Was John Brousseau for real — a runaway?
Or was he a double agent, sent by the Church of Scientology to infiltrate the enemy?
Church whistle-blower Marty Rathbun was wary when Brousseau unexpectedly emailed him on April 22, 2010, saying he had fled Scientology's big base outside Los Angeles. Brousseau needed a place to lie low.
"I got nobody out here,'' he wrote.
He had read Rathbun's scalding online criticisms of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Brousseau's e-mail said he wanted to help "depower'' Miscavige.
The next day, they talked by phone.
Brousseau, who, like Rathbun, had worked closely with Miscavige for years, said he understood why Rathbun might suspect he was a spy. "I'd be the perfect guy for DM to run in on you,'' he said, hoping straight talk would earn Rathbun's trust.
"Come on down to Texas,'' Rathbun said.
Thus began a long Western melodrama. Over the next eight days Scientology sent a posse to Texas to try to round up Brousseau.
They didn't get their man.
Instead, Rathbun and his ally, Mike Rinder, concluded Brousseau wasn't a plant and delivered him to the FBI.
Two agents had been investigating possible human trafficking violations inside the church for nine months, largely relying on witnesses who had been out for a few years. Now investigators had someone with up-to-date information about conditions inside the remote Scientology compound east of L.A.
At a secret meeting, the lead FBI investigator questioned Brousseau for five hours. Then she hurried back to California armed with new information.
For several more months, FBI agents took a long look at the Scientology workplace, an altered reality of violence, isolation, submission, deprivation and guilt.
Was this a place of religious devotion? Or the scene of a crime?
• • •
In the church, Brousseau was a master craftsman. He installed elegant burl wood panels in an SUV owned by Miscavige's good friend Tom Cruise and led a multimillion-dollar renovation of the church's cruise ship.
Now he was out for the first time in 32 years. He took four days to drive to the Corpus Christi area. He stopped at a Chili's in the town of Portland and called Rathbun.
The two had dinner, then rode in one car to a Best Western in Port Aransas. They spoke for a couple of hours. After they parted, Rathbun called his fellow dissident, Rinder.
"I don't know if he's legit,'' Rathbun said of Brousseau. "He acts like 007.''
Rinder lived in Tarpon Springs. Like Rathbun, he had worked for decades at the top levels of Scientology, many years paired with Rathbun on sensitive church projects. He defected in 2007. Two years later, in a Times series called "The Truth Rundown," he joined Rathbun in accusing Miscavige of bullying and abusing church managers, allegations the church denied. Church-hired private investigators routinely followed Rathbun and Rinder.
Now the men were providing information to FBI lead investigator Tricia Whitehill and agent Valerie Venegas. The agents gave them code names — "Cheese-N" for Rinder, "Crackers" for Rathbun.
Rinder called Whitehill and told her about Brousseau — a fresh runaway. He said he was heading to Texas to help Rathbun vet Brousseau. Rinder and the agent agreed he should record that conversation. It could show church interference if Brousseau was a plant.
The next day, Rinder drove to FBI offices in Clearwater and signed two forms. He authorized FBI agents to install a recording device on any phones he used and a "trap and trace'' device on his mobile phone. It would identify numbers of incoming callers. He also authorized agents to put a hidden recorder and transmitter on him — a wire.
• • •
Back at Scientology's International Base in California, church brass knew where Brousseau was.
The church called the Riverside County sheriff's office a month after Brousseau left, complaining that Brousseau had made off with proprietary computer records. The sheriff's deputy made a report.
Warren McShane, a high-ranking church officer, told the deputy he initially thought Brousseau was upset about something and would return to the base after cooling off. But after three days, he began to suspect Brousseau had contacted Rathbun, whom McShane described as "a Church of Scientology antagonist."
It didn't take him long to find out for sure. McShane told the deputy that church private eyes identified Brousseau in Texas, first at a restaurant, then at a motel, using a photo he had sent them.
• • •
Brousseau spent his second day in Corpus Christi — his sixth day out of the church — lounging around the Best Western. Rathbun visited. He had good news: Rinder was flying in the next day. Brousseau had hoped to see him.
At 5:45 the next morning, Brousseau stepped out of his room and into a mess.
Church spokesman Tommy Davis burst out of a neighboring room, three other church officers behind him. Davis flashed a we-caught-you look. Brousseau rolled his eyes.
JB, we need to talk, Davis said.
I don't want to talk to you guys, Brousseau said. Leave me alone.
