Scientologists' presence in Inland area dates back to 1960s

The Press-Enterprise, California/January 15, 2008

Gilman Hot Springs -- An unauthorized biography hitting bookstands today that bashes Tom Cruise and his Scientology faith has outraged church officials internationally, but it's business as usual at the church's movie-making studios near Hemet.

Lawyers for the actor have slammed the book by British author Andrew Morton, and the Church of Scientology is threatening a $100 million lawsuit against the writer and St. Martin's Press, the publisher.

The book claims, among other things, that Cruise is secretly Scientology's second-in-command and that his daughter, Suri, was created using sperm donated by Scientology's founder, the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

"Some of the claims are quite, quite offensive," said Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the church in Los Angeles. "It really is disgusting."

Scientologists say the book is another baseless attack on their self-help-based religion, which has been viewed in some countries as a cult. But at the church's 700-acre Gold Base in Gilman Hot Springs, officials say Scientologists are too ingrained in the community to give locals a negative impression.

"I think people know us too well," said spokeswoman Catherine Fraser. "We're too prominent, we're too out there. We're too big."

Scientology has a long, sometimes stormy history in the Inland area, dating to the 1960s, when the first mission opened in Grand Terrace. In 1974, the church opened a mission -- then the largest worldwide -- near University Avenue and Lime Street in Riverside, in what is now the Life Arts Center.

But Scientology's largest presence here is the Gold Base -- home to Golden Era Productions, where all the church's training videos, books and audiotapes are made.

The compound is nestled against rolling green hills and bisected by winding, two-lane Gilman Springs Road. The movie studio is designed after a Scottish castle, with conical turrets and a sky-blue tiled roof.

Each of the three dozen buildings in the complex shares the motif. Flagstones line bright white exterior walls and gates are made of rough-hewn oak on wrought-iron hinges.

Fraser joked that people stop "about 50 times a day" just to ask what the place is.

The church bought the site, formerly a resort popular among Hollywood moguls, in 1978.

Golden Era's high-tech studios produce 300 different videos, films and audiotapes a year for distribution worldwide, along with books, television commercials and E-Meters -- the electronic devices used for personal counseling, an underlying feature of Scientology.

About 500 staff members live and work at the base, and another 100 or so non-Scientologists are employed there.

Photographs of Hubbard are everywhere, and several corridors are lined with signed photos of celebrity Scientologists, including John Travolta and Isaac Hayes.

Fraser said the site has hosted more than 100 fundraisers for local charities. She serves on the board of a youth museum, and another staff member is on the Hemet Public Library board and helped with a plan for San Jacinto's Main Street.

Fraser gives free tours of Golden Era and has hosted Riverside County leaders.

"Obviously their main motivation in having us tour the facility is to let us know who they are," said County Supervisor John Tavaglione. "I got a good feeling from them."

Not all visitors to Golden Era have been fans, however.

A longtime Scientology critic was jailed last year -- after seven years on the run -- for making terrorist threats against the group both online and outside the complex. Keith Henson was released in September, his attorney said, but is appealing his conviction.

Muriel Dufresne, another spokeswoman for Golden Era, said she has not been too bothered by Scientology's critics.

"There is such a thing as freedom of speech," Dufresne said. "People can say what they want. But they need to get their facts straight."

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