Battle with Church of Scientology not over

San Antonio Express-News/March 9, 2012

Debbie Cook is not alone.

I mean this in two ways.

First, Cook believes people are following her. As a former top official of the Church of Scientology whom the church has expelled and sued, she considers this de rigueur.

I spoke with her this week at the office of her attorney, Ray Jeffrey, in Bulverde.

"The surveillance of my office, as far as I can tell, is limited to when Debbie is here," Jeffrey said. "They've come through the parking lot before with video cameras and videoed the license plates."

Cook agreed.

"They know where I am," she said, "and also who else is here."

I glanced outside at my beat-up Toyota and decided to stay.

For nearly three decades, Cook had shunned the media, as any good Scientologist would.

She joined the Sea Org, a religious order in the church, when she was 17.

She later rose to the rank of captain of the Flag Service Organization, the church's spiritual and lucrative headquarters in Clearwater, Fla.

By 2007, she was working what she calls "extreme and insane" hours at the behest of the church's leader, David Miscavige, shuttling between Florida and California, England and islands in the Caribbean.

That's when her life began to go awry. That's when, Cook says, she was degraded, imprisoned and tortured along with other top church officials.

If I were telling her story now in a courtroom, this is where the church's legal team would object.

Although it has sued Cook, the secretive church contends that nothing that happened while she worked there is relevant to the case. It says she breached a contract she signed on Oct. 19, 2007, the day she and her husband left the church.

The sweeping nondisclosure agreement forbade the pair, among other things, from disparaging the church.

On Jan. 1, Cook sent an email to about 3,000 Scientologists questioning the church's practices. In it, she suggests the exalted position of Miscavige is a corruption of the religion itself, which she still practices.

In Jeffrey's office, she went further.

"He's a tyrant," she told me. "He's vicious beyond belief."

This is the second way in which Cook is not alone.

In recent years, a growing number of defectors have gone public with similar accusations, claiming Scientology, with Miscavige at the top, has become a cruel, violent cult. See "The Truth Rundown," an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times.

Seeking an injunction last month to silence Cook, the church unleashed her own story.

Taking the stand, she testified about "The Hole," something she says is a series of double-wide trailers at a desert base in California.

She says she was imprisoned there for weeks with other church officials, beaten and made to sleep on the floor with ants and stand for hours in a trash can while being doused with cold water.

The church denies this. Its lawyers say it wouldn't matter if it were true.

Cook and her husband spent $100,000 the church gave them when they left and moved to San Antonio. This "ratified" the agreement she signed and later breached, they say.

Cook says she was forced to sign and take the money to escape confinement.

A judge on Friday granted Jeffrey, her pugnacious attorney, more time to mount a defense. Through discovery, he's seeking evidence that Cook was imprisoned and tortured.

George Spencer, an attorney for the church, included in his arguments a notable statement.

"What's an appropriate way to discipline within the church," he said, "such things are off-limits to the courts."

I chased Spencer after the hearing to ask about this.

Standing with him at the elevators was a man who'd sat quietly among the church's entourage at the hearing, taking notes.

In a beige trench coat, he had mussed hair and a stealthy bearing. A few times, I had noticed him observing me.

I asked his name.

"You don't need my name," he said, and the elevator doors closed.

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