One Year Ago Today: Did the Squirrel Busters Mark the Beginning of the End of Scientology?
On April 18 last year, a man named Marty Rathbun opened his door at the sound of knocking and was presented with the sight you see here. Three men on his porch holding video cameras, and with backup cameras strapped to their foreheads. They were each wearing sky blue T-shirts that featured the same image: a squirrel whose head had been replaced with a photo of Rathbun's face.
Calling themselves "Squirrel Busters," the team of camera-wielding men were Scientologists on a strange mission.
As we look back today on what turned into a five-month siege in a little South Texas town, we have a special treat -- an interview with the man, Bert Leahy, who helped confirm that the Squirrel Busters was indeed a church operation. And after talking to him, we have to ask -- was the Squirrel Busters not only one of the most spectacular failures in Scientology's history, but also a turning point, a mile marker, a sign that the church's days are numbered?
First, a quick recap for those who weren't following our coverage of the siege last year: Until 2004, Marty Rathbun was one of the highest-ranking executives in the Church of Scientology. Like several other top officials, he says he was driven away from the church because of the behavior of its leader, David Miscavige, who purged many of the most loyal, highly-placed executives from the church's top ranks in the early and mid 2000s. In 2009, Rathbun resurfaced with a blog that is highly critical of Miscavige and promotes a burgeoning movement of ex-church members who still adhere to the philosophies of L. Ron Hubbard. These "independent Scientologists" are called "squirrels" by the church, using their word for "heretic."
Rathbun was not only a high-ranking executive; he was also one of the church's most highly regarded "auditors," and he let it be known that he was auditing -- giving spiritual counseling -- to other independents. One of these was Lori Hodgson, a California woman who traveled for the second time to Rathbun's house in Ingleside by the Bay, Texas, on April 16, 2011. Two days later, while taking a break during their day's counseling sessions, they heard a knock on the door and Rathbun found the Squirrel Busters on his porch.
As we described last week, one of the Squirrel Busters was a man named John Allender who had followed Hodgson from the San Jose area. What followed were months of harassment of Rathbun and his wife Monique as the goon squad rented a nearby house, planted itself in his cul de sac every day, and followed the Rathbuns around town, telling locals that they were making a documentary. Here at the Voice, we followed every bizarre new twist in the five-month saga.
Well, except for one. It was only this weekend that we finally got a chance to talk to Bert Leahy, the videographer who turned out to play such an important part in exposing the Squirrel Busters for the church operation that it was.
"It was the first week in June," Leahy remembers, speaking to me from his house in North Texas.
"I got a phone call. I'd done some documentary work. And Dave was scouring the Internet looking for videographers. He wanted someone with experience shooting on the fly," Leahy says. "He identified himself as 'Dave Statter.' He said he had done some documentary work on kids and drugs and the psychiatric industry. And he said this project was a reality TV show, like MythBusters, but they called it 'Squirrel Busters.' He was offering $2,000 a week. I'm like, 'hell yeah!'"
Soon, Leahy had joined the rest of the crew and was wearing a "Squirrel Busters" blue T-shirt. And at first, he thought he'd really lucked into something good. Leahy says that another of the Squirrel Busters, Bart Parr, told him that he was getting paid more than $100,000 a year working for Scientology.
Leahy says that "Statter" had sophisticated gear to keep track of Rathbun's position. He remembers soon after he arrived seeing Statter watch his equipment and then bark at them, "He's at Pier 99 in Corpus. Go get your gear -- Marty's at the aquarium!"
Leahy says he wishes he still had some of the scenes he taped. "Bart would always take my tapes. I shot a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. Oh, if I still had that footage. 'Get that son of a bitch!' Dave would yell. It was pretty intense."
And even though "Statter" wasn't seen on the videos taken by the Squirrel Busters or by Rathbun, Leahy says there was no question that he was still in control.
"Dave would watch from afar. While we were filming, Bart would say, 'Dave says back up' or some other direction. Dave was directing things by Bluetooth," Leahy says.
At one point, Leahy helped chase Rathbun and ended up back at Rathbun's cul de sac, where police arrived on one of several calls to the location. Leahy stood around while the other Squirrel Busters dealt with the police, not realizing that Rathbun was filming him from his house.
