Looking over my shoulder,
The Inside Account of the
Story That Almost Killed Me
Today's issue of http://www.radaronline.com/ has a shortened version of my story HERE
The Scandal of the Scandal of Scientology
You may not believe this, but you can write something that someone doesn’t approve of and then—with the help of the government—be bankrupted and have a quarter of your life almost ruined. And you don’t have to live in China or Russia. It can happen right here in New York. I know because it happened to me. I haven’t previously written about this from beginning to end because it’s still painful, but here goes.
In 1968, I was a struggling New York freelance writer, searching for an investigative story that would make a difference. By choosing to expose a then relatively unknown organization called Scientology (and Scientology’s companion, Dianetics), I ended up facing fifteen years in jail, had nineteen lawsuits filed against me, did fifty days of depositions, was the almost victim of a murder, the subject of five anonymous smear letters and endured almost constant and continual harassment for more than a dozen years.
It all started after I wrote an article, “The Scandal of Scientology,” for Queen magazine in the U.K. I had a master’s degree in psychology and had studied comparative religion at Harvard for a summer and what I learned during my research about the group founded by L. Ron Hubbard was both fascinating and frightening. The story cried out to be told. I received one death threat after the article was published, but decided nonetheless to write a book on the subject. I knew the Scientologists wouldn’t like what I said but I was naïve and had no idea of the horrors that lay in store for me over the next two decades.
The Scandal of Scientology was released by a small publisher, Tower Publications, in 1971. After fighting five lawsuits brought against them (and me) by the Church of Scientology, the publisher signed an apology and recalled the book. However, I refused to be silenced and the suits were soon directed at me, along with death threats, pretexting and harassing calls. So why were they so concerned about what a young New York writer had to say? No hard-hitting exposé had ever been written about Scientology.
Among other things, I stated that the crux of Scientology— their e-meter, a machine that acts like a lie detector—produced questionable results; that Hubbard had lied about his background; that Charles Manson had been a student of Scientology (which was later proven but which they didn’t want known); and that some auditors had behaved improperly. I also heavily quoted an out-of-print “Report of the Board of Enquiry into Scientology,” a devastating and detailed document published by the Australian government in 1965.
Before long, strange people were trying to gain access to my apartment. Around this same time, in the basement of the building, I discovered alligator clips on my phone wires—likely the remnants of a phone tap. Then my cousin— who was also short and slim like me, was there alone when a man arrived with a “flower delivery" for me. When she opened the door, the intruder pulled a gun out of the flowers and put it to her temple. Fortunately, the gun jammed, misfired or was empty. The man then began to choke her, and when she pulled away and
screamed, he ran off. The police said afterward that they were mystified, because there appeared to be no motive.
I immediately moved to a doorman building. Not long after, some 300 of my neighbors were sent an anonymous smear letter about me. Among other things, the letter outrageously described me as a part-time prostitute and said that I had once sexually molested a 2- year old baby girl.
A few weeks later, in early 1973, I received a visit from an FBI agent named Bruce Brotman. He said the spokesman for the Church of Scientology in New York, James Meisler, claimed to have received anonymous bomb threats and named me as a likely suspect. The next thing I knew, I was being called to appear before a federal grand jury in New York.
Pulling together all the funds from my freelance writing, I hired a lawyer and paid him a retainer of $5,000. Little could I have realized that the firm I hired, headed by Charles Stillman, would ultimately charge me $28,000 for their services—and then sue me after the case was over for even more money!
During the grand jury process, the prosecutor, John D. Gordon III, explained to me that I was facing five years in jail for each of the two letters that I had supposedly sent, plus five years if I perjured myself, plus $15,000 in fines.
Then Gordon dropped the real bomb. After I truthfully testified that I had never touched or even seen the semi-literate letters that he presented before the grand jury (dated December 8 and December 13, 1972), he asked me: “Then how did your fingerprint get on one of them?”
I was so shocked I think I momentarily lost consciousness, because the room turned upside down. I (rightly) explained that the bomb threats could have been written on a blank piece of paper that I had touched, and threats typed afterwards by others.
But Gordon was unconvinced. On May 9th, 1973, I was indicted on three counts (two of sending two bomb threats through the mail and one for perjury for denying sending the threats) by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Ten days later I was arrested—even more humiliating—released on my own recognizance and barred from leaving the state without permission “Who’d want to go to New Jersey anyway?” I joked with my friends. But inside, I wasn’t laughing.
