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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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?”

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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. 

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