Parishioners from around the world flocked to Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, bringing the church about $1.5 million a week.
A division of some 350 people tended to their needs, providing counseling services considered to be the finest in all of Scientology. For seven years, Chief Officer Don Jason was their boss, the second in command of the "Flag Service Organization."
In a group photo in a 1996 issue of Source, the official magazine of "Flag," Jason stands front and center. Only Capt. Debbie Cook's dress uniform had more ribbons.
That August, a senior officer from a higher division surprised Jason with a reprimand he found absurd. It inflamed the doubts that had nagged him for years about making a career in the church. He'd had enough.
He took off without permission, hid out for six weeks but returned to Clearwater, compelled by feelings of guilt and a desire to leave the church on good terms.
He agreed to a program of counseling and manual labor aboard the Freewinds, the church's cruise ship in the Caribbean. He scraped oily sludge off a collection tank under the ship's engines. For a time, his cabin was locked from the outside, and a security camera was trained on his bunk.
He repeatedly asked to leave; the answer was no. Twice, he tried to walk down the gangway. Twice, church guards blocked him.
The church's account of how Jason left the Freewinds says only: "On 21 November 1996, Jason changed his mind and left, ending up in Milwaukee.''
Jason tells it differently.
That afternoon, right after lunch, he disappeared over the bow.
'WE COME BACK'
Scientologists believe that people are spiritual beings — thetans — who live for eternity and are reborn into new bodies when they die. They are encouraged to think in terms of their "whole track," the endless succession of lifetimes they will lead.
Members of the dedicated work force, known as the Sea Org, sign billion-year contracts to serve Scientology. Their motto: "We come back."
Jason grew up in Milwaukee, a rowdy 20-year-old with a history of drug use when his older sister got him to take a Scientology communication course. He liked it so much he traveled to Clearwater for the next course and never left.
He worked on construction projects and his gung-ho manner got him promoted to the administrative ranks.
"I liked what I was doing. We were helping people. I was really into the cause."
By his early 30s, Jason started looking ahead, not to his eternity but to middle-age. What if he hit 50 and decided to leave Scientology? Who would hire him? Could he survive?
"It was a seed that got planted and it just never went away. And as the years went on it just kind of festered."
Early in his career, in the 1980s, Jason's weekly take-home pay was about $30; sometimes he says he was paid a fraction, or nothing. He worked seven days, typically 9 a.m. until past 11 p.m. For long stretches, the staff in Clearwater were fed only beans and rice.
Mat Pesch, who once headed the crew's treasury department, says he saw food budgets in the 1980s that allotted less than a dollar per person, per meal. He said Sea Org members sometimes picked through ashtrays for cigarette butts or stole necessities from the canteen.
Jason says he was one of them. In the early 1980s, before his pay situation improved, he lifted soap, shampoo and food.
"That's humiliating to me. As a man, I look at that and I feel shame regarding that still today. … But that's on me. I should have left and didn't."
In the spring of 1996, a prominent church member traveled to Clearwater for Scientology counseling called "auditing,'' returned home to Los Angeles and six months later caused a flap. Someone in the church hierarchy traced the problem to Jason's staff.
An auditor in Clearwater had missed the underlying personal flaw that caused the parishioner to create the controversy. The church hung the blame on Jason.
Near 11 p.m., the end of another marathon day, church executive Angie Trent broke the news in Jason's office in downtown Clearwater. He would have to complete an "ethics" program requiring that he confess his crimes and vow to make it up.
"My first reaction was to basically say, 'Are you kidding me?' I've got 350 people that work under me and this is my personal screw-up that I'm now in trouble over? I was listening to it and it was just like a light bulb. … I said, You know what? Now is the time. It wasn't preplanned. It was just like that."
His personal life was troubled, as well. His marriage was a mess and he was having an affair with a fellow church executive.
"For a variety of reasons I just got spooked.''
There were two ways to leave the Sea Org: "route out'' (follow protocol, including confessionals and interrogations called "security checks" that could drag on for months). Or "blow" (bolt without permission).
Jason's decision: Run.
