FBI's Scientology investigation: Balancing the First Amendment with charges of abuse and forced labor

The Tampa Bay Times/January 13, 2013

John Brousseau hadn't been seen for hours, not at the afternoon muster and not at the dinner break. That's when they got concerned.

At 6 a.m. he had driven his black Ford Excursion out of the Church of Scientology's huge compound east of Los Angeles, guards at the gate waving as usual.

A 32-year member of the church's religious order, the Sea Org, and a master craftsman, Brousseau often did special jobs for Scientology's leader, David Miscavige. He could come and go from the church's International Base with a freedom other workers didn't enjoy. But now it was approaching 7:30 p.m. And he wasn't back.

Two Scientology staffers found a note in his room.

By now you've noticed I'm gone. I couldn't stand to see my Sea Org friends so mistreated. I won't support it anymore. Goodbye.

Where had he gone?

Within days, church private investigators spotted him in south Texas. He was meeting with Marty Rathbun - a former top deputy to Miscavige and now his most vocal critic.

Four church officers flew there from California in a charter jet. They confronted Brousseau before dawn one morning in a motel hallway. "Get lost," he told them.

Two days later, Scientology's newest runaway was singing to the FBI.

Isolated work sites. Limited communication with the outside. Psychological pressure to obey. Guards poised to chase after runaways.

The Church of Scientology imposes a raft of restrictions and mental controls on its religious workers, who grind on, abiding 100-hour workweeks.

In mid 2009, two FBI agents based in Los Angeles quietly started investigating the church's treatment of its workers. Investigators continued through 2010 and into 2011. It was the FBI's first known criminal investigation of Scientology in 30 years.

The agents focused on possible human trafficking - obtaining labor by force or the threat of force.

The FBI won't confirm it investigated the church. Nor will the U.S. Attorney's Office, which works in tandem with the FBI. The Department of Justice in Washington returned a Freedom of Information Act request saying no records are available.

Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw said, "The church has no knowledge that this 'examining' ever occurred."

But the Tampa Bay Times found the FBI conducted a sustained, methodical investigation.

Two agents traveled to several states and questioned dozens of former Sea Org members as well as others familiar with church operations.

The Times interviewed 15 key witnesses, who provide for the first time a vivid portrait of the investigation.

The FBI authorized some church defectors to covertly record certain conversations. At least one witness agreed to wear a wire, if needed. The FBI obtained aerial surveillance video of the church's remote facility outside L.A. Agents even talked of raiding the property.

Through it all, the church continued to tout itself as mankind's only hope, a beacon for human rights. Miscavige christened more than two dozen multimillion-dollar churches, calling them "islands of sanity" for a troubled world. And the church's PR machine credited him for leading a "Renaissance" of the religion L. Ron Hubbard started in 1954.

But as church brass cut ribbon after ribbon, long-silent Sea Org defectors stepped forward in bunches, speaking out to the media about their experiences on the inside. The FBI easily found them.

So did the church. Its private eyes spied on many of the ex-insiders who were working with the FBI. Teams of church officers fanned out to confront them.

A jittery Brousseau took to wearing elaborate disguises when meeting with investigators.

Scientology also hired a former Justice Department prosecutor and supervisor to make contacts inside the department.

The FBI plowed on. But the agents started losing momentum in the second year. A key turning point came when the church won a victory against human trafficking claims in federal civil court. First Amendment guarantees of free exercise of religion helped Scientology prevail in those lawsuits.

In the end, the FBI's criminal investigation yielded no charges.

Church whistle-blower Mike Rinder, who was one of the FBI's confidential informants, wonders if the Constitution extends too much protection to the church. He has alleged Miscavige physically assaulted him 50 times during his years in the Sea Org. The church denies Miscavige ever hit anyone. Rinder said he also spent extended periods in forced confinement.

"To me, it's like trying to have an argument about whether segregation in 1960 was legal," he said. "Yeah, it was legal... . Was it moral? No."

It began with a mother, angry and frustrated.

Susan Lentsch allowed her daughter, Kate Olson, to join the Sea Org at 17. Kate left their home in Portland, Ore., moved to L.A. and went to work as a data clerk in a church office building on Hollywood Boulevard.

