Scientology's Newly Purchased "Ideal Org" Building in Phoenix Will Become a Recruiting Tool -- Once the Last of Its Tenants Gets Kicked Out

Phoenix New Times/October 13, 2011

Scott Ruth has heard the stories about Xenu the Galactic Overlord and the ghost-like "body thetans" that supposedly infest human souls. But all he knows for sure about the Church of Scientology is that it's invaded his life.

The church, which plans to turn its newly acquired property at 3845 and 3875 North 44th Street into its temple-like "Phoenix Ideal Org," is booting out his business and livelihood, FitLife, from its current location. He was the final holdout as of early October; the other tenants already had been kicked out by then.

The fitness trainer and former professional athlete, a solidly built 40-year-old, isn't used to getting muscled, and his voice rises in anger as he talks about the situation.

"They're hurting people," Ruth insists. "They have zero compassion or concern about what's going on. It's brutal."

His business has been at this address for more than a year, and Ruth — who signed a five-year lease with the property's previous owner — had expected to be there at least another three years.

Ruth has nothing personal against the church's belief system — the problem he faces is all about money. He maintains that the church, which bought the property in a foreclosure sale on July 27, broke its promise to compensate his business for the unplanned expense of moving.

He's dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. Evening is approaching on this summer afternoon, and there's only one client in the gym, a woman doing stomach crunches on a padded mat. Ruth's two dogs, rust-colored Vizslas, emerge occasionally from an office in the back.

Ruth is a former professional motocross rider. The fourth-generation Arizona native grew up in the sport, competing in races from ages 7 to 27. He tried his hand as a Rural/Metro firefighter in Scottsdale for four years, saying he left the profession after getting spooked by the danger. He doesn't ride motorcycles anymore, either: "I can't afford to get hurt."

He's into running his small business now. Besides being a fitness expert through experience, he's got a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Arizona State University. With an infusion of cash from local orthopedic surgeons who wanted to see more work done with athletic patients following prescribed physical therapy, Ruth and his partners launched the business in 1996. The partners, who include Dan Wright, an assistant athletic trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers, now own two independent facilities with the same name in Scottsdale and Peoria.

Ruth tells how his East Phoenix location was on the upswing in 2010, following a move from a smaller facility a few blocks away. On signing the five-year lease with the property's previous owner, John Wilmot of Fairmount Square LLC, he borrowed and spent tens of thousands of dollars for improvements to the place.

Tenant leases were wiped out with the change in ownership, and the upcoming relocation will put Ruth further into debt — not that he's found a comparable, suitable new place yet. He estimates his losses because of the debacle will be more than $150,000.

The church has plenty of money, he figures. He asked for $175,000 when Bob Adams, a Scientology spokesman and former National Football League player, came to visit Ruth and other tenants. Ruth says Adams offered him a chance to do business with the church, with Ruth referring his clients to the religious center's "spa treatments" and the church's sending members to his gym. The church also offered him a paltry $5,000, he says.

FitLife inhabits about 2,000 square feet on the first floor of the ivy-draped, two-story red-brick building on the corner of 44th Street and Indianola, not far from Camelback Mountain and some of the most expensive real estate in metropolitan Phoenix. It shares about a half-acre of property with a larger, three-story office building.

A tall, pitched ceiling in the fitness facility allows for full-size weight-lifting machines and activities such as bouncing on mini-trampolines, while rows of high windows let in plenty of light. The athletic field for Arcadia High School, from which Ruth's business has drawn more than a few clients, borders on the parking lot.

From the gym's main room, it's easy to see why this is also the perfect location for a modestly sized church. The pointed arches of the windows give it away — this used to be a different kind of church. But it hasn't attended to anyone's spiritual needs for about 13 years, since it was the Living Water of the Valley Church.

The two-building compound now is destined to become the Phoenix Ideal Org — part of the Church of Scientology's efforts since 2004 to build premier orgs (orgs being Scientology's churches) in major cities. Scientologists believe that each Ideal Org will become, in the words of L. Ron Hubbard, the church's imaginative founder, "an island of friendliness, decency, and succor in the sea of a violent world."

The idea of the Phoenix Ideal Org, though, has — at least in Ruth's opinion — generated a distinct lack of succor.

The church wanted the tenants out by September 15, but this didn't happen. One business, an accounting firm, moved the weekend of September 17 and 18. The Arizona-New Mexico Cable Communications Association, of which former Scottsdale City Council member and congressional candidate Susan Bitter Smith is executive director, was out as of the end of September.

