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Inside Scientology | A Times special report

Scientology: What happened in Vegas, Part 2 of 3 in a special report on the Church of Scientology

They squeezed into a two bedroom apartment, all they could afford. Two couples and a single guy had left the Church of Scientology and joined up in Las Vegas, starting a mortgage business near the Palace Station Casino.

They were faces in the crowd.

Except that the two wives were important in Scientology history, sisters Terri and Janis Gillham. They were two of the original four "messengers'' for L. Ron Hubbard.

The founder ran his church from his ship, the Apollo, handwriting bulletins in red ink and policy orders in green. For eight years starting when Terri was 13 and Janis 11, they saw Hubbard most every day. As his messengers, they fetched people for private audiences and carried his handwritten notes to the Scientology world.

Their parents had opened one of Australia's first Scientology missions, in their home in Melbourne. By 1969, the girls were aboard ship with Hubbard, and their parents were needed to help grow Scientology in the United States.

Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, became legal guardian to Terri and Janis. Hubbard was a father figure. He looked after their studies and their well-being.

Twenty years later they had become disaffected. Still believers, the sisters and their husbands left the church. They disagreed with the direction Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige, was taking it, and they found him too controlling.

On their own now in Vegas, they processed mortgage applications and lounged around the pool at their apartment complex, the Polo Club.

They didn't know it, but they were being watched.

Terri and her husband, Fernando Gamboa, left the Sea Org first, in January 1990.

Eight months later, Janis and her husband, Paul Grady, took off from the church's 500-acre compound east of Los Angeles after a sudden, hard rain and a Miscavige tongue-lashing.

Mud washed down an arroyo and into villas the staff had spiffed up for a coming visit by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Miscavige blamed the staff for goofing up the grading of a hillside and said they would work around the clock to clean up the mess.

Not the Gradys. They bolted for a little town north of Los Angeles.

Mark Fisher left that night, too, and made it to his sister's couch in Hollywood. A church security guard was there when he woke; his sister had turned him in.

Fisher had been Miscavige's aide de camp for nearly seven years. He and his staff woke up Miscavige and his wife, and they walked their beagles, Chesley and Chelsea. They cleaned the leader's guns after target practice and, when he was in a good mood, piled in a car and went with him to the movies.

For leaving without permission, Fisher had to pull weeds and was questioned for hours daily for a month. On Sept. 15, 1990, Fisher said goodbye to his wife in a church security office. He wrote her a check for $8,000, half their savings, and gave her their furniture and art work. He took their Honda and drove off.

By year's end, opportunity knocked in Las Vegas.

A Scientology parishioner opening a mortgage office there told Janis, Terri and their husbands he would teach them the business. If they did well, they could take over. Janis contacted Fisher; he was in, too.

Janis was five months pregnant when they moved into the Polo Club. She and Paul got one bedroom. Terri and Fernando got the other. Fisher got the sofa.

After two months, their little startup, City Mortgage, needed another mortgage agent.

David Lubow answered their Help Wanted ad. He said the market was tough in the San Fernando Valley, where his wife worked and they lived with their two children. He would make the four-hour drive home on weekends. Terri hired him.

"Dave was a really friendly guy,'' Fisher said. "A really nice guy. Somebody you would want to have a beer with.''

The Gamboas and the Gradys declined to be interviewed for this report. But Fisher and other former Scientology staffers who were hired at City Mortgage described what they saw and heard.

Lubow got an apartment at the Polo Club and hung around with the five from the office.

He had never played racquetball, but he played often with Fernando. He saw the five at the pool and grilled out with them. He was as thrilled as they when Janis, with the help of a midwife, delivered her son in the living room.

Conversation would get around to Scientology. Terri and Janis told Lubow about their early days with Hubbard, how they watched him build the church from the ground up. They all said he should read Dianetics.

Lubow asked the obvious: So why did you leave?

Because of Miscavige, they said. If he were gone, they might go back.

Good talker, that Dave Lubow. His apartment was across the tiny parking lot. From his front door, he could see theirs.

RUNNING THE OPERATION

A short walk down Hollywood Boulevard from where tourists take pictures of sidewalk shrines to movie stars is the Hollywood Guaranty Building, 12 floors of Scientology offices. The top floor is "OSA-Intel,'' the Office of Special Affairs' intelligence unit.