She got one vacation in 15 years and the church cut it short. In all that time, Lentsch saw her daughter for parts of six days.

A media report about human trafficking got Lentsch thinking. She researched it on the Internet, attended a community workshop and talked about her daughter's situation with a friend.

Later, the friend called the FBI office in L.A. The man answering the phone took the information, but added: This is a long shot.

Minutes later, he called back.

FBI agents wanted to meet.

On July 20, 2009, Lentsch and friend Susan Elliott walked into FBI offices, accompanied by two others. Former Sea Org member Astra Woodcraft had worked in the same building as Lentsch's daughter. L.A. attorney Graham Berry had represented several parishioners who said the church ripped them off. He was hounded for years by its staffers and private eyes.

The four met for 90 minutes with FBI Special Agents Tricia Whitehill and Valerie Venegas, human trafficking investigators assigned to the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Lentsch and Elliott gave the agents a notebook they had compiled the night before. Four inches thick, it contained personal stories from Lentsch and others.

The notebook included the Times' investigative series "The Truth Rundown," published a month earlier. It detailed the accusations of defectors Rathbun, Rinder and two others who said Miscavige had assaulted and bullied his deputies for years, encouraging others to attack colleagues seen as unproductive. The church confirmed physical violence occurred among managers but said Miscavige never was involved.

The agents said they had read the series. They turned to Woodcraft. She had joined the Sea Org at 14. Many children signed up in their mid teens, she told investigators. They worked full-time like the adult members. There was little time for schooling.

Woodcraft explained she became an "ethics officer." A big part of her job: Keep Sea Org members from leaving the fold.

You can ask to leave, she told the agents, but the exiting process, called "routing out," often takes months. And it can be grueling.

She explained why. Colleagues heaped shame on you for quitting. Ethics officers conducted daily one-on-one confessionals called "security checks." They pounded into your head that the outside world is hostile and cruel. If you leave, they'd say, you'll have no contact with family and friends who are Scientologists because they will "disconnect." You'll owe the church thousands of dollars for the free services you got. You'll have little money, no credit, no job.

"Almost all the time they stayed," Woodcraft told the agents.

Those who insisted on routing out were watched, day and night, so they wouldn't run away. One night, Woodcraft was assigned to make sure a "degraded being" didn't escape. She told the FBI she pulled the mattress off her bed and dragged it into a hallway outside his room.

Before falling asleep, she looped a string around the knob of his door and tied the other end to her wrist. He didn't take off that night, but later routed out.

Woodcraft did, too. She told the FBI how: She purposely got pregnant.

She had married a Sea Org member at 15, with her father's consent. Four years later she was weary of long hours and Sea Org pressures. She hid her pregnancy until it was too late to abort. The Sea Org, which prohibits members from having children, discharged her in 1998. She was 4½ months pregnant.

She now is 34 and an architect in L.A. Her daughter is a teenager.

The FBI agents said they wanted to talk with Woodcraft again.

The agents asked the four visitors if they knew other Sea Org defectors, preferably more recent ones.

They did - Claire and Marc Headley, of nearby Burbank. They are the couple whose claims of human trafficking in federal civil court would become so important later. Copies of their suits were in the notebook Lentsch gave the agents.

The agents said they were already watching the Headleys' cases.

Berry, the attorney, predicted the church would find out about the FBI investigation and try to kill it. He told the investigators to watch out for two Washington, D.C., lawyers, Monique Yingling and her husband, Gerald Feffer. They had handled several sensitive legal matters for the church. Feffer once had worked in the Justice Department.

The agents said their investigation would be ultra-secret. Not even their colleagues would know.

Their work would take time, they said. Just because you don't hear from us doesn't mean we're not making progress.

And don't talk about this with anyone, they both said, emphatically.

Driving away from the federal building, Berry said to Lentsch and Elliott: "This is really going to go somewhere."

The federal Human Trafficking Protection Act of 2000 says slaps and beatings are among the fear-inducing practices that can force workers into submission.

