Whitney Covington was arrested Friday night by police in Clearwater, Florida, and booked into the Pinellas County jail on misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution and possession of drug paraphernalia.
It surprised no one who knew her.
Ms. Covington, 29, has been booked into the Pinellas County jail at least six times in the last decade, and her family has grown increasingly frustrated with her inability to keep herself out of trouble.
Well, at least the part of the family that still has anything to do with her.
Whitney Covington grew up a Scientologist. Her uncle is David Miscavige, the supreme leader of the Church of Scientology. And her mother, David’s twin sister Denise Gentile, disconnected from Whitney several years ago.
“Disconnection” is a Scientology policy that has been getting a lot of attention lately. You may have read about a Las Vegas couple, Phil and Willie Jones, who recently paid for a billboard in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, asking Scientologists to call the loved ones they’ve been forced to separate from. The billboard got massive press attention, and helped raise the public’s awareness that many Scientology families have been torn apart by David Miscavige and his insistence that church members cut off all ties from people that have left the organization — even if it means splitting apart parent and child.
What’s less well known is how disconnection has affected David Miscavige’s own family.
Scientology, disconnection, and the Miscavige family will be taking center stage on May 3 with the publication of a book by Whitney Covington’s grandfather, a man named Ron Miscavige. Written with former Church of Scientology member Dan Koon, Ron’s book is titled Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me.
Ron will be talking to ABC’s Dan Harris as part of a full hour that 20/20 is dedicating to Scientology next Friday night, April 29. One of the things you’re likely to hear is that Ron decided to write his book specifically because of the way Scientology’s disconnection separated him from his daughters. We’ve learned about that from members of the family and close friends who have had to deal with the fallout of a dramatic series of events that have torn the Miscavige family apart.
One of the people seemingly spinning out of control in that wreckage is Whitney Covington, whose troubles with the law started while she was still in her teens. She was charged twice in 2006 after DUI arrests in March and April that year. She was only 19. Three times, in 2010 and twice in 2012, she was arrested and charged with grand theft and dealing in stolen property. One of those incidents resulted in an 18-month prison stay.
We wanted to call Whitney Covington, but her most recent phone is turned off. She used another person’s phone to send a text to the part of the family that still talks to her. That’s her father, Robert Covington, and her stepmother, Heather Covington.
Just a week before this most recent arrest, Whitney asked to stay with her father and stepmother. Heather tells us she offered a deal: If Whitney took a drug test, they would pay to put her up in a three-month (non-Scientology affiliated) rehab program. Heather says she didn’t get a reply, and then she heard that Whitney had been arrested again.
“Whitney is homeless. Her own mother, Denise, disconnected from her because Scientology told her to,” Heather tells us. “I thought Denise disconnecting from her father was bad, but disconnecting from her own daughter is really low.”
In a series of conversations we’ve had with Heather and others, we’ve been able to piece together a picture of the chaos in the Miscavige family that serves as the background for Ron’s upcoming, and likely explosive, book.
Heather and Robert Covington were married in 2004 and each brought children from previous marriages to the new family. They have a child of their own, their son Ayden, 11. And Heather tells us that for the first decade of her marriage she and her husband were very close with Robert’s ex, Denise, and Denise’s children. Robert Covington and Denise Miscavige were married from 1985 to 1995, and they had two daughters — Taylor, 31, and Whitney, 29.
When Heather met Robert, she was working for Scientologists in a Clearwater dental office that served a lot of local Scientologist families. She says she couldn’t help noticing that Scientologist kids tended to run wild, and it bothered her.
Robert, meanwhile, had moved to Clearwater from New Hampshire after the death of his second wife to breast cancer.
“When I met Robert, I didn’t know he was a Scientologist, not for the first seven months. I first heard it from friends,” Heather says. “I asked him, Are you a Scientologist? Are your kids crazy?” she says with a laugh.
Heather had a son from a previous marriage. Besides his two daughters with Denise Miscavige, Robert had two other children from his second marriage. And Heather began to realize that being married to Bob Covington not only meant being part of a large extended family, but also becoming part of an exclusive Scientology clique.
“He was still best friends with Denise. All of us hung out together. We’d go to the L. Ron Hubbard Birthday Event in March. We were involved with his ex-wife and her kids,” Heather says. And that also included being involved with Denise’s younger sister, Lori Miscavige, who had married Edward Verneuille, who supplied Robert Covington with some of his work as a contractor. They also saw David Miscavige, though not as frequently. And they were close to the patriarch of the family, Ron Miscavige.
