SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Scientology executive Debbie Cook was on the phone with church leader David Miscavige when she heard someone pounding at her office door at a church compound in California.
Not wanting to hang up on her angry boss, who was complaining about her performance, she didn't answer the knocks. The pounding stopped, but someone was prying open her office window. Two male church employees crawled in.
"Are they there?" Miscavige asked.
Yes, Cook answered.
"Goodbye," the church leader said.
The men took Cook away to a place called the "The Hole," two doublewide trailers on the church's 500-acre California compound where, other high-ranking church defectors have told the Tampa Bay Times, Miscavige sent underperforming executives. The windows were covered with bars, and security guards controlled the only exit, Cook said.
Cook said she was held there seven weeks with more than 100 other Scientology executives. They spent their nights in sleeping bags on ant-infested floors, ate a soupy "slop" of reheated leftovers and screamed at each other in confessionals that often turned violent. For two weeks, she said, Miscavige had the electricity turned off as daytime temperatures in the desert east of Los Angeles topped 100 degrees.
Cook testified Thursday that the experience in the summer of 2007 gave her nightmares and was part of the reason she was so eager to leave the Scientology staff later that year and sign a severance agreement never to speak ill of the church.
"I would have signed that I stabbed babies over and over again and loved it. I would have done anything basically at that point," she said during several hours of sworn testimony in San Antonio district court.
The church is suing Cook and her husband for violating the terms of the agreement when she sent a New Year's Eve email urging fellow Scientologists to help reform the church's fundraising tactics and other practices.
Thursday night, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said Cook's testimony is false. Cook voluntarily entered into the agreement, Pouw said, and "now clearly is bitter and is falsely vilifying the religion she was once a part of."
The church and Cook agreed to certain obligations, Pouw said. "Miss Cook and her husband have breached that agreement. The defendants and their lawyer are trying to divert the court with false claims and wild tales."
Church lawyer George H. Spencer Jr. said Cook's testimony was irrelevant and argued that regardless whether her statements were true, she ratified the contract by accepting $50,000.
"This is a straightforward contract case," he argued before District Judge Martha Tanner. Testimony continues today.
Cook's attorney, Ray Jeffrey, argued the duress she suffered in the years and months before signing the agreement rendered the document unenforceable.
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Cook's testimony took listeners through an extraordinary tale: from the church's "Hole" in the California desert, to the Clearwater campus that is home to Scientology's spiritual mecca, to her escape in 2007 that ended when a church team tracked her to a South Carolina restaurant and boxed in her car in the parking lot.
Once the respected head of the Clearwater operation and known to Scientologists worldwide, Cook said she was "basically imprisoned" in Clearwater during her final months with the church.
She said she was confined to the church's Hacienda Gardens residential compound on Saturn Avenue, prevented from leaving by guards, gates, high fences, motion detectors and security cameras. At work in Scientology's downtown buildings, she said, she was followed during her daily routine by a church official assigned to make sure she didn't escape; she was even followed into the restroom.
Through the years, Cook said, she witnessed physical attacks and mental abuse on church executives by Miscavige or by those acting on the leader's orders.
She described a 12-hour ordeal at the California base where she was made to stand in a trash can while fellow executives poured water over her, screamed at her and said she was a lesbian.
She said she saw Miscavige attack church executive Marc Yager, punching him in the face and wrestling him to the ground. She also recounted how church executive Mark Ginge Nelson was punished for objecting to violence he saw in "The Hole."
Cook said she saw Nelson taken to another room, where he was beaten by a Miscavige assistant and two other men for two hours. She said Nelson also was made to lick a bathroom floor for at least 30 minutes.
Cook said Miscavige once ordered his secretary to slap her, and she fell over into some chairs. She said he also ordered his communication officer to break her finger. The officer bent it back, she said, but did not break it.
Another time, she said, Miscavige marched around a large conference table looking as if he wanted to choke her but ended up grabbing her shoulders and yelling at her.
In May 2007, Cook got a reprieve from "The Hole" when she was summoned back to Clearwater to help Miscavige prepare for a major church event that would attract 2,000 Scientologists to Ruth Eckerd Hall. She worked there several more weeks, rejoining her husband, church staffer Wayne Baumgarten, but not telling him what happened in "The Hole." She said it would have been "very treasonous" to say anything.
Later that summer, Cook said she and her husband said they had had enough. One morning, a church staffer drove them to the church dining hall in downtown Clearwater and went inside to get them some breakfast. Cook jumped into the driver's seat, drove to a rental car company and left the church vehicle in the lot.
In a rental car, the couple drove to see Cook's father in North Carolina but were intercepted and persuaded to return to Clearwater to properly separate from the church staff. If they didn't go along, she said, a church official said her husband's Scientology relatives would sever all contact with him.
Cook said they were told the process would take a couple of days. But after three grueling weeks, Cook told her guards that she had called her mother and told her to call Clearwater police if she wasn't released in three days. She also conveyed in a letter that "if that didn't work I would take whatever steps necessary, like slitting my wrists."
The church's legal team sought to counter Cook's duress argument by showing a video of Cook initialing the contract, agreeing with a church attorney that the church had helped her and accepting a $50,000 check that was later deposited in her account. She agreed she was under no pressure to sign. She also acknowledged she had criticized church leadership and disclosed information she knew about the church and its staff.