Ruth, on the other hand, is standing his ground. Without a good offer from the Scientologists, he's not budging until he finds a comparable spot in the same neighborhood, he says.

Or until deputies show up with a charge of forcible detainer and move his gym equipment to the curb.

This tale might have begun four quadrillion years ago, when Scientologists believe the first thetans created the universe, and possibly themselves, too.

Never mind that astronomers and physicists say the universe is no more than about 13 billion years old.

The thetan creation was "Incident One." Lower-level Scientologists aren't supposed to know about it. Others pay five- or even six-figure fees to learn about this and other important cosmological events based on the writings and lectures of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Thetans, according to Hubbard, suffered all manner of abuse in countless other incidents over trillions of years while in the claws of various alien civilizations. Then came "Incident Two," the once-secretive story that's been leaked far and wide, becoming the butt of nationwide jokes and its own South Park episode:

Xenu, the overlord of the Galactic Confederacy, gathered up billions of thetans from overpopulated planets and brought them to Teegeeack, now Earth. The paralyzed thetans were blown up with nuclear bombs in or near volcanoes, for extra effect, and their dreary souls — the "body thetans" — wander the planet to this day, parasitically attaching themselves to the thetan souls of live humans.

Flash forward to 2011: Thetans — or, at least, the people who believe in them — struggle to survive in an ever-critical world.

This has been another tough year for Scientologists, press-wise. Two well-received, unflattering books about the church and its founder came out over the summer: Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, by journalist Janet Reitman, and The Church of Scientology, a History of a New Religion, by Ohio State University professor Hugh Urban.

The church has a reputation for harassing critics and continued to live up to it this year. Scientologists who called themselves "squirrel-busters" (squirrels being the church's name for apostates) camped out near the Corpus Christi, Texas, home of former senior Scientologist Marty Rathbun for five months, stalking Rathbun and his wife while videotaping them whenever possible.

Decked out in camcorder hats and T-shirts with Rathbun's head superimposed on a squirrel's body, the Scientologists repeatedly peppered Rathbun with questions and rebukes. After Rathbun pulled the sunglasses off one of the harassers' heads, the Scientologists found a judge, ignorant that a siege was going on, to issue an arrest warrant. Rathbun spent a few hours in jail on September 16, but a prosecutor quickly announced that no charges would be forthcoming.

Also in September, the church was embarrassed by a major scandal in Australia, where it allegedly broke the country's labor laws by underpaying its workers.

A former top college rugby player, Chris Guider, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on September 22 that the church's leader for the past 25 years, David Miscavige, is a "toxic" and "violent" person. While working in the United States, he said, he witnessed Miscavige beat church member Mark Fisher; Fisher had talked about the beating in 2009 to Florida's St. Petersburg Times. Guider also related how Miscavige once ordered him to hit a church member with a stick for some offense. After Guider refused, he was sent to a punishment camp for 2 1/2 years in Sydney, where he was forced to wear black and do "hard labor" for $2 a week. The church noted that such stays are voluntary.

Guider is the latest church official to leave on sour terms, and Miscavige — who's ruled the church since before Hubbard died in 1986 — commonly is blamed for such disenchantment.

An independent Scientology movement fueled by the exodus of members such as Guider are disgusted with Miscavige's rigid rule, and it appears to be gaining strength. These splitters maintain their interest in Hubbard's teachings and, like Rathbun, sometimes make money putting on Scientology counseling sessions with others interested in the idea of independence.

Critics also point to various studies, surveys, and reports from ex-members who claim the number of the religion's adherents has been decreasing steeply. In a move apparently designed to shore up sagging enrollment, Miscavige announced a plan in 2003 to build "Ideal Orgs" in major cities around the world, to be used as recruitment centers, as well as local bases of operation.

The Valley of the Sun, which until now has been home to an ordinary org, was slated early on to get one of the premier churches. Phoenix is dear to Scientology, in that Hubbard lived and lectured here for several years starting in 1952. Indeed, an online Scientologist site,, calls Phoenix the "birthplace of Scientology."

It's no coincidence that the church set its sights on the property on North 44th Street, which is about a mile from Hubbard's now-preserved former home at 5501 North 44th Street.

