On April 1, a story at Forbes.com caught us by surprise.
It was about a man named Aaron Smith-Levin, who made a living in an unusual way. Forbes writer Nathan Vardi explained that Smith-Levin was becoming known for the complex and deep research he did for hedge fund managers who desire intelligence about companies they might want to invest in.
And it was how Smith-Levin developed his skills that was particularly interesting. Though he never went to college, Smith-Levin learned his craft working for Kurt Feshbach, a prominent Scientologist and formerly the manager, with his two brothers, of a billion-dollar hedge fund in the 1980s and early 1990s. Learning the ropes at Feshbach’s Falcon Research, Smith-Levin had led investigations of multilevel-marketing enterprises, warning investors that they were scams. One investigation had even led to a crackdown by the Chinese government.
Last year, Smith-Levin left Feshbach’s firm and struck out on his own, calling his company OTG Research Group, for On The Ground.
The Forbes story made Aaron Smith-Levin sound like a rising star who had come out of nowhere, and with a background of his own in Scientology that he didn’t want to talk about. That was an irresistible combination for us, and we began asking around about him.
And almost immediately, we heard from his mother, who reminded us that we knew her and had written about her two years ago.
And then we realized that Aaron Smith-Levin, and his mother, were a much more fascinating story than we’d realized, one that involves some of the most devastating examples of Scientology “disconnection” that we’ve ever heard of.
And it’s a story that’s reaching its most dramatic chapter as we write these words.
Gayle Smith was originally from Iowa, and was living in New Jersey when she first heard about Scientology from a friend, who took her down to the “org” in Philadelphia.
“I started my purif that day and asked to join staff that week,” she says, referring to the “Purification Rundown,” a sauna-and-vitamins regimen that Scientologists believe “detoxifies” their bodies.
It was 1985, she was a single mother of five-year-old twin boys, Aaron and Collin, and she began what would be many years as a member of the Philly org staff.
“We had a nursery in the org, so my kids were in the building with me. It was a small building, and we had a nanny,” she says.
Gayle says that she probably would have made an even more serious commitment and signed a billion-year contract to become a member of Scientology’s “Sea Organization,” but as a young mother, she wasn’t allowed to join.
So she stayed on staff. She got married, had another son, and then divorced.
In 1993, church leader David Miscavige announced that Scientology had won its long war with the IRS, gaining tax exempt status and sparing the organization a billion-dollar tax bill.
Gayle says that her 12-year-old twins were so inspired after seeing Miscavige make that announcement, they began pleading with her about joining staff. So the three of them moved to the “Flag Land Base” in Clearwater, Florida so the two boys could begin training as auditors. (Gayle’s youngest son had gone to live with his father.)
Aaron became a dedicated Scientology worker and would remain on staff for 12 years before joining the Sea Org for an additional four years.
But Collin was another story.
“Collin left Flag during his training. He decided that he wanted to leave and he did. He went back up to Philadelphia and lived with my old friend, the one who had first got me into Scientology,” Gayle says. “Then Collin moved to Montana and lived with his aunt.”
And that’s when Gayle first found herself in a really difficult spot.
It was 2000 or 2001, and Gayle had returned to her job on staff at the Philadelphia org when she received a report about her son Collin from the church’s spy wing, the Office of Special Affairs.
Gayle was told that her son had moved from Montana to New Mexico, where he was living with his father and was taking college classes.
“It was reported to me that after he left Philly for Montana, he had become a church attacker. That he was posting information about Scientology on websites. Collin had never discussed this with me,” she says.
While taking college courses in Alburquerque, Collin had written a paper about how Scientology breaks up families with its “Disconnection” policy.
Somehow, Scientology’s spies knew about the paper, and they told Gayle that they had assigned a senior case supervisor to watch his situation.
“It was someone who had spent 14,000 hours of study. I knew what that meant,” she says. Scientology was taking Collin’s situation very seriously. Her son, Gayle was told, had told his friends that he intended to go on to law school and become an attorney specifically so he could help people litigate against Scientology.
