On Wednesday, we told you about a Scientology "Fair Game" operation that seems beyond the pale: the church, known for its vindictive treatment of perceived enemies, is accused of harassing a business to keep it from bringing to market a potentially life-saving machine for hospitals that produces bacteria-free ice. Why? Because the company employs a former high-ranking church member that Scientology now considers a threat to its existence.
In that first story, we talked at length with Robert Almblad, the machine's inventor, a man who spent 35 years in Scientology but was never a high-ranking official, and after his departure from the organization in 2007, never publicly criticized the church. Two years ago, after he hired Mike Rinder, Scientology's former chief spokesman, Almblad came under intense surveillance and interference to his business by a longtime Scientology private investigator and his squad of cameramen and bodyguards.
Today, we're bringing you another side of the story: a woman who has been slandered online, followed, harassed, and says she can hardly believe what she's been through.
She says Scientology has targeted her for utter ruin. And yet she has never had anything to do with the church.
Susan Clickner is Robert Almblad's girlfriend and also an employee in the company bringing the ice machine to market.
She began dating Almblad five years ago, and her work in his firm began before he hired Rinder. She had nothing to do with Rinder getting his job. (In fact, I got the distinct impression that the two of them aren't really what one would call friends.)
Clickner is a woman who has helped an inventor with a potentially life-saving machine, and has her own name on various patents for her contributions in engineering and design.
"I'm actually a builder. I'm a licensed Florida builder and designer. I met Robert actually doing some work for him. We got along great, and he asked me why not try designing things with him. So I began doing some design work for him, not for pay, and I really became enthralled in the technology. My name is on the patents. It's become my whole life," she told me by phone yesterday.
"I knew that Robert had a background in Scientology, but he never really wanted to talk about it that much. He didn't want to influence me. I picked up a book at one point, but it was just a snooze to me," she says, adding that his Scientology was never an issue between them.
"Nobody knew that he was a Scientologist. He wasn't active at all. He didn't go to meetings or structured activities at all. He just knew some people who were in, and that was the extent of his interaction with it," she says. But it was only a few months after Rinder joined the firm to handle public relations that "the heat got turned up very high," Clickner says.
As we pointed out last week, Rinder was a high-ranking executive in Scientology who oversaw the church's intelligence wing -- the Office of Special Affairs -- that handled intimidation campaigns aimed at critics and former members. Rinder once oversaw those kinds of operations for church leader David Miscavige, so he wasn't surprised when he became the subject of the same schemes once he began to speak out against Scientology. He's watched as Almblad has been targeted by the same private investigator, Dave Lubow, who Rinder once used to work with. After Almblad hired Rinder to help market the ice machine, Lubow appeared at Almblad's door, and then began going to his neighbors, asking if they had seen Almblad committing any "crimes."
"Then we were followed," Clickner says. "I was followed absolutely everywhere I went. Doctors appointments, everywhere. They were just around at all times. At the beginning it just seemed ridiculous. They even bent down with a camera to film me picking up dog poop.
"But then it started to get serious. I was actually prohibited from buying a home. I put $600,000 in a bank account, and they caused trouble at my escrow account, and they prevented the owner from selling to me," she says. It turned out that the house she wanted to buy was owned by a high-level Scientologist. "I was a cash buyer in an absolute buyer's market, and they turned it down. It was sold a few days later for about $50,000 less than what I was offering.
"They also went to my title company, and they went to a woman there and said, 'How do you know how she got the money? How do you know she's not involved in drug traffic to South America?' The woman panicked and told me she needed to get my money out of her office. She made me come that minute and pick up a check. They can push people to hysteria.
"I lost my down payment. I did an inspection fee. I hired architects. I had a survey. I lost I would say, $20,000 or $30,000 on that," she says.
"They even harassed my attorney. They called my attorney to ask if I was committing crimes. I mean, are they serious?"