AWAY FROM CLEARWATER
After the next-day's morning muster, he didn't go to his office at Cleveland Street and S Fort Harrison Avenue. He went to his bank and withdrew $6,000, part of a small inheritance from his father three years before. He stopped by his room to stuff clothes in a trash bag and pointed his 1991 Jeep Wrangler east.
"I didn't even know where I was going. I was just driving and it was the opposite direction of Clearwater."
He crossed Florida on Interstate 4, the radio off, thinking through the step he had just taken. He figured he had a three- to four-hour head start before they would realize he was gone.
He kept checking his rearview mirror. If they caught up with him, he worried they would take him back. He had seen it happen to others.
Jason left the highway at Daytona Beach and worked his way north on smaller roads, stopping for the night in Fernandina Beach, near the Florida/Georgia border.
He parked a block from a motel, paid cash and allowed himself five hours' sleep. He thought it best to keep moving.
CHOOSE SOMEPLACE RANDOM
In Clearwater, the Sea Org crew launched its "blow drill," a rehearsed operation to catch and return runaways.
Pesch says church security set up a command center. They pulled 15 to 20 staff from their regular duties. Some worked the phones, calling hotels and airlines. Pesch and another staffer drove to bars and other hangouts along Clearwater Beach.
From Fernandina Beach, Jason drove north through Savannah and tried to think of how to elude his chasers. They would start in Milwaukee, his home town.
"I had to go somewhere I had no reason to be … like throw a dart at a map."
He drove to Atlanta and rented a room in a house so his address wouldn't show up so easily in public records. A temp agency found him a job at Equifax, the credit reporting company.
Freedom felt good, but he didn't know a soul in Atlanta. After 13 years of life inside Scientology, life on the outside puzzled him.
"What do people talk about now when they're sitting at a bar and grill having a hamburger? What do they do? … I'm also thinking I've got to start over here."
More important, his sister was still a Scientologist. Leaving without permission meant Jason would be declared an "SP," a suppressive person. The church would push his sister and Scientology friends not to speak with him.
For that reason, Jason considered himself lucky not to have more relatives in the church.
"There are some people that are born into Scientology. Their mother, their father, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, all their friends — everything is there. You get declared (an SP), it's all gone. Everything that's important to you is gone."
He also felt guilty about the way he left. He missed his colleagues.
"I felt to some degree that I had betrayed people that I had worked for years with that were my friends. … I would have preferred to leave right, in people's good graces."
Six weeks after he fled, he decided to turn himself in. He didn't want to return to the Sea Org; he wanted to make amends, route out properly and leave.
HELD ABOARD SHIP
In October 1996, Jason drove to Clearwater and saw the security chief, who immediately called Marty Rathbun, a top lieutenant to Scientology leader David Miscavige.
"I always liked Marty," Jason said. "He was a straight-shooter.''
They met for two hours at a restaurant on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Rathbun convinced Jason to return to the Sea Org instead of routing out.
Rathbun said he reported back to Miscavige, and the leader wanted Jason sent to the Freewinds.
The church describes the cruise ship as "a safe, aesthetic, distraction-free environment" where Scientologists receive high-level auditing "far from the crossroads of the workaday world."
Rathbun says Miscavige wanted Jason on the ship to control him.
"The idea was you do it while you neutralize him as a threat because you can't blow from the ship," Rathbun said. "You lodge your passport with the port captain, it's put in a safe and you're a virtual prisoner at that point."
Rathbun sold the idea to Jason as an opportunity to get away and get "cleaned up," get his head back to a Scientology frame of mind. It would mean auditing, some training and physical labor.
Jason was wary, but he went for it. Before he flew to the Bahamas to meet the ship, he opened a new bank account in Clearwater and got some temporary checks.
When he boarded, he surrendered his passport but secretly kept the checks and his driver's license, even slept with them at night.
He says his cabin was locked from the outside. A security camera was trained on his bed. To go to the bathroom, he waved at the camera and security guards opened the door remotely. Another camera in the hallway tracked him to the bathroom door.
It struck Jason that when he waved at the cabin camera, the guards immediately opened the door. Were they watching every second?
He asked the Freewinds staff to contact Rathbun, who called back the next day. This was not what he signed up for, Jason told him. "I'm not a prisoner here."
Rathbun says he told the Freewinds staff to remove the lock but not the cameras. They were aboard a ship, he reminded them. Jason had nowhere to run.