That's where David Lubow sent his reports. Church staff routed them to Mike Rinder, the director of OSA, and Marty Rathbun, Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center, the church's top ecclesiastical authority. Staff knew him as Miscavige's right hand man. Rathbun said he routinely forwarded Lubow's reports to the leader.

Rathbun worked with Rinder's OSA team, which handled legal matters, investigations and media relations. Rinder was the church's chief public spokesman for 20 years, nationally and internationally, defending the church in countless interviews.

Rathbun left Scientology in 2004, Rinder in 2007. This past June, both spoke out about the physical abuse they said they saw Miscavige administer, assertions the church vehemently denied. Now they say Miscavige ordered spying on those he considered potentially threatening to himself and the church.

"Miscavige was intensely obsessed with that Las Vegas crowd,'' Rathbun said.

Church attorneys and spokesman Tommy Davis said the church does not hire private investigators, its attorneys do. Miscavige has nothing to do with the investigators. "Any claim or inference that Mr. Miscavige was involved in any way with attorney use of private investigators is false,'' Davis wrote.

Before they left Scientology, the Gillham sisters transitioned from teenaged messengers to powerful roles. Terri was executive director of Author Services Inc., the corporation Hubbard set up distinct from Scientology to control rights to his books, lectures and other intellectual property. At ASI, she worked closely with Miscavige, who was its chairman of the board.

Janis led a team in 1988 that readied the church's new cruise ship, the Freewinds, for its maiden voyage. From 1987 through 1990, she oversaw the church's international management team.

They and Fisher told Lubow about how things soured. They joked about going back to the compound in the desert, maybe drive a van up to the front gate and yell out to staff: All aboard!

Rathbun and Rinder said Miscavige viewed the Las Vegas clique as potential agitators or even motivated to start an anti-Scientology crusade. Rathbun said Miscavige "ordered'' him to arrange for someone to infiltrate the five in Vegas and find out what they were up to.

Rathbun said he instructed OSA-Intel chief Linda Hamel to consult a private investigator who had worked for the church for years and find someone with a high social I.Q for the job. Lubow.

"He got deep in and became a close friend and was reporting back,'' Rathbun said. "Quite frankly, the more reporting he did, the more obsessed Miscavige became. Those people all pinned their gripes about their experiences in Scientology to their personal experiences with Miscavige.

"They were consistently communicating about how they were just waiting for this guy to burn out and maybe they even would go back some day.''

Instructions for Lubow: Keep the reports coming.

TOO MANY QUESTIONS

Terri Gamboa fired Fisher before City Mortgage was a year old. Badly needing a commission check, Fisher had chewed out a support staffer for not processing a loan application quickly enough.

"I blew my stack. Got really angry,'' Fisher said.

Lesson learned. "You deal with people a certain way in the Sea Org,'' he said, "but when you come out in the real world, you can't treat people like that.''

He moved to Houston, for a promotions job with an adult entertainment club owner he knew. Fisher was settling in when Lubow called. He was in town on a real estate deal, they should do lunch. Lubow picked Fisher up in a rented Cadillac.

"We're driving around, I'm showing him around Houston — I'd only been there about a week or so — and he started asking me questions,'' Fisher said.

What did he really think about Scientology?

What did he think about David Miscavige?

Did he really want to get rid of him?

Would the five really go back if Miscavige was gone?

Enough questions that Fisher noticed. "Why would he be working on some deal in a little town out in Texas, when we were based in Las Vegas? I mean, nothing added up.''

After lunch, Fisher called Vegas. "Janis, I think Dave Lubow is a plant.''

Janis said City Mortgage didn't send him there, it didn't have any business in Houston.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKED

In Vegas, Fernando Gamboa took an intriguing phone call. A business contact at a bank in Los Angeles said two investors were headed their way, and Fernando and Terri should meet them.

They had dinner at Caesars Palace. The men said they were dealmakers from Hong Kong whose clients expected royal treatment. They wanted Terri and Fernando to go to Australia and find a scenic horse ranch. The dealmakers would buy the ranch and pay the Gamboas to run it and host their clients.