Brousseau walked outside and sat on a bench. His four pursuers closed in. Davis did all the talking.
JB, you're in a lot of trouble.
No I'm not. I know what you are doing.
Davis said he had church papers he wanted Brousseau to see.
I'm not signing anything, Brousseau said.
Davis said: We suspect you've been talking to Marty Rathbun for a while.
You've stolen some things, Davis said.
Bull----, Brousseau told him. I took only things that are mine.
Let's sort this out, Davis said. We can help you.
Brousseau stood up, started walking back inside. Davis stayed close as Brousseau entered his room.
You're coming back out, right?
Yeah, I'm coming back out.
Brousseau locked his door and called Rathbun, who said he would hurry over.
Minutes later, Davis started pounding on Brousseau's door.
Brousseau didn't answer. His in-room phone started ringing. He ignored it.
A note was slipped under his door. Brousseau recognized Davis' handwriting.
It urged him to keep his word and come out. Davis and the others were his friends, the note said. He should abide by the covenants he had signed and minimize the damage to himself and the church.
Brousseau sat tight.
Twenty miles away, Rathbun was confronting a second bunch of church ambushers. Soon after he wheeled his pickup toward Port Aransas, four vehicles blocked the road.
Scientologist Michael Doven got out of a car and yelled: We need to talk.
Rathbun maneuvered around the vehicles and called police, reporting what was happening at the Best Western.
When Rathbun arrived at the motel, police already were there. Davis and his posse were nowhere to be seen.
Police escorted Rathbun and Brousseau to the Port Aransas city limits.
• • •
Midafternoon, Rathbun and Brousseau drove to Corpus Christi's airport to pick up Rinder.
As they got close, Brousseau suggested they drive by the private jet area. They saw it: A Gulfstream G-IV jet the church often chartered. Davis and his cohorts had flown in style.
Inside the airport, Rinder was walking into yet another group of church operatives.
Stop what you're doing, a voice shouted as he left the gate area.
You're an SP, someone else screamed, meaning he was a "suppressive person," an enemy of the church.
Stop your lies.
Jan Eastgate, a prominent Scientologist, kept yelling with three others. A man tried to capture the scrum on video.
Brousseau and Rathbun arrived. Rathbun confronted the hecklers. One of the men charged up to Brousseau.
Traitor, he shouted, inches from Brousseau's face. You'll rot in hell.
"Call the police,'' Rinder said to TSA agents. He didn't think to turn on the recorder in his roller bag.
He, Rathbun and Brousseau headed downstrairs to the exits. The hecklers followed.
Four airport police officers arrived, plus Public Safety Chief John Hyland. Two men in suits flanked the police. They were FBI agents who happened to be at the airport to attend a swearing-in ceremony for new officers, Hyland said. Everyone had been enjoying punch and cookies when the shouting started.
Rinder, Rathbun and Brousseau drove off. They holed up in Rathbun's house, which backed up to a canal feeding into Corpus Christi Bay. At least eight Scientologists gathered in the street.
Rinder called Whitehill in L.A. with an update, as promised. From a distance, she had seen the church respond to an unfolding crisis — with a private jet, hired investigators, posses, roadblocks and screaming confrontations.
The FBI later reimbursed Rinder about $950 for his trip to Corpus Christi.
• • •
In the quiet of Rathbun's home, Brousseau was sharply critical of Miscavige, saying the leader set an intimidating tone at the International Base. Brousseau's words indicated to Rathbun and Rinder that he wasn't a plant.
Even church spies don't behave that way. No church loyalist would speak ill of the leader.
Rinder, who was secretly recording the conversation, knew one final question would settle the issue for good.
"Listen, JB,'' he said. "There is an investigation going on. Would you be willing to talk to the FBI?''
Yes, Brousseau said.
Rinder called Whitehill. She said she would meet them the next day, but not in Corpus Christi. In San Antonio, 150 miles away.
Don't drive on main roads, she told Rinder. And don't take your cellphones.
It worked. No one followed them.
Rinder and Brousseau met Whitehill at an Embassy Suites. Whitehill had a conference room ready, with Venegas on the speaker phone.
Brousseau told Whitehill he never had been hit during his three decades in the Sea Org. Nor had he been in the group forced to live in the office building derisively called "the Hole."
She seemed slightly disappointed, he said. He couldn't press charges for assault or false imprisonment.
But he had plenty more to say. A few years ago, Miscavige had directed him to install steel bars on all but one of the Hole's exit doors. The only other exit was manned round the clock by church security staffers.
