Squirrel busters leave Ingleside on the Bay

Corpus Christi Caller, Texas/January 14, 2012

Corpus Christi -- The bizarre saga of a Scientology film crew in Ingleside on the Bay may have come to a close. No one has seen a Squirrel Buster since September.

Residents have turned their attention back to more mundane matters: equipping the new firetruck, hammering out a water supply contract with neighboring Ingleside, celebrating one local couple's 60th anniversary, a little fishing here and there.

But in one long, surreal summer, something bewildering happened here — something that showed what this little seaside hamlet is made of.

For five months, the Squirrel Busters flitted around in their golf cart and popped up with cameras everywhere Marty Rathbun went, even filming him from a paddleboat in the canal behind his house. They engaged in what the sheriff's chief deputy and the county attorney called provocation until Rathbun snatched a pair of sunglasses from one of the Squirrel Busters, leaving a scratch on his forehead. They filed charges to have Rathbun arrested for assault; the county attorney dropped the case.

They peppered him with questions about unauthorized e-meters and other squirrelly business that, more or less, made no sense to anyone who lives here.

The townspeople held council meetings, put up signs warning away the film crews, and stuck up for Rathbun, despite not really knowing him or his role in what has been dubbed one of the world's most secretive religions.

"I anticipated I was going to have to defend myself" to the neighbors, Rathbun said. "I did not once have to defend myself on what I believe and what I practice."

Checkered past

To most, it is known simply as the religion of the stars, of Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

To some, it is science fiction. To others, a cult.

To Rathbun, 55, the philosophy of Scientology is the way to unlock a person's full potential, to handle any situation, to turn pain into peace.

Rathbun surely needed peace. In the years before he moved to South Texas, he was emerging from the crisis of his life, having blown the church for good in 2004. In Scientology, blowing means defecting from the organized religion, and the act is as severe as its name implies.

Scores of former church members say they pay a heavy penalty for deserting: The church forces friends and family members to cut ties with the defector in a policy known as disconnection. The church says that no such policy exists and that members may choose on their own to sever ties.

For Rathbun, leaving the church meant leaving everything he had ever known. He'd been a member since age 21, when, struggling to get his schizophrenic brother out of a mental hospital, the church's promise of structure and new skills — like how to communicate effectively — seemed like just what he needed. He soon joined the ranks of the church's elite, militarylike leadership corps, the Sea Org.

Rathbun steadily earned promotions and greater responsibility and, before his departure, was one of the highest ranking members of the church, responsible for external affairs. This included helping the church earn and defend its tax-exempt status from the IRS, and defending the church after the death of Lisa McPherson, who perished in 1995 while under the church's care for mental instability. The church eschews psychiatry and psychiatric drugs, instead relying on counseling processes known as auditing. Rathbun says he destroyed evidence to protect the church.

Rathbun left the church after being unable to reconcile his Scientology beliefs with the episodes of mental and physical abuse he and other defectors say they saw inflicted by church leaders, and that Rathbun himself inflicted on subordinates. The abuse, he and other defectors have described, included physical beatings and the constant specter of separation from loved ones.

He sneaked out of a church compound one night with a motorcycle, leaving everything else behind.

He eventually wound up in Ingleside on the Bay, a place he could lay low and begin a mental and spiritual recovery. The town is roughly equidistant from the church's major headquarters in California and Florida.


The residents of Ingleside on the Bay knew none of this past.

Rathbun never ran through the streets proselytizing with L. Ron Hubbard books nor decrying his former church.

He welcomed guests but kept to himself and to his wife, Monique, whom he credits with helping him emerge from the fog of his 27 years in the church.

And he quietly began to build an Internet-based movement of Scientologists who abandoned the church but not its core teachings.

In a hundred other Texas towns, Rathbun would have been the outcast, just as squirrelly as the strange film crews that suddenly showed up to bug him with incredible persistence. Squirrel, in Scientology parlance, is a heretic, and the crew said it was here to expose Rathbun's wayward, unsanctioned practices, which included counseling other former members. Rathbun and a former member of the crew said they were here simply to harass him for speaking out against the church, its fundraising practices and abuses.

Rathbun's neighbors started approaching him about the film crews they'd seen riding through town in golf carts with head-mounted cameras.

"It's kind of weird," they'd tell him. "I don't cotton to this stuff."

Rathbun would start off by saying, "I guess you've Googled me, right?"

They had.

"So I guess maybe you want to ask questions?"

But they didn't demand answers about his background, his role in the church, the abuses he had committed before leaving, his personal beliefs.

Instead, Rathbun said, their response was: "I thought this nation was predicated on religious freedom. I don't know who the hell they think they are coming halfway across the country telling you how you should practice your religion."

Making waves

It wasn't long before they put up signs in their driveways saying Squirrel Busters aren't welcome.

Rathbun was shocked. To Ingleside on the Bay residents, he was one of their own, even if he was an outsider.

Reflecting on last summer, that's Jo Ann Ehmann's lasting impression of what the Squirrel Busters did to her town.

"I think the long-term effect will probably be not much of anything," she said. "But I think the immediate happening was it brought some residents to stand together that otherwise wouldn't necessarily have done so, and I think that it showed that the people here have compassion for somebody that they don't even know, that is being wrongly messed with or harassed or accused of something."

Ehmann is a member of the City Council that, having heard neighbors' complaints about lurid pamphlets left on their doors by the Squirrel Busters, and worries about crews surveilling Rathbun at his home, at restaurants, when traveling, tried to ban filming in the city.

Mayor Howard Gillespie said the city knew it wouldn't be able to enforce the ordinance, but it opened a dialogue with the Squirrel Busters, who numbered at any given time from three to six. Some were Scientologists; others were hired hands.

City leaders assume the move-out is permanent. Squirrel Busters leader John Allender couldn't be reached for comment.

Rathbun is still making waves in the Scientology world. He recently appeared on "Good Morning America" to talk about the impact of another high-ranking church member's criticisms of the church.

But about the only thing making waves in Ingleside on the Bay these days is the wind.

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