Terri could go home to Australia and do what she loved: Be with horses. With their living expenses covered, she and Fernando could bank most of their salaries.

They left for Melbourne. Who showed up in a matter of weeks? Lubow, on vacation with his wife. They all went to the beach.

"They (the Gamboas) thought it was bizarre he came all the way down there,'' Fisher said. "That's when we really started to suspect him.''

Back at City Mortgage, everybody wondered: Where does Lubow get his money? They didn't pay him salary, just commission. And he'd closed only one mortgage there.

THE AUSTRALIA MANEUVER

Rathbun and Rinder now say the church was the silent partner paying for the Gamboa's diversion to Australia.

"It definitely was a church maneuver,'' Rathbun said. "I was involved in that.''

Lubow had filed intelligence reports for seven months when the dealmakers took the Gamboas to dinner. Many of his reports, sometimes just a long paragraph, sometimes two or three pages, highlighted Terri as especially critical of Miscavige, Rathbun said.

"I know there were reports coming out that she was considering lending assistance to people who were going after DM (David Miscavige) on the outside,'' he said, referring to former church officials suing Scientology.

Rathbun said Miscavige also was concerned. Terri could undermine Scientology's settlement talks with the IRS, in 1992-93, over whether to restore the church's tax-exempt status.

Rathbun said Miscavige told him to get her far away. Rinder said the church strategy was: "Get them out of the U.S.''

"We had some guy who was super well-heeled. He was out of Hong Kong,'' Rathbun said. "I set the thing up with Linda (Hamel, church intelligence chief). He was some British guy. He invited them down … wined and dined (them) … we literally were going to buy a horse ranch.''

The Gamboas found a ranch in the high country north of Melbourne that the investors could rent. They stayed two years.

Rathbun and Rinder said they don't know how much the operation cost, only that the church underwrote it.

HOW THE CHURCH DOES IT

Seeking comment from the church, the St. Petersburg Times posed written questions about Lubow's involvement with the five former church staff in Las Vegas. Responding in writing, the church addressed its practices but made no mention of Lubow.

Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said neither Miscavige nor church officials hired private investigators, church attorneys did. Davis said the church directs its attorneys and their agents to conform to all laws, regulations and the highest ethical standards.

Davis gave the Times declarations from longtime church attorneys Elliot Abelson and Kendrick Moxon that stated it's routine for lawyers to retain PIs to acquire useful information and to disprove false allegations by potential adversaries. They said they instructed the investigators to comply with state and local laws and the rules of their profession. The attorneys said they never communicated with Miscavige about PIs or investigations.

"He is simply not involved,'' Abelson said.

Rinder, who oversaw intelligence efforts as OSA's director for 25 years, said it's done that way to shield the church.

"It's a protection,'' he said. "You can always come back and say, 'This guy is retained by a lawyer.' ''

OSA's own intelligence staff vetted the investigators, Rinder said, then Abelson or Moxon hired them. The private attorneys worked as independent contractors and had offices on the 10th floor of the church building on Hollywood Boulevard.

Rinder said the attorneys worked out fee agreements with the PIs and sent them to OSA for assignment, and the church transferred funds to Abelson and Moxon to pay the PIs.

"We'd use the same people over and over,'' Rinder said, about 10 of them. "It was as big as it needed to be.

"If you need 10 PIs working on it, then you get 10 PIs working on it. If there was one needed, you'd have just one.''

Church intelligence mostly targeted those it feared might hurt Scientology, on the streets, in court or in the media, Rinder and Rathbun said.

In the early 1980s, Miscavige, joined by Rathbun, Rinder and others, reformed the church's previous intelligence division, the Guardian's Office. Its director, Mary Sue Hubbard, and 10 other Scientologists were convicted in October 1979 on federal charges of conspiring to steal government documents or obstruct justice.

But Rathbun said Miscavige still believed it was important to anticipate the moves of potential enemies.

Prediction — "that became our watchword,'' Rathbun said.

"That actually was our initial justification and our initial standard. In other words, it was okay to infiltrate somebody, provided it was done solely for prediction.''

If someone caused trouble, a plaintiff in a lawsuit or a reporter stirring controversy, that triggered ODC, Overt Data Collection, Rathbun said. The church's intelligence staff followed a form and culled information from public sources.

