Strength in their numbers: More Church of Scientology defectors come forward with accounts of abuse
By Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writers
August 2, 2009
StPetersburg Times, Florida
They are stepping forward — from Dallas and Denver, Portland, Las Vegas, Montana — talking about what happened, to them and their friends, during their years in the Church of Scientology.
Jackie Wolff wept as she recalled the chaotic night she was ordered to stand at a microphone in the mess hall and confess her "crimes" in front of 300 fellow workers, many jeering and heckling her.
Gary Morehead dredged up his recollection of Scientology leader David Miscavige punishing venerable church leaders by forcing them to live out of tents for days, wash with a garden hose and use an open latrine.
Steve Hall replayed his memory of a meeting when Miscavige grabbed the heads of two church executives and knocked them together. One came away with a bloody ear.
Mark Fisher remembered precisely what he told Miscavige after the punches stopped and Fisher touched his head, looked at his palm and saw blood.
These and other former Scientology staffers are talking now, inspired and emboldened by the raw revelations of four defectors from the church's executive ranks who broke years of silence in stories published recently by the St. Petersburg Times.
Those behind-the-scenes accounts from Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, the highest officials ever to leave Scientology, were buttressed by detailed revelations of highly placed former managers Amy Scobee and Tom De Vocht.
Now their stories have prompted other former Scientology veterans to go public about physical and mental abuses they say they witnessed and endured.
Some want to support and defend the initial four, whom church representatives labeled as liars attempting a coup. Others say they feel more secure now that Rathbun, Rinder and the others are on the record with their unprecedented accounts of life on the inside.
But fear still prevents many defectors from talking. For every former church staffer willing to speak out, one or two more refused.
Those who talked confirm the earlier defectors' stories of erratic, dehumanizing treatment and provide a deeper view into the controlling environment in which members of the religious order known as the Sea Org live and work.
Four men joined Rinder, De Vocht and Rathbun in saying: David Miscavige assaulted me.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis said the new defectors' accounts of physical abuse by Miscavige are "false and categorically denied."
"It is clear that these new 'accounts' were stirred up by your recent articles," Davis said in a written statement, "and are nothing more than the ranting of anti-Scientologists on the grassy knoll of the Internet corroborating each other."
The church provided the Times two dozen written declarations from current and former church executives and staffers. Referring to those statements, Davis said: "You have been provided with volumes of evidence to show that your original sources are delusionary, bitter and dishonest; your new sources are more of the same."
Those new sources are men and women who joined Scientology as children, teenagers or young adults and spent decades laboring to advance the mission envisioned by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Morehead, who drives a tow truck in Portland and spent almost a decade as security chief at the church's sprawling base outside Los Angeles, described how Miscavige struck a church executive in the chest so hard, "I could hear the hollow thump and see (him) lose his breath from the impacts.''
How does Morehead manage such recall after 15 years?
"It's just like you remember when you touch a hot stove," he said. "You're never going to do it again, right? It hurts, there's pain …
"Well, it's as clear and conceptual as that is. I have a hard time remembering my address, but I can certainly remember this. You hold on to this because what the hell could you have done then, and what the hell can you do now?"
A NEW AWARENESS
Like countless college kids in the mid 1970s, Steve Hall was searching for meaning in life. He stumbled across a personality test he picked up a couple of years earlier at a Rolling Stones concert and stuck in a drawer.
He sent it in and got a call. "I asked the girl what Scientology was, and she said it's a way you can become more aware. … She summed up everything that I wanted at the time."
Hall got involved with the church to the point that his mother hired a "deprogrammer" from Los Angeles to come to Dallas and get her son out. Hall says he threatened to kill the guy if he ever contacted his mother again.
In the mid 1980s, Hall landed what he imagined would be his dream assignment: A position living and working at the 500-acre "Int" base, east of Los Angeles, home to top church executives and Golden Era Productions, the church's media and publications division.
But it was no dream.
