CORPUS CHRISTI — For a struggling videographer, the offer was too good to pass up: $2,000 a week to help document the activities of a former high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology.
Bert Leahy said the phone call came from David Statter, who said he was with Falcon Industries, doing a reality TV show about Ingleside on the Bay resident Mark "Marty" Rathbun.
Leahy agreed to meet to learn about the project. Leahy suggested Pier 99, near the Lexington Museum on the Bay. Halfway through the meal, Statter got a phone call.
"The caller says Marty's at the aquarium — not even 50 yards from where we were at," Leahy said.
"Do you have your gear?" Statter asked him.
Leahy chewed his shrimp. He thought the situation was weird. But $2,000 a week?
"I jumped in the Squirrel Buster van," Leahy said. "I haven't even met the guy 15 freaking minutes, he's driving my wife and daughter in his car and I'm sitting in the back of the Squirrel Buster van. I'm like what the (expletive) did I just do?"
Leahy spoke publicly for the first time since his brief stint in June with the Squirrel Busters, the group that has been following and filming Rathbun since April. Rathbun says the Squirrel Busters were sent by the Church of Scientology to harass him for speaking out about abuses in the church and for being one of the most vocal members of a growing group of independent Scientologists. Squirrel is the Scientology term for a heretic.
Leahy corroborates Rathbun's assertions, saying Squirrel Busters crew members told him their purpose was to make life miserable for Rathbun, turn neighbors against him, force him to relocate and goad him into violence so they could press charges against him.
Statter did not respond to requests for interviews at the phone number and email address Leahy provided.
Squirrel Busters producer John Allender did not respond to multiple messages seeking a response when the Caller-Times began covering their activities more than a month ago. When told more than a week ago that Leahy had spoken to the newspaper, Allender rejected a request for a telephone interview, saying he was too busy working on his production.
In responses to emailed questions, Allender said Leahy's statements that the crew was there to harass Rathbun are false.
Allender said the crew is following and filming Rathbun for a documentary because Rathbun is harming the other Scientology defectors who come to him for help. Rathbun's visitors who were interviewed for this article said he had helped them readjust to life outside the church after their friends, associates and family members still within the church stopped associating with them, part of what critics say is a disconnection policy within the church.
The church says there is no such policy and that members who disconnect from friends and family do so of their own free will.
Allender said Rathbun has bullied his crews, not the other way around, though Oscar Rivera, chief deputy of the San Patricio County Sheriff's Office, has said the crews are harassing Rathbun.
Allender, in an email, described Rathbun as a master of distorting the truth to foster a "hate campaign against his former religion."
But the accounts of Leahy, visitors to the Rathbun home, the police and neighbors suggest Rathbun and his wife were living quietly in Ingleside on the Bay until the Squirrel Busters arrived in April.
Rathbun's criticisms of the church stop short of an outright attack on the whole religion. Rathbun said he adheres to Scientology's underlying philosophies and, through his blog, he maintains communication with other independent Scientologists who have broken away from the organized church.
The Church of Scientology denies a connection to the Squirrel Busters. Meanwhile, the church has placed an ad to hire a reporter based in South Texas for its news publishing arm, Freedom Magazine. The church says the magazine focuses on human rights and social betterment, but recent stories have been devoted to debunking statements made by former church members and the journalists who write about them.
In confrontations documented in multiple videos and police reports, the Squirrel Busters have interrupted Rathbun and his wife at restaurants, confronted him at his doorstep while wearing head-mounted cameras and filmed him from a paddleboat in the canal behind his house. They routinely film in front of his home.
Allender confronted Rathbun at a rental car stand at a Los Angeles airport in June in an incident that both parties recorded. Rathbun said he hadn't informed anyone about his travel plans.
When Rathbun went to Lake Livingston in East Texas for a reunion with independent Scientologists from around the world, the Squirrel Busters took out ads on area radio stations calling Rathbun a squirrel.
But the Squirrel Busters don't always get their man. When Leahy and the team arrived at the aquarium that day in early June, Leahy said, Rathbun was gone.
