Last summer, we broke the news that Leah Remini had ditched Scientology. Part of the surprising news of her defection was the detail that Leah had dared to file a “Knowledge Report” about ethical violations by David Miscavige, the leader of the church. This would be something like a Catholic turning in the Pope to the Vatican. A month later, we reported that Leah had filed a missing-person report on Shelly Miscavige with the Los Angeles Police Department. Remini had aimed another dart directly at David Miscavige, forcing the LAPD and the world’s press to ask questions about the church leader’s wife, who vanished in late 2005.
Since then, however, Leah Remini’s criticism of Scientology and its leader has been more subtle. After she joined the cast of Dancing with the Stars, for example, she took advantage of that huge media platform to skewer Scientology again — but in the form of an interpretive dance. Our sources told us that Leah was under a lot of pressure by her professional advisers to stop talking about her defection publicly and concentrate on reviving her acting career. (She now has a recurring role on TV Land’s The Exes.)
But Leah hasn’t given up taking swings at Miscavige and his policies.
In December, she posted a photograph on Twitter that contained a clear message for Miscavige regarding Scientology’s policy of “disconnection,” which has cost Leah many of her former friends in the church.
In the photo, she’s posing with two other women, and Leah captioned it, “This is what the holiday season is all about! Have known these girls for over 20 years! Reconnecting is oh so nice!”
We’ve spent some time learning about those two women, which helped us understand why there’s no question Leah was sending a message to Scientology when she posted it.
The woman on the left side of the photo is Trisha Conley, whose parents, Jim and Kaye Conley, notified Trisha in November that they were disconnecting from her.
Trisha’s friends tell us that she left Scientology about eight years ago, but did so quietly because her family is still so involved and because some of them are so prominent in the movement. Both of her parents, for example, were LRH Pers PRO — that’s Scientology lingo which means that Jim and Kaye Conley worked on burnishing the image of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard through public relations efforts. Kaye’s sister Cherie, meanwhile, is the mother of Kate Ceberano.
That makes Trisha first cousins with probably the most famous Scientologist in Australia, where Ceberano is a well known singer.
Trisha herself is from Melbourne, where she was raised until her parents joined Scientology’s “Sea Organization.” Trisha joined too, and signed the Sea Org’s billion-year contract. She was nine years old.
By eleven, we’re told, Trisha was cleaning the rooms where David and Shelly Miscavige were living. It was also around that time that Trisha’s mother Kaye “blew” — Scientology jargon for escaping — and was then assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force. The RPF is the Sea Org’s version of a prison detail, and Kaye was assigned to sleep in a parking garage on the south side of Fountain Avenue, across the street from Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters, which is an old hospital, the Cedars of Lebanon. Joining her in the parking garage was her 11-year-old daughter, Trisha, who also went into the RPF to stay near her mother. (And sleeping in a parking garage while on the RPF will sound familiar to those who know the story of Nancy Many, who spent her RPF stint in a Florida parking garage while she was five months pregnant.)
Three years later, when she was 14, Trisha was out of the Sea Org, and she became increasingly difficult for her parents to handle. She ended up at the notorious Mace-Kingsley ranch in Palmdale, California, where many former Scientologist children have reported hellish conditions and discipline. (The Palmdale facility was closed years ago.)
In her 20s, Trisha rededicated herself to moving up Scientology’s “Bridge” of courses, and eventually reached Operating Thetan Level Four — OT 8 is the top course. Eventually, she started to become disillusioned. (In online records of Scientology course completions, she’s listed as “Trish Conley,” and her friends called her “Trish” in our phone conversations, but at her Facebook page, Conley lists her name as “Trisha,” so we’ve used that spelling here. Trisha herself declined to speak for this article.)
Her good friend Chrissie Weightman tells us that Trisha was unhappy about how she’d been treated during a 2005 visit to “Flag,” Scientology’s spiritual mecca in Clearwater, Florida. And then the publication of the “Basics” in 2007 was the final step that pushed Trisha away from Scientology, just as it was for many others.
That year, Scientology leader David Miscavige announced that he had produced new versions of L. Ron Hubbard’s essential texts and lectures — the Basics — and required all members to buy copies at $3,000 per set. Weightman said Trisha told a vivid story of her father hunting her down on L. Ron Hubbard Way in Los Angeles after the Basics were announced, insisting that Trisha buy a set for herself, a set for her young daughter, a set for her then husband, and two more sets to donate to libraries. She refused, and Chrissie says it was clear she was embarrassed for her father.
