There was a time when coming out with a book about Scientology meant almost certain litigation and harassment. From 1970 (George Malko, Scientology: The Now Religion) to 1990 (Jon Atack, A Piece of Blue Sky), and those in between — Paulette Cooper (1971), Cyril Vosper (1971), Robert Kaufman (1972), Roy Wallis (1976), Russell Miller (1987), and Bent Corydon (1987) — every author who came out with a book about the secretive and litigious organization saw his or her book sued and ultimately made difficult to find.
But things have changed. A wave of former Scientology members, including former high-ranking executives, came out of the organization in the 2000s and wrote self-published books about their experiences, including Marc Headley, Jefferson Hawkins, Nancy Many, Amy Scobee, and three books by Mark “Marty” Rathbun. None of them were sued.
And then, for the first time, expansive books about Scientology were issued by major publishing houses, written by Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman (Inside Scientology, 2011) and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright (Going Clear, 2013).
Despite the great variety distinguishing those books, nearly all of their authors shared a similar goal: To reveal the inner workings of Scientology and to expose what they believed were shocking examples of control and abuse of its members.
Unique among them, however, was Marty Rathbun. He had spent years as one of Scientology’s top enforcers, someone who dished out the kind of surveillance and harassment that the other authors had been subject to. When Rathbun came out with his third book, 2013’s Memoirs of a Scientology Warrior, it offered a truly unique opportunity. Here, finally, one of the people who had overseen Scientology’s most troubling activities was about to reveal what he’d seen and done.
If you were around when we reviewed the book, you know we were disappointed on that score. While Rathbun’s book contained much that was fascinating and helped fill in some important gaps in the historical record (especially its final chapters with crucial information about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s last days), Rathbun continued to see himself as a righteous “warrior” who was still fighting on the side of the angels as he recalled overseeing Scientology’s court fights against dissenters.
Now, there’s another rather spectacular opportunity for Scientology disclosure, and it’s just being released today: A new self-published memoir, Arrows in the Dark, written by another of Scientology’s most infamous and notorious figures, the disbarred and disgraced former attorney and Guardian’s Office spy, Merrell Vannier (pictured, above).
Vannier’s name doesn’t come up much these days, but his story was one of the most stunning in a period when revelations about the lengths to what Scientology would go to punish its perceived enemies were rocking the country.
We’re going to quickly review the public record on that history so you can see what a unique position Vannier is in and why a tell-all memoir by him could be one of the most interesting things about Scientology in recent years.
To set the scene, it’s important to remember that L. Ron Hubbard took the management of his organization to sea in 1966 after both the United States and the United Kingdom had become too hot for him. After briefly trying to take over Rhodesia and failing, he figured he could only avoid unfriendly governments by sailing the Mediterranean in a small armada, with him in control as “commodore” at the helm of a yacht that came to be known as the Apollo. That same year, 1966, he also created a new inner elite group, the “Guardian’s Office,” which eventually became one of the most sophisticated intelligence operations on the planet.
It was the GO’s job to hunt down threats to L. Ron Hubbard and his wife, Mary Sue, and neutralize them. And in 1973, Hubbard gave the GO a whopper of a new assignment. While away from the Apollo for ten months, hiding out in Queens from French agents who were searching for him in Portugal and Morocco (long story), Hubbard wrote up a scheme he called the Snow White Program. With it, he wanted his agents to hunt down — legally and otherwise — documents about him on file in countries around the world. By the next year, 1974, after Hubbard had returned to the Apollo and it was getting turned away from more and more ports in the Mediterranean and Atlantic because of its bad reputation, GO operatives were honing their skills for infiltrating offices and securing documents with numerous forms of espionage.
Hubbard tried to return to land in the United States in 1974, but was tipped that federal agents were waiting for him in Charleston, South Carolina, so the Apollo spent an additional year bouncing around in the Caribbean before the commodore finally tired of his private navy and set anchor for good in the Bahamas. He had come up with another plot — to invade Florida. After setting up in a hotel in Daytona, he launched a scheme to take over the Gulf Coast town of Clearwater. Hiding behind the name “United Churches of Florida,” his agents purchased the iconic Fort Harrison Hotel downtown, as well as the nearby Clearwater Bank building to become the first parts of a new command center for Scientology, the “Flag Land Base.”
The mayor of Clearwater, Gabe Cazares, was notified that such important downtown locations had changed hands, and then he noticed something strange — the “United Churches of Florida” were guarding their new properties with men carrying night sticks and cans of mace. When he asked them about it, they said they had “to protect themselves.” It seemed bizarre for a sleepy vacation beach town.
