Sixteen years later, Betsy Perkins is sobbing as she talks about the day she ran away from Scientology. "I thought I was handing in my ticket to eternity," she says. Now 56, a graphic artist in Dallas, she says she is going public to offer her own "first-hand account of what happened to a person who was in there." She spent 17 years in Scientology's work force, the Sea Org, moved by the church's mantra that Scientologists held the future of the planet in their hands. She tells of a life filled with intense repetition of Scientology's precepts and "ethics" and a grueling lifestyle where Sea Org members constantly needed to prove their fealty to the church. If your bosses had doubts about your performance or your thoughts, you faced humiliating work and periods of sleep deprivation. But when eternal salvation is the reward, Perkins said, you come to believe it is all worth it. Even when she decided she couldn't take it anymore and ran from the Sea Org, she fretted she was doing something terrible. "If anybody had come and talked to me, I would have gone (back). I would have gone willingly," she says. "Anybody could have taken me back. Easily ... I was so scared." Telling her story to the Times by phone from her office, rattled her. "I am sitting in a conference room and I am shaking now," she said. It is a story that began in May 1977.
Betsy was 23, a maid at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. She had dropped out of the University of New Mexico to follow a big, blond British guy into the church. She married Chris Byrne three months after signing her billion-year Sea Org contract.
On May 7, her church told her she was evil.
During a "security check" about organizational matters, she answered a question the wrong way, causing the auditor's e-meter needle to slap erratically. A "rock slam," it meant she had a hidden evil purpose.
Her superiors assigned her to the Rehabilitation Project Force, a work detail for Sea Org members in need of reform. She and her RPF crew mates spent five hours a day in sec checks and ethics counseling.
"You are told that all of your ideals, all of your goals, all of the things you believe in are really being driven by underlying evil and that you are so evil you have to be removed from your husband, your group, your organization, everything."
She was told she was in a low ethical condition. "The only way to get out ... is to take responsibility for your crimes. At that time, I didn't know what my crimes were, except that somehow I was suppressive toward humanity."
She identified her evil actions, such as inflating an accomplishment or committing a bad act in a prior life. In follow-up counseling, she learned to "close down counter thoughts" and purge her evil. After 1 ½ years, a review panel determined her original "rock slam" reading and others were misread. She returned to her job on the housekeeping staff.
Seven years later, the church had transferred Betsy and Chris to the church's 500-acre base east of Los Angeles. Chris operated a backhoe; Betsy oversaw group study sessions.
During the first days of 1984, auditors sec checked them. Chris revealed disaffected thinking. Betsy confessed she knew about it - a "withhold" and a violation. They were busted to the RPF.
Her guard on the RPF, former Sea Org officer Amy Scobee, said they worked feverishly the first year to renovate a stately home being readied for when Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard returned in his next life.
This stint lasted four years; Betsy Byrne's marriage didn't survive.
She returned to a job in marketing at the church's film production studios, where she met Shawn Morrison. They married in July 1990.
On Christmas Day two years later they got a break from their long work schedules and drove to his mother's apartment in Burbank.
Betsy's mother drove down from Oakland. She noticed the dark circles under Betsy's eyes. After dinner, mother and daughter stretched out on a bed and held hands.
"Mom, I may need you soon."
"Okay. Just let me know. I'll be there for you."
Betsy Morrison recorded in a journal the hours of sleep she got the next three months. Nightly average: three.
Long days, intimidation, threats - it took its toll.
To keep production high, supervisors sprung "sec checks" on staff to see if any were at odds with the group's mission. Betsy estimates that 100 times in her 17 years in Scientology, she was pressed into writing admissions and vowing to reverse noncompliant behavior.
"It's like rebooting a computer, wiping out a hard drive and re-establishing it," she said. "You are rebooting the person's mind into a correct way of thinking."
The process emphasizes putting the group first, over self and over a marriage, she said.
"Now, add that on to already being sleep deprived ... It perverts your way of thinking into tearing your own self down, feeling like you deserved this, and so you'll just stand in lock and do whatever needs to be done until you are somehow accepted back onto the crew."
March 29, 1993. She overslept and missed the bus to her Sea Org job. She checked for the guards usually at the front entrance of the apartments. None there.
She counted her cash, about $200, packed a few personal items and walked away. From a convenience store she called a cab and made it to the airport in Ontario, Calif. She bought a ticket to San Francisco. Her mother was thrilled, she was anguished.
In leaving, she feared she was throwing away her eternal existence and abandoning the church's mission to "clear the planet." She was running out on her husband.
But she needed sleep.
"That's the whole reason I left. It was getting so insane. And I couldn't physically take it anymore."
Her mother, Betty Jane Wilhoit, met her in San Francisco and took her to a friend's house. Wilhoit's apartment in Oakland would be the first place a church security team would look. After a few days, Betsy flew to Dallas to stay with her father.
Weeks passed. She got a job testing software. Back in California, her mother arranged counseling. On April 15, she flew back, this time to Oakland.
Waiting in the airport terminal, Mrs. Wilhoit saw two men approach the gate agent. They asked if Betsy was on the arriving flight.
Mrs. Wilhoit hurried down the jetway and into the plane and stopped her daughter.
"Stay here. They are out there for you."
They waited for the plane to empty. The captain came up. Mrs. Wilhoit told him about the men at the gate and that her daughter was fleeing her church.
Betsy and her mother say airport security took them out a back door and drove them to their car.
Responding to written questions from the Times, the church supplied a letter she wrote to security chief Gary Morehead five days after her mother met her at the Oakland airport. The church noted that letter made no mention of two men at the airport. "The incident never occurred."
In her letter, she wrote: "I have no intentions of making trouble for Scientology. If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone."
The church stated it "has honored her request."