Clearwater – the town that Scientology built
(Daily Mail.com) CLEARWATER, Fla. – The anti-Scientology documentary Going Clear is shocking the world with its devastating insight into the inner workings of this most secret of religions.
The lives of Scientologists, especially hardcore Sea Org members – the top of the Scientology food chain – seems like another strange universe.
But for one area of Florida, Scientology’s impact has been devastating. It’s where it has built its headquarters and rules the place with an iron fist. The beautiful resort of Clearwater has millions of tourists every single year – but few ever set foot in the downtown area.
Even residents steer clear and avoid annoying the city’s real power brokers. Welcome to Scientologyville. It’s taken over the city in the last forty years and now owns dozens of buildings worth well in excess of half a billion dollars.
City officials and the Church have their clashes, the most recent one over the town’s desire to build an aquarium in the town center.
City Commissioner Karen Seel told the Tampa Bay Times ’I kept asking: “Why are you so against the aquarium?” I never got what I considered to be a good answer. After the meeting I thought and thought, and it’s because they want the rest of downtown for expansion. I think that’s their purpose.’
Founder L. Ron Hubbard arrived in the town in 1975 to begin ‘Project Normandy’, the code name for a top secret Church of Scientology operation to take over the city.
Local politicians, police and residents have long given up fighting Scientology.
Now the central city is mostly deserted apart from thousands of uniformed Sea Org members – the ultra devoted members of Scientology who have signed one-billion year contracts that bind themselves to to the Church.
Daily Mail Online’s extraordinary on-the-ground and aerial images show the influence Scientology has in the town.
According to local newspaper the St Petersburg Times, the Church owns 67 buildings over ten square miles, which includes motels, training centers, offices for ‘Special Affairs’ and ‘religious retreats’ for visiting Scientologists, who often pay upwards of $100,000 each for its services.
The church has denied that there are fixed fees, adding that ‘Donations requested for ‘courses’ at Church of Scientology begin at $50 and could never possibly reach the amount suggested.’
The Scientologists even own a working mill, which makes all the furniture and equipment used in their offices.
But the grandest of all the buildings is the multi-million dollar Super Powers building – or Flag as its known to followers – which opened in 2013 with Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kelly Preston front and center at the dedication ceremony.
Church followers are charged thousands of dollars for special courses, held in the Super Powers building, which will give them super human powers, they are told.
Cruise has spent months at a time at Clearwater – and was spotted twice there last year. Scientology celebrities have even had homes built close to HQ, including Kirstie Alley and John Travolta.
In an exclusive Daily Mail Online interview, ex-Scientologist Mike Rinder details what really goes on in town. He served on its Board of Directors and was executive director of its office of special affairs, overseeing the corporate, legal and public relations matters of the Church at the international level.
Rinder defected in 2007 and is now considered a ‘Suppressive Person’. He left his mother, father, wife and two kids to flee from the Church and is an outspoken critic.
‘Clearwater is extremely important,’ he says. ‘It has always been Scientology-ville since Hubbard first descended on it. It’s the spiritual HQ of Scientology and the biggest money-making source internationally for them.
‘It represents Scientology to the rest of the world.
‘Clearwater should have a prosperous, flourishing downtown, but instead it’s the dead zone. People steer clear of it because it’s Zombie Land. The generally impression of Scientology to them is sinister and secretive and they don’t want to go anywhere near it.
‘So they just stay away. Most of them are too afraid to say anything critical as they fear repercussions. So Scientology can do what it wants in Clearwater.
‘Hundreds of millions of dollars go through Clearwater each year,’ claims Rinder, ‘at least $2 million a week. Every Scientologist around the world has to go to Clearwater to do courses. Some of the members come here for years and pay up to $1.5 million each.
‘The Church collectively has cash and assets well in excess of $2 billion. People would be astonished what real estate they own. It’s become more like a real estate investment organization.’
Sea Org members, who number in the thousands, are housed in special compounds, which are surrounded by high trees and massive security gates. They are ferried in and out of their compounds in ‘Flag Buses’.
They often work over a hundred hours a week for less than $50 a month. The Church has even set up a school for Sea Org children called Clearwater Academy, which uses educational beliefs set up by founder Hubbard.
‘The Sea Org in Clearwater live in a controlled environment. They live for the Church full-time. Many live in a compound called Hacienda Gardens,’ says Rinder.
‘It looks okay from the outside, but then you see it’s a fortress. There may be a basketball court and swimming pool on campus but it’ll be the most underused in Florida, as everyone is working. If you are allowed a car, you’ll only be allowed to travel from the campus to another Scientology building. If you get stuck in traffic, they’ll be on the lookout for you.
‘The roles of Sea Org members vary in Clearwater such as auditors, supervisors, executives, cooks, trainers, housemaids, drivers, gardeners, and lots of money collectors,’ explains Rinder.
If you’re married, then you’ll be sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other couples, one will be in the living room. If you’re single, then there’s six people in each room in bunk beds, including the living room.