Said Jason: "I'm on a ship that goes God knows where. I'm out of the country. I've got no passport. It's a little scary. You have no identity. … That feeling of nothing's under your control is a little eerie."
For two weeks, Jason cleaned sludge from the tanks under the engines and used diesel fuel to rinse the oil off his body. Then the church made things rougher. He said he was assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force, a church work program.
Jason knew what that meant: more hard labor, daily confessionals and humiliations like running to every assignment and never speaking unless spoken to.
During his early years in Clearwater he had seen those on the RPF living on the third floor of the Fort Harrison Hotel parking garage. Sheets cordoned off their living area. Their clothes and linens were filthy. They ate beans, rice and oatmeal.
It always bothered him, and Jason resolved that he never would submit to the program. When the order came that he do the RPF aboard the Freewinds, he said he wanted off the ship.
No, the guards said. Do the program.
"So you're holding me against my will?"
Jason tried to walk off the ship with parishioners going on a shore excursion. The Freewinds guards stepped in his way. He tried a second time, but they blocked him again.
For three days he protested by refusing to work, but that only got him more restrictions. He needed a new approach.
THE ROLLING PIN
Jason decided to act like a good soldier, the picture of compliance. Behaving got him better work assignments and more freedom to move about the ship.
He ruled out jumping overboard. The 40-foot drop was too dangerous, and the dock walls too high, with no ladders.
The thick, 30-foot cables that moor the ship to the dock seemed his best chance. He thought through the variables.
He would have to move quickly down the cable; the guards would hurry to the dock to head him off. Timing was important. Too many people on the dock and he would create a scene. Then again, he wanted at least a few witnesses.
When the ship docked each day, he watched the cables go taut and slack with the tide. A drooping cable would leave him short of the dock. He would have to time his descent so when he reached bottom, the cable would be taut. He would have to get around the metal plate that kept rats from climbing to the ship.
He scavenged for materials to build a device that would help him quickly get down the cable.
He fashioned something like a rolling pin. Starting with a wooden dowel the thickness of a clothing rod, he sawed off a 16-inch piece. Around it he fit a 7-inch length of PVC pipe. To keep the PVC from moving side to side, he sunk drywall screws into the dowel on either end of the PVC.
For two weeks he observed and thought things through. He would have to hold his body high in case he needed to bring up his legs and slow his descent. He ate lunch on the bow every day so that when the time came, the guards wouldn't think twice about him being there.
Three months before, Jason had a title, an office and authority over hundreds of staff in Clearwater. Now his church was treating him like a prisoner.
"I'm thinking, You know what? Once I pull a stunt like this, I'll never get off this ship on my own terms. So I'm committed. Once I start this, I have to be prepared to take it all the way.
"I'm going to do whatever I have to to get off that ship, which includes fist-fighting people, yelling my head off, whatever it takes. I'm not going back on that ship. Period.''
NOV. 21, 1996
He had been on the ship six weeks when he made his move. Jason can't remember if they docked in Freeport or Nassau, just that the town had a decent-sized airport.
What he does remember was hiding his rolling pin device down his shorts, working his morning shift on a maintenance project and heading to his usual spot for lunch.
The cable came taut.
He crawled over the bow and twisted himself as he had rehearsed in his mind, legs and one arm around the cable to steady himself while he pulled the rolling pin from his shorts. He positioned it over the cable and zip-lined down.
The ride was "pretty damned fast" but under control, and he could see two or three guards running for the dock as he descended. He scrambled around the rat guard, pulled himself to the dock and ran for the road, with a lead of about 30 feet on the guards.
They caught up as he got to a cab. One yelled in his face and held the door so he couldn't get in. Another told the cabbie not to give him a ride because he wasn't allowed to leave the ship.
Jason muscled his way into the front seat, closed the door on a guard's hand and screamed at the driver: "I'm being held against my will! Take me to a g-- d--- airport!''
NEXT STOP, ATLANTA
Jason got out at the airport in shorts and a dirty work shirt. He had his driver's license, the temporary checks, no passport, no luggage and $20.