"There was this incredible atmosphere of people not being in communication. People seemed afraid to speak to each other. … Nobody was laughing for the most part. It was very somber and solemn. … That did not at all seem in keeping with anything I'd ever experienced with Scientology because everywhere else I'd been it was just the reverse. People were laughing and joking."
Hall joined the church marketing unit in 1987, which brought him into more frequent contact with Miscavige, who holds the title Chairman of the Board, or COB. Hall said it was a shock the first time he saw Miscavige attack an executive, Ray Mithoff. The second time was like something out of a cartoon.
Hall says Miscavige came up behind two seated executives — Marc Yager and Guillaume Lesevre — grabbed their heads and banged them together. Then he ground them against each other. Lesevre had blood coming out of his ear.
Then came the time when Hall and about 20 others were summoned to the Religious Technology Center headquarters. "You don't get called up to Building 50 because it's some good news or something fun. It was always like everybody would literally be in terror. You were supposed to sprint from wherever you were up to Building 50, which is way the hell up the hill."
The group took their seats, the chairs in rows, spaced about 2 to 3 feet apart in all directions. Huffing and puffing, Hall said he worked to keep his breathing under control, so he wouldn't get singled out.
"You end up waiting a long time. Nobody f------ breathes, no one says anything. It's dead quiet. You could hear a pin drop. Everybody's just … waiting. Then finally COB walks in.
"He starts walking amongst us. Never says a word. Just stops and glares at each person. Sometimes he stops and sometimes he doesn't stop. When he got in front of me he stopped, he looked at me, I looked back at him, careful not to seem to be resisting or whatever.
"He took a step forward. He stopped. He looked back at me again. He backed up, he looked at me even closer. He said, 'He's out-ethics. That son of a b---- is out-ethics,' " he's breaking the rules of Scientology.
"Then he walked on, he walked down the aisle, looked at a couple other people, turned to start going down the next aisle right where Marc Yager was sitting on the end. And then suddenly, without warning, he starts slapping the bejesus out of Marc Yager, open-handed."
There were as many as 10 head slaps. Yager didn't resist, just put his arms up and took it.
For Hall, the last straw came in November 2003. Hall wrote scripts for Scientology videos and had been assigned to work under Mike Rinder, the church's chief spokesman. Hall says he had creative differences with Miscavige, which was a problem, because nobody is to question the COB.
Miscavige came by to see an edited video. "He ordered Mike and me stand shoulder to shoulder. … So Rinder and I are pressed up against each other, and right up in front of us is DM … and he says, 'Play the video.' "
The video over, Miscavige drew close. "We're standing there sort of at attention. He looks at me, he looks at Rinder. He looks at me, he looks back at Rinder. And then suddenly, with violence, he flashed his arms up and grabbed Mike Rinder's head and body-slammed his head into the cherry wood cabinets.
"He lifted Mike Rinder nearly off of his feet and smashed his head into the wall, and he banged his head into the wall three times, just BANG, BANG, BANG!"
A dozen others watched. "But everybody's afraid to move, because anything you did would be like, 'Are you making me wrong?' Don't make COB wrong. So if you showed any kind of reaction or upset, you would be, 'making COB wrong.' "
Miscavige left the room. "Rinder stood there with his hair mussed, his shirttail out and red marks on his face."
"It so could have been me," Hall said. "And that was the message I got was that you're next."
Rinder said Miscavige abused him so often that his recollections of specific attacks sometimes run together. Asked about Hall's account, he said, "That happened more than once."
Though long disillusioned with his life in the Sea Org, Hall said he didn't want to leave his wife, who was also a staffer. He finally accepted that he had to give up her and everything else.
His last day, church security went through his belongings and confiscated photos of his wife. They videotaped a lawyer posing questions and Hall taking blame for any problems he had with the church. He also promised never to sue the church.
"I had one last goodbye with my wife. … They told me she doesn't want to go with you and it was her decision, we didn't influence her in any way. They said you could talk … they led us to rooms."
In tears, they hugged. "She told me all the rooms were bugged. She whispered all the rooms were bugged and they could probably hear it."