As reported by New Times in February 5, 2009 ("Recruitment Mecca"), Scientologists wanted to give tours of the Hubbard home as if it were a museum, but the plans were scuttled when neighbors complained about increased traffic. Scientology's reputation as a potentially dangerous cult didn't help.

Fundraising began as early as 2007, according to the Ideal Org website. (The domain name was also registered in 2007.) The site shows that dozens of people from the Valley and Tucson have made donations to the project, including Valley homebuilder Randy Suggs, a longtime advocate of the religion.

The effort caught the attention of Scientology independents and critics, who have taken note of — and often ridiculed — the church's promotional videos and newsletters designed to pry open members' wallets for the cause. New Times' Valley Fever blog reported on one leaked video in July that features a couple of women in a boiler-room-like office, complete with a whiteboard containing stats and other information, urging viewers to donate to the Phoenix Ideal Org project ("Scientologists . . . Want Your Money," July 18). Amusingly, the video often cuts to the slightly chubby "Didi," one of the women in the office, dancing in a gold, body-hugging jumpsuit superimposed on a scene from the children's show Yo Gabba Gabba!

As hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised, the church fell behind on its bills at its current rented office space and church at 1002 North Third Street downtown, nearly leading to an eviction from that site earlier this year.

Now the deal on the new property is done, but fundraising continues as the church prepares for an extensive renovation of the site and its buildings. When it's completed, the facility will house the church's local office and provide space for studying or Sunday services for up to a few dozen members. (Only seven people showed up at the church's Third Street location for its October 2 services.) A major focus will be to dazzle the curious people who stop in at the new location with electronic displays and literature touting Hubbard's wisdom.

Gaining new members and keeping longtime members happy is more necessary than ever as the church competes with the burgeoning independence movement among Scientologists disenchanted with Miscavige.

The Phoenix Ideal Org, in the heart of Scientology's "birthplace," is part of the plan to win out over the long haul.

As for Scott Ruth and FitLife, they apparently stand no more chance than an inferior civilization getting conquered by the Galactic Confederacy.

Rick Schultz tells New Times that the church gave his CPA firm a month's free rent before it moved out of the North 44th Street property in mid-September — emphasizing that he has no problem with Scientologists. Like Scott Ruth's FitLife, his firm signed a five-year lease with the landlord just more than a year ago.

The Arizona-New Mexico Cable Communications Association was gone by the first of October, having moved to a new office at 44th Street and Camelback. Susan Bitter Smith, the trade group's executive director, says it received some incentives from the church as part of the process. But it wasn't as much help as promised for the relatively sudden, forced move.

Between "strained" conversations with Scientology officials about the real estate deal, Bitter Smith says she researched the church and learned that it has made a habit of buying distressed properties and evicting tenants.

The association — funded by membership dues of stakeholders like Cox Communications — still lost "thousands."

She says, "All of us who were tenants are victims. But life goes on."

Nobody's left on the property but Scott Ruth and his former landlord, Wilmot.

With his heavy debt load, a business model that would be hard hit by a relocation, and no acceptable offers from the church, the gym owner hopes media attention will spur the church to give him more money or at least put off evicting him until he finds the perfect new digs.

This won't be FitLife's first big move. Since it opened in 1996, it has relocated eight times. On each occasion, it took a 25 percent hit, Ruth estimates, but he managed to make up the loss and grow the business. In mid-2010, he signed the five-year lease, with an option to renew for three more years. He says his landlord gave him a good deal, but in retrospect he believes that Wilmot knew what was coming.

A few months later, on February 14, 2011, he and other tenants received a letter from the landlord saying that the Church of Scientology was in the process of acquiring the property and that the transaction would be complete within two weeks. Wilmot wrote that the letter was "official notification" of the church's request that the tenants leave the buildings as soon as possible so renovations could begin.

"Rather than pursuing its legal remedies, the church has offered to cooperate with all tenants regarding the costs of relocation," Wilmot explained in the letter. He elaborated that "consideration will be given" to the time it takes to find a new location, the difference in rental rates between the current spot and a comparable location, the "inconvenience factor" of moving, and a "buyout of the remaining term of a lease."

All of which, according to Ruth, turned out to be malarkey. Ruth says Wilmot had the audacity to suggest that Ruth hire him to handle the relocation.

