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

“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.