FBI agents investigating human trafficking have interviewed several high-ranking defectors from the Church of Scientology who spoke out to the St. Petersburg Times over the past two years about abusive and coercive practices within the church.
Five former church staffers confirmed Monday that the FBI interviewed them individually over the past 15 months about their experiences in the church's religious order, the Sea Org.
They said agents asked detailed questions primarily about working and living conditions at Scientology's remote international management base in the desert east of Los Angeles. The defectors — Amy Scobee, Mike Rinder, Tom DeVocht, Jeff Hawkins and Gary Morehead — said they described to agents how Sea Org staffers were restricted to the compound, intimidated, degraded and coerced to work long hours for little pay.
The defectors' account of life inside Scientology first appeared in the Times in a 2009 investigative series titled The Truth Rundown.
The church has emphatically denied that any staffers were mistreated and says the defectors were lying when they claimed that church leader David Miscavige physically attacked managers whose work performance displeased him.
News of an FBI investigation broke early Monday on the website of the New Yorker magazine. Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright presents in the current issue a lengthy profile of former Scientology parishioner Paul Haggis, an Academy Award winning screenwriter and film director who left the church in 2009, citing a range of concerns, among them the revelations reported in the Truth Rundown.
Wright reported that former Scientology executive Scobee, former international base security chief Morehead and DeVocht, a former church manager in Clearwater, all were interviewed by the FBI as part of a human trafficking investigation he characterized as ongoing.
On Monday, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said that the New Yorker article was "nothing but a rehash of unfounded allegations" and that the church "has never been advised of any government investigation."
Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation.
On Monday, Scobee, Rinder and DeVocht told the Times that Los Angeles-based Special Agent Tricia Whitehill traveled to Clearwater to interview them at the FBI's office on Cleveland Street.
Scobee said Whitehill interviewed her for two days, Dec. 3 and 4, 2009. She said the agent asked about several topics, including instances of physical violence Scobee witnessed and punishments like the Rehabilitation Project Force or "RPF," a labor detail in which Sea Org members who transgress can work their way back into the church's good graces.
Scobee described RPFs as camps where staffers can languish for years, separated from friends, spouses and other family and given low quality food and living quarters.
She said she first came in contact with the FBI after she sent the agency copies of affidavits and other documents the church had given the Times and ABC News Nightline in 2009. The church offered the materials as proof Miscavige never hit anyone. But the documents — including sworn statements by current Scientology executives — acknowledged that violence occurred within the church's top management.
"They are admitting under penalty of perjury that it's happening with wild abandon," Scobee said. "None of them are calling the police. It needs intervention because they somehow think it's okay."
Shortly after Scobee sent the documents to the FBI, the agency called her, said it had an ongoing investigation into Scientology and arranged to meet with her, she said.
While in the Clearwater FBI office for her interview, Scobee said, Whitehill cautioned her not to speak with other employees in the office. She said Whitehill indicated the office might be compromised when it came to Scientology.
She said Whitehill also interviewed her husband, Mat Pesch, a longtime church staffer in Clearwater who defected with her in 2005.
Scobee said she gave the FBI a long list of contact information for people who had left the international base and was impressed that the agency had already interviewed some of them.
Asked why she decided to talk about the investigation now, despite the FBI's request that she remain quiet, Scobee said: "I didn't hear anything for a year and I got fed up. They're either going to do something or they're not."
Rinder, the former church spokesman, said he met with Whitehill in Clearwater for five hours. He detailed restrictions placed in 2006 on about 75 church managers who, Rinder said, were prevented from leaving their office complex, a pair of conjoined double-wide trailers that the managers gave the derisive nickname "the Hole.''
For months, Rinder and his colleagues slept on the floor, working well into the night, getting to leave only to shower once a day, Rinder said.
He said Whitehill's questions focused on work practices that can constitute human trafficking under the law. He said he related that Sea Org members assigned to the international base did not have easy access to telephones, that their passports were confiscated and that they were not free to leave the base, which is guarded and bordered by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
Rinder said the agent asked whether he believed staffers had been coerced into thinking they would be harmed if they tried to leave. His answer: "Yeah, of course.''
Rinder headed the church's Office of Special Affairs for two decades before running away in March 2007 while on assignment in London. He lived in Denver, working as a car salesman, before moving to Pinellas in late 2009. He now does consulting work and public relations.
Toward the end of 2010, he said he had the sense the FBI's investigation had lost momentum or, perhaps, had been shelved. But he added that Whitehill told him more than once, "Oh, we're still going.''
DeVocht is one of the few church managers to successfully flee the international base. Fed up with what he described as humiliating and degrading treatment of himself and others, he jumped over the front gate in 2005 and walked the 6 miles to nearby Hemet, Calif., eventually making his way to Florida, where his family lived before he joined the Sea Org at 14.
Now living in Oldsmar and selling furniture, DeVocht supervised church facilities in Clearwater before being assigned to the California base in the early 2000s. His interview with Whitehill ran about 90 minutes, he said. The agent posed specific, informed questions.
"Obviously, she had a ton of information,'' DeVocht said. "A lot of what I said confirmed what she had already heard.''
Like Rinder, he said he described conditions inside "the Hole'' as well as the wire-topped perimeter fence and patrolling guards. He said Whitehill asked: Were the barriers and guards to keep the staff in or to prevent outsiders from getting in?
"To keep them in,'' he said.
Jeff Hawkins, a former international base staffer who worked on major marketing campaigns, said Whitehill and another agent, Valerie Venegas, interviewed him early last year at the FBI's office in downtown Portland, Ore. "It was pretty much a full day," he said, remembering that he recounted episodes of physical violence by Miscavige and life in the RPF, among other topics. The agents sounded "very knowledgeable" about conditions in the church, Hawkins said.
Morehead, the former security chief, also met with the agents in Portland. He said they asked about a drill he helped devise to retrieve staffers who had "blown" — left without permission. They also asked about female staffers who he said had been pressured to get abortions.
Under federal and state statutes, human trafficking doesn't necessarily involve people being held by physical force. Traffickers can use emotional buttons, intimidation and financial ties to control people.
The FBI's website says there are many signs of human trafficking, but some include:
• Physical, emotional and verbal abuse, or submissiveness.
• A person's food being controlled by someone else.
• A person not speaking on his or her own behalf.
• Lack of control over one's schedule, money, identification and travel documents.
• People living and working in the same place.
• A debt owed to an employer/crew leader, or a perceived inability to leave a job.
The church won a major victory against two human trafficking claims last August when a federal judge in Los Angeles threw out two lawsuits filed against the church by former Sea Org members Claire and Marc Headley, a married couple living in Burbank.
The Headleys, now in their mid 30s, had joined the Sea Org as teenagers. Both were assigned to the desert base, where they met and married, as is common among the hundreds of staffers working there. They escaped separately in early 2005 and were pursued by church security teams, but outmaneuvered them.
The Headleys filed separate suits in January, 2009, alleging they were victims of forced labor. Claire Headley's suit also alleged she had two abortions under pressure from the church, lest she lose her standing in the Sea Org, which discourages members from having children. The church denied pressuring her and said the abortions were Headley's decision.
In dismissing their suits, a judge ruled that the Headleys performed religious duties and that the Sea Org, as a religious order, falls within the "ministerial exception'' commonly granted to religious groups in employment cases. The exception prevents the court from digging into internal church workings to explore the Headleys' claims, the judge said.
Reached Monday, Claire Headley said she and her husband would not discuss whether they have spoken to FBI investigators.
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Thomas C. Tobin at email@example.com.