"Any character that pops up in the mix, ODC is almost automatic,'' Rathbun said. But if the church saw serious threat, it commissioned covert work. "Now that it's an attack, CDC.''

Covert Data Collection involved informants and private investigators.

"You're looking for two things,'' Rinder said. "One, connections. Two, dirt, crimes, whatever it is that may be able to be used to expose the source of attack as having their own dirty laundry so … they are not a credible source.''

The church has a term for it. To "dead agent'' someone is to destroy an adversary's credibility.

Lubow did not respond to an interview request.

Responding to questions about Rathbun and Rinder's accounts, the church provided the declaration of Rinder's top deputy for 20 years, Kurt Weiland. It states that Rathbun and Rinder are "omitting context'' about OSA and mischaracterizing the work of "experienced legal professionals.''

"The allegations are made to appear extraordinary to most readers who are not aware that it is a common factor in litigation — pending and anticipated.''

Of Rathbun and Rinder, Weiland's declaration concluded: "They are now employing the very tactic they decried in the past, complete with false claims and innuendo, and have created a web of lies and deceit about the church. Paradoxically, they are the very individuals who directed and controlled the very activities they are now saying 'the church' did wrong.

"If their claims about the 'the church' were true, which they are not, as I have made clear in this declaration, they would have to point the finger directly at each other and no one else.''

THE NEW GUY, FERRIS

By 1994, the original cast was back at City Mortgage. The Gradys, who had kept the business going, rehired Fisher. The Gamboas were back from Australia.

Lubow had cleaned out his desk and moved back to California. But he visited Vegas and palled around with his friends. The five ex-Scientology staffers didn't confront him about spying; they assumed the church would just send in somebody else.

"Then we'd have to figure it out all over again,'' Fisher said.

Four years old now, City Mortgage had new faces. On the team were former Sea Org members Kenny Lipton and Gene Decheff.

Lipton worked there until 1998, when he died of cancer. Decheff, who lives in Spokane now, said his colleagues warned him to be leery of Lubow. "It was suspected he might be there to watch us, or get information about us, for somebody.''

The office needed more support staff. Terri hired Pam Khan, who lived in Vegas with her husband.

Pam quickly made friends and told her bosses she knew someone who would make a good loan officer. Her husband, Ferris.

Pam was right. Ferris Khan wrote loans and was fun outside work.

On Sept. 7, 1996, Vegas was abuzz. Mike Tyson was fighting Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand. The Gamboas hosted a dinner party to watch the closed circuit telecast. Khan took over the kitchen and presented a multi-course salmon feast.

"It was fantastic,'' Fisher said.

In 1998, Pam Khan announced she was pregnant. Her friends at City Mortgage gave her a baby shower and, when she moved home to Phoenix, a going-away party.

Khan stayed on a few more months and left to join her. He and Fisher called each other nearly every day.

Fisher said Khan told him he was starting a cell phone company and said he would pay Fisher $7,500 to write the employee manual.

Khan asked about Scientology. By 1999, anti-Scientology sites were getting traffic on the Internet. What did Fisher know about those? And what did he know about the protest group in Clearwater inspired by the death of Lisa McPherson, the Scientologist who died in 1995 after 17 days in care of church staffers?

Fisher knew plenty about the protesters. Two of the ringleaders, Jesse Prince and Stacy Brooks, were friends, former Scientologists Fisher worked with in the '70s and '80s.

Let's go to Florida, Fisher told Khan, "It might be fun to poke my finger in DM's eye.''

THE FISHER DIVERSION

Miscavige was in Clearwater then, with Rathbun and Rinder, working to contain the fallout surrounding McPherson's death.

The judge in the McPherson family's wrongful death lawsuit was considering a motion that Miscavige be added as a defendant. The family's lawyer argued that he was involved in day-to-day operations of the church. Scientology lawyers said he was the ecclesiastical leader and not involved in day-to-day operations.

On Dec. 14, 1999, the judge granted the family's motion. Miscavige was a defendant.

Soon after came an intelligence report out of Las Vegas. Mark Fisher was planning to come to Clearwater.