Chrissie herself decided to leave the church in 2009, and over the next few years, it was her friendship with Trisha that increasingly became an issue for Trisha’s parents. Especially because Chrissie was also talking with Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, and Marc and Claire Headley — all former church officials who had been going public with their stories of escaping Scientology. (Weightman lives in Colorado, very near the Headleys.)
Rinder tells us he was also close to Trisha Conley from many years before — it was Trisha who found that Rinder’s then eight-year-old daughter Taryn had been seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver near Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters. Trisha visited the girl in the hospital every day, and Rinder says he credits Trisha with saving his daughter’s life. (After Rinder left Scientology in 2007, his former wife and his children, including Taryn, disconnected from him.)
Despite pressure from her parents, Trisha refused to give up her friendships with Rinder or with Chrissie Weightman. Last fall, Trisha’s parents flew from Australia to visit her in Los Angeles, and Chrissie says they spent more time arguing with Trisha about being in contact with the wrong people than sightseeing. When Trisha refused to break off contact with Weightman, her parents sent her formal messages announcing that they were cutting her out of their lives.
As we’ve described many times, disconnection is one of Scientology’s most toxic policies. Scientologists are conditioned to believe that only as members of the church in good standing will their eternities be ensured, and that loyalty to the group is more important than just about anything else. When a member is expelled — “declared” a “suppressive person” in church language — every other member must disconnect, cutting off all ties, or they risk being declared SPs themselves. And that’s true even if disconnecting from an SP means ripping apart a family. So because Trisha was connected to SPs like Mike Rinder through her friend Chrissie Weightman, her parents ordered her to cut off all ties from Chrissie. When she refused, her own parents turned against her.
After her defection became public Leah Remini told TV hosts Ellen Degeneres and Barbara Walters that she was suddenly losing friends of more than 20 years who were ordered to disconnect from her by the church. But she was fortunate enough to have convinced her family to leave the church with her so Scientology couldn’t split them up through disconnection. Like other former church members, however, after losing friends who remained loyal to Miscavige, she’s reconnected with other people she knew inside.
The other woman in the photograph with Leah Remini is Sherry Ollins. Her maiden name is Lewis.
Sherry’s brother is Stefan Lewis, who later changed his name to Stefan Castle. He and his wife Tanja were the players in one of the most dramatic stories of disconnection and divorce, told movingly in Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, Inside Scientology. KABC Channel 7 in Los Angeles later put together an excellent piece about the same story.
According to Reitman, Scientology leader David Miscavige had made Tanja, who was very attractive, one of the women who served him personally at Scientology’s 500-acre International Base near Hemet, California. As Miscavige kept Tanja near him, Stefan found it more and more difficult to see his wife. He was eventually transferred to Los Angeles and put in the RPF. Meanwhile, Tanja was put under intense pressure to divorce him. She eventually did, but Stefan believed that it wasn’t something she would have done on her own. He then began to plot a way to get a message to her, hoping to let her know that he would help get her out of the base, which is ringed by a security fence with inward-facing spikes. Stefan hit on a brilliant ploy. He knew that the only mail that women at the base received which was not opened by security guards were the things they ordered from Victoria’s Secret. So Stefan mailed a throwaway cell phone in a Victoria’s Secret box with a message, asking Tanja to call a particular number. It worked, she called, and he learned that she still wanted to be with him. He then set up an escape plan for her.
Sherry Lewis’s brother, in other words, foiled David Miscavige’s plans to wreck a marriage. And by posing with her in a photograph, Leah Remini must have known she was sending Miscavige a powerful message. On her other side was a woman whose family is among the most important for Scientology in Australia, and who recently experienced disconnection.
We asked Chrissie Weightman what she knows about the photo, and what message the three women were hoping to convey.
“They really wanted a positive spin on it — that you may lose people when you leave Scientology, but you find out who your real friends are, and you get back friends you lost along the way,” she says.
“It was a bold step for all of them.”
Johnny Lewis making news again
A January feature story about Johnny Lewis in Los Angeles magazine is finally online in its entirety. It was penned by our old Village Voice colleague Bill Jensen, and it’s a cracking good read — so give it a look. Also, TMZ reported yesterday that Diane Marshall-Green filed a lawsuit, claiming that Lewis was the father of her child and asking that Johnny’s father, Scientologist Michael Lewis, be removed as the executor of his son’s estate.
More Scientology lawyer follies from Karen de la Carriere!
Another look at the world of litigating for Scientology from Karen de la Carreire, J. Swift, and Angry Gay Pope…
Posted by Tony Ortega on January 31, 2014 at 07:00
E-mail your tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.