One of Scientology’s many intriguing mysteries is the disappearance of church leader David Miscavige’s wife, Michelle “Shelly” Barnett, who hasn’t been seen in public since around 2007.
We’ve written about Shelly Miscavige in the past, about her strange disappearance, and about the equally mysterious death of her mother, Flo Barnett.
And now that the news media is crazy for any information about Scientology, it’s only natural that it would become interested in Shelly. The Business Insider brought up the story on Tuesday, summarizing what Lawrence Wright had said about Shelly in his amazing 2011 profile of Paul Haggis for the New Yorker.
But then there was a piece yesterday by the Daily Mail, which was so filled with errors it was hard to believe. Why does it matter? Well, the Daily Mail has become the most-read news website on the planet, and so a story like that is probably going to metastasize into a hundred little gossip sites, and the mistakes in that piece will soon be repeated all over the place.
As a service, then, we’d like to correct the record that’s been so mangled by the Daily Mail, and lay out what we know and don’t know about Miscavige’s missing wife.
Several websites are pointing out the irony that it was Shelly Miscavige who helped bring together Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. During his marriage to Nicole Kidman, Cruise had been almost entirely out of the church (something that was well covered-up at the time), but the church had maintained tabs on him by spying on the Cruise household with its employees. After Cruise and Kidman broke up, the church was taking no chances — Marty Rathbun, Scientology’s second-highest ranking official and a highly respected auditor, was tasked with bringing Tom back into church involvement, and Shelly Miscavige was assigned the role of finding him a new wife who wouldn’t try to pull him away from Scientology. Both seemed to do their jobs well. By 2006, Cruise was a gung-ho member of the church and had married Katie Holmes who, at least nominally, agreed to become a church member herself.
By 2006, however, Rathbun was already gone, having defected in 2004 when David Miscavige assigned him to “The Hole” — a crude office-prison at Scientology’s international base east of Los Angeles — where executives who had fallen out of favor were held against their will, sometimes for years at a stretch. After just a few days in the Hole, Rathbun managed to get out and then absconded from the base. He never went back. (Rathbun did not, as the Daily Mail suggested, testify in court to conditions in the Hole. Debbie Cook, another former executive, testified in a Texas court in February that she had been held in the Hole and described it in shocking detail, which is what the Daily Mail might be thinking of.)
As for Shelly, some time around 2007, she suddenly vanished from Int Base.
In both the Business Insider and Daily Mail, there’s a suggestion that Shelly also found her way to the Hole. But none of the ex-Scientologists I have talked to — including John Brousseau, who was at the base until 2010 — says they ever saw Shelly put there. (If she had been in The Hole, plenty of people at Int Base would have known it.)
The Daily Mail says that if Shelly isn’t in The Hole…
Some believe Shelly…went into hiding after becoming disillusioned with the religion. Others say she died after a battle with cancer.
But none of my sources have ever suggested that Shelly ditched Scientology. And none of them have ever suggested that she has died of cancer.
The Daily Mail may again be confused by another story, one that we had previously reported. On June 14, 2011, Ann Tidman died of cancer in a Hollywood apartment complex. To Scientologists, she was a famous figure, usually referred to as Annie Broeker, formerly wife of Pat Broeker. The Broekers took care of L. Ron Hubbard at the end of his life, and were his likely successors when he died in 1986. But Pat Broeker was edged out for the church’s leadership by a young David Miscavige, and Ann spent the rest of her life at Int Base — until she was moved to the Hollywood complex for her final days. She kept her illness a secret even from her own sisters, and they did not learn about her death until this past January.
Ann Tidman is not Shelly Miscavige.
So where is Shelly?
The best information we have comes from John Brousseau, who escaped from Int Base in 2010.
Before he left, he says that it was common knowledge at Int Base, which is near Hemet, California, east of Los Angeles, that Shelly was being held at another base about 60 miles away — the headquarters of the Church of Spiritual Technology (CST), a complex in the mountains above LA.
