For years, the Church of Scientology chased down and brought back staff members who tried to leave.
Ex-staffers describe being pursued by their church and detained, cut off from family and friends and subjected to months of interrogation, humiliation and manual labor.
One said he was locked in a room and guarded around the clock.
Some who did leave said the church spied on them for years.
Others said that, as a condition for leaving, the church cowed them into signing embellished affidavits that could be used to discredit them if they ever spoke out.
The St. Petersburg Times has interviewed former high-ranking Scientology officials who coordinated the intelligence gathering and supervised the retrieval of staff who left, or "blew."
They say the church, led by David Miscavige, wanted to contain the threat that those who left might reveal secrets of life inside Scientology.
Marty Rathbun, a former church official and confidant of Miscavige, said the leader especially targeted those he had edged aside during his rise to the top or anyone he feared might threaten his position or the church if left alone on the outside.
When the church founder L. Ron Hubbard was in charge, "there were no fences," Rathbun said. "If somebody blew, they blew. It wasn't until these purges started with Miscavige - where he was creating enemies and people ... became a threat to him - that we went into this overdrive scenario."
Church spokesman Tommy Davis "categorically denied" Miscavige knew about or was involved in the pursuit of runaways or spying on former members. He said Rathbun and other former staff are liars, taking their own misdeeds and blaming them on Miscavige and the religion they have forsaken. He said they are trying to undermine Miscavige's leadership even as he presides over unprecedented church growth.
Miscavige "redefines the term 'religious leader,' " Davis said, while some of the Times sources are on the "lunatic fringe" of anti-Scientology. He said they are the real villains, who Miscavige dismissed for "suborning perjury, obstruction of justice and wasting millions of dollars of parishioner funds."
He accused the Times of "naked bias" and engaging in tabloid journalism.
"You have a few petty allegations," Davis said.
"In fact, all you have is a few people who left a religion after committing destructive acts and are now complaining about what they did while in the church."
The story of how the church commands and controls its staff is told by the pursuers and the pursued, by those who sent spies and those spied upon, by those who interrogated and those who rode the hot seat. In addition to Rathbun, they include:
- Mike Rinder, who for 25 years oversaw the church's Office of Special
Affairs, which handled intelligence, legal and public affairs matters.
Rinder and Rathbun said they had private investigators spy on
perceived or potential enemies.
They say they had an operative infiltrate a group of five former Scientology staffers that included the Gillham sisters, Terri and Janis, two of the original four "messengers" who delivered Hubbard's communications. They and other disaffected Scientologists said they were spied on for almost a decade.
- Gary Morehead, the security chief for seven years at the church's international base in the desert east of Los Angeles. He said he helped develop the procedure the church followed to chase and return those who ran, and he brought back at least 75 of them. "I lost count there for awhile."
- Don Jason, for seven years the second-ranking officer at Scientology's spiritual mecca in Clearwater, supervised a staff of 350. He said that after he ran, he turned himself in and ended up locked in his cabin on the church cruise ship, the Freewinds. He said he was held against his will.
Staffers signed a waiver when they came to work at the base that allowed their mail to be opened, Morehead said. His department opened all of it, including credit card statements and other information that was used to help track runaways.
And then there's the story of the cook, his wife and the movie stars.
Winter in the Rockies
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were to be married on Christmas Eve 1990. The setting: a large rented cabin outside Telluride, Colo., a resort town at the floor of a Rocky Mountain valley.
The couple starred together that summer in Days of Thunder. He was the megastar, she the up-and-coming Australian.
In the desert east of Los Angeles, a small contingent from the Church of Scientology's international base took Cruise's plane to Colorado.
Miscavige would be the actor's best man. Ray Mithoff, a long-time Scientologist who worked closely with Hubbard, would officiate. The church's pastry chef, Pinucio Tisi, would bake the cake. Its five-star chef, Sinar Parman, would prepare the feast.
Parman had been with Scientology's dedicated work force, the Sea Org, for 12 years. He started in 1978, fresh from an apprenticeship at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. He worked as Hubbard's personal chef for two years. (The founder was a meat-and-potatoes man who also enjoyed fish.)
Parman later cooked for celebrity parishioners who visited the church's base camp.
