Scientology's Oklahoma Nemesis, Bob Lobsinger: "They Lied Every Step of the Way"
On Saturday and Tuesday, we gave readers some background on the Scientology drug treatment center in Oklahoma -- called Narconon Arrowhead -- that is now the center of controversy after four recent deaths which are under investigation, three just since October.
Tonight, a report by Rock Center's Harry Smith on NBC should explode interest in the goings on at the strange drug rehab, where patients learn Scientology processes -- like hours-long staring drills and talking to inanimate objects -- rather than getting counseling for their actual drug problems.
In our previous stories, we explained that Scientology has had a long, colorful history in Oklahoma, where it started an effort in the late 1980s to make a new center there the launching pad for a period of expansion.
But standing in their way was the editor of a small weekly newspaper who proceeded to give Scientology hell over the next three years. His name is Bob Lobsinger, and this week I had a lengthy conversation with him.
"If they'd just come in here and been honest about who they were and what they wanted, it probably would have flown. But they lied every step of the way," Lobsinger told me by telephone from his home in Newkirk, Oklahoma.
In 1980, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had closed a school in nearby Chilocco, Oklahoma and turned over its buildings and land to five tribes in the north central part of the state. About eight years later, Narconon officials began negotiating to take over parts of the school to turn it into its first large in-patient facility in the country. The officials said nothing about Scientology, but Lobsinger soon figured out that the church was really behind what was going on, and he announced it loudly in his weekly column.
Lobsinger says that one cute trick Narconon pulled was to have something called ABLE -- the Association for Better Living and Education -- show up and turn over a $200,000 check to help fund the center. The gesture was intended to show that Narconon was such an exciting new enterprise, it was attracting funding from outside sources.
But Lobsinger was suspicious. He took a good look at the check from ABLE, and realized that he recognized the address. Sure enough, ABLE and Narconon International shared an office -- and it turned out, ABLE was actually Narconon's parent corporation, and both were part of Scientology. The check was a pure sham. (On Tuesday, we reported the startling information that for the last five years, ABLE's president, Rena Weinberg, has been confined to Scientology's bizarre office-prison in California, known as "The Hole.")
Just about every week for three years, Lobsinger wrote about Scientology's invasion of Newkirk. (You can find many of them in this archive.)
"When you run a small weekly newspaper like this, your big story is that you get a grain elevator that blows up about every 25 years. But this was my big story. And we still have our grain elevator," he says.
Lobsinger kept up the pressure as Narconon tried and failed to get state certification for its expensive center. Eventually, the facility went around the state by getting an exemption through private certification.
In the meantime, Lobsinger says, he was targeted for classic harassment from the church, which knows only one way to handle opposition: always attack, never defend.
"We had Gene Ingram out here harassing people," he says, referring to a disgraced former Los Angeles police officer who served as Scientology's chief private eye for its "noisy investigations" and dirty tricks.
"He was trying to get me to sign a bunch of papers that said we had been wrong and L. Ron Hubbard was right. I chased him out of the office," Lobsinger says.
"They sent a couple of guys from LA. They showed up in Newkirk, a little agricultural town of 2,000 people. They sent them around to give people a hard time. They were trying to find my house. It was rainier than the dickens," he remembers. "I live six and a half miles out in the country. They were wearing these California leisure suits, with mud up to their knees."
If they didn't know their way around very well, they still managed to follow the classic Scientology playbook of intimidation.
"They did the 'noisy investigation' that they always come up with. People around town would call me about every 15 minutes. Oh, they're over at the tax office to see if you're paying your taxes. Now they're at the courthouse looking to see if you've been sued," he says.
"Then they hired a private investigator who was taking pictures of all the empty storefronts in town. He was telling everyone that they were going to be bringing economic development to Newkirk when they opened their center, and I was the one who was holding it all back."
Apparently, they were only getting warmed up.
"One night I was working late at the newspaper. I had a call from my wife. Somebody was knocking on our door at one in the morning. She wouldn't answer the door. He was trying to tell her that he was delivering some lost luggage to us. But I hadn't been anywhere and I didn't have any lost luggage. She told him to leave it at the police station," he says. "I never even checked to see if they had left anything."
Then there was the time someone called to tell him that he and his brother were the beneficiaries of a life insurance policy in Georgia.
"They probably figured out that I had worked at a newspaper in Georgia. I think they were trying to find my brother. They said they wanted his address to notify him that he was a beneficiary. But I think that was just another case of trying to pump us for information," he says.
"They sent somebody to visit my brother's ex-wife down in Florida," he remembers. "They sent someone all the way down there. But she didn't know anything."
Another time, a church operative showed up at the Herald Journal with a fistful of cash. "He said he needed to buy an ad," Lobsinger says. "He wanted to know if I was interested. I told him if it met our standards, we'd take his money."