Leahy quickly soured on the job as it became apparent that this was no legitimate documentary or reality TV production, but simply a surveillance mission intended to harass the Rathbuns. As he told Mark Collete of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times...
"Dave flat-out said our goal is to make Marty's life a living hell," Leahy said. "That's a quote. He never said 'stalk,' but he said make Marty's life a living hell with every means possible of impeding his everyday living, and make it so miserable for him and his neighbors that his neighbors will want him to move."
Leahy says it just felt wrong, and he told "Statter" that he couldn't be a part of it anymore. "I left just before they rented a house and started riding around in the golf cart," he says. He had worked for the Squirrel Busters for less than a week.
After he got home, Leahy started reading up on Marty Rathbun, and discovered Rathbun's blog -- and realized to his horror that Rathbun had put up footage that showed Leahy milling around outside his house in his Squirrel Busters get up.
Leahy, right, with the Squirrel Busters
Not wanting Rathbun to think that he had endorsed the siege, Leahy contacted him, and then agreed to come see him and be interviewed on camera.
Leahy told him how Dave Statter had been running the the operation from a hotel room. Leahy still had a voice mail message from Statter, and he played it for Rathbun.
Rathbun immediately recognized the voice as that of Dave Lubow.
Leahy agreed with that identification after being shown photographs of Lubow, who is a private investigator long in the employ of the Church of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs. (Lubow, who did not return my phone call, would probably say that he works for an attorney, not the church. Mike Rinder, who for many years was executive director of OSA, says that's standard procedure for the church's private eyes, who work for attorneys who work for the church. But in an interview with Mark Bunker, Rinder also explained that Lubow reported to him directly on church operations in the past.) Leahy in turn saw Lubow getting directions in phone calls from Los Angeles, one of the church's headquarters.
With Leahy's eyewitness testimony, there's little question that the Church of Scientology was actively directing and paying for the expensive Squirrel Busters operation.
"I'm really surprised that they didn't have me sign some kind of non-disclosure agreement before I even went to work for them," Leahy says. And he's right -- but perhaps, in Lubow's rush to bring on people in a complex operation, that detail was missed.
But Leahy's experience with Scientology wasn't finished.
"I had no idea the impact it would have, on the Internet and all that," he says. With news stories and blog posts and discussion forums, Leahy's name was now on thousands of web pages, associating him with Scientology.
And he noticed that suddenly, someone was casing his house from his alley. "They went through my garbage about two weeks after I got back," he says. He had little doubt who was looking for information on him.
"If I'd had a mug shot or anything, they would have exploited it. But luckily, I have a clean record," he says. "It was very stressful after I told my story. It was overwhelming."
Leahy just wanted to go back to filming weddings and sporting events. But he got nervous when a woman called him up and cancelled her contract with him to shoot her wedding. "She'd seen the stuff online, and she was worried Scientology would show up to hassle me at her wedding," he says.
Two months after leaving the Squirrel Busters, Leahy says the stress was becoming too much for him. He called up Lubow and told him he wanted the surveillance to end. Leahy says that when Lubow called him back, he complained that Leahy had "ruined his image." Leahy says he offered to take down his videos and promised to say nothing else to the press, but he felt the church owed him something in return. "They hired me under false pretenses," Leahy says. When Lubow asked him for a figure, Leahy suggested $20,000.
"He said I was trying to extort him," Leahy says. "He said not to call him again and hung up. I haven't heard anything else."
So Leahy has left up his videos, and he's still talking to the press. And life is returning to the way it was before. He's filming weddings and sporting events, and the work is steady.
"I guess everything's pretty much back to normal, but I can't get rid of that feeling of looking over my shoulder," he says.
Something else I learned from talking to Leahy: shortly after his story broke in the Caller-Times, he and Rathbun were contacted by NBC.
Rathbun and Leahy both say they were told by producers that a new show would be debuting called Rock Center, and they wanted to make the Squirrel Busters the subject of the very first segment aired on the new program in October.
"I told Bert not to get his hopes up," Rathbun says, pointing out that he'd been taped three separate times for the Today show and nothing had aired.