Ron gave us some idea of his own background in two slim self-published collections of yarns that he put out in 2013 and 2014. He described growing up in the town of Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, and seemed in awe that he’d even survived his childhood, the way he played with sticks of dynamite and a .22 rifle that had a tendency to explode in his face.
As young as 13, Ron was playing trumpet professionally in local bars, and buying beers for a dime a glass. And one of his anecdotes we found particularly entertaining. After a stint in the Marines, and after he’d married his first wife, Loretta, he built a fenced-in area in his backyard so his young twins, David and Denise, could run around without getting away. But then, without a hesitation, the youngsters easily scaled his enclosure.
We found that anecdote ironic: In March 2012, Ron and his second wife, Becky Bigelow, made their own escape from an enclosure built by Ron’s son, David Miscavige.
We learned in July of that year that Ron had escaped from Scientology’s Int Base near Hemet, and we’re still very much looking forward to reading in his book how he managed to pull it off.
In the early 1970s, Ron had looked into Scientology originally because he was looking for something to help with his son David’s asthma. Their initial encounters with the organization and its techniques seemed to help, so then the family dove into Scientology wholeheartedly. David dropped out of high school on his 16th birthday, and Ron took the family to Saint Hill Manor in England so David could train as an auditor.
Back in the US in the late 1970s, David worked in close proximity to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who had moved to the California desert and was experimenting with making films — the young Miscavige became a camera operator as his long climb in Scientology’s management began. Hubbard died in 1986, and Miscavige thrust himself, unelected, into the leadership of the organization. Another thing we’re looking forward to reading in Ron’s book is his description of watching his son’s rise to power.
While David ran Scientology, Ron spent his time in the “Sea Org” as a musician, performing in Scientology’s many events and videos. All reports we’ve heard from people who worked with Ron tell us he was well liked and popular in the organization. We’re interested in reading in Ruthless how Ron’s own disaffection grew, leading him to make his 2012 escape from the base.
Heather Covington tells us that after Ron and Becky made their run to freedom, his daughters reacted in different ways. Denise continued to talk to him, but Lori shut him down, Heather says. The Covingtons, meanwhile, were thrilled to hear from Ron, and hoped to see him soon. And then, about a year later, things began to come to a head.
For several years, Robert Covington had been working for an attorney named Betsy Steg and her husband Jim. Betsy had worked for 20 years in the Pinellas County district attorney’s office, and she relied on Robert to help her keep up an historic 12-bedroom 1900 house she owned on the intracoastal waterway.
“Bob did pretty much everything — repairs and updates,” Betsy tells us. “Bob was like my right hand man at the house. He does a lot of good work there at the property.”
Meanwhile, Betsy was interested in the latest news about Scientology because of where she lived, in among one of the main concentrations of Scientologists in the world. (Betsy has never been a Scientologist herself.) One day, she left a comment on Marty Rathbun’s blog, and signed it as “ClearwaterLawyer.”
That piqued the interest of Mike Rinder, Scientology’s former spokesman, who reached out to Betsy, asking if she really was a lawyer in Clearwater. “Hey, you never know when I might need a lawyer here in town,” Rinder says today, with a laugh.
Rinder arranged to meet Betsy Steg, and over several years they became good friends. And when Rinder mentioned in 2013 that he and Christie Collbran were looking for a place to get married, Betsy offered the use of her big house on the intracoastal.
“Betsy and Jim gave it to us as a wedding gift. It slept like 30 people, so many of the out-of-town people stayed there,” Rinder says.
“It’s a great place to get married. It has beautiful sunsets every night,” Betsy says. Karen de la Carriere, one of the guests, caught the view from the house in the photo seen above.
Then, just a week later, a bomb went off in the local newspaper: Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Childs revealed that Denise Gentile had been arrested for DUI and marijuana charges and for taking marijuana “blunts” as payment from her rental tenants.
“Gentile, of Clearwater, is a well-known Scientologist and the twin sister of the church’s worldwide leader, David Miscavige,” Childs wrote. “Her marijuana arrest is messy for the church because Scientologists have zero tolerance for mind-altering substances. They believe street drugs and psychiatric medicines make spiritual growth impossible.”