Eventually, later in 1975, Cazares was tipped to the truth: His town was under invasion by the Church of Scientology. He made a stink about it on a local radio show, and in turn the Guardian’s Office swung into action, creating the “Mayor Cazares Handling Project.” Scientology called a press conference for January 30, 1976, and put out a “fact sheet” on the mayor, following Hubbard’s dictum that it was always better to attack than to defend. “The sheet challenged Cazares’ statements on his place of birth and educational background, questioned the mayor’s involvement in Clearwater land deals and said he had violated city law by not filing a financial disclosure form,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.
The next month, the church filed a $1 million defamation suit against Cazares, but he and his wife filed their own libel and slander suits against Scientology for the distorted contents of the “fact sheet.” They chose a local attorney named Pat Doherty to represent them. (Documents also show that Cazares, that March, spoke with the FBI about Scientology’s invasion, which, at least from where we sit, seems pretty understandable.)
Also in March, a Missouri man named Merrell Vannier came to town, looking for work as a lawyer while his acceptance to the Florida Bar was pending. What none of the places he applied to realized was that for at least two years, he’d been a secret volunteer for the Guardian’s Office. And, according to the Florida Bar, the GO did what it could to protect anyone from knowing who Merrell really was. From the Bar’s findings…
To protect Vannier’s identity as he collected information, he was assigned the code name “Ritz.” To ensure Vannier’s “cover,” the Guardian Organization designed an elaborate project to cover up his membership and participation in Scientology activities. Demonstrative of the insidiousness of this activity, part of the project included the infiltration of the Tallahassee office of The Florida Bar to remove and delete incriminating portions of his Bar application and replace it with an altered application.
With his true identity protected, Vannier sought a job with the State Attorney’s Office in St. Petersburg, even offering to work for free. He got in, worked there for two months, and in the meantime, as part of the Mayor Cazares Handling Project, his wife Fran got a job working as a volunteer for Gabe’s campaign that fall for Congress. Fran’s involvement put Vannier in proximity to the mayor.
After being let go by the State Attorney’s Office, Vannier then found work with a firm that had represented Cazares in the past. According to the Bar findings, Vannier then began asking Cazares about his representation in the libel suit against Scientology. In December, Cazares was dropped by Doherty, and Cazares then hired Vannier to be his attorney.
For the Florida Bar, there was nothing equivocal about it — for most of a year, Merrell Vannier, hiding his real identity, and with the help of his wife, had maneuvered so that he could become the attorney of record for the mayor of Clearwater in his lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, without notifying Cazares or his wife that he was, in fact, a secret agent for the church.
Vannier then used that position to gain access to other legal matters — he convinced the attorney for former Scientologist Nan McLean, for example, to give him access to a huge collection of legal documents in her case, which subsequently and mysteriously disappeared.
“During his representation of Mr. and Mrs. Cazares, using the code name ‘Ritz,’ Vannier secretly channelled confidential information concerning the Cazares and their litigation back to the Guardian Organization and was credited by the organization as obtaining ‘excellent results’,” the Bar found.
Then, in July 1977, the FBI raided Scientology in Los Angeles and Washington after Michael Meisner, one of the Snow White burglars, had given himself up and turned state’s evidence. Vannier subsequently vanished, but it was some time before the documents in the raid were sifted through and references to “Ritz” turned up and the truth about Merrell Vannier emerged.
Vannier and his wife faced possible jail terms when they each refused to cooperate with a subsequent grand jury investigation of Guardian’s Office activities in Tampa. Ultimately, neither was jailed for not cooperating, and neither was charged with any crimes. But the Florida Bar came down on Vannier with its heaviest possible penalty: permanent disbarment…
[Vannier’s] argument is that an attorney, who engages in unethical conduct on behalf of an organization that labels itself a church, has a First Amendment right to immunity from disciplinary proceedings. This idea is repugnant to the principles of the Constitution and the ethical standards of the legal profession….Not only did Merrell Vannier act in conflict with his client’s interests, his conduct in this matter is a perversion of his Oath and a defilement of the standards of our profession.
Believe us when we say this is a guy we want to hear from. And on several levels, his book delivers. Arrows in the Dark is an easy read and is skillfully paced. Although it’s self-published, Vannier has experience, with a self-published novel and several screenplays to his credit, according to his bio at the book’s website. [For now, scroll down and enter user ‘Preview’ and password ‘finddonalverzo’ to access the site.]
And he doesn’t disappoint as far as revealing new information about his spying activities, things that have never been made public before. In 1974, for example, two years before what happened in Clearwater, Vannier helped his spymaster, Don Alverzo, infiltrate the law offices of a firm representing the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which had just come out with a five-part series about Scientology.
