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Ex-Scientology leader Debbie Cook tells of fear and pursuit by church officers

Starting new lives in San Antonio, Texas, after working decades for the Church of Scientology, they picked up the phone in August 2009 and were stunned when church security officer Kathy True said she and two other staffers were in town to see them.

Could they come to the couple's home?

No, said Cook. She had thought True was coming alone. Cook suggested a public place, a restaurant.

It was a tense time for Scientology. A few weeks earlier, four high-ranking defectors had spoken out about abusive practices in church management ranks. Now, three big names wanted to make sure Cook and Baumgarten were still in the fold.

Before going to the restaurant, Baumgarten bought a handgun.

That account was provided to the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday by Cook and her Texas lawyer Ray Jeffrey, whom Cook and Baumgarten hired after the church sued them in January for violating confidentiality agreements signed when they left the church in 2007.

Cook is one of Scientology's most noted defectors. She served 17 years as the top ecclesiastical figure at the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.

When she and Baumgarten left, the church paid them $50,000 each in exchange for signing the agreements. For four years, they said nothing.

But on New Year's Eve, Cook emailed thousands of current and former Scientologists, calling on them to help reform the church's money-raising and management practices.

The church quickly sued the couple. It contended they violated their confidentiality agreements. It also asked a San Antonio judge to enjoin them from making further statements.

The case has drawn widespread media attention, generated dramatic testimony and swelled into a full-blown Texas showdown, with lawyers for both sides filing reams of paperwork and leveling tart accusations.

Church lawyers demand records of Cook's legal defense fund and accuse Jeffrey of improperly using confidential information supplied by former church executives.

Jeffrey counters that the church is trying to muzzle and intimidate Cook by ignoring his requests for evidence. He also alleges "steamroll" tactics and says church lawyers hired private investigators to follow Cook.

The church declined Tuesday to comment about the account of True's visit and Jeffrey's other accusations, saying it will resolve matters in court, not in the press.

Church lawyers filed papers this week arguing Cook and her husband have no case. They were, and are, bound to the confidential agreements and clearly violated them.

The couple's comeback: The contracts are legally unenforceable because Cook and Baumgarten signed them under duress. If they hadn't signed, the church wouldn't have let them go. The case took a dramatic turn Feb. 9 when church lawyers called Cook as a witness. She delivered three hours of testimony damaging to the church's image.

She recounted how she was transferred from Clearwater to the church's International Base near Los Angeles and saw dozens of church executives held under guard in a pair of doublewide trailers nicknamed "the Hole.''

She said she was thrown into "the Hole" in the summer of 2007 and described how church managers were forced to sleep on an ant-infested floor and eat meals of stew she referred to as "slop.''

She told of church leader David Miscavige once directing his secretary to slap her because he was displeased with her work. Another time, he ordered another assistant to break one of Cook's fingers, she said. The staffer bent it back, but didn't cause a fracture.

The church denied it all.

Cook testified that after being assigned back to Clearwater, she and Baumgarten ran away, dismayed at what she'd seen in California. But security staffer True tracked her down at a South Carolina diner and convinced them to return and leave under standard church procedures.

After three more weeks under guard in Clearwater, she and her husband were willing to sign anything to leave, she said.

The riveting testimony generated widespread media coverage that continued into last week with a lengthy report on ABC's Nightline.

Last Friday, the church moved for a quick exit.

It asked the court to end the lawsuit by declaring the church the victor and forcing Cook and Baumgarten to pay $300,000 in damages.

In a motion for "summary judgment," church lawyer George Spencer Jr., of San Antonio, said the church "vehemently denies" Cook's claims she was put under duress. He also stressed Cook admitted on the stand that any claim of duress ended when she moved to San Antonio.

He argued that she and Baumgarten accepted terms of their non-disclosure agreements by taking the $50,000 payments, spending that money and also accepting later assistance from the church.

That the couple stayed quiet for four years and didn't try to rescind their contracts also demonstrates they accepted the terms, he said.

The couple's claims they signed under duress are "immaterial," Spencer said.

A hearing on his motion is set for March 23.

But Jeffrey, Cook's attorney, this week filed a motion, saying the church is rushing things.

It is "very, very rare" for a plaintiff to move for summary judgment in the first month of a case, he said. Matters are far from clear cut, he said, and the church has yet to appear for a deposition or provide evidence that has been subpoenaed.

"It's a last-gasp attempt to adjudicate the case without having to do any discovery and reveal any stuff," Jeffrey said.

He said Cook stayed silent for four years not because she accepted the terms of the contract but because she remained under church duress.

True's 2009 visit is an example, Jeffrey said.

Cook told the Times on Tuesday that True arrived in San Antonio with Angie Blankenship and Mike Sutter.

Blankenship was a friend and fellow manager who often took charge in "the Hole" while many of the abuses took place, Cook said. Sutter is a church security officer.

When Baumgarten heard the three staffers had come to see them instead of one, he recalled a story Cook told him about a church executive who escaped "the Hole" but was "manhandled" and brought back. Fearing that could happen to them, he bought a Taurus 9mm handgun with ammunition, Cook said.

She said he had no intention of using the gun and left it in their car before going into the restaurant.

The church contingent wanted to know how Cook felt about Scientology and whether she had talked to Marty Rathbun, who several weeks earlier told the Times of abuses at the hand of church leader David Miscavige, allegations the church strenuously denied. She said they also talked about the church's expansion plans.

Cook said the church also exerted control over them because they knew they would lose their Scientologist business associates and be "disconnected" from family members if they didn't do as the church said.

After her visit in the summer of 2009, True sometimes called Cook, telling her to remove rebel Scientologists as friends on her Facebook page. "I saluted with both hands," Cook said.

Joe Childs can be reached at childs@tampabay.com. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@tampabay.com.

Ex-Scientology leader Debbie Cook tells of fear and pursuit by church officers 03/06/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 5:18pm]

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