He made chicken noodle soup the way Kirstie Alley's grandmother did, and the actor sent him flowers. John Travolta gave him a carton of Camels for his birthday. Cruise brought him a jacket from the set of Days of Thunder and would hand him Cuban cigars.
For Telluride, Cruise insisted the minister, the baker and the chef bring their wives for the holiday.
Christmas in the Rockies with Tom Cruise? Parman's wife, Jackie Wolff, was beyond excited.
When they married four years earlier, Wolff worked as a personal assistant to Miscavige and his wife, Shelly. She ironed his shirts, prepared the couple's breakfast, lunch and snacks, and woke them each morning.
Now she worked in personnel, recruiting Sea Org members.
Before flying to the wedding, everybody drew names for a gift exchange. Wolff drew Cruise and got him a Hubbard novelette. It cost $50, a week's pay.
Cruise put up the Scientology contingent in a hotel in Telluride, but they spent much of their time at his rented estate. Parman cooked; Wolff hung decorations, tidied rooms and helped in the kitchen.
The Miscaviges let it be known not to give church-related gifts, a nod to the non-Scientologists at the wedding. Wolff went into town and picked a substitute gift, a black ski mask.
At sunset on Christmas Eve, Cruise and Kidman took their vows. The guests sipped Cristal champagne and Parman prepared a holiday spread that included saddle of lamb.
The next afternoon, Wolff and Parman saw police officers standing at the driveway to keep back the paparazzi. Cruise made sure the officers were fed.
The newlyweds took their guests skiing that day. Wolff will always remember seeing Cruise on the slopes, wearing his new black ski mask.
Back to work
The glow of Telluride faded as Parman and Wolff returned to life at the Scientology base.
Parman says the church reneged on a promise to pay him extra for cooking at the wedding. Parman had been counting on the money. His credit card balance jumped when he bought proper clothes for Telluride, and he charged his own meals. He worried how on a Sea Org salary he would pay down the new debt.
It wasn't the first time he felt he had done a good job, only to be somehow punished. "I was stewing in my own juices, so to speak."
His wife's job in personnel was no better. Supervisors interfered and gave conflicting orders. Many times Wolff worked into the night and slept under her desk.
Parman and Wolff each thought about leaving the church but couldn't tell the other. Such thoughts were taboo, and spouses were to file a "Knowledge Report" if their partner violated the code. If a spouse didn't file a report and it came out during a confessional, he or she got in trouble, too.
Wolff sensed her husband was as frustrated as she.
"I kind of took a chance at bringing it up. And when he was agreeable I was like, 'Okay!' "
Hubbard recognized that the Sea Org wasn't for everyone. On Dec. 7, 1976, he issued a policy titled "Leaving and Leaves," on how departing staffers should be handled. It doesn't help to hold onto staff who don't want to be there, he said. But Hubbard also said everyone who leaves is to undergo a "security check," or "sec check," to protect the staff and to protect Scientology.
The church had been security conscious from its earliest days as Hubbard, and later Miscavige, battled over government investigations and lawsuits.
Church staffers used pay phones and elaborate mail drops to keep information from falling into the wrong hands. Sea Org members used fake first names. Rathbun's real first name isn't Marty, it's Mark. Morehead, the security chief, also was known as Jackson.
"Everything was done CIA fashion," Parman said. "That was the way of life in those days."
After Hubbard died in 1986, his policies became the church's guiding compass. But "Leaving and Leaves" presented a contradiction. If you let people leave when they wanted, as the policy dictated, it could compromise security. But if you held onto people until certain they posed no security risk, they might feel like they were being held against their will.
Under Miscavige, former Sea Org members say, the church put more emphasis on security. Getting out became more difficult.
If staffers like Parman and Wolff insisted on leaving, they were supposed to "route out" of the Sea Org, protocol that could take months. It included a daily regimen of manual labor and "sec checks" - confessionals that surfaced a person's every thought and questioned his reasons for wanting to leave.
Or they could "blow." It was faster to secretly escape, but it triggered the church's "disconnection" practice. If the runaway didn't "route out" properly, he would be labeled "suppressive" and lose his Scientology family and friends.
Parman and Wolff had a decision to make.
The chief of security
Their living arrangement presented an extra obstacle. They shared a small, church-owned home with Gary Morehead and his wife. The base's security chief from 1990 to 1997, Morehead directed the team that would chase them.
