Billboard seeking to reunite broken Scientology families coming to Clearwater

They hope to call attention to the church's "disconnection" practice.
A billboard put up in Los Angeles by Phil and Willie Jones is dotted with dozens of faces representing Scientologists who have separated from their families, including their two children, Mike and Emily. A similar one will be going up sometime next week on East Bay Drive in Clearwater. Photo from Phil Jones
A billboard put up in Los Angeles by Phil and Willie Jones is dotted with dozens of faces representing Scientologists who have separated from their families, including their two children, Mike and Emily. A similar one will be going up sometime next week on East Bay Drive in Clearwater.Photo from Phil Jones
Published July 12 2016
Updated July 13 2016

CLEARWATER — The same, desperate plea Phil and Willie Jones plastered across a billboard in Los Angeles is scheduled to go up on East Bay Drive next week.

"To my loved one in Scientology … Call me," it will read.

The couple crowdsourced funds to put up the West Coast billboard in April as an attempt to inspire their two adult children, who are members of Scientology in Los Angeles, to reconnect with their parents. Phil Jones said since he and his wife left the religion around 2012, the church forced their children, Mike, 42, and Emily, 38, to cut off contact with their nonbelieving parents, a practice called disconnection.

Shortly after the billboard went up, Jones, 63, said he got requests from Floridians for a similar appeal in Clearwater — home of the Church of Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters — on behalf of other families who say they have also lost touch with loved ones.

Jones, an insurance adjuster now living in Las Vegas, didn't hesitate.

"In the end, this is not just about my wife and I and our kids anymore," he said. "There's literally thousands of people out there who have suffered from Scientology disconnection."

Initially contacted Monday afternoon, church spokesman Ben Shaw responded Tuesday afternoon stating that the Jones children "are best qualified to answer you."

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Emily Jones said that her parents are driven by money and that their fundraising effort to finance the billboard is a scam.

She said her parents have harassed her and her brother by distributing handbills in her neighborhood stating they were missing and calling police to say they were being held against their will.

"The only reason our parents are bringing up our religion is because it is a prominent religion, and our parents see it as something they can capitalize on for their own profit," Emily Jones wrote.

Phil Jones started a GoFundMe.com campaign last month to cover the cost of printing and renting the billboard in Clearwater, the same way he paid for the one in Los Angeles. He hopes to continue raising money to cover the $4,000 monthly cost through the end of the year. As of Tuesday, the campaign had raised $5,370.

Although he said the billboard is scheduled to go up sometime next week on East Bay Drive, Jones declined to disclose the exact location or the billboard company in fear that church officials may interfere with his plans.

"When we did this in L.A., we went through two companies," Phil Jones said. "Every time we announced ahead of time, they shut us down. They threatened the billboard companies."

The Clearwater billboard will be identical to the one in Los Angeles, directing readers to the Joneses' website, StopScientologyDisconnection.com.

There, Jones defines disconnection as a "cruel and abusive practice" that is "the severance of all ties between a Scientologist and a friend, colleague or family member deemed to be antagonistic towards Scientology." The website of Scientology states disconnection is a "self-determined decision made by an individual" to aid spiritual progress.

A Scientologist can either handle the other person's antagonism with data about the religion or stop communicating with that person, the website states.

But Jones said the disconnection experience for his family was more forced and traumatic than that.

He and his wife spent more than 40 years in Scientology, first in his native Canada and then Clearwater. Around 2009, the couple began to quietly question the religion after reading investigative reports detailing allegations of abuse committed by church leaders. Scientology has denied those reports. The Joneses stayed under the radar for four years, disclosing their doubts to nobody out of fear they'd lose their friends, family and business contacts.

But once church officials caught wind of their misgivings, Jones said his sister, who has reached one of the highest levels in the religion, flew down from Canada to confront them.

"That was it," he said. "Overnight we lost everything."

The couple moved to Las Vegas and have been trying ever since to reach their children, who both work in the Sea Organization, the church's religious order.

Jones said he participated last month in a protest outside of the Galaxy Press building, a publishing arm of Scientology in Los Angeles, where he saw his daughter's husband.

"I called out to him and asked if he could have Emily call her mom," Jones said, "but he didn't say anything."

Although they've been unsuccessful in reuniting their family, Jones said their efforts have led to the creation of a support network that has brought some level of comfort.

The goal is for the Clearwater billboard to do the same.

"It doesn't get any easier, unfortunately," he said, "but we'll never give up."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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