The church later removed the bars. It further loosened restrictions at the work site in mid 2009, Brousseau said. That was just one month before the FBI launched its investigation.
Brousseau explained that after the Times published its 2009 series The Truth Rundown, the church allowed workers in the Hole to sleep in dorm rooms and take meals in the staff dining hall.
But they continued to work in the Hole, under extremely tight controls, he said. Guards watched them constantly. They marched them to the dorms and patrolled there at night, making sure no one sneaked out.
"They are still literally incarcerated,'' he said.
Rinder hoped Whitehill would send Brousseau back to Corpus Christi wearing a wire — bait for Tommy Davis and his squad of pursuers. Rinder suspected Davis would go after Brousseau and try to pressure him to return. Wiring Brousseau could give the FBI recorded evidence of the church obstructing the investigation.
Whitehill didn't opt for the wire. She asked Brousseau if he planned to return to California. She and Venegas wanted to talk further.
Brousseau's swing through Texas had opened his eyes to what he was up against if he challenged the church. He had been spooked by how fast the church had found him, how determined and desperate the church pursuers had seemed.
He told Whitehill: "I will need to be super careful.''
• • •
He darkened his eyebrows with mascara. He had a mustache coming in, so he darkened that too. He pulled on a wig, a scarf, a knit cap. Sunglasses.
Then he heard the knock he was expecting.
Whitehill and Venegas laughed as they entered Brousseau's motel room. They knew he had come to L.A. for more questioning, but hadn't dreamed he would be in disguise.
The agents drove him to their offices. Once inside, Whitehill snapped his photo.
It was mid May, 2010 — 10 months into the FBI investigation. Brousseau stayed in L.A. the next several weeks, sleeping on friends' couches or in the back of his Excursion.
He met with the agents at least three more times. Concerned he might be followed, he wore a disguise each time.
The agents posed a hypothetical notion: raiding the International Base. They chose their words carefully, presenting it as an idea, not a plan, he said.
Is there a central location to assemble people?
Hundreds could fit in the dining hall, Brousseau told them.
Would Sea Org members get physical?
No, Brousseau said. They will object loudly, though, to agents coming in.
Are firearms on the property?
A few, he said. But he added, "They are not a bunch of trigger-happy, pistol-packing people.''
Former Int Base security chief Gary Morehead told the Times the church bought about six 12-gauge shotguns, about six .45-caliber pistols and a long-range rifle years ago. The weapons were for protection, said Morehead, who also became an FBI witness. Base security officers kept them in locked gun safes.
• • •
In early June, Rathbun flew to Phoenix. He and Brousseau had a plan.
They would go to the Int Base and demand Brousseau's passport. They also would ask about a former colleague, Sea Org officer Lisa Schroer. Word was she had tried running away and was being held under tight guard.
The FBI was interested in all that. It reimbursed Rathbun for his airfare. Agents also paid back Brousseau for his fuel costs driving from Texas to L.A.
To avoid church spies, who are plentiful in L.A., Rathbun flew to Phoenix. Brousseau drove there to pick him up.
On a blazing hot Saturday, June 5, they met Whitehill at a motel in the town of Hemet, a few miles from church headquarters. She reviewed their plan. FBI agents in unmarked cars kept them in sight as they approached their former work site.
As they strode to the main gate, church security yelled at them to leave the property. Guards called 911.
On his cellphone, Rathbun tried calling Miscavige's assistant. No answer.
Then he tried another gambit — calling the cellphone of a staffer he thought was guarding Schroer. This time he got an answer.
Hand the phone to Lisa, Rathbun said. The staffer did.
JB and I are at the gate, Rathbun said. We can take you to safety.
Schroer declined, not politely, Rathbun said later.
A sheriff's deputy arrived. Rathbun and Brousseau explained they had come for Brousseau's passport. The deputy inquired at a church office, but was told church officer McShane had the passport. He was in L.A.
Brousseau and Rathbun thanked the deputy and retreated to the motel, meeting again with Whitehill. She had something to show them. She opened a laptop and played aerial surveillance video of the base.
The camera zoomed in on various church work sites — the Hole; a mammoth building that served as headquarters of the Religious Technology Center, Scientology's top organization; and Golden Era Productions, the church's film studio and marketing unit.
Some images showed a line of workers walking two abreast along a pathway near the Hole. Brousseau pointed out the guards.
"There it is," he told the agent. "To this day, these guys are being moved like a herd of sheep from one location to the next.''