I went into a perpetual pit-of-thestomach panic state. I could barely write, and my bills, especially the legal ones, kept mounting. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, popped Valium like M&Ms, and drank way too much vodka.
Mostly, I worried obsessively about jail. About fines. About my career. Up to that point, I had been doing pretty well. I had four books out or soon to come out, by the time I was thirty: The Medical Detectives, a book on forensic medicine that today would probably have been a best-seller; a children’s book; and a book on Puerto Ricans in New York.
But once the story of my trial came out, what editor would give an assignment to a writer accused of sending bomb threats to the people she wrote about? I had wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old, which is why it was so painful when it appeared that my career was about to be over. I was also very concerned about my parents. They had adopted me from an orphanage in Belgium when I was six, and I had always tried to make them proud. However, I feared that soon they would be humiliated by the allegations made during the trial.
I knew the prosecutors would stop at nothing to dig up potentially embarrassing details of my private life and I imagined that I’d be fodder for the tabloids during the trial, which was predicted to last three weeks. I volunteered to take lie-detector tests to prove my innocence. But they returned contradictory and inconclusive results. Not surprisingly, the tests also showed me to be highly stressed.
My depression became so bad that the man I had planned to marry, a lawyer named Bob Straus, left me early that summer. Most of my friends also stopped calling. Fortunately, an editor friend at the New York Times stuck by me and kept me on the phone for hours to stop me from continuing to take the entire bottle of Valium I had started the night of my thirtieth birthday. Another loyal friend was a new one, an understanding young man named Jerry Levin,a short smiling readhead, who moved in with me late that summer.
Since I was too depressed to go out much, he did my errands and walked my dog while I compulsively watched the Watergate hearings. Occasionally, he would get me to go up to the rooftop pool with him at night when no one was there. He would leap up to the ledge surrounding the pool and try to get me to join him.
“You have to be brave if you’re going to take on those bastards,” he’d say. But I huddled below, a shadow of my former adventurous self. I even became suspicious of him, and when I questioned him, Jerry turned on me, saying I had become so totally paranoid that I could no longer even trust my closest friend. I knew he was right, but it didn’t help the hurt when he walked out of my life, leaving me alone to face the trial.
I hired a private investigator, Anthony Pelicano—the same one currently being held in federal detention in Los Angeles while he awaits trial for racketeering and conspiracy. He accomplished nothing on my behalf. Meanwhile, the court date, October 31, 1973, was drawing near.
The ledge surrounding the rooftop pool of her apartment building:
Shortly beforehand, a university professor and researcher from Scotland, a man by the name of Dr. Roy Wallis came to interview me as part of a book he was writing on Scientology. Prior to meeting with me, he had interviewed L. Ron Hubbard, Jr. During their meeting, Junior boastfully showed Wallis a copy of a letter he had written to his father, L. Ron Hubbard Sr., right before my frameup, saying that with one stroke, he could “bring the enemy to their [sic] knees.”
Wallis, who’d been unaware of my impending trial when he came to see me brought this letter and more to the U.S. Attorney’s office, which had a growing file on Scientology’s “fair game law”: that an “‘enemy’ of Scientology”—such as me—”May be…injured by any means by any Scientologist…May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”
Despite this pile of evidence, once the government arrests someone, it doesn’t tend to back off. Nor do prosecutors like to miss out on high-publicity cases. So, in a last-ditch effort, I started searching for a doctor to give me a truth-serum test.
At a mere 83 pounds—fifteen pounds lighter than my already low normal weight and with my health horribly off kilter—I was told that I could die from the anesthesia. But it was my only hope. I honestly planned to kill myself before the trial rather than humiliate myself and my parents once the news stories came out. (Up to this point, the press had not caught wind of the upcoming trial, so there had been no advance publicity.)
Finally, neurologist Dr. David Coddon, of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, agreed to administer the serum. After several hours of questioning me while I was out, he was so convinced I was innocent, that he said not only would he testify for me, but that he would chain himself to the courthouse steps if they proceeded with this case. (Just what I needed; more publicity!)
