Preview: The Tip of the Spear

Decades after investigating the Church of Scientology, journalist Joel Sappell investigates what happened to him

In June 1990, Joel Sappell and Bob Welkos completed a five-year investigation into the Church of Scientology that culminated in a groundbreaking six-part series in the Los Angeles Times. The story Sappell didn’t tell at the time was about the mystifying and unnerving events that marked his and Welkos’ lives during that period. Today, as defectors from the church have gone public in tell-all books and on YouTube, Sappell sets out to investigate those unsettling occurrences, from a false arrest report to a strange CHP stop to illegally obtained personal credit reports and phone records to the sudden and ultimately fatal illness that struck his dog. 

In Los Angeles’ January issue, Sappell tracks down Mark “Marty” Rathbun, the man who once ran Scientology’s intelligence operations and the highest ranking person to defect from the church since the early 1990s. The Church today calls Rathbun a “pathological liar.” But as Sappell writes, Rathbun’s emergence from the shadows represents the journalist’s “first and best hope at getting the truth from someone who was at the tip of Scientology’s spear.”

A few highlights from Sappell’s story:

    • David Miscavige, the Church of Scientology’s ecclesiastical leader, took a intense interest in Sappell and Welkos’ reporting, referring to them as “Fucking weasel Sappell and fat fuck Welkos,” says Rathbun. The series appeared at a time when Miscavige was under pressure to prove he could lead after the death of church founder L. Ron Hubbard. When it came to the Times reporters, Rathbun says, the message was clear: “Crush them.”

    • The seizures that struck Sappell’s German shepherd mix were so severe that she had to be put down. Then Sappell received a phone call from a Superior Court judge. He was presiding over a civil trial pitting the Church of Scientology against a former church member who claimed he’d been harassed. “I hear your dog was poisoned,” the judge told Sappell. “My dog was drowned.” (The church denies their involvement in either pet’s death.)

    • Private investigators were indirectly hired by the church to obtain Sappell and Welkos’ financial records, phone records, and other data, Rathbun says. “I remember beaucoup intelligence reports on you guys during that entire era,” Rathbun tells Sappell. After Miscavige read those reports, Rathbun says, “I shredded all that stuff…. There could be no trace of it.”

    • Tom Cruise is “the epitome of the wound-up Scientologist,” says Rathbun, who once served as Cruise’s chief auditor. That means Rathbun led one-on-one counseling sessions designed to free Cruise’s spirit from past traumas. Rathbun goes on to accuse Cruise and Miscavige of creating a distorted public perception of Scientologists as condemning and self-righteous, full of “synthetic enthusiasm.”

    • Rathbun is trying to persuade people to become what he calls Independent Scientologists.  These are people who still believe in Hubbard’s teachings but distance themselves from the workings of Miscavige’s church. Sappell writes: “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.”

    • The Church calls Rathbun “obsessed like a stalker” and says neither Miscavige nor the Church of Scientology has done anything wrong. In an eight-page letter to Sappell, church representatives deny Miscavige harbored any enmity toward Sappell and Welkos and say allegations about purloined phone and financial records are false. The church “had nothing to do with” the unwarranted CHP stop of Welkos and fake assault complaint against Sappell, the letter says, and denies any involvement in the deaths of the pets. “In other words, Joel, the stories may make for juicy midnight Internet gossip, but they are, each and every one, lies,” the letter says.

Read “The Tip of the Spear” from the January issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands this week.

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