Physical restraints, isolating workers, fencing them in, locking work sites and holding workers under guard can create an environment of forced labor.

Psychological pressures such as intimidation, humiliation and emotional abuse also can be considered coercive.

The Headleys' lawsuits and the allegations of former church insiders may well have prompted the FBI to take a look at the church, said Michael L. Seigel, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia and later first assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa in the late '90s. He envisioned how the investigation may have started.

"You see these people come forward with their lawsuit," said Seigel, now a professor at the University of Florida Law School and director of UF's Criminal Justice Center. "And the FBI takes interest... . They have this statute. They open this investigation.

"Some prosecutors are more creative ... and more aggressive than others. A prosecutor looks at the statute, looks at some of the preliminary facts, and says: 'I think I can do that. I think I can fit that in. This looks like that kind of behavior to me. Let's develop some more facts. Let's see if we can put (a case) together that's going to get these guys.' "

Two weeks after they interviewed Lentsch and the others, Whitehill and Venegas interviewed Marc Headley.

A 15-year Sea Org member, Headley had escaped, or "blown," from Scientology's tightly guarded International Base in 2005. A year later, he started posting on anti-Scientology websites, using the pseudonym "Blownforgood."

Blownforgood claimed bad things had happened at the so-called Int Base, which is near the town of Hemet, about 80 miles east of L.A.

Workers going without sleep. Physical abuse. Degrading punishments.

The FBI agents told Headley they had read many of his posts. Headley talked to them for six hours.

Claire Headley met investigators a few days later, also for about six hours.

Claire was 34, Marc 36. Both had been embedded in the insular world of Scientology since childhood. Raised in Scientology families, they started working for the Sea Org at 16. Neither was schooled beyond the 10th grade.

The church assigned them to jobs at the Int Base. They met and soon married, still in their late teens.

Marc became a top manager in the church's film production unit. Claire rose to an administrative role in the Religious Technology Center, which assures Scientology services are properly administered.

They and hundreds of colleagues lived and worked under incredibly rigid restrictions, they each told the FBI.

No one could leave the base without a supervisor's permission. The workday started soon after 8 and often stretched past midnight Monday through Saturday. Sundays, they started shortly after noon.

Social time was limited. Cellphones were prohibited and Internet access denied, except in rare circumstances. Mail was censored. Passports locked away.

Sea Org security guards watched the perimeter fencing, which was equipped with motion sensors and topped in places with spikes and razor wire.

Dozens of workers tried running away, some repeatedly. But Sea Org pursuit teams caught most and brought them back to face isolation, humiliating labor and interrogations about why they left.

No one wanted that, the Headleys told the FBI.

Or to be disciplined.

Marc Headley said he and six other members of a film crew had to scrub the base's kitchen with toothbrushes - walls, floors and grease trap - because Miscavige wasn't satisfied with the final scenes of a training film they had shot.

Headley and about 100 other Sea Org managers whose work had not met expectations had to wade into the base's sewer aeration ponds to remove human waste. They filled buckets for two days.

Staffers occasionally were forced to jump in a lake with their clothes on and go back to work sopping wet. The reasons: wash away bad intentions - and endure public humiliation.

One night, Miscavige ordered top Sea Org officers to play a cut-throat game of musical chairs. Losers were threatened with immediate transfers to far flung church outposts, away from loved ones. Miscavige didn't carry out the threat, but let it linger for days.

Discipline also turned physical.

Marc Headley told the agents Miscavige once kicked him and on another occasion punched him in the face.

Both Headleys said they saw church officers strike subordinates. Marc Headley said he did it to his staffers.

"It's a culture of violence," he told investigators.

The attacks were never reported to authorities. That would have been considered treasonous.

Claire Headley told the FBI she had two abortions during their first four years of marriage. Her supervisors threatened her with heavy manual labor if she didn't abort, she said. Other women went through the same ordeal, she said, a charge the church denies.

In 2004, 12 years into the Headleys' marriage, ethics officers were threatening to put Marc on a work detail that would isolate him, perhaps for years, from his wife and colleagues. Officers alleged he misappropriated $200.