A Good Offer
Leahy, 46, said he is not a Scientologist and never has worked for the church or groups affiliated with the church. He set out as a freelance videographer in the early 1990s after taking some film courses at a Dallas-area college. He and his wife, a teacher, independently produced "I-35: Heartbreak and Healing on an American Highway," a documentary about the aftermath of high-profile tragedies in cities along Interstate 35.
Leahy said he has struggled with a recovery from back surgery and with chronic pain that through the years made it difficult for him to keep up his business. He has earned money shooting weddings and high school basketball games, but establishing a client base has been difficult. Statter's call, with the promise of good money and work he could add to his résumé, seemed like just what he needed.
After missing Rathbun at the aquarium, the crew received word later that evening that Rathbun was fishing with some friends, Leahy said. Four Squirrel Busters approached the private property sign near Rathbun's fishing spot.
"They were really good about not trespassing," Leahy said.
According to police reports, the Squirrel Busters have obtained plats of Rathbun's property so they can stand at the edge of his property line when they confront him at his home. One video shows a Squirrel Buster, clad in the group's trademark sky-blue shirt depicting Rathbun's head attached to a squirrel's body, holding a map or drawing and surveying the property line in front of Rathbun's home.
At the fishing spot, they peppered Rathbun with questions about whether he is certified to give audits and whether his e-meter is registered. Auditing is a form of counseling in Scientology, conducted by a trained counselor who gauges a person's emotional responses on an e-meter, a device that measures electrical activity through a person's skin.
"I have no idea what these people are talking about, but I'm just recording," Leahy said.
As Rathbun approached, crew members told Leahy to stand in his way, let Rathbun push him so the Squirrel Busters could press charges. Rathbun shuffled through the group.
"He barely touches one girl and she's like, 'Oh my God, you just pushed me,' " Leahy recalled. "Give her an Academy Award."
Allender denied the crew provoked Rathbun.
When Leahy returned to his hotel room, he started researching Scientology. He found previous video of the Squirrel Busters accosting Rathbun at his home.
Leahy was conflicted, but the money was so good.
"At $2,000 a week, I'm not going to complain as long as it's not illegal."
On Leahy's second day on the job, the day after the confrontation at the fishing spot, Leahy met Statter in Statter's hotel room, he said.
"He had like a control station, like a war room," Leahy said. "Laptops, GPS's, paperwork. He's on the phone saying I need to order 55 more Squirrel Busters hats. He was constantly on the phone to people in Los Angeles."
In the room, Leahy grew increasingly worried with what he saw. He wondered why he had been allowed into this inner circle. But he tried to stay calm and buddy up to the group. He asked Statter about the overall goal.
"Dave flat-out said our goal is to make Marty's life a living hell," Leahy said. "That's a quote. He never said 'stalk,' but he said make Marty's life a living hell with every means possible of impeding his everyday living, and make it so miserable for him and his neighbors that his neighbors will want him to move."
But many neighbors support the Rathbuns. Several have erected no trespassing signs at their homes that say the Squirrel Busters aren't welcome. And they angrily have told the City Council they don't like the group riding around in its golf cart and passing out anti-Rathbun pamphlets. Mayor Howard Gillespie said that although he has received complaints about the Squirrel Busters, he hasn't heard of anyone supporting them.
Leahy said he asked the Squirrel Busters what Rathbun would have to do to make the harassment stop.
"What it boiled down to is they're very upset with Marty because he's auditing people for a lot of money — $2,000 to $5,000 an hour to audit them," Leahy said.
Rathbun said he never talks money with former church members who come to him for auditing after they leave the organized church. He accepts donations if offered, but he estimates that for a third to a fourth of his auditing, he gets nothing. He declined to give an exact tally of his income, but said he would offer full financial disclosure if the Squirrel Busters would do the same.
Among his gripes with the church is that members are asked to give hundreds or thousands of dollars for auditing and study materials at each level of the bridge, a term for the path to spiritual advancement in Scientology. Multiple news organizations, including The New Yorker, the St. Petersburg Times and CNN, have documented the claims of former members that advancing to high levels of the bridge costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The church says its requested donations for courses start at $50 and could never reach that much.