Sure enough, after showing a lot of early interest, the producers suddenly stopped calling.
Leahy is still frustrated by it. "They're missing it. What more do you need than my story to show how bad these people are?" he asks.
But Rathbun has a different conclusion looking back on the Squirrel Busters, who faded away in the fall after casing his house for so many weeks (and also visiting Mike Rinder in Florida and following Rathbun to Los Angeles in August).
"Everything that I went through and that Mike went through, I really believe that the year 2011 will be remembered for this -- we took over-the-top harassment out of their arsenal," Rathbun says. "I haven't seen a single thing since November."
Rathbun thinks that church leader David Miscavige wasn't prepared for how much publicity the Squirrel Busters would generate as the siege was happening.
"I think because they got so consistently ridiculed in the Village Voice, the Caller-Times, on my blog, they realized too many people are watching," he says. "The publicity really made a difference. And they heard from NBC news. And maybe others. Now they know that everyone is watching, and whatever they do is going to get publicized and get legs."
There are other significant events which point to the Church of Scientology going through perhaps its most difficult times in decades -- evidence of dwindling membership, an exodus of high-level executives, the blockbuster 2009 expose by the Tampa Bay Times called "The Truth Rundown," the vigilance of the Anonymous movement, and others. But it was in the Squirrel Busters episode that we saw, really for the first time, how ineffective Scientology's own retaliation efforts could be. This strange mission -- to drive Marty Rathbun from Ingleside on the Bay through intimidation -- blew up in the church's face like few other things have in the last 30 years. Is this, then, the beginning of the end?
I think we'll start to get an answer to that question soon, and in unlikely places like San Antonio, Texas and Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Stay with us for more.
Tricky Dick Dropped From Print Version
Wow, that was fast. Scientology's massive printing operations have already produced a slick copy of International Scientology News all about the LRH Birthday Event which happened just over a month ago!
Having sat through the entire three-hour DVD of the Event, which celebrated what would have been L. Ron Hubbard's 101st birthday, I can tell you that this publication was one big repackaging of what happened on stage that night in Clearwater, Florida.
I was very curious, then, to see how some of Hubbard's tall tales were prepared for print. As we pointed out previously, perhaps the biggest howler of the night was a completely unbelievable yarn by Hubbard -- excerpted from a lecture he gave in the 1960s -- that had him claiming to have put down a 1945 rebellion by atomic scientists at Caltech who were threatening to overthrow the US government with the use of nuclear weapons.
In a bizarre coda to that story, official church biographer Dan Sherman claimed that the "henchman" of the scientist revolt was none other than Richard Nixon. (Here, check it out for yourself.)
So we were very curious to see how this part of the night's presentation would be translated to print. Here's an image of the relevant spread in the magazine...
And here's the portion that matters...
It took place at the end of World War II, when LRH and one Johnny Arwine, lieutenant commander of the US Coast Guard, brought together a great many atomic physicists for a meeting at the California Institute of Technology's Athenaeum Hall. These scientists -- many of them LRH's friends and former classmates -- represented the cream of America's atomic bomb project, including a chief engineer who designed the triggering device and no less than three Nobel Laureates for theoretical physics.
LRH's intention was to organize these men so that some sort of sensible control could be monitored across the bomb and thus prevent the further use of atomic fission against the human race. But the nuclear physicists were already so mad, so furious, that they said only one thing: "We wish to overthrow the government of the United States by force."
LRH and Arwine withdrew their support and "did what we could to knock the rough edges of the movement...and it all fell to nothing. But the atomic physicist did try." And as LRH then notes, "The punishment taken against him was severe."
Specifically, and summarily: a full 64 were stripped of security clearances, thus effectively ending their careers in government research departments.
No Tricky Dick!
Well, maybe it's one thing to claim in a video you don't expect the outside world to see that a former president, while still a soldier, tried to lead a treasonous coup of the federal government. But it's another thing to put it down in black and white, one supposes.
We're working hard to gather information today on the situation in Quebec. We know you're anxious to hear from David Love after his victory over Narconon in Trois Rivieres, and are working to have an interview with ready for our Friday morning post.
And remember to check our Facebook author page for other schedules and updates.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.