He fled the base one morning in January 2005 on a motorbike he'd been allowed to keep. Two security guards chased him, but he got away after a sheriff's deputy intervened.

Claire got off the base three weeks later by convincing her bosses her contact lenses were bothering her.

At a Walmart optical shop, she ditched a colleague assigned to watch her and took a cab to the bus station. She bought tickets to Kansas City, Mo., where Marc was staying with his father.

But when her Greyhound stopped in Las Vegas, two church officers were waiting at the terminal.

They scolded her for betraying the Sea Org. Her Scientology family would shun her, they said. She would be alone in a cruel world.

They insisted she go back with them.

Claire had an 80-minute wait. She walked to the center of the waiting area and plopped down on the gray ceramic tile floor.

"If you touch me, I'll scream," she said.

It worked.

Four years later, she and her husband became "confidential human sources" for the FBI.

Scientology long has argued Sea Org practices are in line with those of other religious orders.

Roman Catholic nuns and brothers and Buddhist monks live in insular environments. Many orders impose lifestyle restrictions, such as limiting access to the outside.

"The aim ... is to cut off the religious person from the distractions of the world so they may attain spiritual light or reform errant ways," said Frank K. Flinn, adjunct religious studies professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He has studied Scientology since 1976.

Flinn toured Scientology's International Base in 2009. He later provided the church a sworn statement filed in the Headley case.

He wrote that the Sea Org's communal lifestyle and religious activities conformed with other orders and were similar to what he experienced as a young man while living a monastic life as a Franciscan friar.

"Every major aspect of my life was governed by rules of the order," he said. He added he accepted the restrictions as a way to achieve salvation.

Many religions also have imposed spiritual discipline "to indoctrinate members into the higher stages of spiritual life and correct the erring believer," Flinn said. Scientology's disciplinary procedures were written by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw told the Times that Scientology's International Base, where the Headleys were assigned, is a wonderful place to work. It encompasses 750 acres and also is home to Scientology's $150 million film production studio.

Pouw denied Scientology ever held any church workers against their will.

The base's fencing and other security measures are designed to keep out thieves and protect the staff, she said. As many as 900 Sea Org workers have lived and worked there at a given time.

They and the other 5,000 Sea Org members worldwide are a "tough and dedicated group," she said.

The church disciplines wayward workers, she said, but she stressed it "does not violate any laws in exercising ecclesiastical discipline or anything else."

Scientology's own documents, however, reveal a long-standing pattern of physical assault within the ranks.

In 2009, the church gave the Times sworn statements from 22 Sea Org members who said three former church officers - Rathun, Rinder and Tom DeVocht - had attacked co-workers before leaving the Sea Org. The church's intent was to discredit the three men as news sources and show they were the brutal ones, not Miscavige.

But the documents never explained why church officers were allowed to continue punching, slapping and choking people - for years, by the church's own admission.

Staffers reported being thrown against walls, jerked by the collar, led by the ear, taken down in headlocks and tackled in their offices - more than 100 incidents over a decade.

Some workers stated they were afraid to complain.

Pouw said: "You have twisted their statements to imply there was some 'culture of violence,' which did not and does not exist."

Rathbun, Rinder and DeVocht told the Times they regret their actions.

For the Headleys, violence factored into their decision to stay and work, said Robert V. Levine, a professor at Fresno State University and a scholar in the psychology of persuasion.

"Force induces fear, and fear leads to outward compliance," he said in a sworn statement provided to the Headleys after reviewing depositions they gave in their lawsuits.

Even more controlling were the church's social and psychological pressures, Levine said.

Scientology needed members like the Headleys to commit to rigorous work, he said. Total dedication became their normalcy. Raised in Scientology - as are many Sea Org members - they "knew virtually no other way of thinking," Levine said. Leaving would be rebellious, deviant and immoral.

"Scientology had, through the totality of its coercions and abuse," Levine said, "deprived the Headleys of the ability to exercise free will... . The vast majority of 'normal' people would have reacted just as the Headleys did."

On Nov. 9, 2009, four months into their investigation, agents Whitehill and Venegas met in Texas with Rathbun, who served for years as Miscavige's No. 2. They asked him to drive to San Antonio from his home near Corpus Christi - about 150 miles.