Laura Ann Wilson, 55, of Midland, is a church defector who says she first came to Rathbun in March, looking for help adjusting to life outside the church. She joined when she was 7.
She said Rathbun never spoke about money or implied that he expected anything in return for his help. She stayed in an apartment at the Rathbuns' home for five nights. They fed her three times a day. She decided to donate to the Rathbuns because she knows they aren't working and that others who visit them, fresh out of the church and with few job prospects or social connections, don't have money to give. It's the same situation in which Rathbun found himself when he defected.
Wilson could afford to give because her husband, also a former church member, is now an oil field services worker.
"We gave him what we thought was generous, but it was a lot less than what we would have ever paid the church," she said. She wouldn't say exactly how much she gave for fear of offending others who could not afford to give.
Wilson again visited the Rathbuns in June, this time with her husband. They were returning from fishing with them when Leahy and the Squirrel Busters showed up. Wilson confirmed Leahy's account of the incident. The Squirrel Busters confronted her and the Rathbuns three times in all during their June visit, Wilson said. Two of the encounters are on video.
Wilson said it once bothered her to see Scientologists doing what the Squirrel Busters are doing.
"I've gone past the point of being shocked and the point of being angry, and now I'm honestly just trying to move forward, because I don't really want to let them soak up my life any more than they already have."
Leahy donned his Squirrel Buster T-shirt and left the hotel in the van, headed for Rathbun's home.
In the cul-de-sac outside the house, Leahy noted that Bart Parr, a videographer working for the Squirrel Busters, was receiving instructions from someone who observed the situation from somewhere else. Two Squirrel Busters posed in front of a camera, said they were doing a new episode and wanted to ask Rathbun some questions.
Rathbun called police and filmed the incident.
When Leahy had to give his identification to the police, he hit his breaking point.
"I told Dave I'm probably gonna go ahead and head back to Allen," his hometown near Dallas.
Leahy found Rathbun's video of the incident online. He grew frantic, worried his appearance in the film could ruin future business prospects. Later, friends from Corpus Christi would see the video and call Leahy, thinking he was a Scientologist.
Leahy asked Statter to pay him for the work he had done so far. He got $900 for the three shoots — at the aquarium, the fishing spot and Rathbun's cul-de-sac.
For the past month, Leahy has been patching things up with Rathbun, apologizing for his role in the Squirrel Busters, and trying to help Rathbun build a case against them. Authorities have said the Squirrel Busters haven't broken any laws. On the other hand, a theft case they tried to press against Rathbun, when he ripped away their microphone in a moment of frustration, was rejected by the county attorney.
Leahy said he went public because he wanted to clear his name and help Rathbun.
Rathbun acknowledges he has brought this scrutiny upon himself, not only because he defected from the church, but because he once directed similar activities from within it, targeting former members. It is only fitting, he says, that the monster he helped create has turned on him.
But the people who come to see him deserve no such treatment, he says.
This includes Michael Fairman, a television and film actor and former church member who said he reached OT-VII, one of the highest levels of spiritual advancement in the church.
Fairman, 77, stayed with the Rathbuns for four days after Thanksgiving in 2010. Like Wilson, he says Rathbun never asked him for money. He donated $1,000 anyway.
"I'm used to paying $7,800 for 12½ hours of auditing," Fairman said.
He said he wants people to know Rathbun is harmless. But that doesn't mean the visit to Ingleside on the Bay didn't cost Fairman. When he returned home, he said, church officials confronted him and told him they knew he had visited Rathbun. He'd be separated from the church. Most of his friends, also Scientologists, stopped talking to him.
Fairman said he wants people to know the Squirrel Busters don't represent all that is Scientology.
"There's a good part of Scientology that I think works," he said. "I've now looked into the history of (church founder L. Ron) Hubbard and found some interesting things about him. I'm looking to get the whole picture. For 23 years, I was just blind."