Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


The Scientologist who wouldn’t fly: The rise and fall of insurance mogul Richie Acunto

PatronLaureateAt 7:16 PM Eastern time on Sunday, an eBay auction will end and someone will become the new owner of the trophy you see pictured at the right.

With its custom-made carrying case, the trophy weighs 115 pounds, and the winner will have to spend $249.99 to have it shipped. Bidding for the item started on November 13 at $299.99, and as of this morning there have been two bids on it, taking the current price to $312.79.

Longtime Scientology watchers were stunned when they noticed last week that the trophy was for sale. They knew that normally you have to give the Church of Scientology’s International Association of Scientologists (IAS) donations that total $10 million in order to earn a trophy just like it.

On the item’s base, there’s an engraving which indicates that Richie and Amy Acunto were awarded the honor for reaching the status of “Patron Laureate.” In Scientology, members are under intense pressure to “raise their status” by giving increasingly larger donations to the IAS. They are told that the church’s many initiatives around the world are funded by the IAS, and that they are literally saving the planet and creating a new civilization through their donations.




The International Association of Scientologists
“A being is only as valuable as he can serve others.”
L. Ron Hubbard
In ancient times, the bestowing of a great honor was commemorated by the placing of a laurel wreath upon the head of a hero being praised.
Epitomize true heroism through their service to the people of this planet, and are hereby acclaimed by the International Association of Scientologists
Patron Laureate

Patron Laureate is the highest donation status Richie and Amy Acunto reached as donors to the IAS, but the statuses themselves go much higher. As we explained in an earlier story, the richest Scientologists in the world, Bob and Trish Duggan, have given somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million in donations to the IAS, which awarded them the status “Diamond Maximus with Honors.”

Before the Acuntos reached Patron Laureate status, they were given a trophy for attaining “Silver Meritorious” with donations totalling $750,000. Another trophy commemorated reaching “Gold Meritorious” for donating $1 million. Then they leveled up to “Platinum Meritorious” for giving $2.5 million. And then they were named “Diamond Meritorious” for donating $5 million. Their trophies for reaching those levels (all but Gold Meritorious, which seems to be missing) are also on auction at eBay, all in sales that will end on Sunday evening, and all by the same seller.

That seller goes by the name “tylerdurdan24,” after the Fight Club character, and when we contacted him, he told us his real first name but asked us not to reveal it.

He’s been buying up property at storage facility auctions for many years, he tells us. The contents of storage units go to auction when a customer stops paying his or her monthly rent. The hunt for lucrative items left behind by people who have stopped paying their storage bills has been captured in shows like Storage Wars.


“This lot was an auction at a storage facility in West Los Angeles,” tylerdurdan24 told us. “They opened the unit, and it mostly just looked like files and paperwork. You could see a few Scientology boxes in the back. It was a rather large unit — 10 by 15 feet — and not completely full.”

He won the auction, and then began going through the boxes, some of which bore logos that read “Survival Insurance.”

“All of the trophy cases were in the back corner, stacked and hidden from sight. When I removed some boxes, I noticed the crates. I was amazed by the weight of the first crate. These are very heavy,” he says.

When he realized what was inside, he started researching the trophies in an attempt to find their value. Because he has a friend in Scientology, he’d sold church items in the past, but he was unaware that members were given such ornate trophies. He learned about the IAS and its donation statuses so he could describe the items in his auction descriptions.

“I’ve listed them for anyone who would like to enjoy them — Scientologists, exes, or just collectors. It’s probably the first and only time they will ever be available. I don’t think even Tom Cruise has the Patron Laureate award,” he adds.

We asked him what kind of a reaction he’s gotten to the auctions. “I have been getting a mixed response. Mostly from ex-Scientologists who like to express their opinions. I understand, but I am not a Scientologist. I just buy and sell items, that’s all.”

We wondered if he had heard from the Church of Scientology about the auctions, but he said he hadn’t. He was merely a person with some old trophies to sell, along with a lot of Scientology books and many other things. “I hope the best for the sale. It’s just what I do for a living, recycle items.”

And we had one more question for him: Had Richie Acunto contacted him?

No, he said.



In 1983, Richie Acunto was living in a house near Scientology’s Hollywood Celebrity Centre, and sharing it with screenwriter Skip Press and Nicky Hopkins, a rock keyboardist who recorded with the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and many others. That year, Acunto started a company he called Survival Insurance — and he chose that name for very deliberate reasons. He was a Scientologist, and he wanted to sell car insurance to other Scientologists. Every church member knew that L. Ron Hubbard, in his book Dianetics, said that his first major discovery on his way to unlocking the secrets of the human mind was that all living things are motivated by one powerful force — to survive.

Acunto became very successful selling car insurance to Scientologists and then later opened up the business to the larger public (a model that another successful church member, Sky Dayton, would later follow with Earthlink, which initially was a small company centered around Scientologist employees and customers).