Vannier captures vividly the excitement and danger of espionage as he gets into the building by taking a night janitor job, then has to purloin a key that will get Alverzo into the law offices they need to target so they can steal files for copying.
He also reveals that after he had been hired by Cazares, he used that position to run an operation on a Florida representative who was planning to introduce an anti-cult bill in Congress. Because Vannier was representing a client against Scientology, he was accepted as someone who could help the congressman get support for the bill. He was also introduced to the constituent, a doctor, who was pushing the legislation, and the ex-cult members (none of them former Scientologists) who planned to testify as witnesses. Convincing each of them that they needed to come clean with all of their “skeletons” before they could testify, each of them admitted to unseemly things in their past that Vannier then took to the congressman to convince him to drop the bill before those secrets got out, which he did.
Vannier also used his Cazares connection to get hooked up with what his handler, Alverzo, referred to as the “Anti-Religious Movement” — deprogrammers who were helping families recover their loved ones from destructive groups, sometimes with forcible encounters that qualified as kidnapping. Gaining the trust of leaders in the movement (again, as an attorney supposedly taking on Scientology), he would get word of an upcoming deprogramming, then feed that information to the group being targeted and to law enforcement so the planned intervention could be foiled and the deprogrammer arrested.
He also describes how he was used by the Guardian’s Office to transcribe tapes secretly made of author Paulette Cooper by private investigator Richard Bast in 1980. Cooper thought she and Bast were working for a wealthy man who hated Scientology and wanted information on it, but in reality Bast had lied to her and was working for Scientology in one of several elaborate schemes run against her. Vannier describes how he used information in the tapes to create questions for a Scientology attorney to ask Cooper in a deposition to trip her up, resulting in the dismissal of one of her lawsuits against Scientology.
Spying, infiltrating, double-crossing, and all in the name of a church. These are the kinds of disclosures that we were hoping to get from Rathbun in his book, and we’re glad that Vannier has brought them into the open.
We think Vannier will have some difficulty, however, winning over non-Scientology readers to his overall project, which is to recast his spying activities and vindicate not only himself but also Scientology with several surprising assertions. We’ve included the historical record of his acts and the Florida Bar’s findings here in part because you won’t find much of it in Arrows in the Dark. Instead, we get Vannier’s version of events, which portrays him as the victim of the incompetence of others or their nefarious conspiracies. We learn, for example…
— That Scientology was the subject of an FBI ‘COINTELPRO’ operation that involved planting agents in the church, and using Pulitzer-prize winning St. Petersburg Times reporter Bette Orsini as a front to launch a coordinated attack and make Scientology’s move into Clearwater controversial.
— That Gabe Cazares was actually an FBI operative who was part of that scheme and knew that Vannier was a Scientology agent and hired him anyway in an elaborate conspiracy to entrap him.
— That the FBI and/or the CIA’s planted agents also included current Scientology leader David Miscavige and top current or former executives like Norman Starkey, Bill Franks, Jimmy Mulligan, and his wife Ann Mulligan. The aim of this government operation was to replace the system of “checks and balances” L. Ron Hubbard intended to leave behind after his death with a dictatorship that is destroying the organization.
Vannier became an actual employee of the Guardian’s Office in 1980 — three years after the FBI raid — and then left it in 1982. He was disbarred in 1985. He remained a Church of Scientology member until 2012, when he was “declared” a suppressive person for starting a website, savingscientology.com, and running it under the name “admin.” The site argues that according to Scientology’s complex corporate structure, it’s possible for the special directors and trustees of the entities ruling the church to investigate and remove David Miscavige. Because he was declared, Vannier has lost all contact with his daughter Angie LaClaire, who had been a popular auditor at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre and remains loyal to the church today. By Scientology’s rules, she has been required to “disconnect” from her father and can have nothing to do with him.
Despite all that, Vannier remains passionately loyal to L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. In various parts of the book, he describes the “wins” he’s had from auditing, the boost he got from “Study Tech” to help him get through law school, and even how he helped a friend survive a coma with the use of a Scientology “assist” (a form of faith healing).
“The technology involving use of an E-meter has been described, demonstrated, misinterpreted, and often lampooned in countless mainstream articles and television reports about the Church of Scientology. The fact is, it works,” Vannier assures us.
With that view in mind, Vannier re-examines Scientology history, defending Hubbard and an earlier version of the organization, and placing the blame for its current troubles on mismanagement that came in after Hubbard had gone into permanent seclusion in 1980 and then died in 1986. It’s a familiar theme among many recent defectors from the church who still ardently hold on to their loyalty to Hubbard.
We found it fascinating that someone who had been so involved in Scientology, including its covert operations and working at its Los Angeles headquarters, only heard the name “David Miscavige” for the first time on January 27, 1986, when Miscavige came out on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to announce the death of Hubbard three days earlier. Vannier says that right away, he realized that the young Sea Org leader was behind the puzzling management decisions that he felt were harming the organization.
