The Daily Awl has posted a story today revisiting and giving credit to the ground-breaking 1990 series on the Church of Scientology in the Los Angeles Times. Reporters Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos worked on the series for five years and, as writer Maria Bustillos aptly puts it, "it was, and still is, a corker." It broke a lot of the ground that The New Yorker piece last week on Paul Haggis and Scientology rehashed. Sappell and Welkos, both gone from the Times now, endured heavy personal attacks before and after their explosive stories got in the paper (at a much longer length than is possible today.) A big reason is that the Church of Scientology knew they were on to many of the secrets of the church and the father of Dianetics, the sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, and fought every step of the way. Publication of this series was a major milestone in the newsroom at the time.
From the Daily Awl:
Sappell and Welkos hunted down the facts regarding Hubbard's trumped-up military record: his false claims of having received a Purple Heart, of having been "crippled and blinded" from war injuries and of "curing" himself using the principles of what later became Dianetics. They revealed details of Hubbard's academic career, the story of his years in Asia, his request to the Veterans Administration for psychiatric treatment in late 1947. There was the story of the 1976 suicide of L. Ron Hubbard's son Quentin, who was "an embarrassment" to Hubbard because he had been "confused about his sexual orientation"; Quentin Hubbard was only twenty-two when he killed himself. They exposed deceit after deceit. There was the long history of Scientology's legal and tax troubles, and the entire story of Xenu the space tyrant.
Then there were marvelously wacky details: Hubbard's occultish Pasadena hi-jinks in the company of John Whiteside Parsons, a protege of Aleister Crowley ("'The neighbors began protesting when the rituals called for a naked pregnant woman to jump nine times through fire in the yard,' recalled science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp.") Hubbard's claim to have been Cecil Rhodes in an earlier life, and to have invented music three million years ago, in his previous incarnation as "Arpen Polo."
"Back then, covering Scientology was not for the faint of heart," Sappell said. "The stakes were huge in the late 1980s—bigger, I think, than today. At the time, the IRS was investigating Hubbard (who was in hiding) for allegedly skimming church money through a maze of corporate fronts. Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking defectors had filed lawsuits against the organization. All this came while Scientology was continuing its fevered battle with the U.S. government for tax-exempt status, which would allow members to write off the huge sums they were paying for church courses and services." The church lost its tax-exempt status in 1967, and regained it in a deal made with the IRS in 1993.
"During the course of our series," Sappell wrote in an email, "multiple private investigators rooted around in our past. I was falsely accused of aggravated assault (the alleged victim, it turned out, gave the LAPD a bogus name and address.) My dog—like the pets of others who'd drawn the ire of church leaders—was poisoned on the day that my partner and I wrote a front-page obituary of Hubbard that sharply contradicted the church's biography of their founder and the many claims he'd made about himself. That same morning, a blustery Boston attorney for the church had called us and shouted: 'If you want a f***ing war, you just got one!' That was a bit unnerving since we thought we already were in one."
Photos: Los Angeles Daily News, UCLA Library Digital Collections