A reminder: Clickner has never been in the church of Scientology. She has never publicly criticized it. And her only "crime" was designing parts for a life-saving piece of machinery.
"They called my family. They called my ex-husband. They knew how much money I had in the bank -- how, I don't know -- and they asked him where I got it. The craziest thing you can think of...actually, you can't think of things they've done to me. And of course the interference with our business has been unbelievable."
As we wrote on Wednesday, Scientology's operatives have gone to extraordinary lengths to disrupt Almblad's attempts to have meetings with companies that might be interested in his ice machine. At one point, during a meeting with a company Almblad had done hundreds of thousands of dollars of business with previously, Scientology operatives burst into the meeting and claimed to be doing an investigation on Almblad. After that, the company refused to do more business with them.
"We had the top guy in an $8 billion business reprimand us for 45 minutes because of Scientology," Clickner says. "He was saying, 'We can't have this show up to our house. My wife will leave me if I have protesters show up at my house.' We now have it in writing from the company that they can't work with us. We're kooks, just by osmosis from Scientology."
Their only recourse, she says, is to use more secrecy as they try to do business with other companies. "We travel with throw down phones, I absolutely won't go see certain people because they will be there. I can't see my mother. If these guys jumped out of the bushes at her, I know she'd have a heart attack.
"You know they're not going to hurt you, you know that. But they yell at you from behind you, they find a way to scare you," she says. "My niece -- my 98-pound niece -- had four men -- two cameramen, a bodyguard, and Jim Lynch running after her. They followed my nephew at his bank and filmed him at his ATM machine.
"I have two friends who I used to go out to dinner with at least twice a week, who no longer call, who won't answer an e-mail. Nothing. Because they're so afraid of these people. They don't want the risk of these people coming down on them," she says. "I've lost friendships. I know my business is affected by this every day. We have this beautiful laboratory that we built to bring large corporations to, and it's completely ruined. I can't meet anyone there. I have to travel across the country in secret and use assumed names. That is just a giant impact."
She's seen the way Lubow and his "Squirrel Busters" have been mocked (here, for example), but it's not really very funny when they're targeting you.
"They may act like the Keystone Kops, but they actually have a serious impact on people's lives and their businesses," she says.
Still, despite the constant interference, Clickner thinks their machine will succeed. "It's very good technology and it's absolutely needed. We were asked to do this. Companies like McDonalds want this very badly. We're talking to one hospital chain that has 127 locations, and they know they have a problem. And this is a very fast answer to a very serious problem. On the technology's merits, it will succeed."
Online, however, a website proclaims that Almblad and his business is shady, and that Almblad has a history of defrauding victims. It offers little proof except for the letter that Almblad sent out last year to close a key-making business in Europe that had stalled.
I asked Almblad who he thought could be behind the website.
Almblad feels pretty certain about that after he and Susan saw that one of his former employees turned up in the Scientology squad that burst into the meeting with Manitowoc, the multi-billion-dollar company that he has long done business with.
The man had worked for Almblad for years as an engineer at a firm trying to spread automated key-grinding machines in Europe. (Almblad had previously had big success with similar technology here in the U.S. with another company. He sold out his interest in it years ago, and recently that company was sold for $850 million. The subsequent European venture wasn't as successful; orders from their European partner stopped and Almblad's company was idle.) "We closed down the company because we didn't have any more machines to build. Everybody essentially got laid off because we didn't have any more work to do. There were three years of no work."
After the engineering employee left -- apparently without rancor, Almblad says -- he went to Los Angeles, and then everything changed. "Suddenly here he comes, ragging on me about shares and investors, and I wondered where it came from. Then I heard that he had joined staff at Scientology while he was in Los Angeles."
There was little doubt about that when the employee burst in with Jim Lynch and the other cameramen and bodyguards during the meeting at Manitowoc. (I am attempting to reach the former employee, and until I do, I am keeping his name out of this piece.)
"None of my investors, none of my other employees had anything to do with Scientology, except for him. I had just a handful of investors in a $10 million business. There were no lawsuits after I closed the business," he says.
"Every time he's contacted me, I've asked him to put in writing that he's not working on behalf of David Miscavige or the church, and he's refused to do it."
Meanwhile, the website trashing Almblad showed up.
"I know the church is behind it. Just by what it says. There's no one with the motivation to put up that website except the church. I don't have a single disgruntled investor or employee," -- except for the former employee who had joined the church.
One of the things the website points out is that a former employee of Almblad, John Broadbent, is being sued by a previous employer for taking with him his company laptop computer and transferring its files to his home computer before he left. The company -- one that Almblad himself had worked with for years in the past -- makes allegations that Broadbent was intent on taking trade secrets with him.
Almblad himself and his Safe Ice company are not named in the lawsuit. "The lawsuit has nothing to do with me whatsoever, and it has nothing to do with my technology. There's definitely no issue between me and this company. This is a billion dollar company. If they had a problem with me they would sue me in a minute," Almblad says.
As we pointed out Wednesday, Almblad also had to travel under an assumed name, Robert August, in order to make a secret meeting several states away. He and Clickner called themselves Robert and Susan August, and the company's website was changed to reflect that.
Here's how the anti-Almblad website characterized it:
Of course, if we've learned anything from our experience of doing business with Robert Almblad, it's that NOTHING is ever as it appears. I mean if we believed everything their public relations guy, Michael Rinder, put up on the website, we'd think that the CEO of "Safe Ice" is "Robert August" and that the Creative Director is his wife "Susan August". I mean just because the photographs are actually of Robert Almblad and Susan Clickner is no reason to suppose that they're trying to hide their identities or to pull a fast one is there? I'm sure that PR guy just made a little mistake.......... right?
The web material worsened, meanwhile, when Almblad happened to do a search on the terms "Almblad" and "Manitowoc." He found an odd page: a press release that appeared to be put out by another company he had done business with, which talked about Almblad and his ice technology. At the top of the page, it had the title, "Jackson Middle School Math." That was odd enough, but interspersed on the page were repeated uses of the same phrase: "Live Sex Chat."
Almblad says it made no sense. And it scared the hell out of him. No computer expert, he hired one to investigate it and give him a report. That expert told him it was worse than he thought. Not only had someone taken a company press release about him and spread links to "sex chats" around it, but the sex chats were about underaged children -- and the page itself was hosted on the server of the Orange County, Florida public schools system.
I called the media relations office of the school system yesterday, asking them if they were aware that their server had been used to produce a slanderous page about Robert Almblad that included links to chats about underage sex.
They seemed rather surprised to get my call. They immediately took down the page, thanked me, and they are considering whether to share with me the IP address of the person who created it.
Meanwhile, the expert hired by Almblad, looking at the "sex chat" page, the links from it to various spam-heavy sites, and the page that was created to cast doubt on his business past (robertalmbladscam.com) came to this conclusion:
"All of these websites offer content management system blogging (CMS) powered by Wordpress, and most of them are designed for the generation of spam. Because this is the same style that the robertalmbladscam.com website, I think that the creators of these sites are the same."
Well, maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. Someone has come up with a website raising a lot of leading questions about Robert Almblad right at the same time he, his girlfriend, their extended family, friends, and employees, and their company, are being besieged by longtime operatives for the Church of Scientology, apparently for the sole reason that Almblad dared to give a job to a person who criticizes the church.
As longtime church critic Dennis Erlich put it in our comments section the other day, a Scientology harassment campaign can have many collateral victims besides the critic or defector it is aimed at. (And he certainly experienced that himself.)
After Susan Clickner herself showed up in our comments on Wednesday, I wanted to speak with her directly to make sure her experiences were noted.
But she also pointed out, despite the difficulties, she is still completely dedicated to her work, and still finds that work itself enjoyable. "I've invested five years of my life in what Robert does. It's really great fun," she says.