FOCUS ON EXPANSION
Miscavige, 49, has been intense and demanding since he started working full time for Scientology at age 16 in Clearwater. He quickly proved himself and was handpicked to work at Hubbard's side, at Scientology's administrative headquarters in California.
The founder gave his young aide one important assignment after another. Miscavige delivered, building a reputation as a problem solver. He persuaded Hubbard's wife to resign as head of the church's troubled intelligence unit, known as the Guardian's Office.
Hubbard died in 1986 and Miscavige took control, asserting himself over other department heads and church executives. In the early 1990s, he earned admiration throughout the ranks in leading an unyielding effort to win the church a tax exemption from the IRS.
This decade he has pushed church expansion, extending Scientology's reach into more than 60 countries with a sustained campaign to build new churches, remodel existing facilities, translate Hubbard's teachings into the languages of target markets and disseminate the church's community outreach materials worldwide.
Miscavige is deeply admired, church officials say, not only by the thousands of staffers in the Sea Org, but by millions of Scientology parishioners worldwide.
"Any Scientologist of any duration will tell you that the church wouldn't be here if it wasn't for David Miscavige," church spokesman Davis said in interviews with the Times in May and June.
Nine new churches opened since 2004. This year, the church will set a record, opening eight more, he said. "It's just unbelievable what's happened in the world of Scientology. It's a renaissance. It's a revitalization. It's everything we always dreamed of."
In his letter to the Times last week, Davis said that as in the first stories, the new defectors are twisting church practices and discipline to make the normal seem "abnormal and abusive. They know this could not be further from the truth."
Shelly Corrias gave nearly two decades to the dedicated work force known as the Sea Org. She left in 2002.
She remembers the time Miscavige punished top staffers Norman Starkey and Greg Wilhere, ordering them to camp out in tents for days in a high, open area of the mountainside base, near the Bonnie View mansion built for Hubbard. They were assigned hard labor and forced to shower with a garden hose.
Corrias said it was striking to see Starkey — one of Scientology's elder statesmen, who had worked with Hubbard and served as a trustee of his estate — treated so crudely.
Said Corrias: "How can you take these high executives and send them up to sleep on the ground and they can't even go to the dining room to eat, their food brought up to them?"
"He particularly picked on Norman," said Claire Headley, who worked on Miscavige's staff for eight years before leaving the Sea Org in 2005. She said the leader often tried to take Starkey "off his high horse" and once made him wear a name tag that said "figure head."
Morehead, the security chief, said Miscavige sent him to town to buy camping gear for another group that faced the tent punishment: Starkey, Yager and Mithoff.
Miscavige made them set up camp at night and came by to shine a flashlight in their eyes, and he recalled the way Miscavige taunted them as they struggled to assemble their gear in the dark:
You guys think you're so hot? If only the rest of the Sea Org could see you now!
He ordered that a portable toilet be set out in the open, no privacy, Morehead said, and posted guards to watch them round the clock. Nobody protested, they just took their punishment.
Morehead said he told Miscavige that he had turned off the sprinkler system, but the leader told him to turn it back on so a shower would roust them in the morning.
"He was giddy about what was going on with these guys," Morehead said. "They were just a joke, proving him right. It was acknowledging of the fact that he brought them there because they were just incompetents."
Two more staffers — Mike Sutter and a woman named Hare O'Hare — later were placed on the same punishment with the three executives. Morehead said O'Hare was not exempt from Miscavige's order that no one bathe or use the toilet in private.
A CRUEL CONFESSIONAL
As many as 400 staffers were summoned to the mess hall, where a small group of staffers were given special seats of dishonor. Church executives would introduce them with scorching assessments of their recent performance.
"They had to get up one at a time into a microphone and confess their crimes," said Jeff Hawkins, who left the Sea Org in 2005.
The crowd screamed and jeered.
"They're out for blood so … you have to make it sound good. Otherwise they'll just shout you down," Hawkins said. "I saw people just led away in tears from that treatment."
