Scientology's Secret Vaults: A Rare Interview With a Former Member of Hush-Hush "CST"
Trementina's ventilation house: Vault entrance? What vault entrance?
Over the years, we've talked to a lot of former Scientologists, many of whom worked at the church's secretive desert headquarters in Southern California, "Int Base." They were cut off from their families and the outside world, and became accustomed to living in secrecy.
But even these people adopt a somewhat hushed tone when they tell me about the most secret organization in all of Scientology, the Church of Spiritual Technology. Mention CST, and even longtime former members of the church admit that they knew almost nothing about it, or even where CST's own super-secret headquarters was located.
"I was in international management and the Watchdog Committee for 20 years, and I never knew where CST was, the whole time," says Amy Scobee, a former high-ranking church official.
"CST was very hush-hush. Even among the Int staff, it wasn't well known. Anyone coming from CST, it was very sensitive," says Gary Morehead, who was chief of security at Int Base and oversaw the interrogation of executives who had gone awry. He had to sign a bond promising that he'd keep confidential anything that came out in those interrogations, which are known as "sec-checking." When it came to CST executives, however, Morehead says he had to sign a second bond.
"Sec-checking them, you had to sign a special bond that you would keep things secret. You were 'bonded for CST'," he says.
Over the years, information has leaked out about CST and its extremely odd work -- building underground vaults to ensure that the words of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard survive a nuclear holocaust. It's still rare, however, to have a press interview with a former CST employee.
But Dylan Gill, who helped build vaults in California and New Mexico -- which each include houses built specifically for raising the reincarnation of Hubbard -- says he finally wants to tell his story.
"You couldn't tell anybody at Int Base about it. Nobody knew where the CST headquarters was," Gill tells me while the sound of one of his young children putting up a fuss comes into and out of our telephone conversation. Today Gill, 41, lives in Las Vegas with his wife and two kids and life is pretty normal.
But in 1988, as a member of Scientology's elite "Sea Org," having signed a billion-year contract and promising to dedicate himself and his future lifetimes to the church, Gill found himself being driven up into the San Bernardino Mountains. [Need some background on the church? Go here for our primer, "What is Scientology?"]
"My [first] wife had already been up there posted as the HCO secretary," he remembers. (He's now married to someone else.) "I think there were only 18 people in the entire org at the CST headquarters."
Where he was taken was a complex in the mountains above Los Angeles. Gill, who worked there and at other CST bases for the next three years, refers to the compound as "Rimforest," which is the name of a nearby hamlet southwest of Lake Arrowhead. Other ex-Scientologists tend to call the compound "Twin Peaks," which is the name of another nearby mountain village.
Gill was originally from Santa Cruz, California, and had been brought into Scientology at the age of 11. An aunt was the first to get into the church, he says, and then her husband, Gill's uncle.
"My dad and I weren't communicating well, so my uncle got us into Scientology," he says. "My whole family are artists, sort of beatniks."
As in the case with many other young church members, Gill soon started getting recruited for the hardcore Sea Org.
"My aunt, the family's original Scientologist, suggested I go to the EPF at Flag," he says, referring to Estates Project Force, the sort of "boot camp" that new Sea Org members go through, at "Flag," the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida.
"I was made to sign a Sea Org contract at 14, and was sent to Flag. I did my EPF, and that's when CMO picked me up," he says, referring to the Commodore's Messenger Service, an elite group within the elite Sea Org that tends to be populated by young recruits. (Hubbard's original messengers were teenaged girls who ran errands for him on the yacht Apollo in the late 1960s.)
It's common for Sea Org members to marry young -- as we've written numerous times before, former SO members tell us that the only way to get any privacy was to get married and move out of the single-sex barracks that were for unmarried workers. "I got married to a second-generation Scientologist," Gill says. And then he and his wife were both recruited to CST.
Gill was sent from Florida to Scientology's administrative headquarters in Los Angeles, a former hospital that takes up a full city block and is known as Pacific Area Command (PAC) by Scientologists.
"I was sent to PAC for clearances," Gill says, and he explained that even if a young church member proved squeaky clean enough to become a Sea Org member, he'd have to be even more unblemished for CST. And after passing that gauntlet, Gill was on his way to Rimforest.
"I was replacing the 'estates secretary,' who was going to the RPF," he says.
CST's estates secretary had been overseeing numerous construction projects at the headquarters, but he had run afoul of Scientology's top management. As punishment, he was taken down to Happy Valley, a ranch near Hemet, California, and several miles from Int Base itself. There, he was going into the Sea Org's prison detail, Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), to do grueling, menial labor and to be interrogated by Gary Morehead and his security crew.
I asked Gill if he knew what his predecessor had done so wrong. "It was pretty arbitrary," he says. "You're dealing with so many projects and so much money, there's no way you're going to succeed. It's set up so you'll eventually fail," he says.
Gill was sent up to take over the estates secretary position, and would oversee a budget of about $14 million to fund 16 different ongoing construction projects at the Rimforest complex.
He was 19 years old.
[Map above. Scientology's administrative headquarters are in Los Angeles, housed in the former Cedars of Lebanon hospital on a street that was renamed L. Ron Hubbard Way (Scientologists refer to the place as "Big Blue" or "PAC base," for Pacific Area Command). But the highest levels of international management are housed at a secretive desert base near Hemet, about 85 miles east, which Scientologists call "Int Base" or "Gold," because it houses Scientology's audiovisual studios, Golden Era Productions. CST's compound, however, is in the mountains above San Bernardino, near Lake Arrowhead -- as Amy Scobee pointed out, even high-level executives at Int Base had no idea where it was.]
[Lake Arrowhead is a reservoir at 5,125 feet elevation, surrounded by mountains that see millions of visitors from the LA area every year. As a kid, my own family used to go up to nearby Crestline to stay in a big, rustic old cabin. It's a lovely place.]
[CST's complex lies just off Rim of the World Highway where it intersects with Lake Gregory Drive and Highway 189, called Squirrel Inn Road (this should get a chuckle from some readers -- "Squirrel" is Scientology jargon for heretic, and just about the worst thing you can call a church member.)]
[On the left, you can see the intersection with Lake Gregory Road, Rim of the World Highway, and Squirrel Inn Road. The complex consists of multiple "production" buildings, barracks, and other structures. We've highlighted three here -- the production building that stands over the vault itself, the "LRH House," and the entrance to the compound.]
[The entrance to the compound from Squirrel Inn Road. Gill says that when he arrived in 1988, the guard shack had not yet been built.]
[The building near the circular drive in the center has an elevator that lowers into the twin vaults below.]
[This is an overhead look at Rimforest's "LRH House," where a reincarnated L. Ron Hubbard would be raised until he's old enough to take over Scientology.]
The compound at Rimforest had quite a few structures, but the point of the thing -- the point of all of CST's bases -- was its vault.
When Gill arrived in 1988, he says, the Rimforest vault was about a third of the way to completion. It consisted of twin, cylindrical underground repositories with corrugated steel walls, and a suspended concrete floor about a third of the way up from the bottom of the cylinders.
"They were about 17 to 20 feet tall," Gill says. "There were two portals where it goes between the two steel pipes."
As with similar vaults farther north in California, in New Mexico, and another one under construction in Wyoming, the point of the vaults is to store L. Ron Hubbard's writings and lectures in the form of etched steel plates in titanium containers, as well as in other forms, so that his "technology" could survive a nuclear attack and help reform society in an apocalyptic world.
But in 1988, that was still well in the future. The titanium capsules were still in the planning stages, and much of CST's work involved simply archiving all of Hubbard's written and spoken words, organizing them, and xeroxing them on acid-free paper.
"The capsules were still being researched. The etching of the plates was being started, and compact discs were being researched, too," Gill says.
"CST made a lot of trips to China to get a deal going on the time capsules and new e-meters," he adds.
I asked him what the plans for the titanium capsules looked like. "It was like a banker's box, and you'd have a place to fill it with inert gas, like argon gas," he says.
So at this point, the vaults themselves were empty. But there was still much work to be done to them. "We hadn't loaded anything into the vaults yet. We were still waiting for the time capsules. But we were pushing to get everything by LRH archived. Plates etched, Compact discs copied. The plan was to make each base completely self-sufficient," Gill says.
While the vault would hold all of the Hubbard materials, each base would need housing for staff, and all of it would need to have power from big, reliable generator sets. "That was one thing I did. We went to Caterpillar and got generators for all of our bases," he says.
They took their work very seriously. In the production buildings, where the Hubbard archives were being handled, they had actually constructed full-blown clean rooms, the kind of thing you normally only expect at high-tech firms. "There's an argon gas system that will flush out the air in the room in three seconds," he says.
Everything about his job, Gill says, was done on an emergency basis; each new order had to be treated with even more urgency than the one before, whatever the expense.
As an example, he tells me about a time one winter when things were icy and the footing was unsure. "A French woman tripped walking between the main production building to a building where staff lived. She broke her wrist. I got an order to solve the problem. What I came up with was heated pathways. We put in three to five miles of pathways connecting the dining area to the production building to the staff housing, using stamped concrete pathways with glycol hosing in it. We set up a pump room on a thermostat. When the temperature dropped, it would pump heated glycol into the pathways and melt the snow," he says. "We got a guy from Germany who had developed it for runways. He was living in LA. We brought him up to design it. It was a huge deal. I think it was around $20,000."
Another time, he says, they came up with a way to reduce the number of times staff had to go into town: "We put in a dry cleaning machine at the base so we didn't have to go outside to do that." Gill says the machine alone cost between $50,000 and $70,000 in that project.
Gill didn't only oversee construction projects at CST's Rimforest headquarters. He also spent much of his time at Trementina base, in New Mexico.
Like Rimforest, the main point of Trementina is its vault. But it has another feature that has also made it somewhat notorious, and previously caught the attention of news organizations: its bizarre giant CST logo carved into the desert floor, intended to be seen from the sky.
[CST's logo is carved into the desert floor not far from the vault entrance.]
[In this overhead view, you can see the logo and below, the landing strip, and between them, a road with switchbacks -- the vault entrance is just off it. San Miguel County Road C-56-A is to the right.]
[Trementina is an unincorporated town in the northeastern portion of New Mexico.]
When Gill arrived at Trementina base for the first time, the airstrip was still being cut out of the desert. "The priority when I was there was finishing the LRH House," he says.
As at Rimforest, Tremintina's vault was in place, but was mostly empty. I asked him to describe it to me.
"It's a huge door with a timelock on it. It's like a huge safe, like a safe in the bank," he says. And inside? "It's all white, like painted cement. One long shaft, with a dividing wall about halfway down, with another vault door inside of the main vault."
There was equipment, too. Reel-to-reel players, for example, and other devices that could make use of the things that would be stored. "It's like an external library," Gill says. "There's everything you need to make use of the materials. Multiple binders of instructions...whoever survived a nuclear war could use it, if mankind was going to rebuild society."
I told him I understood that concept, but why the big logo visible from the air (which at that time was still being planned)?
"That's where LRH is supposed to go, when he returns," Gill says. Once Hubbard adopts a new body, he's expected to make his way to one of the CST bases. "That's where he's supposed to be raised and be taken care of," Gill says. "So the symbol is a way for a spirit to find its way back to where it belongs."
I hadn't heard that one. Naturally, people have made fun of the symbol, saying that it looked like it was intended to signal space aliens coming to Earth. Instead, Gill was telling me it was there to signal the wandering spirit of L. Ron Hubbard.
Suddenly, I realized that Chuck Beatty really was only half-joking when he noted that CST's logo seemed reminiscent of the Kool cigarettes trademark, the brand that Hubbard smoked like a fiend in life. (Beatty, a former Sea Org member, is a sort of unofficial historian of the church.)
There's another interesting feature at Trementina. The vault entrance is not visible from the outside: a large, multi-story house was built around it to conceal it. Gill says it's called the "Ventilation House." Trementina's LRH House is some distance away, and is only one story. (An image of the ventilation house can be seen at the top of this story, taken from a CBS investigation that flew over Trementina.)
Gill also installed generators at another vault site on the northern California coast near Petrolia, California.
[In this overhead view of the staff quarters for the Petrolia vault, you can see straddling the road the CST logo, which isn't as distinctive as the one in New Mexico.]
[Petrolia's vault entrance, farther along the road, inland from the previous image.]
[The Petrolia vault is south of Eureka on the California coast.]
[The vault is near the end of an unnamed road (unnamed on Google maps, at least) that branches off of Old Mattole Road.]
Gill also made trips to a vault being constructed in an old mine near Tuolumne, California, and referred to it as the Lady Washington Mine.
[An overhead view of the complex around the mine entrance, which is just south of the center of the image.]
[The Lady Washington Mine site is near Yosemite Park, which is to the southeast of Tuolumne.]
[The mine site is just outside the town of Tuolumne itself.]
Gill says that at each of the remote vault sites -- the ones away from the Rimforest headquarters -- the goal was to create a vault and fill it, complete an LRH House, set up generators, and when everything was finished, leave just a single person, a caretaker, to maintain the place as they waited for either nuclear war or for the reincarnated LRH to show up.
Since Gill left Scientology (more on that in a minute), CST began a new vault project in Wyoming, which raised the hackles of some residents there. A local helped us pinpoint the location of the project, which is going on near a place called Sweeney Ranch.
[What the ridge along Sweeney Ranch Road looked like in 2006, before CST began construction.]
[The same spot on the ridge today, showing areas cleared off and several structures.]
[The Sweeney Ranch mine is in southwestern Wyoming.]
[The Wyoming complex is along Sweeney Ranch Road, south of the town of Rock Springs.]
Dylan Gill installed generators and oversaw other construction projects at CST properties for about three years. Then, one day when he was at Trementina base, he got a call from Rimforest.
"I was told to come back," Gill says. "I came to the [Rimforest] base, and I was escorted to a car, and was driven down to Happy Valley."
Just outside Hemet, the property still had its name from a previous owner, but there was little happy about the place. For years, Scientology sent executives to the place to go through grueling reeducation.
"I got a month and a half of MEST work," Gill says, which is Scientology jargon for hard labor. "And I was given a lot of sec-checking. I wasn't told what was the problem for why I was being busted down." Later, he says, he was told there were financial irregularities in his work.
"It didn't make any sense," he says. With $14 million in projects, he was being accused of vague problems with expense receipts -- but as we've heard from several former high-ranking officials, executives often found themselves sent to Happy Valley or a place called "The Hole" at Int Base for reasons that were hard to understand.
"I was working 120 hours a week, six days a week, and getting paid $18 a week." He would get bussed to Int Base to work, and then go back to Happy Valley to sleep.
Gill remembers that he was assigned to dig up a big pile of moldy stuff. "We were going through it and throwing it away. Suitcases and things," Gill says. And then the thought suddenly hit him: "Oh my God, this many people had been here before me and had gone, and this was all their crap. All moldy, and under tarps."
Gill says his wife had also been sent to the Int Base, but he wasn't allowed to talk to her.
Besides the hard labor, he was intensely interrogated, and in one of those sessions, he learned that he was being blamed for another person's "crimes" -- in this case, the crime of masturbation. We've written previously that when Sea Org members are interrogated, they are put under intense pressure not only to confess to mistakes they've made in their job or doubts they have about Scientology, but they are also questioned about their sexual practices. In this case, Gill explains, a fellow member admitted to masturbating, and told his interrogators that the idea to do so had come into his head after Dylan Gill threw a condom at him.
Gill admits that the story sounds ridiculous. But at the time, what upset him about it was that his interrogators were not following standard Scientology policy. If they had been, they wouldn't be blaming him for something that another person had done.
He says he decided to "route out" -- to leave the Sea Org. And that brought him to the attention of Gary Morehead.
"Gary R-factored me for 6 hours, until I micturated," he says. After pissing himself, Gill relented and agreed to go into the Sea Org's prison detail, the RPF -- and even, for a brief time, be assigned to the RPF's RPF -- a prison within a prison. For several weeks, he'd be so isolated he wouldn't even be allowed to talk to other members on the RPF.
Morehead tells me that he did "R-factor" RPF members -- to "reality-factor" someone was to intimidate them with the consequences of their actions -- and he remembers Gill's time in the RPF. But he says he doesn't remember frightening Gill to the point of urinating. (But he says that did happen to others.)
Later, Dylan ran into his wife at Int Base while he was there working.
"I hadn't spoken to her in five or six months," he says. He knew he wasn't supposed to, but he talked to her anyway. She responded by turning him in, writing a "Knowledge Report" about the incident.
"It was pretty hard for me. That's when I figured out that, for me, my wife came before Scientology. But for her, Scientology came first. I blew days later," he says. "Everybody went to sleep and I stayed up. As soon as everybody was asleep, I left."
Gill escaped down a dry riverbed, walking to Hemet. "Gary came looking for me on a motorcycle," he says.
Morehead tells me he remembers Gill escaping.
"That was a long hike, especially at night. As dark as dark can be," Morehead says.
Gill managed to get to Beaumont, then pawned his Sea Org ring to get enough to catch a bus back to Northern California. (Today, he notes, the RPF is no longer run at Happy Valley but at Int Base itself, which has a high wall with razor wire. It's not so easy to escape like walking down a riverbed.)
After he got away, his family disconnected from him. His father doesn't see him and doesn't see Gill's children.
For a time, Gill paid towards his "freeloader's debt." Scientologists who worked on staff would receive spiritual services -- auditing -- at discount rates. When they leave, the church hits them with a bill for what they would have paid for the services at full price. Gill estimates he paid about $3,000 toward his freeloader's debt (he was never told what the church expected him to pay in total). But then he stopped paying. He gave up any idea of getting back in the good graces of the church, even though that meant his family would continue to shun him.
Today, he says he's much happier and doing well in Las Vegas. But he is still haunted by what he went through in the church.
"Two or three times a year I get really fucked up and emotional. It's the weirdest flood of emotions and it's awful," he says.
Last year in Texas, there was a gathering of Independent Scientologists -- people who have left the church over their problems with the management of leader David Miscavige, but who still adhere to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard.
At the party, Gill was reunited with Gary Morehead, the man who had interrogated him at Happy Valley.
"Gary's a good guy. I didn't harbor any bad feelings against him or anything. Once you're out, you're out. While you were in, everybody was just doing what they thought was right," he says.
Gill wanted me to know, however, that he doesn't consider himself an Independent Scientologist.
"I like Marty [Rathbun]. I like Mike [Rinder]," he says, referring to two of the most prominent former church executives in the independence movement. "I like a lot of the indies. But I don't practice Scientology."
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
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