Don't let anyone follow you, they told him.

Rathbun had an insider's perspective on the church's operations. He had fled the Int Base in 2004, escaping on his motorcycle late one night after concluding Sea Org management had become intolerably abusive and chaotic under Miscavige.

He met the agents at a hotel near San Antonio's stylish downtown River Walk.

"The church absolutely knows about this investigation," he insisted. "They know everybody you have spoken to."

One of Rathbun's jobs under Miscavige was to guard against court challenges and prying government agencies.

Among them: the FBI. The agency scrutinized the church from its earliest days. Hubbard called it persecution and in 1966 created a special unit, the Guardian's Office, to ward off enemies.

The IRS became an adversary a year later when it declared Scientology a commercial enterprise and took away its tax-exempt status. Guardian's Office staffers responded by infiltrating the IRS and the Justice Department.

In 1977, the FBI struck back with raids on church offices in L.A. and Washington, D.C. Agents carried out 48,000 records, many from IRS files. Eleven Guardian's Office staffers were convicted of obstruction of justice or conspiracy.

Hubbard was named an unindicted co-conspirator. Fearing the FBI was bearing down and fighting numerous lawsuits, he went into seclusion in Southern California, where he stayed until his death in 1986.

Whitehill and Venegas asked Rathbun if he thought the church would try infiltrating their unit.

No, Rathbun said.

But he added: "I can guarantee you the church's machinery is already in motion in Washington."

It works like this, Rathbun said:

  • Learn the investigating agency's internal decisionmakers.

  • Identify people who can influence them; often they are former agency staffers now in private sector jobs.

  • Hire those people to persuade their former colleagues to back off.

"It's routine," Rathbun said.

He predicted Gerald Feffer was leading the effort. That's the same Washington lawyer the agents had heard about in their first round of interviews.

"Neither I nor Jerry Feffer had anything to do with derailing any FBI investigation," said Monique Yingling, a church attorney and Feffer's wife. She said Rathbun is "not to be believed."

In Rathbun's five-hour interview with the FBI, Miscavige's former right-hand-man described oppressive workplace conditions and recounted incidents of abuse he had seen. He detailed how he and other church officers had chased after Sea Org runaways, often across several states. Eight days before his FBI interview, the Times had published a three-part series, "Chased By Their Church." It investigated the church's practice of pursuing those who take off without permission. Church brass feared runaways would reveal secrets.

Rathbun also threw the FBI a curve. He suggested human trafficking might be a tough case to build. The church can say workplace restrictions, discipline, even chasing after runaways are constitutionally protected religious practices, rooted in Scientology scripture.

Think about obstruction of justice, he said. In the past, the church had destroyed records while under investigation, he told the agents. He did it himself in Clearwater after the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died after 17 days in the care of church staffers.

Whitehill started investigating Scientology after helping bust a Guatemalan sex trafficking ring.

Twenty-eight women and girls, some as young as 12, had been forced into prostitution in L.A. to repay smuggling costs of up to $20,000 apiece.

Whitehill had tracked down the families. They said recruiters had promised that the women and girls would work in good jobs and send money home. But once in L.A., the traffickers confined them in apartments, cut off outside communication and threatened to beat any who tried to escape.

Prosecutors won nine convictions. Prison sentences ran up to 40 years.

Assessing Scientology and the Sea Org proved more complex.

The First Amendment generally bars courts from examining conduct that would require delving into religious beliefs or practices.

Also, Sea Org members were volunteers. Unlike the Guatemalans tricked into servitude, Scientology's workers signed agreements describing a life of hard work and discipline.

But the law also recognizes that people change their minds, said former FBI Agent Michael German, speaking generally and not about Scientology.

"Somebody can consent to something that later on they decide they don't want to participate in," said German, now a policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "And they should be protected from continuing abuse or confinement, certainly."

And the First Amendment doesn't give religious groups blanket immunity from criminal prosecution.

Hitting or locking up someone without their permission is a crime whether in a religious or secular setting. But when the doors are open and the coercion has a religious dimension, it's less clear cut, said Eugene Volokh, professor of religious freedom and criminal law at the University of California at Los Angeles law school.