Gayle knew what she was expected to do.
“I wrote to my son, and I told him that I wanted him to get in comm with the ethics officer at the org, and go ahead and voice his disagreements. I needed him to do that before he and I would be able to talk,” she says.
“My ex-husband was a Scientologist whose living depended on Scientology. My son was a Scientologist on staff,” Gayle says, explaining how much the threat of a son bent on hurting the church was a nightmare for her and her family. Gayle herself had put in countless hours transforming an org in bad shape into one that was running efficiently.
And now, all of it was threatened.
So Gayle did the only thing she thought she could do. She disconnected from her own son.
She explains that in the upside-down logic of Scientology, she believed she was actually doing something beneficial for Collin.
“[Scientology founder] L. Ron Hubbard says it’s the kindest thing you can do. To label them, so they have a chance at coming back. I can’t tell you what I was thinking at the time, that there was some magic that was going to happen if I did that. I was desperate. He was on the other side of the country, and I was trying to turn the Philadelphia org around. I didn’t know what else to do,” she says.
“It’s unforgivable. I’m on the other side of that now. And I’m unable to take it back. If I’d had the opportunity, I would have walked away.”
Instead, after turning her back on her son Collin, Gayle remained focused on her long days at the Philly org — from eight in the morning until 11 or 12 at night, seven days a week.
Year after year after year.
And then, in 2004, south of Albuquerque, Collin got into a car with two of his friends after they had been drinking. They were driving toward Socorro when the driver lost control going around a curve where the road was under construction. The car rolled several times. Collin was ejected and killed.
“By that time, Aaron had joined the Sea Org and was an executive at ASHO Day in Los Angeles. His dad called him, and Aaron called to tell me,” Gayle says.
She hadn’t talked to Collin since disconnecting from him several years earlier.
Gayle remembers the look on the faces of people at the New Mexico memorial. Looks of shock and recognition.
“People were freaking out when they saw Aaron. Collin’s friends never knew he had a twin brother.”
Three years later, Gayle’s faith in the Church of Scientology began to unravel.
“I started to become aware of things being very fucked up in the church in 2007 when the Basics were released, and there was an effort to make everyone do them,” she says.
People were being taken off of their training in order to purchase and study books that most of them already had earlier copies of.
Suddenly, the making of new auditors — which had always been one of the most important goals of Scientology — began to be abandoned.
We’ve heard from many people in Scientology who traced their disaffection with the church to Scientology leader David Miscavige’s intense push to have everyone sell sets of the books and lectures at $3,000 each. Over the next few years, Scientology became more about intense fundraising drives and less about auditing and training auditors. Meanwhile, Gayle found herself becoming the target of discipline actions that she believed were trumped up. After a “comm ev” — an internal justice court — Gayle was accused of causing unrest. “Enturbulation” in the jargon of the church.
“I was found guilty of being against ‘command intention,’ for non-support of the Ideal Org program, and causing enturbulation,” she says. “The church I came into was not the church it is today.”
For two years, she struggled to come to grips with the new environment. But then, she made a fateful decision.
“In 2009, I did the unthinkable. Twenty-four years after joining Scientology, I read my first entheta,” she says.
Theta is Scientology’s word for life force, and its opposite is entheta — usually describing negative things said about Scientology in the press or on television, which has a tendency to suppress theta. Scientologists know they must shield themselves from all bad press and negative information about the church on the Internet.
But now, Gayle allowed herself a look. She had seen a copy of Scientology’s propaganda magazine, Freedom, which was dedicated to railing about the St. Petersburg Times and a recent series it had done on the church. But the Freedom articles only made Gayle more curious to see the newspaper series itself.
She went online and read the series, “The Truth Rundown,” which featured top former church officials revealing the culture of violence in Scientology’s upper ranks.
For years, Gayle had looked up to Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, high church executives who worked as hard as anyone did in Scientology’s hard-charging culture. And now Rathbun and Rinder were talking publicly about David Miscavige living a lavish lifestyle while physically pummeling his subordinates and even putting them into a strange kind of office-prison.
“I was gobsmacked. All of a sudden everything began to make sense. It had been two years of darkness,” she says.
But as things came into focus, the sacrifices she had made became almost unbearable to think about.
She had given up most of her adult life to an organization she now had no confidence in.
And so much worse, she had turned her back on a son who, she knew now, she had come to agree with.
And now she had no way of telling him.
Gayle decided to move to Clearwater — not to be closer to Scientology’s ‘mecca,’ but because Aaron was living there.
While he was in the Sea Org, Aaron had met Heather Tozser and got married. And then they got pregnant, which was against the rules.
For years, young women in the Sea Org were pressured by Scientology to have abortions so they could keep working the 100-hour weeks in the SO, at pennies an hour.
But Aaron and Heather decided they wanted to have their child, and so in 2007 they left the Sea Org. Aaron was 26.
They remained church members and stayed in Clearwater. Heather’s parents, who also lived in the Clearwater area, are committed Scientologists.
When Gayle moved down from Philadelphia in 2009, Aaron and Heather were pregnant with their second child. (They now have a three children.) Since leaving the Sea Org and its meager pay, Aaron had worked at a series of jobs and was making good money.
Gayle was dating a man who was also done with the church, and so the two of them trained as insurance adjusters so they could get work outside the Scientology community. She also reached out to Mike Rinder, who lived nearby. She says talking to him directly about the things she’d seen in the media proved an immense help. (Mike Rinder backs up her account as well as what Gayle told us about Aaron, who Rinder knows well. Aaron himself declined to comment for this story.)
Then, in 2011, Gayle began auditing outside the official church. She was becoming an “independent Scientologist,” and it helped bring in some money outside of her regular job.
She still believed in L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas, and the “technology” that he had developed for counseling. But she wanted nothing to do with the official organization.
And that’s when the trouble started again.
As word of Gayle’s work as an independent auditor began to spread around town, the pressure began to build on her son. Official Scientology looks harshly on “indies,” particularly those, like Gayle, who are in regular contact with former officials Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun.
Scientology promotes a snitching culture, and from a very young age, members are taught that they must write “Knowledge Reports” when they spot someone doing something “out-ethics” (against Scientology’s rules). Gayle says she and her boyfriend are now certain that it was her boyfriend’s son who, in the summer of 2011, wrote a Knowledge Report, turning in Gayle for asking so many questions about the church and beginning her work as an independent.
Like so many other Scientologists, she’d been turned in by someone in her own extended family.
late in 2011, Gayle learned that the church had declared her a “Suppressive Person.” It’s Scientology’s version of excommunication, and every Scientologist knows what it means — they risk being excommunicated themselves if they do not cut off all ties with a declared “SP.”
Because Gayle was declared, Aaron now risked being kicked out of the church if he had any communication with his own mother. And if that happened, Aaron’s wife Heather would be under intense pressure to divorce him.
It was an extremely tough spot for a young man who was going places.
After leaving the Sea Org in 2007, Aaron had held a series of jobs, including working for a Scientologist-owned business, PostcardMania, that is well known as a source of jobs for church members.
Then, in 2009, Aaron went to work for one of the most well-known Scientologists in the country.
Kurt Feshbach began to teach corporate investigations to his protege. Heather, meanwhile, went to work at the Scientology-affiliated drug rehab facility, Suncoast Drug Rehab, that Kurt Feshbach had set up on land he owned.
Aaron was a fast learner. At Forbes, Nathan Vardi explained that research in China that Aaron coordinated from Florida dug up so much negative information on Nu Skin, a multilevel marketing firm, the Chinese government launched an investigation. To give a sense of how thorough Aaron is when he investigates a firm, Vardi gave an example of Aaron’s research into the corporation K12…
When Smith-Levin was investigating K12, which manages online charter schools in some 30 states, he sent research staff to the monthly public board meetings for the schools K12 manages to learn what issues the schools were facing. Smith-Levin’s people tracked down former teachers, students and parents from the schools to learn what was driving enrollment and student retention. He also found ways to track monthly enrollment at schools and applications for new charter schools that were slated to use K12 as the management company.
Vardi indicated that the field is competitive, but Aaron’s OTG was quickly setting itself apart.
Gayle says that after her boyfriend’s son turned in the Knowledge Report about her, Aaron started getting questions from Feshbach about her. She says Feshbach wanted to hear from Aaron what he planned to do if his mother was declared a suppressive person. Aaron told Feshbach it wasn’t a matter for them discuss.
“Kurt then asked Aaron if he’d talk to me and get me to agree not to be vocal about my upsets and disagreements with the church,” Gayle says. Aaron said he’d talk to his mother, but didn’t want the matter to come up again.
A few months after that conversation, Gayle learned that she’d been declared.
“These last 3 years, my son has been put through the meat grinder to force him to behave, to disconnect from his mom, or lose the job that supported his wife and three children,” Gayle says.
The last thing Aaron needed was a crisis in his family. But now, with Gayle declared an “SP,” she knew that Aaron would have to cut her out of his life or risk his own standing in the church.
Gayle says Aaron assured his in-laws that he was not talking to her, and he wasn’t letting his mother see her grandchildren.
But that wasn’t true.
Gayle says that as Aaron was setting up his own research firm and breaking away from Feshbach, he was arranging for his mother to see her grandchildren. And he was still talking to his mother. Both of them worked hard to keep it secret.
But Aaron was being watched closely. About a year ago, he was called down to the Starbucks in Clearwater near Scientology’s headquarters. There, he was met by Kathy True, a church ethics officer, who accused him of anonymously making posts three years earlier to Marty Rathbun’s blog. He denied it.
And eventually, the church found out that he was still talking to his mother. Just a few weeks ago, Aaron Smith-Levin learned that he has been declared a suppressive person.
He’s an SP. And he’s married to a Scientologist, and his in-laws are dedicated church members.
Gayle tells us that something’s gotta give, and soon. Heather will be under immense pressure to divorce Aaron and take their children away.
But she doesn’t think that’s going to happen.
She says Aaron is feeling the pressure, but he’s doing so well, he’s confident things will work out. She says he laughs that he’s lost something like 1,000 Facebook friends almost overnight as old friends follow orders and disconnect from him.
Two years ago, I first met Gayle Smith, and she told me the story of her son Collin. I wrote about it for the Village Voice, but at her request, I didn’t name Gayle or her son.
I had no idea that Collin had a twin. Gayle didn’t mention him. But after knowing what she’s been through — disconnecting from a son who then died before they had a chance to reunite — I couldn’t imagine anything coming between Gayle and her son Aaron.
Now, because of that bond, all hell is about to break loose for a family that has done nothing to deserve it. Heather Smith-Levin, in particular, will find herself making almost unbelievable choices in the next few weeks, as she’s asked to choose between her husband and her parents.
The words Gayle Smith told me in 2012 continue to ring with as much resonance as they did then.
Through tears, she told me that one of the hardest things about never seeing Collin again after disconnecting from him was that at the time, Scientology had convinced her that she was actually doing him a favor
“I didn’t disconnect from my son because he was a bad SP who I needed to get away from,” she told me. “Disconnecting from them is supposed to snap them back into your life. I thought I was being good to my son.”
And now, her surviving son’s family is facing the same impossible choices.
“I want anyone who is disconnecting to think about that — will they ever really get another chance to be with that person again?”
Scientology tax return of the day
Scientology has enjoyed tax-exempt status since 1993, and churches are not required to submit annual returns. However, following a change in the law in 2006, even church organizations are required to submit returns for “unrelated business income,” known as 990-T reports. Those returns don’t reflect the church-related income taken in by Scientology (an organization built on the idea of paying large sums for spiritual advancement), but the forms do ask for a corporate entity to report its “book value” — an indication of that entity’s total assets, such as real estate.
Today, we’re looking at the Church of Scientology of Texas, whose book value was reported at $3,112,381.
Posted by Tony Ortega on April 18, 2014 at 07:00
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