The investigators mentioned the idea of a raid to Rathbun and Brousseau and to other witnesses. The agents asked several if they would consider coming along. Could the defectors persuade current staffers to cooperate with the raiding agents?
"That's nuts,'' Rinder told them. "A waste of time. I'm not going to be perceived any differently than you.''
Brousseau backed him up. "You think … they are going to break down in tears and say, 'Oh, please take me away from this hell?' No. They are going to stand up and fight for their church.''
He said the agents made clear the FBI needed air-tight evidence to prove human trafficking.
"They wanted to have evidence of physical incarceration, physical intimidation.''
• • •
Rinder has told the media — FBI investigators, too — that Miscavige physically assaulted him at least that many times when displeased with his work.
Rinder also said he was held with 80 to 100 other church officers in the Hole.
Why hadn't he pressed criminal charges before California's statute of limitations for assault and false imprisonment had expired?
Three reasons: He hadn't wanted to damage the church. He feared the church would produce sworn statements from former colleagues calling him a liar. He also worked through a decompression period, evaluating what he'd experienced, as many defectors do. Guilt often prolongs that process.
A fundamental principle in Scientology is taking responsibility. When things go wrong, Scientologists look inward: What did I do to make this happen?
Rinder asked himself that as he was being slapped and punched, he said. The self-examination process can result in church members telling themselves, I have to stay and fix this.
Those who leave through church channels typically sign non-disparagement agreements that, they are told, are legally binding.
All those pressures help explain why Scientology defectors, many of whom have spoken out against the church, have not initiated a criminal case.
• • •
As the investigation moved into its second year, it seemed to go cold.
In late summer 2010, Rinder and Rathbun called the agents to get updates.
"Radio silence,'' Rathbun said.
Former federal prosecutors said it's apparent what happened.
Lawsuits filed by former Scientologists Marc and Claire Headley had been working their way through the federal court. The complaints, filed in L.A. just a few months before the FBI opened its investigation, cited the federal human trafficking statute. The isolation, the threat of physical abuse and the fear of being chased kept them from leaving, they contended.
A judge disagreed. On Aug. 5, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer ruled the Headleys had not established that they were bound to the property.
She also agreed with church lawyers: The church was protected by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause, and by the "ministerial exception" commonly granted to religions in employment cases. The First Amendment bars courts from examining church operations rooted in religious scripture, she said.
Passing judgment on how the Sea Org enforced discipline "is precisely the type of entanglement that the religion clauses prohibit,'' she said.
Fischer's ruling likely was a major blow to the FBI, according to former Department of Justice veterans familiar with how decisions are made.
The church had prevailed against human trafficking in civil court. Prosecutors were unlikely to win a criminal case, which requires a higher standard of proof — proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Here is a court saying, albeit in a civil situation … that there is nothing improper with this type of conduct and no ill motive can be imbued to the church,'' said Tampa lawyer Greg W. Kehoe, a 25-year Justice Department veteran who was selected to go to Iraq to advise the Special Tribunal that prosecuted Saddam Hussein.
"Seems to me that after a ruling such as this there is not much left to a criminal case that is essentially charging the same thing," Kehoe said.
The Headley ruling is "not at all equivocal,'' said former federal prosecutor Michael Seigel, director of the University of Florida's Criminal Justice Center. "It's very straightforward. It's sweeping. And (it) doesn't seem to leave much room for hope of success on a criminal prosecution.''
• • •
The first week of February 2011 brought another setback for the agents.
The New Yorker magazine broke the news the FBI was investigating Scientology. Journalist Lawrence Wright reported that former Scientologists had spoken to the FBI.
Venegas phoned Brousseau, who had confirmed some information for Wright.
You guys destroyed years of work, she said, angrily. She said she felt betrayed.
Not only was the investigation publicly known, the witnesses had damaged their credibility. Any statements made by witnesses outside the courtroom could be used to attack them.
She told Brousseau top brass in the Justice Department in Washington had been interested.
She told another witness, Morehead, the former security chief, it no longer made sense to go forward.
Whitehill was off the case, Venegas told him.
Tommy Davis, the church spokesman at the time, reacted to the New Yorker's bombshell with an air of unconcern. He called it the "alleged investigation" and said the magazine's sources were unreliable. The church, he told the Times, had "never been advised of any government investigation."
But at some point, the church hired an attorney well suited to make contacts within the Justice Department and its human trafficking unit.
Mary Carter Andrues had left the U.S. Attorney's Office in L.A. in 2007 after serving as chief of its Civil Rights Division, which prosecutes human trafficking.