Morehead said he worked with Rathbun to develop a "blow drill," a plan the church followed when someone left without permission, which he said happened maybe once a month.
The drill helped predict where runaways were headed, and find and return them before they spilled secrets to opposing attorneys or the media.
"I had the order and the pressure to find them," Morehead said, referring to people in charge of security above him. "And God forbid I did not find them."
Staff deployed to airports and bus stations. They called all hotels along likely escape routes. They called airlines and pretended to be the runaway checking a reservation. They phoned relatives.
The intensity of the chase mostly depended on what a runaway knew, said Rathbun, who was one of Miscavige's top lieutenants. Rathbun oversaw and participated in staff recovery missions.
"It all had to do with the hierarchy of how close you were to Miscavige, how much you knew about him and how damaging what you knew might be," Rathbun said.
He said the leader began each day asking if any problems had arisen overnight, and if anyone had left.
"I had to report it and take the brunt of it," Rathbun said.
Morehead, who reported to Rathbun, described runaways as "loose cannons of know ledge." You wanted them back, under control, before they did damage.
"I could command as many staff as I wanted," Rathbun said. "I could get 10 guys on the road at once. It was pretty amazing that we could always generally get to these guys before they'd get to their destination."
When they didn't, he said, they kept at it, "for weeks, if necessary."
Morehead remembered the night in 1990 that Sea Org member Julie Caetano jumped in an irrigation contractor's Ford pickup and sped off, with Morehead and two other vehicles in pursuit.
For three hours, at speeds up to 100 mph, Morehead said they chased the truck around Riverside and San Bernardino counties until the pickup got away across a rutted field. The next day the team tracked down Caetano, and she agreed to return.
The church did not respond to questions about this incident.
Mike Rinder, the church's former intelligence chief, said his department sometimes tracked runaways by getting into their credit card or bank accounts.
The account numbers came from Morehead, whose guards opened every piece of mail at the base, logging staff financial information as they went. Morehead said Sea Org members were told their personal correspondence was examined for security reasons. He said they were not told this included financial information.
"Except for the upper, upper executives, there wasn't a base staff member who I didn't have a bank account number on, a credit card number, social security number and date of birth, phone numbers, you name it, I had it all," Morehead said.
Church recovery efforts also drew on records from the runaways' Scientology counseling sessions, which often identified sore points in their lives the trackers could press to talk them into coming back, he said.
They also used "ethics files" that included the staffer's transgressions and confessions, as well as the "life history" Sea Org members filled out when they came to the base that included every job held, every friend, every sexual encounter.
When a runaway was found, the recovery team sometimes used someone of influence in the person's life to get them to come back.
Those who were found were told they could be "disconnected" from family and friends.
They were told that the outside world, with its drugs, crime and insanity, was no place to be.
And the clincher: They were forsaking their eternity.
Scientology teaches that people are spiritual beings that transcend human lifetimes and inhabit an endless succession of bodies. Only the church can make a Scientologist aware of this passage and help him navigate it successfully.
That was part of the closing argument when a church recovery team located a target: Run and risk losing everything you worked for - your eternity.
"How do you control someone? You threaten what is most valuable to them," Rinder said. "And the threat is, that's going away. And that's the mental prison that people are put in."
The church said Morehead and his team were acting "out of concern for the welfare of the blown staff member."
In "Blow Offs," a bulletin Hubbard issued Dec. 31, 1959, the founder said someone who wants to leave has done something to hurt the church, is withholding it and is upset about it. The only responsible thing to do is to help the person come clean.
Morehead said he believed that as he went to bring people back.
"Security in my mind-set was secondary," he said. "But as time went on you found out the (primary) effort was the security concern. We didn't give a s--- about the person."
Starting a new life
Parman and Wolff, in their mid-30s, wanted to reach for a new life right away, not wait until the church said they were ready to leave.
A month after the Cruise-Kidman wedding, they took a week to plan their "blow" and picked a Sunday morning, when staff got its weekly personal time. It would be hours before the day's first head count.
They knew the church would come after them because of the jobs they had held. Both had worked for Miscavige, and Parman had spent a lot of time with Hubbard and church celebrities.
They waited until Morehead and his wife fell asleep in their room, gathered a few belongings and drove off.
After about an hour, they pulled into a truck stop to eat and decompress. They stopped at Parman's parents' home in Los Angeles, borrowed $2,000 and took the coast route north.
In Lake Tahoe a day or two later, Parman won a few hundred dollars at craps and lost it back. Wolff shopped. She figured she would need new clothes to find a job in the non-Scientology world.
"You go to the hotel room and it's like, 'Oh, a TV. We can watch TV now,' " she said. "It was just kind of like an adventure."
They phoned their parents and learned that the church had called, looking for them. Wolff's sisters also had been called, but no one betrayed their location.
They went to Carson City and moved into the home of Wolff's stepfather's cousin. The cousin owned a furniture store and gave them jobs. Wolff trained as a salesperson. Her husband, the chef, moved furniture and loaded trucks.
"It was cool," Parman said. "There was some kind of hope for a life there."
They thought they were safely "off the grid," Wolff said. "We figured they'd never find us at my stepfather's cousin's house."
On the hunt
The church got private investigators to tail the couple's relatives, Morehead said.
"They would just sit there and sit there and sit there and follow the family members around. They had no idea they had church-assigned private investigators sitting on them, watching them."
The surveillance paid off after several days. The couple were spotted at their temporary home and at the furniture store.
Back at the base, Morehead and his team didn't wait. The longer runaways stayed gone, the chances of talking them back diminished. Families had a way of convincing them to come home, he said.
They booked seats on the next plane out of Ontario International Airport and had only 30 minutes to get there.
"That is the fastest I've ever been driven in a car my entire life," said Morehead, who had $3,000 in expense money set aside for security. "We just had to get there, just had to f------ get there - just that deeply ingrained compulsion."
It was on to Carson City.
The knock came first thing in the morning. Parman peeked out the window.
"We looked at each other and we just went, 'Oh my God! Oh my God! What do we do now?' " Wolff said. "I was shaking. I was nervous. I was like ... 'What do we say?' "
There was no thought to refusing to open the door or telling the group to go away. Parman and Wolff were so unnerved that they reacted with compliance. They invited the group into the family room.
The Scientology entourage included Morehead, two other base security officers and two private investigators.
The team delivered messages, called "reality factors," from supervisors at the base who had examined Parman and Wolff's counseling files. The team wanted the couple to come to their hotel, undergo security checks and consider routing out properly.
They said they had "auditors" waiting at a nearby hotel, one for each of them. They wanted to help them.
The couple said they would go. Parman was swayed by the argument that leaving might cost him his eternity.
"That is their main hook," he said. "It's your future for the next millennia ... They push that."
For more than an hour the security team searched their boxes, bags and clothes. They said they were looking for pictures the couple might have taken at the Cruise-Kidman wedding. They found nothing.
Runaways who come back
The Church of Scientology describes "auditing" as a form of spiritual counseling.
The auditor running the session asks prescribed questions intended to locate painful mental images from the person's past that may be limiting his potential. The subject holds two metal cylinders attached by wires to an "e-meter," a device said to pick up electrical currents or "charge" associated with the troubling episodes.
There's also "sec checking," a type of auditing designed to find out if the person has done something to harm the group.
Runaway staffers like Parman and Wolff were referred to as "security particles" and were segregated from others, to keep their inclination to leave from spreading.
At the California base, they often were assigned to the Old Gilman House, beyond a swamp. In Clearwater, it was at the Hacienda Gardens staff housing complex on N Saturn Avenue, sometimes in rundown units known as "pig's berthing."
Many runaways were assigned to a work detail called the Rehabilitation Project Force. They were not to speak unless spoken to, isolated from family and often "sec checked" for hours every day.
The church says the RPF is a voluntary program that affords a staffer an isolated environment that encourages self-assessment. By mixing physical labor with periods of religious study, security checks and counseling, wayward staffers can reform.
Bruce Hines said the RPF is about mind control. Now 58, Hines teaches physics at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is six years removed from three decades in Scientology.
He figures he audited staff and parishioners for 15,000 hours, with about one-third of the hours conducting "sec checks."
"Sec checking" a runaway was "an interrogation," Hines said. Wrongdoing uncovered during sec checks was recorded by the auditor and often posted on bulletin boards or announced at the daily muster.
"Whatever you've done gets broadcast. And the worse and the juicier, the better. That shows I'm doing my job as a security checker," Hines said.
"If the person has blown, they hopefully would go from a frame of mind of, 'I don't want to be here. Let me go. You people are holding me against my will' ... to... 'I've harmed the organization. I need to make up for it. Please let me stay.' "
To get off the RPF, Hines said, the staffer must identify why he's destructive.
"You're not looking for the bad things you've done, but the evil in you that prompted you to do those things. It's predicated on the assumption you're there because of the evil in you. And you have to root out that evil."
Church spokesman Davis said it's "offensive in the extreme" to describe Scientology confessionals in such terms. "Giving an individual the opportunity to unburden himself of transgressions is as old as religion itself," he said.
Late in 1994, a VIP's auditing session was mishandled. Hines says Miscavige blamed him, and he spent six of his last eight years on the RPF, on the other side of the auditing table and on a labor crew that cleared land, painted old mobile homes and built sheds.
To get off the RPF, the "security particle" had to demonstrate that his evil intentions were erased. He had to show a new willingness, a deeper sense of responsibility. Sea Org members called it a "self-generating resource."
Hines called it: "Totally in step."
At the hotel in Carson City, Parman and Wolff were audited and "sec checked" day after day for more than a week.
During down time they watched TV or played cards. After more than a week, the recovery team told them it was time to decide. Come back to the base. Preserve your eternity, your family relationships. If you want to leave, fine, just "route out" properly.
"Sinar and I talked about it and then agreed to go back to the base," Wolff said. "And as soon as we agreed, it's like we were on a plane within probably an hour or two."
To that point, the church had paid for airfare, four hotel rooms, food for nine people, around-the-clock shifts by private investigators and other expenses.
"Lots of money and effort was spent on those two," Morehead said. "Lots of money."
A softening process
Before the flight back to Southern California, Wolff called her mother to assure her she was still intent on leaving. But she was equally intent on doing it by church rules. She might want to be active in Scientology again some day and wanted to keep her good standing.
A friend got Wolff into the church 11 years earlier, at age 25. She still remembered the realization she had as a little girl in Southern California, standing in her driveway, staring at the rose bushes.
"I knew I'd lived before and I knew I would live again, but I didn't know how it worked. That's what kind of started me on this quest. What are we doing here on this planet?"
Her Scientology auditing surfaced a distinct memory of how she died in her previous lifetime: a woman jerked the wheel to avoid oncoming traffic, the car landed on a power generator and she was electrocuted. "It was me," Wolff said.
It resonated with Wolff when Morehead and his team said it would be a mistake to give up on her spiritual eternity.
Once they returned to the base, the couple spent their days around the Old Gilman House. They studied Scientology books and rehabilitated an old greenhouse.
If they broke a rule, if they shared frustrations, it eventually would come out in daily sec checks. In a world of constant confessing, no thought was safe inside their heads.
After six months, Wolff softened. "You kind of start feeling better about yourself and you start feeling remorse for what you did. It's like you've deserted your group, and how could you do that?"
Paul Kellerhaus, of base security, sat with her at a card table and pushed Wolff for a decision, she said. He suggested Parman wanted to stay in the church. Did she really want a divorce?
"Probably up until the 11th hour I wanted to leave," Wolff said. "I was determined. I was not going to change my mind. And then, I don't know, (I had) those feelings of 'Oh this could happen and it just could be bad if I leave.' "
She cried. Then: "Okay. I'll stay."
She said Kellerhaus took her decision and used it to sway Parman. He decided he would stay, too.
Their final leaves
In July 1991, they started new jobs at the base, Wolff a gardener and Parman an electrician. Ten months later, for a second time, they reached for a new life. They didn't even bother to cover their tracks.
They loaded the car in the wee hours and drove to Los Angeles, to Parman's parents' house.
He took his wife to Disneyland for her birthday, and he got a job as a valet at a boutique hotel in Hollywood. Wolff helped her in-laws paint and take care of other home improvement projects.
Soon a church "case supervisor" came to the house and said two auditors were standing by. The couple agreed to "route out" but said this time they would not return to the base. The church arranged for them to come to its complex in Hollywood for more auditing, more security checks and some Scientology courses.
At night, they went home to Parman's parents house.
The routine lasted all day, every day, for about eight months, May 1992 to January 1993.
"I want to leave," Wolff recalled thinking. "I'm not going to change my mind."
Until she got a job she liked in the church treasury department. "I kind of ended up changing my mind."
At the church's urging, she talked Parman into staying.
He was back in good graces and back as a chef.
Wolff moved to a job doing research for videos shown at the church's frequent events. She got to attend some - showy affairs with upbeat speeches and word of Scientology's bright future. Parishioners cheered. It renewed her faith in the church.
At the same time, she and Parman were growing apart. They divorced in 1998.
Wolff ran a third time, in 1999. They found her at her sister's house, and she came back, again intending to "route out."
At the base she was assigned to live in a trailer at the Old Gilman House, joining a woman who had been there a year. They cooked on a hot plate in what Wolff described as a converted garage. She lived there more than six months.
Wolff remembers the small group outside on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, ringing in the new millenium at midnight as they looked out over the swamp. "We were like, 'Woo hoo,' " she said.
Parman, meantime, worked as Miscavige's personal chef, often traveling with the leader, who was keen on staying trim.
"I would feed him something like five different meals (a day) and they all had to be precise in percent of calories, like so many calories of protein, so many calories of carbohydrates and so many calories of fat. And they all had to taste good."
In 2001, during the fallout from the unexplained death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, Parman was with Miscavige for an extended stay in Clearwater.
It was there, during an auditing session, Parman decided the church's promise of spiritual freedom did not add up. A top officer from the Religious Technology Center, the arm of the church that knows Scientology inside and out, put him on an e-meter to find out how he felt about his Scientology counseling regimen.
Inside, Parman was furious, which the meter should have picked up. It didn't, and the officer determined that all was well.
Parman wondered: How could that be? The next day, between cooking lunch and dinner for Miscavige, Parman went to an auto dealer on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. He paid $1,800 for a used Honda Civic and drove off. Several weeks later, at his parents' home in Los Angeles, he saw what he took to be a private investigator staking him out.
Soon after, church representatives approached him, urging him to come back. They said an auditor standing by. Parman told them he wanted to be left alone.
In 2001, he signed papers that required he remain silent about his time with the church. He was officially out.
That year, his ex-wife went to work on the line that assembled and repaired e-meters, and soon became the supervisor. Wolff's staff shrunk by half, but she was expected to maintain the same production. She said she often worked from 8:30 a.m. to 2, 3 or 4 a.m.
In October 2003, she was called to the base mess hall, which had been set up for a group confessional. Wolff was made to stand at a microphone facing a few hundred staffers. Egged on by supervisors, the staff jeered and berated her for not meeting production targets.
For the fourth time in her 24-year Scientology career, Wolff asked to "route out."
The church sent her to an isolated ranch called Happy Valley, where the sec checking process took almost four months.
"Had I had the guts, I would have just gotten up and gotten out of there," Wolff said. "But you're scared."
She confessed everything she could think of, but the e-meter kept indicating she was holding something back. "This was a nightmare for me."
Finally, someone said, "You're done."
Wolff signed a declaration, dated Jan. 12, 2004, in which she blamed herself for everything and the church for nothing. "I know that what I have done violated Church policy and caused harm," the declaration stated. "I do not blame anyone else but myself."
She collected $500 severance and drove to her sister's home in Orange County, Calif.
Wolff's mother, Detta Groff, says the family held its breath, afraid she would go back again. She said her daughter put up with a lot.
"But she was searching for something," Groff said. "It was just a relief to have her back."
When asked for comment on the couple's departure from Scientology, the church said Wolff and Parman kept returning to the Sea Org because they wanted to. The church said Wolff messed up on her job and was dismissed. Parman is inflating his own importance by talking about famous people he cooked for.
Parman and Wolff said they signed documents confessing their faults so the church would leave them alone. They said they would not have returned to the Sea Org each time if not for the church's repeated, unsolicited intervention.
"They make it seem like there was no pressure," Wolff said. "They just gloss over the reality of what was going on."
Parman pointed to the first time they left. He and Wolff were thrilled to be starting a different life, he said. They had found new jobs.
"To say we came back willingly ... Why did we go to another state? Why did we go to different places to disappear?"