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

“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.