Jackie Wolff choked up as she recounted her turn at the microphone late in 2003. She was singled out after taking over the assembly line for E-meters, the lie detector-like devices Scientologists use to pinpoint areas of spiritual distress during counseling.
Wolff's staff had been cut down to four from about 10 the year before, and E-meter production was down. She didn't see how she could make up the backlog, but supervisors disagreed. The crowd turned on her, screaming:
Why is this happening?
What are your crimes?
You're hurting Scientology!
Wolff says she tried to answer:
There are only four of us on the assembly line.
If we speed it up, the quality will suffer.
I just don't know.
"The feeling of standing up there in front of all these people was very intimidating and very scary," she said. "It was like your life was on the line. And to me it wasn't Scientology any more."
Three months later, Wolff ended her 23-year career in the Sea Org.
RUNNING IN SEARCH OF ANSWERS
There's a spiritual exercise in Scientology called the "Cause Resurgence Rundown.'' You run around a circular track, at your own pace, until you reach a point that "you have a realization that you're in control of your own body and mind.''
That's according to Marty Rathbun, a defector who once was one of the top church officials charged with protecting Scientology's religious practices.
Church founder L. Ron Hubbard described the running procedure in dispatches but it has not been formally made part of the church practice, Rathbun said, which is why some parishioners would not be familiar with it.
It's supposed to be done at the suggestion of a "case supervisor" in charge of the parishioner's spiritual counseling, called "auditing." Rathbun said it's to be done gradually, the person building endurance at his own pace.
"The whole thing was about getting a thetan (spirit) centered and getting all of his energies straight,'' Rathbun said. "Miscavige immediately turned it into a torture."
Multiple witnesses say the same. As a form of punishment, Sea Org members had to run around a circular dirt track with a pole at the center for hours on end in the desert heat.
"You would be on it anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day," Morehead said. "For every hundred people that were out there doing the running program, one of them was there because it was part of their actual (spiritual) progress."
Rinder recalls being sent to the track with others to run until they had a "cognition,'' a realization. It was supposed to be about something in their lives — but instead of focusing on themselves, the runners tried to divine what Miscavige wanted to hear so he would end their punishment.
"That was all sort of a joke," Rinder said. "What cognition are you supposed to have that will now satisfy Dave? … People spent years trying to figure that out."
To the three men who previously told the Times that Miscavige attacked them, add four more.
1. Jeff Hawkins
He worked more than 15 years at the base, mostly in marketing and design. His TV spot featuring a rupturing volcano promoted Dianetics, Hubbard's megaselling book.
Hawkins recalled the day in 2003 when he and a group of senior staffers toured one of Miscavige's prized construction projects, Building 50, a colossus of buffed metal, chrome and marble.
Leading the pack from room to room, Miscavige was every bit the voluble docent, extolling the unique features.
"I was standing by the door and as he's walking out and without any warning, he rabbit punches me right in the gut. … Just a quick punch to the stomach, right under the rib cage.''
Another time, a meeting of Hawkins' marketing team, Miscavige turned angry. "He gets pissed off at me for whatever reason. I was usually the punching bag. And he wails on me and knocks me to the ground."
"I stand up and he notices my cheek is bleeding. So, he called his assistant (Laurisse Stuckenbrock). He says, 'Lou,' and points to my face. She rummages in her purse and gets out a bottle of antiseptic that she carries with her, believe it or not. And she daubs that on my face. So, it's like she knows the drill. If there is a visible mark, then that's got to be taken care of.''
Before leaving, Miscavige turned to Hawkins. "He says to me, 'Do you know why I beat you up?' "
"I say, 'No, sir.' "
"He says, 'To show you who's in charge.' ''
Church executive Amy Scobee previously told the Times about a day she was working in her office cubicle at the edge of a conference room when a Sea Org member landed at her feet, with Miscavige on top of him. It was Hawkins underneath.
Hawkins said dozens of Sea Org members had been summoned to the international management conference room. The leader did not like the latest infomercial script.