[Click to enlarge: In this map we’ve highlighted the location of three key Scientology facilities. In Los Angeles, we’ve marked the location of Big Blue, the administrative headquarters the church more formally called PAC Base, for Pacific Area Command (it’s a large former hospital, the Cedars of Lebanon, painted blue). About 90 miles east, near the town of Hemet, is the sprawling international management headquarters of Scientology (known as “Int Base” and “Gold”), where “The Hole” was located, at least until 2010. And near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains is the headquarters of the Church of Spiritual Technology, referred to as “Twin Peaks” or “Rimforest” or “Mountain High,” depending on which Scientologist you’re talking to. For more detailed maps, see our story on CST.]
Yesterday I asked Brousseau for more detail: how did it become common knowledge at Int Base that Shelly was at the CST headquarters?
“I was able to observe the mail that came to the base. It was sorted into a huge set of pigeonholes,” he told me.
“Any mail that came for Shelly, I noticed the officer for the RTC [Religious Technology Center] would stick it in the box that was picked up every day and taken to the CST headquarters,” he says.
“It was kind of obvious to me that’s where Shelly was. And it was something everybody knew,” he adds. “It seemed a pretty logical place for Miscavige to put her.”
OK, I know this alphabet soup can get tricky, but try to keep up so we avoid more problems like the Daily Mail piece…
— David Miscavige, Scientology’s ultimate leader, has a formal title. He’s the chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, and Scientologists customarily refer to him as “COB,” or “COB of RTC.” (You know you’re talking to an ex-Scientologist if they’re referring to “DM” or “Miscavige” — church members consider that too familiar.)
— The RTC controls the trademarks and copyrights of Scientology, and is the controlling entity of the whole enterprise. On paper, the Church of Scientology International (CSI), and Author Services Inc (ASI, which acts as Hubbard’s literary agency), and so many other entities appear to be independent organizations with their own governing bodies. But that’s a sham for the IRS. Miscavige is in total control of every one of them.
— Of all the many church entities, the Church of Spiritual Technology may be the strangest of all. As we explained in a lengthy piece about CST, it’s the most secretive organization in a secretive church. And it has a very strange mandate: to build bases in various locations, and furnish them with underground vaults for storing the total life work of L. Ron Hubbard — the millions of words he wrote or spoke in lectures — etched on steel plates and stored in titanium containers so that his wisdom can survive a nuclear holocaust.
[Click to enlarge: An overview of the CST headquarters near Lake Arrowhead, showing the locations of the vault intended to protect Hubbard’s works from nuclear annihilation, and the “LRH House” intended to provide a place to live when the reincarnated Hubbard returns after “leaving his body” in 1986. Our full CST story.]
CST has vaults in California, New Mexico, and a new one has been under construction in Wyoming. And CST itself has a headquarters, a complex near Lake Arrowhead above Los Angeles. It’s there, Brousseau and other ex-Scientologists tell us, that Shelly Miscavige — at least at one time — was being kept out of view.
“I don’t know where she might be now,” Brousseau says. “There are a lot of different properties where she could be.”
[Near the New Mexico CST property, which includes a vault, an LRH House, and an airstrip, is this symbol carved into the desert floor. We were told this mark, CST’s logo, is intended to guide L. Ron Hubbard’s spirit as it returns to Earth. Our full CST story.]
Another thing to keep in mind: among the other disappeared church executives is Heber Jentzsch, who is still considered the president of the Church of Scientology, International, but has not been seen publicly since about 2004. In 2010, however, when his ex-wife, Karen de la Carriere, started making a stink about Heber missing, the church briefly produced him long enough to spend some time with their son, Karen tells me. Then Heber disappeared again.
Could the church suddenly produce Shelly in order to tamp down all the media attention? I guess we’re going to find out.
UPDATE: Scientology attorney Gary Soter puts out another masterful public statement, this time about Shelly Miscavige. Check it out…
In a statement to the Daily News, Scientology lawyer Gary Soter said Miscavige’s ex “is not missing. The claim is utterly ridiculous and unfounded.”
Note the word missing. No, it’s pretty plain that the church knows exactly where she is.
A reader pointed out to me that the Daily News, in that quote, referred to Shelly as Miscavige’s “ex.” I think that’s a mistake. If you look at the full Soter statement published in Us magazine, he refers to her as “Mrs. Miscavige.”
Please check our Facebook author page for updates and schedules of upcoming stories.
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Scientology’s disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.