County records show that Union Bank NA, formerly Union Bank of California, transferred the property's $5.7 million mortgage note to the Church of Scientology of Arizona on November 16, 2010, following an October agreement to sell the note for an undisclosed amount. A week later, the church transferred the note to Building Management Services, a nonprofit California company owned and operated by the national Church of Scientology.

Ownership of the property didn't actually change hands until late July, when the church — which had become Wilmot's lender — foreclosed on Wilmot's company and bought the property from itself in a trustee's sale. Neither the church nor the bank will say how much the church paid for the mortgage note and, thus, the property.

Nothing about the transfer and sale was improper, Wilmot maintains. His company, Fairmount Square, was in financial trouble because the economy had "gone south," and the lender had to foreclose on him, he admits. True, the church had "been trying to acquire the buildings for years," he says. But someone else could have acquired them, because Union Bank twice tried to sell the note in the past, he explains.

The tenants' leases, which offered no protection in case of a sale, were pretty typical, he says.

As for the offer of monetary help to the tenants, Wilmot says, "That's the church's business." Yet as far as he understood, Wilmot says, the offer was contingent on the tenants' responding immediately. Instead of trying to negotiate, he claims, the tenants grew stubborn. Some, like Ruth, hired attorneys.

Wilmot's company still is a tenant in the building, with an office above the gym. He never asked the church for money, he says, in part because he didn't want to leave in the spring, either. He's waiting for a new space to open up. But it's possible he may get to stay a while longer, even after Ruth is forced out.

The reason an Ideal Org is needed here is because Arizona is one of the worst states in the country for crime, teenage pregnancy, highway fatalities, and illiteracy, says Scientology's Phoenix Ideal Org website.

"There are no leaders in Arizona [who] can provide the people real help and real solutions," the site states. "We are the only ones [who] can reverse the dwindling spiral, so we need to have an Ideal Org befitting the birthplace of the Scientology religion."

Such a claim is unrealistic. Two recent court cases show the Phoenix Org's own leadership has been sketchy.

As mentioned, financial trouble at the local branch came to a head earlier this year. Court records show that as of mid-February, the Org owed more than $53,000 in late rental fees to its landlord, Maryland LLC, which owns the church's Third Street location. At a March 3 forcible-detainer hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court, a trial date was set for the following month.

Phoenix attorney Richard Kasper filed the eviction action on behalf of Maryland.

"They were significantly behind in paying their rent," Kasper says. The potential eviction was canceled a few days later, he says, "because the landlord [resolved its] differences with the church."

In other words, the church paid up. Yet it's difficult to comprehend why a church that's bought tens of millions of dollars' worth of real estate in the past few years, and touts that it teaches people how to run businesses and manage their lives better, failed to pay a relatively small bill.

A case from 2009 involving star local pastry chef Slade Grove is even more mystifying. In this one, Grove, formerly a high-ranking official in the Phoenix Org, says the church failed to reimburse him for nearly $3,000 in Org expenses that he paid.

Grove (who has participated as a contestant in Pie Social and Caramelpalooza, events co-sponsored by New Times' food blog, Chow Bella) says he was the "number two in command" at the Org, under former executive director Karen Mosher. Though he had put years and "tens of thousands" of dollars into the church, he says, Mosher refused to pay him back the $2,888 he'd spent.

He won his case in small-claims court in early 2010 and promptly was "declared" — Scientology's version of getting excommunicated. True to the church's policy of "disconnection," many of his Scientology buddies stopped associating with him. A few who knew he hadn't acted "out of malice" defied the rules and continued to speak to him.

Grove says he now considers himself part of the "massively growing" independent Scientology movement.

"The original technology that LRH developed is amazing, and it can make you a better person if you follow it," Grove asserts.

As a donor and helper on the Ideal Org project, Grove hopes to someday be allowed to rejoin the Phoenix Org. Yet he believes "vision has been lost" at Scientology's top levels because of leader Miscavige. Not only has membership declined throughout the religion, he says, but Mosher oversaw the time when there was a serious drop-off in membership in Arizona. Things seem to be picking up since new director Diane Koel took over about a year ago, Grove says.

New Times called several people on a church-maintained Internet list of Arizona Scientologists. The list does not appear to have been updated in some time. One southern Arizona woman reached says she hasn't practiced the religion since 1995.

"I don't know how to get [my name] off there," she says, adding that it didn't seem worthwhile to try. "Better to let sleeping dogs lie."

A man on the list wondered, "How did I get on the website for the church?" Told that the site contained specifics about him, he says he might have told someone the information over the phone many years ago.