By the mid 1990s, Survival had gone national by focusing on one particular market — people with lousy driving records who had a difficult time finding other companies that would even talk to them. And Survival got its message across by blaring ads constantly on radio and television. (The Howard Stern radio show was a favorite venue.) The TV ads were ubiquitous, and for a short time brought some measure of fame for their star — Richie Acunto himself…


As Survival Insurance expanded in the 1990s, Acunto spent some of his wealth on becoming a very visibly successful Scientologist. In those days, before Scientology leader David Miscavige shifted the church’s focus away from auditing and training and put it on donations, statuses, and new buildings, the way to get noticed as a high-flying Scientologist was by going up the “Bridge to Total Freedom.”

“You know what he was like? He was like Grant Cardone before there was Grant Cardone,” one person who knew Richie Acunto extremely well explained to us, comparing Acunto to a current Scientologist who makes a living by convincing people that he can turn boorishness into cash. “He was going up the Bridge and he was really loud and obnoxious about it. He wanted you to know that he had a lot of money and he was spending a lot of it on going up the levels.”

By the end of the decade, Acunto was “on the level,” as Scientologists say. He had reached Operating Thetan Level Seven, just one level away from the ultimate course in the church, OT 8. But people had a tendency to get stuck on OT 7, sometimes for years.

Acunto had another problem that kept him from completing the level — he was getting unwanted bad press.

In 1996 Acunto and Survival Insurance ran afoul of California’s Department of Insurance, which launched an investigation into allegations that Survival was placing insurance policies without proper licensing. Acunto was fined $10,000 and was also forced to pay the state for the cost of the investigation itself, a $55,000 hit. But by 1999, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush reacted to hundreds more complaints by trying to put Survival out of business by revoking its license entirely.

If Survival was willing to insure bad drivers, it also knew that it had those drivers at their mercy — and charged huge fees with impunity. Quackenbush’s investigation found that in one case, a person with a $260 premium was billed a $1,000 fee by the broker who sold the policy.

Survival Insurance managed to survive the state’s intense interest, but Acunto’s career as a Scientologist took a serious hit.

“There’s one thing you do not do as a Scientologist. You do not bring bad press on the organization. And when Richie had his problems with the state, Miscavige didn’t like it and kicked Richie off the level,” our source tells us.

Richie was booted off of OT 7, and it marked him as a person who was out of favor. We talked to numerous people who knew Acunto who told us the same thing — it was a devastating blow for Acunto, but it only made him even more determined to get back into the good graces of the church and Miscavige.

He soon saw a way. And it involved large, gaudy trophies.



In 2000, Acunto’s PR man, Guy White, began putting out the word that there was a new investment opportunity with Acunto’s various companies. (Survival Insurance was just one of several entities that Acunto owned, and the other companies also used some Scientology jargon in their names.) White told investors that Acunto was going to seize the burgeoning Internet with a new company, Insuresuite, that would make it simple to buy car insurance online — you could even print out your proof of insurance on your own home printer.

It was a powerful offer for Scientologists who had some money to invest. Acunto was not only well known (despite his setbacks) but his PR man, Guy White, had been married to L. Ron Hubbard’s daughter, Suzette, and they’d had three children, the youngest in 1994. (They aren’t married today, and White declined to be interviewed. His involvement in this story is drawn from court documents.)

Scientologist Tom Provenzano was intrigued, and ended up investing $115,000 in the company, purchasing shares at only $2 each. He was told that it would take some time to build or purchase the business that would allow Insuresuite to go public, but when that happened his shares would explode in value — in the meantime he just needed to sit tight. Other Scientologists also invested.

Acunto, meanwhile, began rebuilding his status in the Church of Scientology by making large donations to the IAS and other Scientology initiatives.

He was living large, with a Beverly Hills mansion just a few doors away from Dr. Phil McGraw and four houses away from Tom Cruise. He also had an expensive estate in Bellaire, Florida, and a boat in Marina del Rey.

And he loved to ride motorcycles, which is how he became good friends with a fellow Ducati aficionado, Tiziano Lugli.

We’ve written numerous times about Lugli — musician, music producer, photographer, filmmaker, and former Italian pop star.

Lugli tells us that despite his wealth, Acunto’s house in Beverly Hills was something of a disaster.

“With all the millions he used to have, he just worked above his garage at his house, and it was kind of filthy. He was smoking two packs a day,” Lugli says.

Acunto and several of his employees worked at the disheveled office above his garage, and it’s where he kept several of his trophies.

In the following video, shot by Lugli, he and his wife Jamie pay a visit to Acunto’s office, and you get a brief glimpse of his insurance empire…



[Acunto and Lugli, in better days]

Lugli says Acunto encouraged other Scientologists to be active, and to be “on course.” He especially pushed people to go to “Flag” — Scientology’s mecca in Clearwater, Florida.

“I would ask him, Richie, why do you keep pushing people to go to Flag if you don’t go there?” Tiziano says. “He said he didn’t have the time because it would take him so long to get there. Why? Because he didn’t fly. I asked him why he didn’t fly and he said, ‘When you do the OT 3, you’ll know why.’ He didn’t ride elevators either, and for the same reason.”

On Operating Thetan Level Three, Scientologists are let in on a startling story. It’s not an “origin story” so much as a shared history — the Xenu tale that South Park made famous in a 2005 episode, featuring a galactic overlord and the genocide of billions of alien beings whose unseen souls infest human beings today by the hundreds or thousands. Upper-level Scientology is about removing those entities, known as “body thetans,” in expensive exorcisms that can cost up to $1,000 an hour.

“Something was restimulated for Richie on OT 3,” Tiziano says with a laugh. (Scientologists believe that experiences from your past lives — even from trillions of years ago — can be brought back up to the surface — restimulated — with certain triggers.) “And because of that he couldn’t hop on a plane or take an elevator.”

Despite such eccentricities, Acunto and Lugli became close friends, and often spent Sundays on long rides on their bikes.

Meanwhile, Acunto kept expanding his businesses.

In 2004, he formed yet another company, this one called Ocean Financial Holdings. With the help of two Scientologist brothers, Farid and Majid Tabibzadeh, who recruited other investors in LA’s large Persian community, some $30 million was raised for the firm.

Other investors like Tom Provenzano, who had put in a significant amount of his own money in 2000, were still told to hang tight as Insuresuite waited to make its move.

On May 21, 2008, Acunto filed a report with the SEC as he had Ocean Financial sell $20,535,073.60 of its equity, reporting it as “Surplus capital required for an insurance company.”

And then, in August 2008, Richie Acunto made a huge donation to the IAS. One company insider tells us that it was for about $9 million, which easily put Acunto over the cumulative $10 million mark of a “Patron Laureate.” He also spent hundreds of thousands more on many sets of “The Basics” — revised versions of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology texts that Miscavige put out in 2007 and then pressured all members to purchase in multiple sets at $3,000 per set.

In this brief video from Tiziano Lugli, you can see Acunto sitting on his motorcycle, and in his garage, boxes of “The Basics” piled up to the ceiling…


Meanwhile, Acunto’s largesse with the Church of Scientology apparently wasn’t reported to his investors.

According to a lawsuit filed in 2013 by Tom Provenzano, he didn’t hear from Guy White until January 2011 about the huge donation. And by that time, everything was falling apart.

According to the amended complaint of his lawsuit, Provenzano learned in January 2011 that Guy White was leaving his job working for Acunto, “because defendant Acunto had taken the company funds and made a ten million dollar donation to the International Association of Scientologists in exchange for receiving a Patron Laureate status medal from the leader of the Church of Scientology.”

On May 12, 2011, Provenzano received an email from Insuresuite telling him “All the money is gone.” And on August 30, 2011, Survival Insurance filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Richie Acunto was broke.



“The last time I saw him was two or three years ago. I was riding. It was a little sad. We used to ride very Sunday and spend all day together,” Tiziano Lugli says.

In August 2009, they were still so close, Acunto had officiated at the wedding of Lugli to his wife, actress Jamie Sorrentini. But just a few months later, in January 2010, as the Luglis went through doubts about Scientology and began moving away from it, they found themselves shut out by Acunto.


[Tiziano Lugli and Jamie Sorrentini are married by Richie Acunto on August 31, 2009]

When the Luglis went to his house to try and talk to him, he wouldn’t answer their knocking. But they discovered that someone else was trying to get in to see Acunto — a representative from the IAS, looking for more donations.

Lugli and others who were very close to Acunto tell us that between 2010 and 2012, Acunto lost his Beverly Hills home and the Florida estate, his marriage fell apart, and he began living on his boat in Marina Del Rey. (We left a voice mail message for him but have not heard back.)

He apparently also stopped paying the rental bills on a storage unit that held his IAS trophies and other artifacts of his days as a high-flying Scientologist.

In September 2011, former high-ranking Scientology official Marty Rathbun reported on the bankruptcy of Survival Insurance, and noted that all of the debts it owed added up to only about $1.4 million — not really much of a burden on a company that at one time had 650 employees and processed 3,000 auto insurance policies a week. Rathbun suggested that the least Scientology leader David Miscavige could do would be to pay that debt out of what Acunto had given the church.

Tiziano Lugli tells us there’s one reason why he holds out some hope that he might see his old friend again. In late 2009, when he and Jamie were becoming disillusioned with Scientology, he was surprised to learn that Richie Acunto knew all about the “entheta” — the negative press — about Scientology in the St. Petersburg Times that was causing many longtime, loyal Scientologists to raise questions about leader David Miscavige.

“He knew about it and was concerned,” Lugli says. And maybe, if Richie Acunto had doubts then, he may yet begin to see things more clearly.


Posted by Tony Ortega on November 22, 2014 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to 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.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email