He cited an example, not speaking specifically about Scientology:

A church is accused of holding people in an unlocked building. One is asked why he stayed. He says he feared being beaten up. Another says he feared excommunication.

"That's the sort of thing where if I were an FBI agent I would want to tread carefully," Volokh said.

He added: "You want to make sure you go after them for what they don't have a right to do as opposed to what they do have a right to do, such as threaten excommunication."

One month after interviewing Rathbun, Whitehill traveled to Clearwater and questioned Rinder, DeVocht and Amy Scobee, the other whistle-blower in the Times story "The Truth Rundown." The three lived then in Central Florida.

Scobee had mailed to the FBI 13 sworn statements written by church officers who branded Rinder and Rathbun as violent. ABC television had provided the documents to her, seeking her comment for an upcoming story.

"They seem to be clueless that these acts are against the law," she wrote to the FBI. "Police should have been called."

She reiterated the point in a meeting with Whitehill and described other abuses she had seen during 26 years on the inside.

DeVocht was in the church 28 years. He rose to become a top officer in Clearwater before transferring to the Int Base in 2000.

Whitehill asked if he thought staffers there were trapped.

"Physically, no," DeVocht said. "Mentally, yes."

DeVocht was one of the few who managed to escape. He climbed over a gate in May 2005 and refused to go back.

Rinder stayed in two more years. He called it "confinement."

For months at a time, he and up to 100 church managers languished night and day in a small, guarded office building at the Int Base that came to be known as "the Hole." Miscavige sent people there whom he deemed incompetent or disloyal, Rinder said.

Life inside was grim, said Rinder, who for two decades had been Scientology's chief spokesman. Fights broke out. Mob rule took over.

The church pulled him out in February 2007 and sent him to England to head off an investigative TV reporter. By then, Rinder had been in the Hole on and off for about three years. He defected that June by simply walking away from his office and never going back.

Rinder told Whitehill that in all his 34 years in the Sea Org, he'd never seen anything like the Hole. But it had been almost three years since he had been there. He didn't know if it was still the same.

Whitehill met Scobee's husband, Mat Pesch, on that same trip, in a restaurant at the Clearwater Beach Hilton. Twenty-seven years in the Sea Org, he had worked at the Int Base and as a finance officer in Clearwater.

Restrictions on staffers are tight in Clearwater, too, he said. The 1,000 or so Sea Org members who staff Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters are isolated and watched closely by church security. No one runs away without being pursued.

He drew Whitehill a map showing where staffer passports were kept in a locked filing cabinet in a downtown church building. She surprised him with a question.

Could he infiltrate the Sea Org and send out information?

Yeah, I think I could.

How would you do that?

Knock on the door of OSA (the Office of Special Affairs). I'd tell them I want to be on the church's side. They'd be motivated to talk to me.

How would they check you out?

They'd put me on the e-meter, Pesch said. That's the device similar to a lie detector that Scientologists use in counseling sessions.

Could you beat it?

I think I could.

Whitehill said he shouldn't get too excited. It was just an idea. Not a request.

When he got home, he told Scobee.

"No way you're doing that," she said firmly.

In early February 2010, Whitehill and Venegas traveled to Portland, Ore., to visit more former Sea Org members.

Gary Morehead told the agents he had seen Miscavige physically attack other staffers. For years as base security chief, he had gone through staffers' mail in search of bank statements, family addresses and other information that might help track them down if they ever ran away. He estimated chasing after more than 200 runaways in 15 years. Only five or six didn't come back.

The agents asked Jeff Hawkins, a former church marketing manager, about restrictions that kept staffers from leaving the base and communicating with outsiders. They wanted to hear about the church holding passports and working people 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

He told them that in the early days of the Hole he would enter the small building late at night to get approvals for work due on Miscavige's desk by morning. He saw Sea Org executives splayed across the floor and curled under desks, getting whatever sleep they could.

To Hawkins, who left Scientology in 2005, Whitehill and Venegas seemed thorough and serious as they tried to understand how the church mentally controlled its staff.