He reveals one new story of Miscavige’s alleged abuse, as told to him by Terri Gamboa, a former Commodore’s Messenger who had grown up serving Scientology: “The event that triggered her departure occurred when Miscavige hauled a bunch of Int staff to watch another staffer be security checked in front of them. As the victim disclosed various transgressions and secrets, Miscavige at first derided him. Then he ordered the onlookers to spit in the confessor’s face, and they did, one-by-one. Terri was the only one who refused to do it. Miscavige glared at her, then walked out of the room. ‘I knew he would be gunning for me next. No one defies Miscavige.'”
For Vannier, Gamboa is key, because Hubbard named her a special director of the Church of Spiritual Technology (CST), one of the many entities created during Scientology’s complex reorganization in the early 1980s. Through his website savingscientology.com, Vannier and others have tried to find a way to locate the trustees and directors of those entities, or appeal to the state attorney general to force some kind of reckoning for Miscavige through the bylaws of CST’s founding documents.
Several times in the past, however, we have pointed out that Denise Brennan, who helped draw up those documents, told us they were a sham to make people think they were onto something that wasn’t really there.
“The people who think they’re following the power of control by looking at the lists of directors for CST are falling for the sham we set up,” Brennan told us in 2013. “I think the mistake people make is thinking that there’s some brilliance in this setup. It was only created to protect the assets.”
Brennan made it very clear to us before her untimely death last year: L. Ron Hubbard, with the help of Brennan and others, created Scientology’s byzantine structure as a way to keep his hundreds of millions of dollars out of the clutches of creditors, not because he wanted to install a system of “checks and balances.”
But we know it doesn’t matter what we think — a certain segment of current and former church members will continue to look for ways to oust Miscavige through Scientology’s bylaws, and the number is probably growing as more Scientologists sour on the current leader.
“By my estimate seventy-five percent of all Scientologists want to see a change in Scientology leadership. They keep a very low profile, though, many of them waiting for the right moment to spring into action,” Vannier writes. Well, that would certainly be fun to watch if it were to happen.
In the last chapters of the book, Vannier returns to thinking about his old Guardian’s Office handler, Don Alverzo, a man he admired greatly but about which he actually knew very little. Vannier now considers seriously the idea that Alverzo had actually been a government plant.
“Martiniano reiterated his 100 percent conviction that Alverzo was a spy, sent into the G.O. to bring about its downfall, put LRH on the run, and allow someone like Miscavige, who was also a plant, to take control,” Vannier says, turning for help to Tom Martiniano, one of the more unhinged members of “Milestone Two,” a web home for some of the most doctrinaire independent Scientologists. (Like the other accusations about people being “plants,” Arrows in the Dark offers no documentation or other forms of corroboration to back up those claims.)
Alverzo was the GO’s breaking-and-entering man in the Snow White capers and was also, Vannier believes, the “Jerry Levin” who roomed with Paulette Cooper for about four months in 1973 in order to gather intelligence on her. (Other former GO operatives told us this same thing as we were researching our book about Cooper, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which is coming out in May.)
But Vannier, with help from Martiniano, believes Alverzo’s role was even bigger — that he pushed the GO into illegal activities because he was an agent provocateur secretly working for the FBI and setting up Scientology for its raid.
We have no doubt that this theory will be popular at Milestone Two, but notably absent from Arrows in the Dark are references to Guardian’s Office documents seized in the 1977 raid which clearly show Mary Sue Hubbard and Jane Kember, who ran the GO, urging on its members — in fact, berating them abusively — in order to get them to break into offices and not be so faint-hearted. If Alverzo had not lifted the latch on some doors at the IRS building during the Snow White capers, Mary Sue Hubbard surely would have brought in someone else to do so.
At the end of Arrows in the Dark, Vannier tracks down the real identity of Alverzo, revealing that his name is actually Jeff Marino. (We independently determined this last year while working on The Unbreakable Miss Lovely.) Vannier attempts to call him, but can’t make the connection to his old friend. What Alverzo thinks today remains for Vannier, like much of his book, a matter of pure speculation.
Bonus photos from our tipsters
Scientology Las Vegas caption: “Congratulations and Well Done to Charlie, who celebrates 10 years on staff at Las Vegas Org today- March 2nd!!”
Hey, once you’ve killed at Black Hills State, how can you not slay ’em at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre?
Scientologists are using social media more than ever. Drop us a line if you spot them posting images to Instagram or Facebook!
Posted by Tony Ortega on March 2, 2015 at 07:00
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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
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GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts