Joel Sappell and Robert Welkos, the co-authors of a groundbreaking 1990 Los Angeles Times series on the Church of Scientology, braved a lot of church harassment back then to get the stories in the paper. It took years to report, edit, lawyer and re-check the series, which revealed a lot of secrets about the church and came as the founder, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, was in hiding and fighting the IRS to secure tax-exempt status for his church. The reporters spoke and wrote later about the personal difficulties of reporting on Scientology — Sappell was convinced his dog was poisoned by followers, Welkos was stopped by the cops in an obvious set-up, and both were investigated and harassed. Now Sappell writes in more detail about that time in the January issue of Los Angeles magazine, and for the story he talks to a key church defector who back then was so high up he was the personal "auditor" for Tom Cruise.
Mark "Marty" Rathbun ran Scientology's intelligence operation, according to Sappell. Some preview highlights:
* David Miscavige, the Church of Scientology’s ecclesiastical leader, took a intense interest in Sappell and Welkos’ reporting, referring to them as “Fucking weasel Sappell and fat fuck Welkos,” says Rathbun. The series appeared at a time when Miscavige was under pressure to prove he could lead after the death of church founder L. Ron Hubbard. When it came to the Times reporters, Rathbun says, the message was clear: “Crush them.”
* The seizures that struck Sappell’s German shepherd mix were so severe that she had to be put down. Then Sappell received a phone call from a Superior Court judge. He was presiding over a civil trial pitting the Church of Scientology against a former church member who claimed he’d been harassed. “I hear your dog was poisoned,” the judge told Sappell. “My dog was drowned.” (The church denies their involvement in either pet’s death.)
* Private investigators were indirectly hired by the church to obtain Sappell and Welkos’ financial records, phone records, and other data, Rathbun says. “I remember beaucoup intelligence reports on you guys during that entire era,” Rathbun tells Sappell. After Miscavige read those reports, Rathbun says, “I shredded all that stuff…. There could be no trace of it.”
Scientology denies it all and calls Rathbun, who is trying to organize believers who are independent of the official church run by Miscaviage and Cruise, “obsessed like a stalker.” Sappell today is a special deputy to county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
By the way, a little boomlet of speculation swirled in media circles Monday about a weekend tech outage at the magazine. Was it Scientology, upset over the story? Not according to the magazine. Email was out but that's because "company equipment was powered down for a scheduled city power inspection that took place over the weekend," said Shayna Rose Arnold, the online content manager. Security on the magazine's floor of the Variety building on Wilshire has been unusually strict recently, I'm told. The story lands today (link added.)
Previously on LA Observed:
Meet the 'heroes of early Scientology reporting'
Poor Katie Holmes