On Halloween day, 1973, the government canceled the trial. Between the expert advice of Coddon, an affidavit from Wallis and the information we had supplied on “fair game,” the government apparently decided that a victory for the prosecution was far from guaranteed. The federal attorneys agreed to file a nolle prosequi, on the condition that I agree to have psychotherapy for a year which I did. By the way, later, the Scientologists broke into one of my shrink's offices and stole my records of what I had said. Nice, eh?.And on September 16, 1975, the nolle prosequi was filed.
But this story was hardly over. During the next four years, I remained broke and bitter, writing articles for the National Enquirer to get out of debt. In July 1977, I was thrilled—and shocked—to read front-page stories in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and others, that indicated the truth might finally be about to come out.
Acting on an inside tip, the FBI had raided three Scientology offices and seized internal memos and “dirty trick” papers. I rejoiced that the truth—my innocence— would at last be known. But it took me four frustrating years (during which time I wrangled with more lawyers and unscrupulous private investigators than I care to count) before I finally saw those documents. Scientology fought tooth and nail to prevent the documents from being seen by the public. They knew that such an outcome would be devastating publicity-wise and lawsuit-wise.
But my tenacity paid off. And when I finally reviewed the documents, as I later told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: “Scientology turned out to be worse than anything I ever said or even imagined.” The seized papers contained hundreds of dirty tricks, plots and details of infiltration, wiretapping and pretexting by Scientologists against government agencies (FBI, IRS, and so on) who had angered them.
There were also details of attacks against general critics (including Clearwater, Florida, mayor Gabriel Cazares, who had dared to speak out); the press (The St. Petersburg Times especially) and of course me, since I was the most outspoken critic of Scientology in America. The most bizarre documents referred to “Operation Freakout.” Its goal, they wrote, was to “get P.C., [me] incarcerated in a mental institution or jail or at least to hit her so hard that she drops her attacks.” It appeared that after the first frameup had failed to silence me or land me in prison, they plotted again to make it look like I was making bomb threats against Scientology and others. Sounding eerily like the ‘72 letters, these new missives were going to go out to Scientology, to Henry Kissinger, to Arab embassies (because I’m Jewish) and also to a Laundromat! Go figure.
Other pages in the documents also brought back unhappy memories. There was a strange diary of what I did each day during the “frame-up” period, and how close I was to suicide. “Wouldn’t that be great for Scientology?” the person wrote. And then I realized the writer could only have been Jerry Levin. He had to have been a Scientologist, someone who infiltrated my life specifically to spy on me and help Scientology set me up.He and his friends, Paula Tyler and a woman calling herself Margie Shepherd (may be Linda Kramer from Boston, who married and is Linda Kobern), had been in and out of my old apartment back during that time period and had access to paper on which someone could have obtained my fingerprint and then typed the threats
Furthermore, I’ve always wondered why he wanted me to go up on that ledge with him, thirty-three stories above the ground. Did he plan to push me off? If he had, everyone would have simply assumed that—in my depressed state of mind—I had committed suicide. Operation Freakout indeed.
As the ‘70s came to a close, a grand jury in New York spent three years investigating my frame-up. Although I cooperated with the FBI, the case went nowhere because the Scientologists steadfastly refused to talk. Bizarrely, they pleaded the First—not the Fifth— Amendment, claiming freedom of religion. One Scientologist, Charles Batdorf, was jailed for refusal to speak about my frame-up.
But a simultaneous Washington, D.C., grand jury (and trial) ultimately led to jail sentences for eleven Scientologists who were involved in wiretapping, infiltration and theft of government documents. Some of those who were jailed had also been involved in the plots and actions against me.
In 1981, I initiated my own action against Scientology, for their frame-up of me and for their years of harassment. In 1985, Scientology and I reached an “amicable” settlement of all lawsuits. It was engineered by Albert Podell, a brilliant New York lawyer. Through him, I became reacquainted with Paul Noble, a New York TV producer, whom I had dated when I was in my twenties, long before any of this had happened. Paul and I have been very happily married for nineteen years now. I have written eleven more books, do some travel writing as well as a newspaper column on pets. While it’s not as “glamorous” as investigative reporting, it’s a nice change of pace. Dogs don’t harass and cats don’t sue.