He bought a ticket from a wary airline clerk and talked his way past a custom's agent. "The whole thing was red-flag city, and I just had to will myself to just try to mentally convey to these people to do it. Just do it."
He called his mother in Milwaukee: "How about having your son over for Thanksgiving? Would that be okay?"
He told her he had a layover in Atlanta and would fly on to Milwaukee. If he didn't walk off the plane, something was wrong.
Jason was waiting at the gate in the Bahamas when Ludwig Alpers, an executive in the church's intelligence branch, showed up with a ticket for the seat next to his. Alpers said the church was considering a call to the U.S. Embassy asserting that the Freewinds had the authority to keep him in the Bahamas.
Jason says Alpers backed off after he threatened to tell the world how he was held against his will. Alpers flew with him to Atlanta.
In Clearwater, Rathbun had gotten the astonishing news that Jason had escaped. It couldn't be, he thought. No one got off the Freewinds without permission. And the church had Jason's passport. He couldn't get out of the Bahamas; it just didn't happen.
Rathbun hustled to Tampa International Airport and caught the first flight to Atlanta. "I think I beat him by a couple of minutes," he said. "I remember running from my gate to his and him coming off."
He let Jason get settled in a smoking lounge before he approached. He told Jason he understood. If you want out, fine. Just come back to Clearwater, so you won't be declared an SP and disconnected from your sister.
Not again, Jason said.
Rathbun kept talking until the Milwaukee flight was announced and Jason headed for the gate with Rathbun trailing behind.
Rathbun said he called Miscavige, and the leader told him to put Jason on the phone. Rathbun held up his cell phone: "Dave wants to talk to you!"
Jason was about to board and called back, "I've got nothing to say.''
The church says Miscavige participated in no such phone call. "Mr. Miscavige never asked to speak to Jason,'' the church states, adding that Rathbun did not mention a call to Miscavige in the report he filed at the time.
On the plane waiting for takeoff, Jason thumbed through a magazine. He looked up and there was Rathbun, coming down the aisle. He had bought a ticket.
"He was shocked," Rathbun says. "He thought he was done with this, that he'd bucked the last hurdle."
CONFESSION IN MILWAUKEE
Temperatures were in the 20s in Milwaukee. Jason's mother and younger sister took him to buy something warmer than shorts.
That night Rathbun came by Jason's mother's home and got Jason to agree to come to his hotel room the next day. He presented Jason a confession to sign.
A few weeks later, in January 1997, Rathbun returned to Milwaukee to have Jason sign a "declaration.'' This time, Rathbun brought a videocamera.
The document talked about Jason using drugs as a teen and said he had not taken advantage of training opportunities in Scientology. It said he had followed the stock market during work hours and lost thousands of dollars of his wife's money in bad investments. He did not measure up to Sea Org standards.
Jason describes it as "one part truth, four parts embellishment and five parts total BS."
He studied the document and told Rathbun, "Come on, man. This is not true."
Rathbun now admits: "We went overboard.'' He let Jason strike some wording, including a passage that said Jason never held an executive position with the church.
Rathbun turned on the videocamera and Jason signed, knowing it would be used against him if he ever spoke out.
The church produced the 12-year-old affidavit after Jason told his story to the Times. The document says he was under no duress when he signed it.
Jason says he was. Having just been held aboard the Freewinds for six weeks, he wanted his church to stop coming after him.
"What was in it for me? To be left alone, not followed, not contacted or pursued. That is what I wanted and would have signed almost anything to get it."
Today he lives in Chicago and works as operations manager for a company that sells roofing products and heating and air conditioning materials. A single dad, his son is 10.
His older sister is no longer a practicing Scientologist.
Jason says his treatment aboard the Freewinds doesn't define his view of Scientology. He has seen the church help people and says it definitely helped him. He joined as a rudderless 20-year-old. In Scientology, he got his act together.
He wishes things were more clear-cut, that he could say the church was all bad. He could write it off and never think about it again.
"Twelve years later, it still sits there,'' he said.
"There's going to be a time where I'll look up one day and I'll go, 'You know what? I realized I haven't thought about Scientology for three years.' And that's going to be a good day for me."
Thomas C. Tobin is a Times staff writer who has covered the Church of Scientology off and on since 1996. He can be reached at email@example.com.