Answering questions for this story, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said Andrues "dealt directly'' with the DOJ. Andrues "confirmed that there was no open investigation of the church or any of its affiliates or leaders; any report to the contrary is false,'' Pouw said.
The Times reached Andrues recently, but she referred all questions to the church.
Kehoe and Seigel, the former DOJ prosecutors, said hiring a former insider is smart strategy and common in the business world.
It can be "both a psychological edge and a real edge,'' Seigel said. A former DOJ veteran "knows how the prosecutors think and what their priorities are and can be a very effective negotiator and litigator for somebody who is under investigation.''
It's possible the FBI's human trafficking investigation no longer was active when Andrues inquired at DOJ. The Headley ruling, the publicity and other issues could have shelved it in late 2010 or early 2011.
Final word on stopping it likely came from DOJ officials in Washington, said Kehoe and Seigel. Civil Rights Division investigations generally are supervised there. A case focused on an organization as well known as Scientology likely would get high-level attention, they said.
Mark Kappelhoff was the chief of the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division in Washington at the time the Scientology investigation stalled. He supervised one of the largest human trafficking prosecutions ever, the conviction of an employer in American Samoa found guilty of enslaving 250 garment workers in a factory.
He resigned in 2012 and became a clinical law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. The Times reached him in mid September in his office. He put off an interview, asking for an email outlining specifics. He did not respond to at least eight follow-up phone messages and emails, finally sending a brief email on Oct. 8.
"I do not wish to speak with you. Should this change, I will be sure to contact you.''
• • •
Venegas interviewed at least one more witness. On June 17, 2011, she questioned former Sea Org worker Daniel Montalvo, who had sued the church three months earlier. Montalvo alleged that since age 15 he had worked at least 40 hours a week and often more than 100 hours weekly at the church's printing plant in L.A. His suit claimed the church violated California child labor laws.
Montalvo contended he had been allowed to attend school about a day a week. His weekly pay ranged from $35 to $50.
He had run away in September 2010. "Daniel now comes before the court a 19-year-old man with an eighth-grade education, without assets, without a resume" despite years of work, his suit said.
Montalvo met Venegas and another agent at FBI offices for a 3½-hour session, said his attorney, S. Christopher Winter of L.A., who was present.
Montalvo "told his story,'' Winter said, declining to elaborate. He said Montalvo later reached a confidential settlement with the church. Montalvo could not be reached for comment.
• • •
Allegations continued to surface that Scientology had held workers against their will.
On a single day last year, Feb. 9, the church faced the claim in two separate court cases in two different states.
In Texas, former Sea Org captain Debbie Cook said in sworn testimony that two male church workers removed her from an office at the International Base in the summer of 2007 and forcibly took her to the Hole.
It wasn't possible to get out, she said.
After the hearing, Cook told reporters she had not talked with the FBI.
That same day in California, a lawyer representing the Headleys asked a three-judge federal appeals panel to reinstate the couple's civil suit. Katherine Saldana said "there is plenty of evidence that demonstrates that it was incredibly difficult for them to leave" the International Base.
The violence they witnessed was meant to intimidate — to make them "fall in line and continue to labor," Saldana said.
Churches may believe what they want, but when they act in a way that is "subversive of good order," she said, "a court may regulate that conduct regardless of whether or not there is religious justification for it.''
Church lawyer Eric M. Lieberman argued the picture was far more complex. The Headleys cited psychological and social factors as their reasons for staying in the Sea Org, Lieberman said. They were raised in the church. It had been their life. They feared being excommunicated and losing contact with family.
But the First Amendment prohibits "a forced labor claim premised upon these social and psychological factors,'' Lieberman said.
That's because they relate "to the beliefs, the religious upbringing, the religious training, the religious practices, the religious lifestyle restraints of a religious order.''
Six months later, the judges ruled in favor of the church.
"The record overwhelmingly shows the Headleys joined and voluntarily worked for the Sea Org because they thought it was the right thing to do. ... They enjoyed it,'' Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain wrote for the panel.
The court saw little evidence the church used force, threats or physical restraints — the definitions of human trafficking — to keep the Headleys working.
When the couple decided they could no longer abide the conditions in the Sea Org, they left.
Still, the judges signaled they were not endorsing the church's practices.
The Headleys "wagered all" on human trafficking laws that didn't fit their circumstances, the ruling said.
Other approaches might have been a better bet. "Claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment or intentional infliction of emotional distress," the judges said, "might better fit the evidence.''