Some people on the list still are active members.

Dwight Benesh, a veterinarian and owner of the Chandler Small Animal Clinic, also donated to the Ideal Org. He claims Scientology is very much "like a science," with methods that have helped him run his business and life more effectively. Scientology coursework can be very expensive, he admits, "but if you go to college, you have to pay, too, right?"

Critics have a different take on Phoenix Ideal Org's official line — they say Miscavige's push to buy property and build Ideal Orgs is soaking money out of a shrinking membership to make the church appear vibrant in the short term, and to find new blood in the long term.

On one independent Scientology site, Possible Helpful Advice, an anonymous ex-church member published several newsletters put out by the church to encourage donations. Church spokesman Bob Adams, the same guy who visited Scott Ruth, describes in a January 2011 letter to members how he's "personally adopted" Phoenix as a project and hopes people give a "meaningful donation" because Phoenix is the birthplace of the religion.

An anonymous blogger who goes by the handle Plain Old Thetan relates an amusing anecdote from a few months back about church members from Tucson getting a limousine ride to an Ideal Org campaign event in Phoenix. The campaign committee figured out that "if you let the Tucson people drive up to Phoenix in their own cars — they don't come!" he wrote.

After the fundraiser, the limo supposedly split without the passengers, leaving "the Tucsonans stranded and begging for rides . . . back home."

He ends the post with a missive that the goal of "any Ideal Org campaign is to cajole, force, embarrass, and harass an audience into donating money they don't have for an unneeded Ideal Org."

Contacted by New Times, Plain Old Thetan says he can't divulge his Arizona source for the story or give his own name.

Karin Pouw, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles, disputed the writings of Plain Old Thetan, saying his posts are "insulting and [misstate] our fundraising actions."

However, Pouw confirms that Bob Adams actively participated in the Phoenix project, meeting with Ruth and other tenants at the newly acquired property. A Scientology message posted on Marty Rathbun's site, Moving On Up a Little Higher, touts a March 2 fundraiser for the Ideal Org in which members are invited to sell their gold and silver — including "dental gold work" — to a professional buyer as a way of supporting the project.

Nationally, the Ideal Org effort already is paying off, Pouw says. The church has built 24 new Ideal Orgs since 2003 and has plans to turn 60 other properties into Ideal Orgs within the next two years. The completed churches have "resulted in a dramatic increase in the numbers of parishioners participating in our religious services," she says.

In a July 1 letter to Arizona members published by Plain Old Thetan, Scientologist Sharron Weber states that the Phoenix project is not about "having a nice building" or meeting fundraising goals: "It's about giving the chance of freedom to the very people that you walk past, rub elbows with, and see every day."

Until these hoped-for new members start paying their dues, though, practicing Scientologists will hear calls for more Phoenix Ideal Org donations and volunteers. There'll be costs for the new building's renovation, maintenance, and staffing. Exactly how much the project needs is a moving target.

Another post published by Plain Old Thetan contains a screen shot of a June 29 flier from the Church of Scientology seeking donations. It contains numbers to call with California area codes and states that the Phoenix project needs $402,885. But with $318,265 in pledges, it continues, there's only "$84,620 to go."

Weber's letter, which the blog writer states was e-mailed to a Scientologist on July 1, says $500,000 still is needed "to get your Ideal Org building."

By then, of course, the church owned the mortgage note and was preparing to foreclose on Wilmot's company.

Once Ruth's business is ousted and the renovation is complete, at least parts of the Phoenix Ideal Org will be open to the public, just as anyone now can walk into the org on Third Street in Phoenix and ask for information.

Well, maybe not just anyone. The Church of Scientology declined to speak with New Times, preferring an e-mail exchange with Pouw instead. Nevertheless, New Times stopped in at the Third Street location and chatted with a woman named "Terry" at the reception desk, saying a friend was interested in the religion. A picture of L. Ron Hubbard hung on the wall behind her. The room contained shelves of Hubbard's books and a flat-screen TV showing footage of a woman preaching behind a lectern.

As nice as Terry was, she's either ignorant or lying when she responds to a question about Xenu, claiming that preaching the story of the so-called Galactic Overlord is not part of the religion. Terry says claims that Xenu is part of church teachings are just "black PR" against Scientology.