‘They’re earning $50 a week, seven days a week where the day starts at seven in the morning and ends at midnight. You never get to see your family. That’s how it was for me. I was there from 1973 to 2007, on and off in Clearwater.
‘I very rarely saw my kids and wife for many, many years out of that time. My wife and I were often in separate locations.
‘It’s an exclusive and elite group of people who rise above that level. Even David Miscavige, the Church’s leader, stays at the Hacienda, but there is a section of those apartments devoted to him.
‘He has two whole two-bedroom apartments just for his bedroom. Below that he has his staff quarters and workout room.’
It’s the Super Powers building that holds the most fascination to outsiders due to the activities that go on there. It’s one of the reasons why famous Scientology celebrities have built homes there, according to Rinder.
‘The celebrities have to come here, that’s why some of them have houses. Lisa Marie Presley had one, Kirstie Alley has one and John Travolta isn’t too far away.’
Emmy-award winning film director Mark Bunker, a Scientology critic for the last fifteen years, explains more about Scientology and Super Powers building.
He says: ‘The Super Powers building is this center for people who do the Super Power Rundowns, these are a series of routines which are meant to give you super human powers.
‘There are things like the wall of smells, which has 47 different smells, where you can open up a scent jar and perceive one scent from another.
‘There’s a thing called the oiliness table.
‘They also have some sort of gyroscope device that you get spun around everywhere and still be able to orientate yourself. They have an entire floor made up of a running track with a pole in the middle of it, where you pay for the right to run in a circle for hours until you have a certain cognition or realization of what you’ve done wrong.
‘It’s astonishing the things they do, which people have to pay for.’
Bunker knows more than most the levels Scientology will go to defend itself.
He purposely based himself in Clearwater to protest against the Church. He first came into town in 1999 with multi-millionaire business Bob Minton to set up the Lisa McPherson Trust, which was to help Scientologists in danger, after she died while in the care of Scientology for 17 days.
Mark adds: ‘I had read about how Scientology had come to town. They had all these plans to take over.
‘I was still quite surprised how afraid people were to speak about Scientology. They came to me in hushed tones and said: ‘I’m glad you’re here’, but were too afraid to protest themselves.’
Hubbard’s plot to takeover the town in ‘Operation Normandy’ began in the early 70s. The mayor at the time, Gabe Cazares, called it ‘the occupation of Clearwater.’
The organization used a front group called the United Churches of Florida to purchase the Fort Harrison Hotel, which it made it then made its headquarters. Two years later, an FBI raid found documents which stated the group’s aim ’to penetrate and handle in order to establish area control.’ The document goes on to say its ‘Major Target’ is ‘To fully investigate the Clearwater city and county area so we can distinguish our friends from our enemies and handle as needed.’
Bunker explains:: ‘They came into town and paid cash for two buildings – the old Clearwater Bank Building and Fort Harrison Hotel. At first people were excited that some religious order was coming in and sprucing up the area and hotel.
‘Then there was something suspicious about it, as suddenly there were armed men with machine guns on top of the Fort Harrison Hotel. People were asking: ‘What sort of Church is this?’ When the FBI raided their offices, they found plans to take over the city.
‘Scientologists were meant to get themselves in every job and function in the city – from the police to newspapers to council – and leverage power. It eventually led to the arrest and conviction of the top ten people in Scientology including Hubbard’s wife Mary. Hubbard himself escaped arrest and went into hiding for the last ten years of his life in the desert.
Bunker and the Church have been clashing for years and it even got an injunction against him in 1999, which stated that he and any Scientologist had to be more than ten feet away from each other. Mark claims that he’s been followed by Scientology for years and they even distributed fliers around his neighborhood.
‘The people of Clearwater don’t want to come downtown, it’s the furthest thing from warm and welcoming. If you walk down there and have a camera, they will follow you everywhere. If they’re suspicious of you, then they’re going to follow you home to find out why you dared to take a picture of their building,’ says
‘On my cell phone, I have the camera ready in case Scientology are following me, I’ve heard from people that they have private investigators parked down my street. I try not to worry about them. All the fear I had stopped the moment I spoke up the first time. Having a camera is the most important part of my protection.
‘Back in 1999, they came to picket my house, then gave fliers to my neighbors. I had a call from one asking if I was Mark Bunker and she said: ‘I’m supposed to fear you.’ I just started laughing. She had got this flier with my phone number on it, saying neighbors beware Mark Bunker is not who you think he is.
‘It says I’m a religious bigot, but thankfully it said at the end of the note that it came from the Church of Scientology. They don’t usually do that. Instead of instilling fear, we had a good laugh about it.
Now Bunker’s is determined that Scientology’s power in the town is challenged and says he will even run for Council to make sure that they don’t always get what they want.
He adds: ‘I feel it’s important for somebody to speak out. I feel this is a good time to stick my nose in and stand up at city council meetings to say how Scientology is affecting people around the world and all the actions are being directed from Clearwater. People should be outraged by it and not make it easier for them to do this. Potentially down the road, I’ll run for political office myself.’