It was not only messy for the church, but also for the extended Miscavige family.
“Everyone was trying to keep it from us, but I have so many friends on Facebook, I heard about it,” Heather Covington says. “You can see in her mug shot that she was so high. I used to go and collect rent down at those places, so right away I totally believed it. The family was saying it was all a plot to get Scientology. No, I said, Denise just drinks too much.”
The Tampa Bay Times article laid out an ugly recitation of Denise’s past. In the mid-1990s, she had used her clout to get a job with a Scientologist-run technology company at $123,000 a year, even though she hadn’t gone to college. She was then named in a scandal at the firm, when she was connected to partially-filled boxes that had been shipped in order to give the impression that the company was selling more product than it actually was. Despite her role in the fiasco, she managed to negotiate a severance package that included a year’s salary and forgiveness of a $71,000 loan.
Later, she became an auditor at the Flag Land Base, when she was connected to another ugly incident. As Childs described it…
In 2006, Denise started taking classes at Flag to become an auditor again. One of the people she audited during training was Scientologist Tom Brennan, a handyman who worked at her rentals. In February 2007, Brennan told Denise he was concerned about his son, Kyle, 20, who was visiting from Virginia. Kyle didn’t look good and had been seeing a psychiatrist, he told Denise. Scientologists believe psychiatry and psychotropic drugs are evil — like street drugs. Denise thought Kyle may have gotten hooked on street drugs. Brennan and Denise phoned Kyle’s mother and urged her to send him to Narconon, the drug treatment program affiliated with the church. Kyle’s mother refused. (All of this was later recounted in sworn testimony from Denise and Brennan.) Thomas Brennan locked Kyle’s antidepressant medication, Lexapro, in his car trunk. Brennan later found Kyle dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment. The first person Brennan called was Denise Gentile. Then he called 911.
Clearwater police ruled the death a suicide. Kyle’s mother, who is not a Scientologist, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Gentiles, Brennan and Scientology’s Flag Service Organization. She alleged the Gentiles persuaded Brennan to take away Kyle’s medication, contributing to his death. The suit was dismissed in 2011, in part because Brennan said his son voluntarily turned over his medicine.
And now Denise was caught up in scandal again, described as a drunk landlord who would take marijuana blunts in lieu of rent. It was a devastating portrait drawn by Childs. A week later, we reported, Denise pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving.
But more collisions were soon to come.
The Covingtons did not attend the Rinder wedding. But a few months later — in late August or early September 2013, Heather Covington remembers — her husband Bob received a call from his ex-wife, Denise.
“She told us, ‘You guys can no longer be friends with Betsy Steg. She’s an SP.’ And then, Peter Mansell called us from OSA. ‘I need you guys to come down right away,’ he said.”
Mansell’s name may be familiar to our readers. He testified in the Luis and Rocio Garcia federal fraud lawsuit against Scientology in 2013, identifying himself as the head of the Office of Special Affairs at the Flag Land Base, Scientology’s set of buildings in Clearwater. OSA is Scientology’s public relations and intelligence wing, and it runs overt and covert operations against Scientology’s perceived enemies. Mike Rinder himself once oversaw OSA, and has been a frequent target of its surveillance schemes since he left the church in 2007.
We’ve reported in the past how anyone who comes in contact with Rinder, or helps him out in some way, is then branded an enemy of the church by Scientology. Nick Lister, for example, was friendly with someone who was a friend to Rinder, and that was a close enough connection that the church tried to force Nick’s mother, Sara Goldberg, to abandon her son. Her story about that is a key moment in Alex Gibney’s movie Going Clear. Another man, a former Scientologist named Robert Almblad, at one time employed Rinder. We wrote two stories about the extreme lengths Scientology went to in order to disrupt Almblad’s business as retaliation for giving Rinder work.
Now, Betsy Steg had given Rinder and Christie Collbran a nice house to use for a wedding, and that made her an “SP” — a suppressive person, what Scientology labels anyone it considers antagonistic to the church.
After Mansell’s phone call, Heather and Bob Covington went to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the centerpiece of “Flag,” and were taken to a large conference room.
“Peter brought out a box. There was another man and a woman there, but we didn’t know their names. They started pulling out these papers, telling us that Betsy was trying to take down the church, and we couldn’t be around an SP like that,” Heather says. “But Bob had worked for Betsy for years. Why should he give up such a good job just because they didn’t like her? That’s what I was thinking.”
