Scientology Won’t Set Me Free

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

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scient_hI’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. 

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  • Richard Behar

    As Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And as anybody who has written about Scientology knows (or should know), journalists like Joel Sappell, Bob Welkos and Paulette Cooper were shining light on this vile organization long before it became fashionable — and safer — to do so. They performed a great and lasting public service, and they paid dearly for it. Thanks for having the courage to write this important piece, Joel — just as you had the courage to do the work that inspired it.

    • Sanders

      Tony Ortega was not the first to lose his position as the result of investigation Scientology. And I am afraid he was not the last.

      • heber

        Imagine that a scientologist lying, what a surprise! Hahahahah

      • choocho


        Scientology, your cult, was responsible for Mt Ortega losing his position?

    • Tom Klemesrud

      Of course you too Richard.

  • Marc Headley

    Great Story!

    The more people write about their experiences with the World’s fastest shrinking cult, the better.

    My wife and I have been being harassed by them since we left in 2005! They can never allow anyone to tell about what happens behind the iron curtain of Scientology. Your story provides a glimpse behind that curtain. You are a brave man for venturing back into that area.

    Know this, Scientology is good at having secrets, not keeping them.

    You may not realize it now , but your story might even save some people from ruining their lives.

    From someone who has been saved. Thanks.

    Marc Headley

    • Karman

      These people are terrorists. Plain and simple. The poisoning of dogs is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Former Cult Member

    Thanks for everything you did, all those years ago. You and just a few others were at the cutting edge of everything that is happening with the critical movement today.

  • Joe Lynn

    Thanks for the new story and even more, thanks for the groundbreaking work from more than 20 years ago. It’s still hard for people to grasp the insane and malicious lengths this Cult will go to, but, thanks to your work, they can see a little. The reality is always worse.

  • B. Weber

    Thank you for what you did decades ago, and thank you for what you are doing now : writing the truth about about the dirty tricks of that ugly “church”.

    There are more reports of dead pets of Scientology’s opponents on the net. A friend of mine who investigated Scientology had one animal poisoned, another was hit with a gun shot.

  • B. Weber

    Thank you for what you did decades ago, and thank you for what you are doing now : writing the truth about about the dirty tricks of that ugly “church”.

    There are more reports of dead pets of Scientology’s opponents on the net. A friend of mine who investigated Scientology had one animal poisoned, another was hit with a gun shot.

  • Xenu

    Scientology has helped get rid of many of my body thetans. Through auditing, I have “blown” 742 body thetans. I’m told I probably have about 1,562 body thetans left to get rid of. It takes about 1- 2 hours of auditing to get rid of each body thetan, so I know I have a lot of work left to do. But the $400/hour auditing charge is tax deductible, so that helps.

  • e

    This is a truly compelling. Thank you for sharing your experiences and also for familiarizing readers with your earlier series exposing the machinations of the “Church” of Scientology, since there are many people who may not have had the opportunity to read your work from years ago.

    More and more, people who previously knew very little about this cult are learning what a vicious, criminal, and hateful organization the CoS is and with accounts from people like you and others who are harassed, sued, stalked and maligned.

    When people tell their very personal accounts and document them for others to read, the public is not only horrified but feels compelled to stand up and offer support to help in any way they can to put an end to the CoS’s heinous actions.

    We have to remember, there are children and teens and young adults who are trapped in the Sea Org, forced to sign ridiculous one billion year contracts who are cut off from this information and who need help to escape from this madness. They need our support and assistance to leave and to help them fight for their rights since no one else may care.

    Great job! Thanks for making a difference; your work is enormously significant.

  • Viti Ligo

    I’m sure the work you and your partner did on Scientology so many years ago saved many from the trap, but the billboards Miscavige put up probably even suckered more in. That must’ve been when Miscavige was making some smarter moves, decades before he developed terminal foot bullet disease by doing things like putting Tom Cruise up to making his “Tom Cruise, Crazy Scientologist” video.

    Because the reach of the Internet is so much greater than that of any one newspaper, you can rest assured Scientology is most likely (when it’s Scientology, there’s always a chance) not going to take any retaliatory measures these days, against you, the people in your life, or your/their pets.

    I think 2013 the Wright book being published will trigger an “old home” (old cult?) year for all the journalists that were harassed for doing Scientology pieces or scared off from even doing them.

    I enjoyed this very different glimpse of Marty Rathbun. I tried to wade through the execrable writing in his blog during the first few years of it, when some of us hoped he’d reveal a secret that would sink the scam overnight.

    But, as Marty said in this interview, Scientology was careful about keeping several levels between themselves and the dirty work, such that he probably didn’t know about them.

    As the cult collapses, I’m not so much concerned for the average members, but for a portion of members who are mentally ill, or perhaps some Sea Org members who are so fanatical — busy practicing their “fixed, dedicated glare” in the mirror — they’ll do almost anything, especially as they see Hubbard’s ship sink into a sea of exposure.

  • bev morse


    bev morse
    a different temple
    manhattan beach ca

    one where people are free to come and go – because they are people.

  • John Brooks

    Joel….Great follow up. I well remember your series and took some inspiration from it for some work of my own. I don’t think Rathbun is ready to really come clean because of his desire to carry on as a leader of some kind in Scientology.
    Zev is a lucky guy to have you working for him rather than investigating him. 🙂
    Good read.

  • Concerned Angelino

    Incredible story, both the original investigative work and the current investigation. I drive past the blue monster on Fountain during my daily commute and it kills me to see all those poor drone people on their way to “work” every day. It also turns my stomach that they bought KCET studios. How can this cult collapse with all this massive real estate holdings? Also, who did they buy off on the City Council 15 odd years ago to get the street off Fountain by the blue monster renamed “L. Ron Hubbard Way?” I would like Mr. Sappell to ask Zev Y. that question…

  • Andrea

    Wow. Why would you sandwich this long winded, piece between the sweet and sassy “The Best of 2012” posts? Seriously LAmag, LA is so over these kinds of stories. We get it, you’re looking to provide scandal and intrigue but without any real evidence and the same exes being interviewed, it’s just not interesting. If you ever want to cover a real news story, how about the fiscal policy decisions being made in this town? That subject affects the entire city and it seems no one is really paying attention…

    • Anonymous

      ^Nice try, hahaha

    • Wunga

      Hello agent from the (Scientology) Office of Special Affairs!

      More and more of you are writing their stories having left, no longer scared. I’m sure you have seen many outpoints in Scientology of your own, and may have participated in a few actions that are questionable for an organization that bills itself as the most ethical on this planet.

      If you didn’t like this article maybe its time to examine why, too close to the truth? Maybe its time to blow your post and jot you own experiences down and send them in, that would be a story worth reading.

  • InTheNameOfXenu

    Thanks Joel for a superb article. Part of me wants to believe that Rathbun had no knowledge of your dog’s murder, but part of me thinks he knew but is very ashamed to admit it. I was taken back by a portion of your article where he stated that, ‘I was just following orders’. Didn’t all Nazis who were tried say the same thing?

    Scientology’s intelligence/enforcement/harassment unit, Office of Special Affairs is very compartmentalized. It is possible that Rathbun was not the decision-maker on this, but may have found out later on. Their mentality believes that Scientology is the only technology that can save mankind. So anyone opposing this, or even reporting on it’s abuses(like yourself) is fair-game and can be lied, sued, tricked or destroyed as per Hubbard’s policy. At one point, the Guardians Office contemplated on hiring a mob hit-man to murder journalist Paulette Cooper, but feared the public backlash if the the truth were discovered. They only cared about what would happen to Hubbard and the ‘church’s’ reputation, not the murder of an innocent human being. Scientology is a truly despicable and evil cult.

  • AnnaM

    Great article! Charlie O’Reilly, the Hall of Fame lawyer I worked with, who litigated the case against Scientology in the 80’s told me all about the poisoning incidents, including with his dog and the judge’s dog. He would be proud of you for your work and courage!!!

  • Nicole

    Rathbun is a bigger quack than Miscavige. Makes me sick he pretended to be surprised about your dog. He probably administered the poison.

  • john

    Excellent article

  • EDY

    I was in awe of Joel and Bob’s bravery when their initial investigative piece was published. And now, finally, an honest account of Mark Rathbun has been written – again, thanks to Joel’s bravery. It’s about time. As with Tori Cristman, never once has Rathbun taken full responsibility for his actions and certainly has never expressed remorse or apologies for damaging the lives of so many innocent people. And yes – he was absolutely using his Scientology training in attempt to intimidate Joel, by pacing and dominating the dialogue at the start of the interview and undoubtedly throughout. I only wish this article would have included more of how he now cons people by doing e-meter sessions and taking their money to climb up the L. Ronn Hubbard sci-fi rungs to “clear.” Like Miscavige, Rathbun is a master of manipulation. Be sure and read Mark Rathbun’s blog – it is so full of Scientology speak one would never know he is “independent.” As for Scientology’s most recent response to Joel re: this article, one would think Tommy Davis had come out of hiding to pen that one.

    • Tom Klemesrud

      What Joel doesn’t tell is a more forceful indictment was ready for the press at least three years before it was finally published in 1990. Scientology lawyers weaseled with the likes of Times attorney Bill Neese, and blunted the story, and made Time Mirror promise the conditions of which they could write another critic piece. If you remember in 1995 when Netcom, Erlich and I were sued, it was only reported in the Valley Edition of the Times, and local papers, the Burbank Leader, and Glendale News-Press–both owned by The Times–that were allowed to print anything about it, per contract with Scientology.

  • Gene

    Quite an indictment of the American educational system-anybody with the slightest bit of skepticism would immediately reject $cientology-it reads like a bad 1930’s SciFi comicook (I even thiong Hubbard got the Xenu story from “Superman Comics” (the forbidden zone).
    To all you deluded folks-wake up!

  • Ashley

    Incredible read. Your bravery is extraordinarily affecting. Thanks for shedding light on such a truly tricky subject.

  • Karmen

    The feds need to crack down on these terrorists.

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  • Tom Klemesrud

    So fatso said about messing with Scientology, “Literally, it kills them.” Well, you gotta die from something, so make it a good cause.

    Good work Joel.