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Scientology in Crisis: Debbie Cook's Transformation from Enforcer to Whistleblower

Debbie Cook and her husband Wayne Baumgarten, Christmas 2010
Debbie Cook and her husband Wayne Baumgarten, Christmas 2010

Most of the press reporting on Debbie Cook so far has focused on her past as a high-ranking executive in the Church of Scientology and her sudden transformation this week into a whistleblower trying to rally her fellow church members against the management of Scientology leader David Miscavige.

But several years passed between Cook's role as "Captain FSO" in Clearwater, Florida and where she finds herself today, criticizing Miscavige from San Antonio, Texas, but no longer an employee of the church.

Cook still isn't willing to give us an interview, but we're not waiting to hear from her: the years after she left her nearly legendary role at "Flag" in Clearwater and then went through a humiliating punishment at Scientology's secretive desert headquarters in California in 2007 is a documented part of her story, and helps us understand how she became the lightning rod she is today.

Which makes us ask: has Scientology's homophobia finally brought it to the edge of collapse?

Scientology's homophobia is such a well-known part of its makeup, it's the stuff of celebrity roasts and award shows. At last year's Golden Globes, comedian Ricky Gervais quipped, "Also not nominated was I Love You Philip Morris, Jim Carrey, and Ewan McGregor -- two heterosexual characters pretending to be gay. So the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists, then."

Director Paul Haggis made news for leaving Scientology in part over what he considered its homophobia. And like Debbie Cook, we'll go straight to "Source" -- L. Ron Hubbard -- who called homosexuality a perversion in Dianetics, the founding document of the religion.

And if you believe Marty Rathbun, formerly the second-highest ranking executive in Scientology, it was a homophobic hazing that ended Debbie Cook's illustrious career as a Sea Org official, and was a crucial step on her journey from "the face of Flag" to the potential leader of a church-splitting revolt.

As we've written previously, Cook's e-mail complaining about church leader David Miscavige is so potentially devastating because for so many years she had come to symbolize, for many, what was right about Scientology.

"She was like the mother of Scientology, really," says former Sea Org member Mat Pesch. "She was the smart woman who was supposed to be everything Scientology is supposed to be."

For the 17 years that she was the "captain" of "Flag Service Organization," Cook's smiling face graced magazine articles and videos beckoning church members to Clearwater, where they could check in for extended (and expensive) stays. "Even if somebody hadn't been to Flag, they knew her and looked up to her. She represented everything that was supposed to be good about Scientology," Pesch says.

Mike Rinder still remembers the first time he saw that smiling face.

"I was her first boss in the Sea Org. She arrived in about 1978," the former top spokesman of the church told me yesterday by phone from Florida. "Debbie was in the Commodore Messenger's Organization to begin with. I was the head of CMO Clearwater. She came from North Carolina and she was like Daisy Duke. It was like she was arriving in the big city for the first time. I mean, she was from Raleigh -- it wasn't like she was coming from a farm or something. But she was a fish out of water. Her accent was far more pronounced than it is now. She was only 18 or 20 or something, but she was a very smart girl and she did very well."

She did so well, she eventually ran Scientology's spiritual mecca. "I have to tell you, her staying on as the head of the FSO for as long as she did is virtually unheard of," Rinder says.

Cook wasn't only known for smiling in videos and magazine articles. Like any Sea Org member, she was under intense pressure to meet productivity quotas, and at Flag Land Base that meant attracting a steady stream of high-paying public Scientologists to complete courses while staying there. In the Sea Org, it's a commonplace that executives harangue their underlings about meeting quotas, and Cook was said to be no different, screaming at rooms of employees if numbers were down.

She is also named in a 2001 declaration by Maria Pia Gardini, a former Sea Org member who said that ten years earlier she was put under intense pressure by Debbie Cook to donate more than a million dollars to Scientology after Cook learned that Pia Gardini's mother had just died and she stood to inherit money. Pia Gardini writes in painful detail how Cook and others pressured her repeatedly to turn over the money, supposedly to help pay for a program that would bring Italians to Clearwater for auditor training, but the money never was spent for that purpose. Instead, Pia Gardini claimed, Cook was paid a large bonus for getting the money out of her, and with the bonus bought an expensive car. Marty Rathbun was a high-ranking executive in Scientology during this time, and he acknowledged to me yesterday that Cook did, in fact, get a bonus as a commission for Pia Gardini's donations.

"You have to understand," he told me by telephone from Texas, "under Miscavige, the FSO executives have become glorified registrars."

He pointed me to a video of Cook's successor in the position, Harvey Jacques, that we posted here in November. Jacques, the current Captain FSO, is seen showing up to a New Year's Eve party, explaining to some Taiwanese Scientologists that he has only a few minutes to raise the last $8,000 of the $5 million he was tasked with raising in the last two weeks of 2010.

"That was her post. She spent a tremendous amount of time making money. It comes with the territory," Rathbun told me. "We all have laundry."

Rathbun then quoted US attorney Robert Perry, who said during his summation at the John DeLorean trial in 1984, "For a plot hatched in hell, don't expect angels for witnesses."

"I know that e-mail she sent is sincere about her disgust for what the church became," Rathbun says, "She was forced to turn the FSO into a giant fundraising machine. So yeah, I'd assume she has some regret over what she did."

Even with money flowing in, and keeping employees in line, it's still remarkable that Cook lasted as long as she did as Captain FSO, Mike Rinder tells me.

"David Miscavige is known for getting rid of people he perceives as a threat, either because of their apparent skill or their popularity," Rinder says. "Well, Debbie was enormously popular, and she was the public face for Flag forever. She was featured in all the videos, she did the graduations, and every Friday night she presented all the awards and certificates to anyone who completed anything. She was a very big deal.

"She didn't stay in such a prominent position by being a dummy. She was very competent and intelligent, and was very well versed in Scientology. She's not just a nice personality. She was a very skilled Scientology auditor and supervisor and was trained in the administrative policies of Scientology," Rinder says.

"When Miscavige had gotten rid of everyone around him who were his trusted lieutenants -- they all ended up in The Hole -- he then hand-selected Debbie to be his go-to person. He brought her to Int base, and he told her that she had to now reform the international Scientology structure," Rinder says, referring to an episode in recent Scientology history that has been documented in detail in books like Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology and Marc Headley's Blown for Good, and at the St. Petersburg Times. By 2006, so many of Scientology's high-level executives had been sent by Miscavige to "The Hole" at Int base -- a double-wide trailer at the secretive desert base that had become a kind of gulag for executives out of favor -- there was almost no one left to run things at the highest levels.

That's the environment Cook found herself in late that year as she carried out a direction from Miscavige. She directed the various members of the The Hole to march down to the lake on the compound on a chilly October or November day.

One person who did that march was Mike Rinder. He remembers very well jumping into the cold water on Cook's order.

"I was in The Hole for two years," Rinder says.

Why, I asked him.

"I can't remember. I'd fucked up on whatever Miscagive figured I had fucked up on. And then the BBC came around, and I was out of The Hole again."

In early 2007, the BBC's John Sweeney had approached the church about what would become "Scientology and Me," his program which included his infamous blow-up at Tommy Davis. Rinder, who had been the top church spokesman, was pulled out of the Hole so he could help Davis handle Sweeney.

Suddenly, it made sense to me why Rinder looked so gaunt during Sweeney's show -- he had just spent nearly two years on rice and beans at The Hole.

Rinder on the BBC show, just out of The Hole
Rinder on the BBC show, just out of The Hole
Rinder today, looking more healthy
Rinder today, looking more healthy

"Exactly. I'd been in The Hole for over a year, eating most of the time rice and beans, and all of the time trays of food that were dropped off and everyone scrambled to get what they could, and you had 10 minutes to eat and that's it," Rinder says.

I asked him to describe The Hole. "It was the two double-wide trailers that were called the CMO Int building. It consisted of one main conference room with cubicles around it, and other office spaces, and a men's and a women's bathroom. That's all it was."

"Where did you sleep?"

"On the floor. Under a desk."

"For two years?"

"Yep."

"And Debbie Cook showed up one day and made you march down to the lake and jump in it?"

"It was October or November. Yeah, it was cold. She was on orders," Rinder says.

After Rinder left early in 2007 to handle the BBC, Cook later that year ended up in The Hole herself.

Marty Rathbun, at his blog, describes what happened to her there that summer.