Heather says they told Mansell that he had no proof that Betsy was trying to harm the church. Mansell said he did have proof, and brought out numerous documents about Betsy Steg as well as photos of her. (In a funny coincidence, we determined after having Heather describe the photos to Betsy that the photos were taken when your proprietor made a visit to Clearwater in March 2012. Mike Rinder took us to the Starbucks on Fort Harrison Ave, just a couple of blocks from the Fort Harrison Hotel, and we met for the first time Betsy Steg and Gayle Smith, whose story we later told for this website. That meeting, we now learn, was photographed for Scientology’s files.)
“They told us, you cannot be friends with her anymore. You can’t work for her. You can’t call her. I looked at Bob and thought, who are these people who think they can tell us this?” Heather says. “Peter had said they would get Bob lots of jobs to make up for it. Sure, they would. We were in there for like three hours.”
Meanwhile, around the same time, Mansell also paid a visit to Betsy Steg’s house.
“Two people came to the door and told me they were Scientologists,” Betsy tell us. “It was a man and a woman, the man was Peter Mansell.”
She points out that she lives in a gated community, and she doesn’t know how the two got on to her property.
“They said that they knew that Mike had used our house for his wedding. They told me I was an enemy of the church, and that they were going to tell all the Scientologists in Clearwater that I’d let Mike use the property for his wedding. Basically, he just threatened me.”
Betsy says she didn’t hear from them again after that. But she soon heard that the Covingtons were being told to stay away from her.
“I know that Bob was being ordered to disconnect from me. I felt bad because we’d worked together so long and we’re good friends. I didn’t like to see him go through this because of me,” Betsy adds. “They’re such good people and he does such good work. I feel bad that now a big part of his life has been disconnected from him. Just picked up and swept away. The mother of his children won’t talk to him anymore.”
After their meeting with Peter Mansell at Flag, the Covingtons refused to disconnect from Betsy Steg. And at first, there didn’t seem to be any larger repercussions from it. That Christmas, Bob and Heather still celebrated with Denise Gentile.
But by March 2014, it was becoming obvious, Heather says, that Denise, her sister Lori, and Denise’s daughter Taylor Covington were cutting off all contact with Robert and Heather Covington and their children. And for Taylor, it meant disconnecting from her own father.
“At the end of March,” Heather says, “Taylor did call and asked for some things from her dad. So Bob brought them to her, and Bob said she just put her head down [avoiding eye contact].”
Heather says Taylor said something then that stunned both of the Covingtons. Taylor told her father that she had a problem not only that he was still talking to Betsy Steg, but that he was also talking to someone else.
Taylor said she had a problem that Bob and Heather were still connected to someone she called “Pop Pop.”
It was her first indication, Heather says, that a split was also developing between the families of Denise and Lori Miscavige and their father, Ron Miscavige, who is called ‘Pop Pop’ by the children in the extended clan.
“Taylor told us we shouldn’t be talking to Ron, her own grandfather,” Heather says. And not long after that, Ron Miscavige, who had been close to the Covingtons, made a telling telephone call.
“He asked if we speak to Denise. No, I told him, no one talks to Denise.”
Then, in the summer, the Covingtons went on vacation.
Monday, August 25, 2014 was the first day of a planned getaway for the Covingtons in a place they loved. Fontana Lake in North Carolina, a reservoir formed on the dammed Little Tennessee River, is a recreation destination in the summer months, especially for an outdoorsy family like the Covingtons. And on their first day of that 2014 vacation, Heather Covington’s son Brock wanted to go for a ride on a jet boat.
The family paid for a guided tour from Smoky Mountain Jetboats, and piled in to the sleek green vessel. Heather and Bob were joined by Brock, Bob’s daughter Sydney, and the Covington’s youngest, their son Ayden.
The tour guide jetted out on the water, and Heather was more concerned than thrilled. She didn’t want to be a spoilsport, she says, but she thought the driver was going recklessly fast, and too close to shore.
Then, it was clear that they were heading for serious trouble.
“We slammed into the side of the mountain at 50 to 55 miles per hour,” Heather says.
Heather and her young son got the worst of it. She was taken to a hospital in an ambulance with a cracked kneecap. Ayden had to be helicoptered to help.
“He died three times,” Heather says. “He had 30 fractures in his face. He was in a level seven coma. He had a concussion, and he lost four front teeth. He lost a lot of blood. He spent seven days in the trauma center.”
Denise Miscavige, before disconnecting from the Covingtons, had been Ayden’s godmother.
“They didn’t even contact us after the accident,” Heather says, sounding disgusted.
For Heather, it drove home how destructive the disconnection policy was.
We asked Mike Rinder, the former top Scientology spokesman, is there any doubt that David Miscavige himself, who has a history of banishing people, would have ordered his sisters to cut off all ties from the other members of the family?
“Oh, absolutely. There’s no doubt. There are certain people who nobody would dare take steps against or mess with unless it was ordered by him. And that list includes anything to do with Marty Rathbun. Anything to do with me. Anything to do with Ron. Leah Remini would fall into that category. Probably Joe Childs and Tom Tobin of the Tampa Bay Times,” he says. “I’m just saying there are some people that I promise you nothing happens to unless David Miscavige directly orders or signed off on it and has authorized in detail what was going to be done.
“Because Betsy Steg was associated with me, that makes her a target. And in Clearwater, she’s always been a bit of a mover and shaker. Her husband, Jim Steg, is very well known here. And Dave doesn’t want people messing around with his PR control of the City of Clearwater,” Rinder adds. “There are things no one would mess with without Dave’s involvement. and Betsy ended up in the center of a number of those things.
“She’s such a nice lady. They’ve made, per usual, an enemy out of her.”
Heather Covington says that the family had just arrived back in Florida after their North Carolina hospital stays, in September 2014, when they heard from Ron Miscavige.
Ron said he wanted to make a visit to Florida and asked to stay with Bob and Heather Covington in Clearwater. Of course he was welcome, Heather told him.
Ron and his wife Becky Bigelow arrived from Wisconsin with stalkers in tow. “My kids had fun with the private investigators following them around,” Heather says.
One night during the visit, Ron brought out a set of audio tapes. They were recordings of police interviews with two suspects, a father and son team of private investigators, who had confessed to following Ron Miscavige on behalf of Ron’s son, David Miscavige and the Church of Scientology.
The public would hear about those recordings seven months later when news about them broke in the Los Angeles Times. The two private eyes, Dwayne and Daniel Powell, had been questioned by police, who found an arsenal of weapons and ammunition in the back of their SUV. But what really got them in hot water was a homemade silencer made from PVC tubing — Dwayne Powell was facing 10 years in federal prison for that illegal item. So the two of them spilled their guts, explaining that for months they had been tailing Ron Miscavige twelve hours a day at $10,000 a week and reporting everything they saw back to an intermediary who passed it on to the Church of Scientology.
In the most infamous incident from the recordings, the Powells described seeing Ron clutch at his chest, and it looked like Ron, who was then 77 years old, might be having a heart attack. (He was actually fumbling for a smartphone in his shirt pocket.) When they called their handler for instructions, they said that David Miscavige himself came on the line and told them to do nothing. “If he dies, he dies,” Miscavige reportedly said. (The Church of Scientology has denied everything about the report, calling it “provable bullshit,” but hasn’t offered any proof of that.)
“We heard about the private investigators, and all the guns in the back of their car,” Heather says. “I was shocked. Why are they doing that? Why are they following you around? Are they crazy?”
With his family falling apart, Ron wanted his daughters to hear about the private investigators, to hear who was really behind what was going on that was splitting them all up.
“He wanted Denise and Lori to hear these tapes,” Heather says.
So, on the fourth day of their visit with the Covingtons in September 2014, Ron and Becky paid the visit that was the reason for their trip, driving to the Clearwater home of Denise and her husband Gerald Gentile.
“Jerry opened the door and said she didn’t want to see him,” Heather tells us.
Ron told his son-in-law that he wanted to tell Denise “his side of the story,” but Denise wouldn’t come to the door. When Ron asked Jerry about it, he was told that Denise didn’t want to hear from him.
“They came back to our house, where we were having a barbecue,” Heather says. Ron told them what had happened, that his own daughter wanted no communication with him. Ever.
“And then he said, ‘You know what? I’m going to write that book.’
“We said, yeah! You need to write that book,” Heather says.
And at that point, Ron Miscavige made a phone call that would prove to have huge implications for the Church of Scientology.
Tomorrow, we’re going to tell you all about it.
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield