One of the first things people ask me when they hear that I cover Scientology on a regular basis is whether I’ve been targeted for harassment by the church.
Despite some evidence that the church does intend to “handle” me, I’ve been left alone for the most part. But I am always mindful of how vindictive Scientology can be, and to what lengths (and costs) it will go to attack a perceived enemy.
There are countless examples of “Fair Game,” Scientology’s notorious policy of retaliation against perceived enemies, and I’ve written about many of them over the years. But what’s happening in Florida right now with a man named Robert Almblad appears to be some of the worst, most vicious, and most reprehensible activity by the church since the 1970s, when it actually tried to get people killed and imprisoned.
And this does affect you. Or anyone you know in a hospital who wants to go home without a life-threatening infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 99,000 Americans die each year from the 1.7 million infections they pick up during hospital stays.
If you’ve read Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, you know that hospitals spend enormous amounts trying to track down and prevent every source of infection.
One of those sources is ice machines. They are notoriously filthy. In a famous 2006 study, a Florida seventh grader showed that the ice at local fast food restaurants had more bacteria than the water in their toilets. (And as I write that, I can’t help thinking about my grandfather, in his last few days at a hospital, capable of little more than sucking on ice chips. Christ.)
So you may be pleased to hear that a man named Robert Almblad has invented a machine that reliably puts out bacteria-free ice. Using the kind of forced-air technology that “clean rooms” employ, his machine essentially makes ice from bottled water without allowing any contaminants in it.
You should be able to grasp how important this technology could turn out to be.
For six years, Almblad has been developing his machine, and after perfecting it, he has spent a few years meeting with billion-dollar companies, trying to interest them in building copies of the machine for themselves.
For the last year and a half, however, employees of the Church of Scientology have been going to extraordinary lengths to keep Almblad from marketing his machine, traveling around the country to frighten businesses out of dealing with the inventor, even bursting in on business meetings to scare people out of working with Almblad.
Why? What could Scientology possibly have against clean ice? The answer, of course, is maddeningly absurd, and completely consistent with what passes for logic in the organization started by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
Almblad, it turns out, employs a man named Mike Rinder, who used to be one of the highest-ranking executives in Scientology, but has left and is now critical of the church. For employing Rinder, Almblad’s business has been targeted for utter ruination.
Let that sink in a moment. Because a man dares to criticize a church, that church is now trying to prevent the world from getting life-saving technology simply as a form of revenge.
Let me back up a minute and help you understand just how insane this situation is.
Almblad, 64, has his own lengthy history with Scientology. He joined in 1972, worked for a year on staff — with L. Ron Hubbard — and then was a regular non-staff parishioner (a “public”) until 2007. That’s a total of 35 years in the organization.
During that time, he made a living as an inventor. In the 1990s, he was hugely successful with technology he developed to automate the copying of house keys. Recently, a company that uses his invention sold for $850 million. He sold his interest in that company long ago, tried for a while to export a similar product to Europe, but that wasn’t as successful, and he notified his small number of investors that he was closing that company last year.
By then, however, he was deeply involved in his new project, the clean-ice machine. There are no investors in this project, he says, just his own company trying to sell the idea of clean ice to huge companies, the ones big enough to put the machines all around the world.
About the same time Almblad left Scientology, so did Mike Rinder, who had a very different career in the church.
Rinder, an Australian, was only 5 or 6 when his parents brought him into Scientology. He rose through its ranks and by his early twenties was helping the church deal with negative publicity by replacing its notorious Guardian’s Office with a new covert-operations wing, the Office of Special Affairs. Rinder became OSA’s executive director, and eventually, Scientology’s chief spokesman. He worked very closely with church leader David Miscavige until he left the organization in 2007, and then went public in 2009 with allegations that Miscavige regularly got violent with him and other employees.
The Voice, in many articles this year, has already established how Scientology leader Miscavige perceives Rinder and another former high-ranking employee, Marty Rathbun, to be serious threats to the church, and is sparing no expense to have them followed, intimidated, and harassed.
Almblad, however, was never a high-ranking official in the church. He left Scientology quietly, and has not publicly criticized the organization.
But about two years ago, he committed what is apparently, in the mind of Miscavige, an unpardonable sin: he gave Rinder a job.
“I’ve done a lot of new products. As you finish it, you get involved in public relations,” Almblad told me yesterday by phone from Florida. Rinder’s long experience in media seemed like a good fit.
“I’d been working on this ice machine for 6 years. We had gotten to a point where we had good technology. I met Mike for the first time two years ago. I asked him if he would give us some consulting help.”
Rinder says he warned Almblad, however, that there could be consequences.
“Mike warned me that if I was still a member of the church, I couldn’t talk to him because he was declared a suppressive person,” Almblad says, using Scientology jargon for “heretic.” But Almblad told him that he too was out of the church, and that there shouldn’t be a problem for them to work together.
Neither one of them seem to have been prepared for the level of church activity that followed.
“The first time a private investigator showed up at my house was a year and a half ago. It was Dave Lubow,” Almblad says. Lubow is a longtime Scientology operative who is often used by OSA, through an attorney named Elliot Abelson.
“He just knocked on my door and said he wanted to talk to me about Mike Rinder. As soon as he did that I knew he was from the church and I said I didn’t have anything to say to him. I told him to go away,” Almblad says.
But Lubow didn’t take no for an answer. Soon, Almblad says, he was being followed constantly by the private eye. “Lubow and some cameramen would follow me everywhere. They stayed behind me in two vehicles,” he says. The cars followed him from his house to his job, to restaurants — anywhere he was going.
Almblad says his neighbors were contacted in what is a classic Scientology operation: “They were talking to people, asking them, ‘Have you seen him commit any crimes? Have you seen anything unusual happening in his house?'” As both Rinder and Rathbun have pointed out, this is intended to put doubts in the minds of a target’s neighbors, to make it an uncomfortable place to live. (When Rathbun was undergoing similar harassment this summer in South Texas, the Scientology squad sent to intimidate him claimed to the local press that they were not involved with the church at all, and were only there to make a “documentary.” Soon, it was revealed that Lubow was behind the operation, and had told squad members that its only goal was to make Rathbun’s life a “living hell.” When Rinder and Rathbun say these harassment operations are being directed by Scientology leader Miscavige himself, they are talking from experience: both of them, while they were in the church, ran similar operations. Rinder has talked about working directly with Lubow. Both Rinder and Rathbun, meanwhile, acknowledge the irony that they are now the targets of an intimidation operation they helped run while they worked for Miscavige.)
At one point, Almblad confronted Lubow when he was at a neighbor’s house. He wanted the neighbor to know who was behind the surveillance and strange questions. But when he was challenged, Lubow said he worked for Abelson, the attorney. “I asked him, who does Abelson work for? He said Abelson works for the RTC.” But Lubow wouldn’t explain to the neighbor what that was, Almblad says — the Religious Technology Center is a controlling entity in the church of Scientology.
Almblad says there are 14 houses in his neighborhood, and he went to every one, trying to explain why the Scientology squad was there. “It was very difficult to do. Nobody has ever heard of this kind of harassment. It’s really unusual in America. Who would spend so much money to do something like this? And they count on people figuring, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Almblad says he began to call local police every time the squad showed up, and the police advised him to get a restraining order against them.
“I did that, for my employees,” Almblad says. “All of my employees were being followed wherever they went. They were followed into parking lots, banks, schools, churches — legitimate churches, I mean. So I did spend some money to have my employees hire attorneys and get restraining orders.”
Now, one of his female employees, for example, is carrying court papers that she can serve on the Scientology squad if it shows up again. “She feels a little more comfortable,” Almblad says.
But the constant surveillance is nerve-wracking, he says, even if you know it’s coming.
“There are two cameramen, a bodyguard, and one with a clipboard and a microphone who starts asking you extraordinarily stupid questions when you come out of a building,” he says.
But that was just the beginning.
At the first of the year, an empty office building across the street from his own laboratory was suddenly occupied, but not before a bizarre occurrence.
“Over Christmas, someone sawed down all four mature oak trees that were in front of our offices. And then someone rented the office across the street that had a window facing our office,” he says.
The view from that window was suddenly unobstructed, after the trees had been chainsawed.
Almblad says he went over at one point to look around, and saw that the new occupants had put up a black curtain surrounding the window, which had been blacked out.
“I asked them, what are you guys doing? They said they were selling surveillance cameras and repairing computers. Now, this place is a 4,000-square-foot building they rented. Just a couple of guys, and in the whole year they’ve been there, not a single customer has walked in,” Almblad says.
But he noticed that anyone who now came to visit his lab to see the ice machine was very shortly afterwards paid a visit by Scientology’s private eyes. Almblad suspects that license plates are being recorded as visiting cars sit in his parking lot. After seeing him at the lab, businesspeople can shortly expect Lubow’s crew to show up at their firm, saying that they’ve arrived to “investigate” Almblad. “Have you seen him doing any crimes?” they ask.
“The interference of our business is just incredible,” Almblad says.
“We had to arrange meetings in secrecy,” he adds. At one point, during a meeting at what he thought was a secret location, Jim Lynch, a reporter Scientology employs for its Freedom propaganda magazine, suddenly burst in.
“Halfway though the meeting, a Squirrel Busters guy and a church official [Lynch] burst open the door, knocked over a person, and threw down a document about me on the table that contained material about me pulled from my supposedly confidential church folder.”
(Scientology has repeatedly violated the supposed priest-penitent confidentiality of such “pre-clear” files, which are filled with the private confessions of Scientologists as they are “audited” while hooked up to a crude lie-detector machine called an “e-meter.” Recently, we reported that Placido Domingo, Jr., son of the famous tenor, accused Scientology of smearing him with material from his supposedly secret files.)
“I had to physically throw them out of the room and call the cops. That’s how bad it got,” Almblad says.
At a trade show, we reported earlier, a high-level Scientologist named Ed Bryan was arrested when he tried to disrupt Almblad and Rinder’s presentation to clients.
“Any businessman, under these conditions, is going to say, what are you getting me into? It’s so disturbing,” Almblad says. But he adds that he doesn’t have a lot of options, other than to try to conduct his business in as much secrecy as possible.
“I can’t stop [work on the ice machine] to bring a lawsuit against them. They have more money than God, and in the meanwhile my business goes to hell. I can’t afford to sue them,” he points out.
“It’s difficult to do new product development. You have to gain the cooperation of many companies. That is extraordinarily difficult for me. We are not successful at achieving normal work. By now I would have companies lined up. But these companies are scared. Management companies are not made for handling this kind of thing at all.”
To illustrate how desperate he’s become to get meetings about his machine, Almblad says he recently drove several states away (“It’s close to Canada,” he says) to conduct a meeting under an assumed name.
“I can’t fly, because I would have to use my real name, and they watch reservations. I had to drive, making a 5,000-mile round trip, and I had to use a throwdown phone and left my own phone at home so they couldn’t track me.” (Update: During our interview, which I originally failed to note here, Almblad told me that for this trip he also used an alias, “Robert August,” to further cover his tracks. In case the people he met with checked on that, he also changed his company’s website to reflect the name. Naturally, OSA has raised this in its online attempts to ruin Almblad’s reputation, hoping that the gullible will assume that the businessman is up to no good.)
At this point, Almblad says he doesn’t think firing Rinder would solve anything. “They have me under such close scrutiny, they know about the technology I’m working on. At first they harassed me because I hired Mike Rinder. But then I think they realized this was useful technology, and so they redoubled their efforts. I think they’re concerned that this is going to be a successful business. They want to crush it rather than see it come to life.”
A simple online search shows that the attempt to ruin Almblad also extends to the Internet. I quickly found a couple of different websites that were dedicated to ruining his reputation, supposedly over how his key-copying European business fizzled out. In typical Freedom magazine style, a number of unconnected documents from his past are jumbled together without much rhyme or reason to give the impression that Almblad is an evil man bent on ruining other people.
“The key business I did here in the US was a very successful business,” he says, when I asked him about the allegations in the websites. “There are no lawsuits. I sold out my part of it. There’s an $850 million company based on my technology. I shut down the other company with no lawsuits and no threatened lawsuits.”
I went over other allegations the websites make about his personal life and the financing on his home: not only were his answers credible, neither subject, of course, had anything to do with life-saving technology that could benefit the public.
And in regards to that: despite all the harassment, Almblad says he is confident that within 60 days, he’ll be making a big announcement about the ice machine.
For the sake of hospital patients everywhere, we’ll be updating that story when it comes.
UPDATE: There’s now a Part 2 to this story, including an interview with Susan Clickner and a closer look at the web attack on both her and Almblad.
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology
#1: L. Ron Hubbard
#2: David Miscavige
#3: Marty Rathbun
#4: Tom Cruise
#5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin
#7: Mark Bunker
#8: Mike Rinder
#9: Jason Beghe
#10: Lisa McPherson
#11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants)
#12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives)
#13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists)
#14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists)
#15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics)
#16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church’s HQ
#17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano
#18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive
#19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church’s other thugs and goons)
#20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures)
#21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church
#22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members)
#23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church)
#24: David Touretzky (and other academics)
#25: Xenu, galactic overlord
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
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing “disconnection”]
[Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology]
[Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?]
MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS
[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties]
In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview]
The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun’s open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun’s cause] | [Squirrel Buster’s claim to be making a “documentary”] | [VIDEO: “On a Boat”] | [“Anna” sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology’s highest levels]
SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND “FAIR GAME”
[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley]
[Scientology’s West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology’s enemies list: Are you on it?]
Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2]
[A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard’s remarkable public confession]
[Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine]
[Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to “handle” the Voice]
[Lori Hodgson and Disconnection: “No one’s going to take my eternity away”]
SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES
[“Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | [“Tom Cruise not a kook!”] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise]
[Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church]
[Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his “suppressive person” declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice]
[Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense]
[Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis]
[Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology’s retaliation is “scary and pathetic”]
Grant Cardone, NatGeo’s “Turnaround King”: [Doing Scientology’s dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone’s smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo]
[Philip Boyd, Saving Grace actor, rips “the business that is Scientology”]
JANET REITMAN’S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY
[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman’s first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid]
[Scientology doesn’t like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post]
[A roundup of Reitman’s print reviews, and why isn’t she on television more?]
HUGH URBAN’S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
[Marc Headley: “Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle”] | [The Nancy Many interview]
[Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman’s Story] | [Jeff Hawkins’ Counterfeit Dreams]
[86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]
[Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested]
[All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots]
[Aussie former rugby pro Chris Guider calls David Miscavige “toxic” and “violent”]
[Stephen Cox, UK church newbie, pledges 20K pounds] | [Biggi Reichert: A German Lisa McPherson?] | [The Birmingham trove: 7,000 internal e-mails]
ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS
[Scientology singalong, “We Stand Tall”] | [Captain Bill Robertson and “Galactic Patrol”]
[Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!]
[Birmingham in the House! The “Ideal” dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam]
[When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers]
[Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.]
[Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York “org”]
THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE
[A scientologist’s letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth]
[Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family]
[Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]
[Scientology High School, Dating and Super Powers!]