He writes that part of the routine at The Hole was to compel its convicts to confess to transgressions, a classic form of group control. Miscavige, Rathbun writes, wanted in particular for two of his former high-ranking, male executives to admit that they were in a homosexual relationship. Miscavige "had been alleging this to the entire crew for ten years," Rathbun writes.

"Debbie [Cook] was there when DM [Miscavige] announced that Tom Cruise would come the next day to 'punch you guys out' if the one hundred [prisoners in The Hole] failed to get a confession" from the two male executives that they were having a relationship.

Rathbun claims that in order to get the confessions that Miscavige demanded, the prisoners were pressured into physically beating the two men until they made forced admissions. When those admissions were reported to Miscavige, however, Rathbun writes that Cook spoke up and said that the admissions were being exaggerated.

That brought Cook herself under the withering gaze of the other prisoners, who perceived that she was preventing them from giving Miscavige what he wanted. Now, Cook became the subject of their hazing.

"That included loud accusations," Rathbun writes, "that Debbie 'must be a lesbo'."

For the next twelve hours Debbie was made to stand in a large garbage can and face one hundred people screaming at her demanding a confession as to her "homosexual tendencies". While this was going on, water was poured over her head. Signs were put around Debbie's neck, one marked in magic marker "LESBO" while this torture proceeded. Debbie was repeatedly slapped across the face by other women in the room during the interrogation. Debbie never did break.

Cook may not have given in to the pressure that day, but she did eventually leave the Sea Org and employment in Scientology. She moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she runs a business consulting firm. For more than four years, she's apparently been biding her time before unleashing her e-mail Saturday night and causing a crisis in the church.

Rathbun tells me that Cook will continue to stay out of the press, not only because she wants to make her appeal directly to church members, but also because she has signed a confidentiality agreement with the church itself.

"She's going to be able to talk about this stuff, and then we're going to be able to break the extortion of these gag contracts," Rathbun says. As for what he wrote about Cook's experience at Int Base, Rathbun says he confirmed it with multiple people who were in The Hole with Cook and witnessed it.

"It's been up for there for two years, and the church hasn't said a goddamn thing about it," Rathbun says.

The church did, however, release a statement about Cook's e-mail yesterday. Karin Pouw told a couple of news organizations, "Ms. Cook's opinions reflect a small, ignorant and unenlightened view of the world of Scientology today. They are not shared by the thousands of Scientologists who are overjoyed by our 27 new Churches and what they mean to the communities they serve."

Then, late yesterday, Pouw added to that statement with something she told the USA Today. Here's how USA Today writer Douglas Stanglin reported it:

Spokesperson Karin Pouw adds that the "positioning" of Cook as a "prominent Scientology insider" is "inaccurate." She describes her as "'a disgruntled defector' who has not had any position in the Church for several years, having left in 2007 for medical reasons."

"The Church refers to individuals such as Ms. Cook as a squirrel. A squirrel is someone who alters the Scripture; a heretic," she writes, asking that "you correct this error in your headline and in the text of the article."

Cook, a squirrel and a heretic? That's the classic playbook from Pouw and Miscavige, but in this case, Cook went out of her way to refer only to L. Ron Hubbard's own policies in her e-mail.

Also last night, the Tampa Bay (formerly St. Petersburg) Times published an editorial about the Cook e-mail. It is the kind of thing we should see in more daily newspapers in this country:

[Cook] claimed the church is sitting on more than $1 billion in donations to the association and wrote that such hoarding of money violates policies established by the late church founder L. Ron Hubbard...

While the church has berated former staffers who have spoken out as disgruntled and disloyal, Cook cannot be so summarily discounted. She acted as the church's local CEO in Clearwater from 1989 to 2006 and only left the church staff in 2008. She says in her letter that she remains in good standing with the church, and she describes herself as a devoted Scientologist appealing to other church members to embrace Hubbard's teachings, stand up to the aggressive fundraising and force positive change.

Cook's credible critique of the Church of Scientology is further evidence of the need for the Internal Revenue Service to review the church's practices. It also should trigger more interest in Congress about requiring more openness about the finances of religious organizations. But Cook's account also offers an opportunity for reflection by Scientologists, who as church insiders may be more effective in bringing change than any outside forces.

We couldn't agree more.


Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


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