"Orwell says this very well in 1984, that true mind control isn't somebody else controlling your mind," Hawkins told the Times. "It's you controlling your own mind, and that's what a cult does. It teaches you thought-stopping patterns and black-and-white thinking that hampers your ability to objectively evaluate the world."

By the time the agents left Portland, they had taken an exhaustive look inside Scientology. But the accounts they collected were all two, three, four years old.

Then: a gift.

A fresh runaway.

In March 2010, John Brousseau heard talk around the International Base about a CNN report on violence in the upper ranks.

Curious, he watched the five-part series at night on the new iPhone the church had given him that Christmas - a reward for his work heading up a renovation of Scientology's cruise ship, the Freewinds.

CNN reported allegations from Rathbun, Rinder, Scobee and DeVocht that Miscavige physically abused his staff.

One church official, Jennifer Linson, emphatically told CNN that Miscavige never struck DeVocht, her former husband. Her comment stunned Brousseau. Around the base, the attack on DeVocht had been common knowledge.

He used his iPhone to read other media reports. He found "The Truth Rundown" and saw videos of Rathbun and others telling their stories. They all mentioned the Hole.

For the first time, Brousseau realized he wasn't the only one who had seen people mistreated at the International Base. At 53, after 32 years in Scientology, he made a snap decision: "I'm out of here."

Over the next five days, he secretly moved his belongings to a storage locker in the town of Beaumont, 12 miles away. On April 22, 2010, he drove out the gate for the last time.

Brousseau stopped by the storage locker and then the bank, where he withdrew all his money. He drove 30 miles south, hoping to confuse church security guards who might be tracking his cellphone. He destroyed the phone on the roadside, then headed north. In Carson City, Nev., he bought a cheap phone and a notebook computer at a Walmart and called Rathbun.

Brousseau worried aloud that Rathbun would think he was a spy for Miscavige.

Indeed, Rathbun had his doubts. Was Brousseau a Trojan horse?

Despite his suspicions, he suggested Brousseau come visit him in Texas.

Brousseau's truck rumbled east along the back roads of Arizona and New Mexico. The passing desert blushed with spring colors.

Life for Scientology's newest defector had taken an intriguing new turn.

So too would the FBI's investigation.

Coming Monday: The investigators get a break when a new witness emerges - but a court ruling presents obstacles to their case.

How the Times reported the story

This two-part series is based on extensive interviews with at least 15 witnesses who participated in the FBI investigation of the Church of Scientology. It also draws on a diverse collection of records, many of which support the witnesses' accounts.

The Times reviewed police reports, court documents, witnesses' letters to FBI investigators, email exchanges between agents and witnesses and other notes and writings compiled by witnesses.

The FBI declined to comment. Witnesses spoke with the Times after hearing from the agents or from other witnesses that the investigation had stalled.

Elements of the opening scene of this report - John Brousseau fleeing Scientology's compound and leaving behind a goodbye note - are confirmed in Riverside County sheriff's report. The church called the sheriff one month after Brousseau ran away to report its suspicion he had taken computer information.

The scene describing the origins of the investigation is drawn from interviews with the four witnesses who met with the FBI in Los Angeles in July 2009. It is supported by two lengthy letters that one witness, L.A. attorney Graham Berry, sent to the FBI days later. Both letters refer to the meeting and some of the topics discussed.

Claire and Marc Headley's recollections of what they told the FBI are supported by several records. The Times reviewed more than 20 emails they exchanged with the agents. Their sworn depositions in federal civil court align with what the Headleys said they told the FBI about church working conditions.

Another witness, Amy Scobee, also wrote the FBI. Unaware agents were examining the church, she urged the bureau to investigate the church's treatment of its workers. She included 13 sworn statements from current church managers who described physical violence they had seen or experienced while working for the church. Scobee had gotten the statements from ABC News, which was interviewing her for a story on Scientology. Her letter and the statements support her recollections of what she told an investigator.

Emails between the FBI and witness Jeff Hawkins document that agents traveled to Portland, Ore., to question him.

The dialogue between agents and witnesses comes from the recollections of the witnesses.

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