I also quit smoking, barely drink, and try to forget what happened. Try. But when I turn on the news or my e-mail, I’m sometimes reminded of the years of torment I endured. I may read about prosecutor Nifong who went after the innocent Duke soccer player and I am reminded of what another prosecutor did to an innocent person -- me. Or I'll get an e-mail from my friend and Scientology critic Arnie Lerma, telling me he just found out that Paula Tyler is still in the group, or that Margie Shepherd's real name was Linda ___ and her married name is ____ and she's still a member in Boston. Or someone will send me an affidavit, like Margery Wakefield's
“The second murder that I heard planned was of Paulette Cooper, who had written a book critical of Scientology, and they were planning to shoot her…” Other names keep bringing me back as well. My useless private investigator Anthony Pellicano, of course, is all over the news. My former attorney Charles Stillman defends big-name clients, including the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Bob Straus, the boyfriend who left me, went on to head a large New York organization for judicial misconduct. Albert Podell is still my family lawyer. John D. Gordon III is with Morgan Lewis. Dr. David Coddon died in 2002. L. Ron Hubbard Jr., who died in 1992, ultimately saw his late father’s organization for what it was (though he later recanted some of his outspoken comments against the church). Bruce Brotman retired from the FBI and made negative news stories in 2002 when, as the incoming director of security at Louisville International Airport, he refused to go through the airport’s security system, reportedly saying, “I make the rules.” Dr. Roy Wallis committed suicide in 1990. And while I’ve never heard further of James Meisler or Charles Batdorf, I heard that Jerry Levin—which was definitely not his real name—is still a Scientologist and living in England.
One of the last major exposés on Scientology was a Time magazine cover story, in 1991. Scientology sued and lost, though it reportedly cost the publisher seven million dollars to successfully defend the case, which Scientology pursued on and off for a decade before finally resting when the U.S. Supreme Court refused, in 2001, to reinstate the case. Before and after the trial, the writer, extraordinary investigative reporter Richard Behar, was also miserably harassed. Unfortunately, my experiences and those of people like Behar, have had a chilling effect on press coverage of Scientology. (Would you write an exposé of Scientology after reading this?) That may be why they don’t seem to mind that people can read portions of my story on the Internet.
I do get a lot of e-mails and I have no doubt that some of the people who e-mail me are Scientologists trying to find out what I’m doing concerning them. But since I haven’t been writing about Scientology, they’ve pretty much left me alone.
Am I worried that they’ll start up against me as a result of this article? Yes. But thanks to the Internet, it’s harder for them to get away with that sort of harassment— with me or with anyone else.
As for me, I often wish I had never ever heard the word “Scientology.” But given the same situation, I would still do it all over again. I would not have been capable of remaining quiet, because I learned too many scary things and talked to too many people who were being hurt.
However, I do wish I had remained quiet in another way—and not talked with others about what I was doing to fight Scientology. I shouldn’t have let anyone near me or into my apartment unless I knew them well. My mistake was being too trusting and too talkative.
I sometimes get discouraged because Scientology gets so much assistance and publicity from people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. At these times, I wonder whether it was worth wrecking my life when Scientology seems so powerful again. But then I remind myself that I did reach and help a lot of people. My book sold 154,000 copies (with the exception of a small advance, I never received a dime from it, and legal actions and loss of income cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars) and each copy appears to have been read by many people. In addition, it’s now available free on the Internet and in several languages.
Some of the people that I helped have contacted me, and that gives me satisfaction. About once a week I receive an email from someone who read my book, or read on the Internet how I stood up to Scientology and the person will write to tell me that I helped them.
My favorite was the man in his fifties who wanted me to know that years ago, after learning the truth about Scientology from my work, he left the organization, married, has four children (two are twins) and runs a computer company employing forty people. He feels that I am responsible for the happiness he now enjoys. That reminded me of why I did what I did and why journalists do what they do: we try to tell the truth so that we can help others.
Unfortunately, we sometimes pay a terrible price for it.
Next: Tom Cruise as Goebbels
Webmaster note: Anyone with additional information about the scientology perpetrators of Operation Freakout - James Meisler -- the complainant -- Charles Batdorf, Jerry Levin , Paula Tyler and a Margie Shepherd, may be Linda Kramer from Boston, who married and is Linda Kobern please contact Arnie Lerma
Home| F.A.Q.'s | Legal | News | Contact us | Search this site