Back in February 2011, the New Yorker published an article on Scientology that would become a sensation.
Lawrence Wright’s extensively researched 24,000-word piece about director Paul Haggis and the Church of Scientology, delved deep into the inner workings of the organisation and its treatment of those that had signed up to the billion year membership contract.
However, one of the most significant issues to be addressed by the article was the fact the FBI had begun an investigation into the church for alleged human trafficking abuses.
Over 4 years has now passed since news of the investigation was leaked into the public domain. What many do not know however, is that by the time the world found out about the FBI’s interest in Scientology, the investigation had all but closed.
In a follow up article by the Village Voice in 2012, it was revealed that by the time the New Yorker had announced the existence of the FBI probe, the investigation itself had been dead for some four months.
And this was not through a lack of significant evidence or witness testimony. The FBI had gathered over a dozen informants from an increasing flow of Scientology defectors.
By June 2010, the agency was preparing to raid Scientology’s California international headquarters using high resolution footage shot from drone aircraft. They had also recorded the tail numbers on airplanes owned by Tom Cruise in case Scientology leader David Miscavige should try to flee from the scene.
The investigation had reached fever pitch, and then suddenly it all came to a halt. As we will explain, the reason for this is somewhat predictable for anyone even remotely familiar with the way in which the church deals with its detractors.
A key aspect of the FBI’s investigation came about after a meeting with Marty Rathbun in 2009.
Until 2004, Rathbun was the second-highest ranking official in the church, answering only to Miscavige in his role as Inspector General-Ethics of the Religious Technology Center, Scientology’s controlling entity. In short, he knew everything about the inner workings of the organisation.
After leaving the Church, Rathbun laid low for several years. He only started to speak out some 5 years later, via a blog in 2009. That same year he began talking to the FBI.
“I told them everything. Everything I’ve said publicly and then some,” Rathbun told the Village Voice.
Still in its early stages, the investigation was being led by Tricia Whitehill and later Valerie Venegas, agents who each specialize in human trafficking cases.
However, Rathbun was once in charge of overseeing Scientology’s “fair game” campaigns against enemies. This involved complex methods of surveillance and control. He was disappointed by how little the federal agents seemed to know.
Rathbun described the agents as goodhearted but unsophisticated. They naively believed that the Church didn’t know about the investigation.
“Are you kidding me?” Rathbun said during one interview with the FBI. “I already know all of the people you’ve talked to. You think the church doesn’t know that too?”
By 2010, a substantial number of ex-Scientologists were participating in the investigation. Each was given a confidential informant number and a code name. They were told that under no circumstances could they tell anyone that they were cooperating with the agents.
For months, agents Whitehill and Venegas gathered information and gleaned all that they could about Scientology’s complex ways.
This included pulling together detailed information about church executives being held against their will at one of Scientology’s headquarters.
Located 90 miles east of Los Angeles, near the town of Hemet, the location (known as “the Hole”) was where Scientology’s executives were kept day and night, sleeping on the floor and being forced to take part in mass confessions.
However, the FBI were finding it difficult to act on this information. It had been several years since the likes of Rathbun had left the base. The agency required more recent details if they were to execute a raid.
They did not have to wait long. In the summer of 2010, the investigation benefited from a key break.
A worker named John Brousseau had escaped from the base in April 2010. He too was soon talking to the FBI, providing damning evidence of Sea Org members toiling for the benefit of Miscavige.
With Brousseau’s fresh information, the FBI seemed to have what it needed and the investigation reached new levels. The agency planned to raid the base to free the executives held against their will.
By this time the FBI had gathered the high resolution images of the base using drone aircraft. These were so detailed, informants were able to identify individuals in the images.
Expecting David Miscavige to flee the base once he, in all probability, got tipped to the raid, his various avenues of escape were evaluated. This included the possibility that he would flee to Tom Cruise’s private hangar in Burbank and use one of his planes. The tail numbers on Cruise’s aircraft were gathered as a precaution.
A number of informants were asked if they’d be willing to go along on a raid of the base in a black, unmarked van, from which they could relay instructions to agents as they apprehended people.
One informant said that raids were planned not only for the International Base, but also for each of the Church of Spiritual Technology locations, as well as the vaults where Hubbard’s works are being archived.
Then, it all came to a grinding halt.
Stories circulated among the informants that incidents on a local level may have motivated FBI officials in Washington to kill the investigation. However Rathbun told the Village Voice he believed those incidents were merely excuses for what he had expected would happen all along.
One informant (Milan-born musician Tiziano Lugli,) spoke to agent Venegas about what was happening with the case:
“She said something about pressure from Washington, and the investigation getting spiked,” Lugli said. “I asked her if they had been infiltrated from the top, and if the hold had come from Washington, and she confirmed it for me. She said yes.”
Then in February 2011 news of the investigation finally broke in Wright’s epic story in the New Yorker.
By then the investigation was already dead.
By late 2010, the other informants had been told that the investigation was on hold, but they all kept quiet hoping that it would be resurrected.
“It’s extremely frustrating. I can’t just let go of it, because I still have family in Scientology,” one informant said.
Rathbun was immensely frustrated by the outcome. “I warned them it would happen, over and over again.”
He said he was able to predict that a probe would be killed at the highest levels because, in his former role as Scientology’s second-highest ranking official, that is exactly what he would have done.
4 years on and still there is no sign of the FBI bringing the church to account for the behaviour we seem to see in the media on a monthly basis. The ‘hole’ still very likely exists and people are still being held against their will, as the human-trafficking offences continue unchecked.