"Miscavige was freaked,'' Rathbun said. "He was certain that Fisher, having worked directly for Miscavige for a number of years, was coming down to testify about Miscavige's control of the church.''

Rathbun said Miscavige summoned him and Rinder. "He said to Mike and me, 'You make sure Mark Fisher does not come to Florida.' "

Rathbun said he called Linda Hamel, the intelligence chief in California. Rathbun asked: "Hey, what happened to your guy Lubow? Can't he come up with a distraction for Mark Fisher?''

Lubow had been pulled out of Vegas for other work for the church. "But we got another guy who substituted for Lubow,'' Rathbun said Hamel told him.

"We worked out this whole plan, Linda and I,'' Rathbun said.

PUERTO VALLARTA

Forget Clearwater, Khan told Fisher.

"He goes, 'Look it, we got to meet this investor I know in Puerto Vallarta. It'll be a lot more fun.' ''

The financier lived in Italy but was traveling to Puerto Vallarta the same week they were headed to Florida. Khan said they needed to meet and get his backing for the cell phone company Khan was starting.

Instead of protesting in Clearwater, Khan and Fisher spent five days at a luxury resort, parasailing, snorkeling and partying. They dined with the investor the third night, and Khan gave him the manual Fisher wrote. Then it was back to the clubs.

"We were on vacation,'' Fisher said.

Khan paid for everything, Fisher said, at least $7,000.

Back in Clearwater, Hamel sent Rathbun a video of Fisher partying at a bar in Puerto Vallarta. He played it for Miscavige.

"He got a great kick out of it,'' Rathbun said.

Rathbun and Rinder said they never knew the name Ferris Khan, but they knew an operative replaced Lubow and took Fisher to Mexico.

The church paid all expenses for diverting Fisher, Rathbun said. "Every penny of it.''

ONLY ONE PERSON KNEW

Only once did Fisher confront his friend Ferris about the possibility he lived a double life. About four years ago, in one of their many phone calls, he said:

"Hey, you know Janis thinks you are spying for Scientology,'' Fisher said, half joking.

What a laugh, Khan said. Why would I do that?

Fisher dropped it. He and Khan were pals.

"Any time I had a business decision or a financial decision or if I was going to buy or sell a stock, I would call him. He seemed to have a lot of expertise in those areas. … We were intimate in terms of my finances and anything else I was doing …

"He was the type of person that I would call up and say, Hey, how's it going? And we'd shoot the s--- for 20, 30 minutes. We'd talk politics … whatever.''

Khan did not return phone messages seeking comment.

This past July, 12 years since they met, Fisher realized he had been betrayed.

Late that month, Khan called from Dubai, where he was on business. Did Fisher know anything about a story the Times was preparing?

No, Fisher said. How did Khan know to ask? Fisher hadn't told anybody he had been interviewed. But he knew the Times had sent the church questions about the people in the story.

He had another piece of evidence, the church magazine Freedom, published days before the Times story. One paragraph jumped off the page at Fisher. It described one of the Times' sources as a bankrupt taxi driver.

Fisher drove a cab for about six weeks and had filed for bankruptcy. He had told just one person: Ferris Khan.

JANIS GRADY'S STATEMENT

Fisher still hasn't told Khan that he figured him out. "I considered him my best friend. I even told him a couple of times, 'Man, you are like a brother to me.' ''

Khan stopped calling every day, but did check in on Aug. 29, to wish Fisher happy birthday, his 51st.

In declining to be interviewed for this report, Janis Grady said she and her sister fear speaking out would damage relationships with family members who are Scientologists. She gave this written statement:

"We were aware that Scientology officials had sent private investigators to keep an eye on us. We had nothing to hide and just wanted to get on with building our new lives.

"If the Church of Scientology officials chose to spend their money that way, that is their poor judgment. To my knowledge the PIs caused no adverse effect on our lives so they were of no concern to us. My priority was/is raising my children."

Joe Childs is Managing editor/Tampa Bay. He has supervised the Times' coverage of Scientology since 1993. He can be reached at childs@sptimes.com.

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 tobin@sptimes.com.

Scientology: What happened in Vegas, Part 2 of 3 in a special report on the Church of Scientology 11/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 2, 2009 2:53pm]

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