"He was reading out sections of it with great sarcasm. And then he started pointing at me and saying, 'Look at how he looks at me.' "
Hawkins tried to explain himself, which only got him in deeper.
"You see that disrespect?" he said Miscavige shouted to the group. "You see how he talks to me?"
Miscavige jumped onto the conference table, Hawkins said. "He's like crouched in the middle of the table, and then he launches himself at me."
Hawkins fell back off his chair and landed in Scobee's work cubicle.
Two other defectors who attended the meeting confirmed Hawkins' account. Two current executives who were there say it didn't happen.
2. Mark Fisher
Fresh out of Langley High School in suburban Washington, Fisher skipped college for a different adventure: In the mid 1970s, he came to Clearwater to help Scientology settle in its newest frontier. He was 17.
Miscavige, who dropped out of high school the day he turned 16, had come three months earlier.
Fisher and Miscavige bunked with four other recruits on the ninth floor of the Fort Harrison Hotel. Fisher opened his foot locker one day and pulled out his Langley High letter jacket and diploma.
Miscavige told Fisher he probably was the only high school graduate in the group. "He said, 'What a waste,' " Fisher recalled.
Fisher stayed in Clearwater. Miscavige went West, handpicked for Scientology's esteemed crew serving as the right hand of Hubbard. The bookish Fisher absorbed Hubbard study and training classes, advancing to management as an evaluator of statistics and performance metrics.
By late 1983, Fisher was in California, managing a team of five who provided administrative support to the emerging leader. He also tended to household needs of Miscavige, his wife and their dogs.
Fisher married in 1984. In 1990, his wife was sent to a work detail as punishment for performance issues in the audio-visual facilities.
"I got really upset with it," Fisher recalled. "I started getting disaffected."
He hatched a plan: Sneak away and then come slinking back. He would be punished — and get to see his wife.
It didn't work. He was ordered to dig weeds, far from where his wife toiled.
A second hammer came down. He was stripped of everything he had attained in Scientology — he was an OT7 and a trained auditor. So he rebelled — "I was being really defiant," he said — and got slapped with more work assignments.
In August 1990, he was up on a scaffold painting the inside of a garage when in came Miscavige, assistants in tow.
Miscavige told Fisher to come down.
"He put his hands around my throat," Fisher said, and shouted, " 'You want to sue Scientology?' "
Fisher said he collapsed and curled up as Miscavige kicked and punched him and pulled the hair on the back of his head.
Fisher stood, touched the back of his head, showed his bloody palm and told Miscavige: "You notice I did not lay one finger on you."
That was the end for Fisher. "I didn't join Scientology to see people get beat up."
Morehead said he witnessed this, as did defector Marc Headley. But Yager said he was present and, "at no time did Mr. Miscavige strike or otherwise harm Fisher."
3. Bruce Hines
Hines remembers back to the mid 1990s and the unmistakable sound of Miscavige's footsteps coming down the hall.
"Where is that m-----f-----?" he heard Miscavige shout.
Hines was in Room 106 of the Del Sol executive offices. A veteran auditor, Hines usually worked at the church's Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. He said he counseled Nicole Kidman and Kirstie Alley.
But counseling the wife of one of Miscavige's favorite speech writers had not gone well, and Hines had been called back to the base.
Hines braced himself as the footsteps drew near.
Miscavige poked his head in the office, Hines recalled, and said: "There he is."
Without another word, Hines said, "He hit me in the head. He just hit me in the head, in the side of the head," an open-handed blow.
"It did sting and it did knock me back. And then he got right up in my face and was kind of yelling at me. Then he walked out. The next thing I knew, I was on the RPF."
Scientology bills its Rehabilitation Project Force as an opportunity for wayward Sea Org members to find redemption through manual labor. Some defectors say it can be abused.
Hines said he spent three years on the RPF, on a labor crew that cleared land, painted old mobile homes and built sheds at Happy Valley, a church-owned tract about 10 miles from the base.
Finally authorized to return to the base, he reunited with his wife and their son, who was born in 1984, prior to a church ban on children imposed on Sea Org members. It took all of three weeks for him to land back on the RPF. His offense? He didn't stand up when Miscavige came into a room.
This time was worse. He lived in an 8-by-10-foot shed and slept on concrete. He couldn't talk to anyone. He was under constant guard. Letters he wrote his wife were read and returned to him. She divorced him while he toiled in isolation.
Looking back at his six years in the RPF, Hines views it as a mind-control technique.
"In the RPF, they try to get you to take responsibility. You are supposed to confront the evil things you did, and deal with those in auditing. You are there because you are evil."
"And you are there because you were destructive, and you were destructive because you were acting on your evil purposes. And I, the whole time I was in the RPF, I am trying to convince myself that it was me, it was my own fault."
In 2001, he was sent to work in the church's offices in New York City. He was on the roof, chipping tar, when the planes hit the World Trade Center. He went to ground zero and volunteered.
By 2003, Hines had lost interest in Scientology. The rich mix of life in New York, he said, "made this whole military lifestyle of the Sea Org seem kind of ludicrous."
He made his way by bus to Denver, where he had grown up. He finished college in 2006, with a degree in physics, and this summer completed his master's in electrical engineering.
4. Marc Headley
Headley made movies for Scientology. By the early 2000s, he was named a producer at Golden Era Productions, the church's umbrella division for its prized audio-visual efforts.
In 2004, Headley led Miscavige on a tour of the A/V area. Miscavige asked about a timetable on a project, and Headley said he made the mistake of answering in a "smart-aleck" tone.
He said Miscavige pushed him against a shelf unit and started punching him. He fell onto a countertop, and Miscavige continued to slug him in the chest.
When it ended, Headley said, senior Sea Org member Greg Wilhere pulled him aside and explained that Miscavige had come from a difficult meeting. Wilhere said in a written statement that Headley's entire account is "a complete lie."
A few months later, Headley was on the hot seat again. He had bought and sold equipment and an audit determined $250 was missing. Headley was ordered to the RPF.
The next morning, he sped off in his motor bike and made his way to Kansas City, where his father lived. Weeks later, his wife, Claire, made her break and joined him.
They sued Scientology in January, contending that the wages paid Sea Org members — about $75 a week — violate labor laws.
The church says the lawsuit has no merit. Sea Org members work on a "volunteer basis" and receive weekly stipends. The church covers all living, medical, dental and other expenses, which helps workers focus on their jobs, "without having to worry about paying your bills, cooking dinner, paying property taxes or this and that."
A CHANGED MAN
Most of the defectors said that the church tried to get them to stay, saying it would be a monumental mistake to give up their chance to reach eternal salvation and warning that life would be awful in the cruel world outside Scientology.
Most started their new lives with little money and few friends. Some still practice Scientology and attribute their job successes to skills the church taught them on interpersonal relationships and how to take responsibility for oneself.
For most, the issue is not the religion but the man leading it.
Russ Williams left the Scientology staff in 2004 after 29 years, most of them at the base. He says he witnessed Miscavige attack Yager, but he minimized it and kept his respect for the leader.
"One time he blew me away," said Williams, recalling when the leader yelled at him nose-to-nose but returned five minutes later with a pep talk: "I've seen you do good work. What happened?"
Sea Org life was always tough, Williams said, but there was an enthusiasm and a feeling of accomplishment that kept people going. Over time, that went away.
"The flavor was gone. It mutated."
"I think he started out meaning well," Williams said of Miscavige. "It just got to him. It just got over his grasp and he started falling into this threatening, nasty way of handling people."
Morehead, the security chief, said the same. He remembers going into town and bowling with Miscavige, and the leader smuggling in food from the burger joint across the street. And Miscavige laughing and taking pictures at Sea Org holiday events — including the time Morehead wore a tutu in the talent show.
But through the years Miscavige grew more intense, and frustrated when Scientology staff couldn't pull things off the way he wanted.
"There was this guy who once was a good guy,'' Morehead said, "who totally turned the church around from what I know L. Ron Hubbard intended it to be.''
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com.
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