaint against me? The church “had nothing to do with any false complaints…we also had nothing to do with any traffic, parking or tickets for littering you may (or may not) have received during your life.” And finally, what about the deaths of pets? “We like pets, don’t kill dogs and are sorry for the loss of your dog more than twenty years ago…. In other words, Joel, the stories may make for juicy midnight Internet gossip, but they are, each and every one, lies.”

In lectures and missives to his followers, L. Ron Hubbard used to claim that serious illness inevitably befalls those “suppressive persons” who seek to impede Scientology. “Literally, it kills them,” he wrote. Rathbun remembers Miscavige espousing the same view one day as he listened with relish to an intelligence report from a spy about a reporter who’d begun taking antidepressants. “That’s what you get for fucking with us,” Rathbun recalls Miscavige saying. “You drive yourself insane attacking Scientology.” (The church’s response? “Oh, please.”)

Perhaps they know of such cases, but I’m not among them. As corny as it may sound, I know that the Scientology project taught me powerful lessons, the biggest among them being how to push through fear and self-doubt. If given the chance, I’d do it all over again. After we published our series, I remember thinking no professional challenge would ever be harder, and that has turned out to be true. While I can’t say for sure what drove me—common sense be damned—to seek out Rathbun and write this story, I think it has something to do with proving to myself that I’d not only survived but thrived. The patina of terror didn’t back me down.

As I write these words, my one-year-old dog, Phoebe—another rescue pup—is sleeping blissfully in the next room. I think we both could use a walk.

Joel Sappell spent 26 years as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times. This is his first article for Los Angeles.


 

This feature was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.