The man left, saying that he'd get the copy for the ad and come back. "About 20 minutes later, he showed up, and his ad turned out to be a rebuttal by the Narconon people of everything I had published in my paper. I'm sorry, I told him, that copy just doesn't meet our standards. I'm going to have to refuse it."
The next day, he says, the ad ran in two competing papers to the north of Newkirk.
The same rebuttal then showed up in the mailboxes of about 800 of Lobsinger's subscribers. He said it didn't take long to figure out that Scientology's private eyes had fished out a partial circulation list from the newspaper's trash bins.
Then he told me his creepiest memory from that period.
"They sent one guy around trying to talk to the mayor. He knew who the mayor's kid was, somehow. So he followed the kid into the library and told him he need to talk to his dad. Then he gave him his card," Lobsinger says. "It was just to let the mayor know they knew where his kid was."
Narconon, meanwhile, battled with Oklahoma's Department of Mental Health, which refused to grant certification to the center.
"They battled back and forth for a couple of years in court," Lobsinger says. "Then all of a sudden Narconon showed up with CARF certification."
Narconon asked for an exemption from state licensing after it convinced CARF, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, to give it approval.
"The state had maxed out its legal budget," Lobsinger says. "So they gave up when CARF certification showed up. The AG's office dropped everything." Newkirk was then stuck with the center Lobsinger had worked so hard to expose.
"My gut feeling is that Narconon had no intention of ever getting state certification, but used the time to infiltrate CARF while badgering the Health Department and burning up several years' worth of the state's legal budget. I had at least one director of the state health department contact me several times by phone, saying his wife had been followed and he was fearful that his phones had been tapped," Lobsinger says.
"The board found an 'out' of their problem when the group provided their CARF papers, and jumped at the chance to give them a waiver. Similarly, the state attorney's office abruptly dropped the cases it was conducting and the only excuse given was that they were told to do so from higher up."
Lobsinger says only a few of his readers ever complained about his coverage of Scientology. There was the landlord, for example, who was making a killing off of the Los Angeles church officials, and who didn't want his gravy train to end. But otherwise, his readers were behind him as Lobsinger fended off the harassment.
"It was just a lot of little things that occurred then that have never occurred since," he says.
He sold the Herald Journal in 2000, which was just about the perfect time to sell a print publication.
To this day, however, more than a decade after he sold the paper and Narconon moved away from Newkirk to the Arrowhead Lodge, he still gets calls from distraught parents, desperate to learn more about Scientology and Narconon after being duped into sending a child there.
Bob says he doesn't mind answering those calls.
Tonight's NBC Script Online Now?
I just noticed this story attributed to NBC producer Anna Schecter at the Rock Center website.
The opening paragraphs appear identical to what Harry Smith says in the teaser that NBC put out a few days ago. Could this be the full story that Smith is going to be delivering tonight?
If so, it's got some strengths and weaknesses.
Based on this story and the teasers we've seen so far, Harry Smith does an excellent job interviewing the families of people who lost their lives in the Narconon facility. Here's another new teaser...
But we had to scratch our head when we saw that the piece asks some "experts" about the efficacy of L. Ron Hubbard's notion of "sweating out" drugs from the body, even years after their use.
"Based on the fundamental well known principles of equilibrium chemistry...such therapy is a very reasonable approach to detoxification," said Dr. Vin LoPresti, a biologist who supports Narconon's methods. LoPresti said the use of sauna therapy is "gentler" and has "fewer side-effects" than drug-based detoxification. LoPresti said he has not been to any Narconon facilities and is not aware of the circumstances of the deaths at Narconon Arrowhead. He said he can only speak to the efficacy of Hubbard's methods.
We looked around, and found little about Vin LoPresti online (except for his medical fiction). He did apparently write the following description of himself for a "progressive" op-ed website back in 2007:
"a molecular biologist who's [sic] passion is the philsophical [sic] and pragmatic expansion of the US healthcare system away from its insane addiction to physician-lock, reductionistic, simpleminded drug therapy toward a more-global view based on the recognition of the primacy of organisms as information-processing networks."
Well, we're still looking forward to tonight's show. Should be a blast.
Yet Another Impenetrable Trailer from The Master
Those lucky bastards in Chicago will be treated to a sneak-preview of The Master tonight to benefit The Film Foundation. In the meantime, this new trailer was released to announce that showing, and except for Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) asking Mary Sue (Amy Adams) about "this Time Hole business," there's not much Scientology material here. (But we can tell you all about the Scientology in the script.)
I have to say, I found this trailer to be a bit underwhelming compared to the others. Still, this film looks like it's going to be mesmerizing.
"Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god"
Scientology's president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology's new defections: Hubbard's granddaughter and Miscavige's dad
Scientology's disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige's vanished wife: Where's Shelly?
Neil Gaiman, 7, Interviewed About Scientology by the BBC in 1968
The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras
And a post that pulls together the best of our Scientology reporting
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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 was 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.