Scientologists have been known to get prickly when asked about Xenu. Church leaders, including Bob Adams, are shown on many of the websites that oppose the religion to have been less than truthful about the story. Terry and other Scientologists interviewed for this article, including "independents" such as Grove, emphasize that — to them — Scientology is about improving or healing oneself through Hubbard's "technology."

Whether the new Ideal Org will be, as a 2009 St. Petersburg Times editorial described the church, "a smiling storefront, a darker interior" may be in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, some of the church's cult-like aspects have been well documented: harsh attacks on critics and ex-members; "disconnections" aimed at turning family members against each other; an inflexible belief system; attacks on psychiatry.

It's true that all religions in the United States (Scientology has been a religion, as far as the IRS is concerned, since 1993) contain practices and beliefs that outsiders find distasteful or zany. Excessive costs for Scientologists often are brought up as a criticism of the church. But many religions demand tithing of 10 percent of gross income. Scientology's fees for "purification rundowns," auditing sessions, and myriad books and DVDs are, by comparison, no worse.

Some Scientologists swear by Hubbard's religion. As older religions do, Scientology helps some people navigate through life's troubles.

Yet that doesn't excuse its shortcomings. Behind the "smiling storefront," curious truth-seekers will find a system of mental-health treatment that has all the hallmarks of faith healing, a personality cult centered on Hubbard, and a never-ending series of coursework. The church's harassment of journalists, government officials, and ex-members has been orchestrated by an official church doctrine known as "Fair Game."

Thanks to the religion's founder's not being born in ancient times, an excruciating amount of detail can be learned online and in books written about L. Ron Hubbard. In a nutshell, Hubbard was a poor student, a war veteran, a charismatic big talker, a dabbler in the occult, a prolific writer of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook and pulp science fiction, a scam artist who created a phony university that awarded him a phony doctoral degree, and a man who reportedly stated that the best way to make a fortune is to found your own religion.

In 1938, he reportedly told friends he had written a book that was more important than the Bible. The unpublished book, Excalibur, led to more research by Hubbard and the writing of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950. The bestselling book describes methods it says will organize and tame the mind; it also espouses eyebrow-raising theories that, in 61 years, haven't been remotely upheld by mainstream science.

The goal of Scientology therapy is to reach a stage called "clear," and "clears," said Hubbard, don't get colds, asthma, or other "psychosomatic ills." Like the character of Peter Parker in the movie Spider-Man, the eyesight of a "clear" soon will become "optimum," according to Hubbard's teachings.

In one of the many purported partial transcripts of therapy sessions that seem written entirely in Hubbard's voice, a young woman undergoes mental regression to the fetal stage, where she can feel "pressure" on her embryonic face as her mother has sex.

(Scientology teaches that people can even remember much earlier events — going all the way back to their many past lives.)

Hubbard moved to Phoenix in 1952 and gave hundreds of lectures on Scientology, which he delcared to be a "science of mind." A quote on the Phoenix Ideal Org website has Hubbard praising the beauty of Camelback Mountain following his completion in 1952 of Scientology 88. In an online copy of that handwritten manuscript, critics and believers can read how Hubbard claimed to be a nuclear physicist (in fact, he got an "F" in a college class he took on the subject) and that he spent "80,000 hours" researching his subject before committing the new book to print.

The first Scientology church was incorporated in December 1953 in New Jersey; Hubbard's first wife, Mary (who later divorced him, saying he was "hopelessly insane"), filed articles of incorporation for the church with the Arizona Corporation Commission on July 26, 1954.

One of the spin-off organizations of Scientology, the addiction treatment program Narconon, was dreamed up by Arizona prison inmate William Benitez in 1967. Despite its homegrown origins, a program based on Narconon's methods — which includes massage and sweat therapy — was rejected for use in Arizona prisons in 2001, because of concerns that it was scientifically unsound ("Lock Up, Rub Down," November 15, 2001).

The religion's spiritual headquarters is in Clearwater, Florida, but it also has major facilities — like its Celebrity Centre — in Los Angeles.

David Miscavige took over as ecclesiastical leader six years before Hubbard died in 1986. He's presided over lots of rough patches, probably none tougher than a double-whammy in 1995. That year, a disgruntled ex-member published online secret documents known as "OTIII" (OT standing for "Operating Thetan"), which contain the Xenu story. Then, Lisa McPherson, a mentally ill young member, died after she was "treated" for two weeks in a Scientology facility in Clearwater.

The church officially was charged with two felonies in McPherson's death, but the charges were dropped. Two years ago, Rathbun — the former church leader who's now getting harassed by the "squirrel busters" — admitted that he had destroyed key evidence in the case.

Somehow, the church has survived its scandals. But according to some, it's faltering under heavy public opposition.

As pointed out in a recent blog post in the Village Voice, New Times' sister paper in New York City ("Scientologists: How Many of Them Are There, Anyway?" July 4), Scientology's membership appears to be in a tailspin. The American Religious Identification Survey by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which has been collecting data on U.S. religious habits for more than 20 years, estimated that the country had about 55,000 Scientologists in 2001. By 2008, that number had dropped to about 25,000.

A church official tells New Times that the survey is "inaccurate" and that international membership is "in the millions." Such a bold claim seems unlikely, especially considering the relatively tiny size of the new Phoenix Ideal Org in a metro area containing more than 3 million people.

The survey's author, Barry Kasmin, admits that the sample size was too small to accurately represent small church groups like Scientology. The margin of error is a whopping plus or minus 300,000, he says.

"Of course, you can compare even the highest possible number with their membership claims," Kasmin says.

In other words, if the church has a maximum of 325,000 adherents in the United States, it's unlikely to have "millions" worldwide. And there is the downward trend to contend with.

Independents such as Tom Martiniano and Linda McCarthy of Phoenix claim Miscavige is destroying the church from the inside. The couple, both in their 60s and former senior members, left in the 1990s. They believe the reports that Miscavige is "violent," though Martiniano — who once worked with Miscavige in the church's paramilitary Sea Org — says he never saw the religious leader hit anyone.

Martiniano and McCarthy say they oppose Miscavige because he runs the organization with too much of an eye toward money — and has restructured coursework and "OT" levels to extract more cash from adherents. Martiniano calls Miscavige a bully and a tyrant.

Under Miscavige, Scientology has become "as radical as the Taliban is," he maintains.

Martiniano says he quit the church not long after getting into an argument with Miscavige.

From the church's point of view, people like Martiniano are "perverting" church scripture and Hubbard's teachings. Martiniano was expelled from the church for twisting Hubbard's procedures and "refusing correction," Pouw wrote to New Times, adding that he's "anti-Scientologist and anti-L. Ron Hubbard."

Yet in talking to Martiniano, a portly insurance adjuster and Vietnam vet, he comes across as devoted to Hubbard's ways. He says he believes strongly in the power of "e-meters," the mystical thought-sensing machines that the church produces and sells for thousands of dollars each. Having studied the "OTIII" material, he says he's accepted the Xenu story and "body thetans" as a reasonable part of the religion and has seen "proof" that Hubbard's methods work. Martiniano even claims to treat people in independent Scientology-counseling sessions and that one woman working with him and a homeopathic physician was cured of breast cancer.

Such far-fetched claims don't make independent Scientology look much different than the official version.

A woman who looks to be in her 20s, with a Bluetooth on one ear, is raking the rocks in the xeriscaped yard of the L. Ron Hubbard home. She appears annoyed when asked by a reporter whether the home ever will be open to the public.

"No, that's not going to happen at all," she says. "It's a private historical home."

Scott Ruth says this contradicts one thing Bob Adams told him, which was that "tours" would run from the Ideal Org to the home.

Pouw, the church spokeswoman, writes that the woman was correct. The church, which in 2005 finished a meticulous re-creation of the way the home looked in the 1950s, when Hubbard lived there, has no plans to open the home to the public. If that's true, it would be a relief to neighbors in Camelback Village, who have fought to prevent such tours.

However, one Scientology website suggests that plenty of members still will tour the home:

"Today, Scientologists visiting Mr. Hubbard's Camelback home learn of his adventures and challenges in discovering and identifying the human spirit and in the founding of the Scientology religion. It is here that Scientologists trace the research trail of L. Ron Hubbard that culminated in the discovery of the human soul."

Pouw also says the church is "confident" it will reach an agreement with Ruth.

The fitness trainer, when told of Pouw's e-mail, says he's surprised to hear that the church still is willing to work with him. He's delaying eviction as long as possible until he finds an inexpensive new space in Arcadia (an unlikely proposition).

But Ruth's not optimistic that the church will treat him fairly. So far, he says, the church's shady reputation has been bolstered by its dealings to establish the Phoenix Ideal Org.

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