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Bad boys of the Sea Org: guns, drugs, murder and Scientology

[L. Ron Hubbard, Commodore of his own navy]

Chris Owen once again dives into Scientology history to bring us sparkling detail on a sordid episode in Sea Org history. Today, the first of two parts.

New Year, 1971. L. Ron Hubbard and his wife Mary Sue were aboard his flagship the Apollo, moored at Funchal on the Portuguese Atlantic island of Madeira. They received a 13-page memorandum from Bob Thomas, the US head of the Guardian’s Office (GO), Scientology’s intelligence and public relations organization, presenting an annual report of the US GO’s activities during 1970. It listed no fewer than 168 separate “wins.” Among the victories listed for the GO’s intelligence branch were the following items:

73. Brought about the largest drug “bust” in the history of California.

74. Put Doug Rambo in jail.

75. Put Baron Berez in jail.


80. Established close working relations with Ramparts Police Station.

81. Established close working relations with California CII (Criminal Investigations and Identification).

95. Handled U.S. Coast Guard false reports on Scientology.

Why was the GO enabling a drug bust in California? Who were Doug Rambo and Baron Berez and why did the GO celebrate their incarceration? How did the GO succeed in establishing close relations with Californian law enforcement agencies? Why did the US Coast Guard have “false reports” on Scientology which needed handling? And why did this affair lead to L. Ron Hubbard having to flee Charleston, South Carolina in October 1974? The answers to these questions reveal a remarkable tale that links Scientology and its Sea Org with murder, drug smuggling, and possible gunrunning involving at least three Scientologists, a former US federal prosecutor, and a prominent Los Angeles businessman among many others.

The man at the center of the affair was Jerald “Jerry” Noel McDonald, aged 30 in 1970. He had joined the US Navy in 1957 and left on December 18, 1967, according to VA records. He joined Scientology while still in the Navy and underwent Power Processing (Grade V) at Saint Hill Manor in England in the fall of 1967, according to The Auditor magazine. From there, he went to Spain to join L. Ron Hubbard’s Sea Org fleet. He was given a “Joburg” Security Check by Neville Chamberlain, a British ex-boxer who had joined the Sea Org earlier and who wrote of McDonald that he was “a larger-than-life customer, a smuggler, hard case and general crook.” Chamberlain later recalled:

I started his Joburg. Questions like “Have you ever stolen anything?,” answers were “Oh yes blah blah blah,” needle moving freely, absolutely no response at all. So I decided to run a reverse Joburg.

“Have you failed to steal something?” BANG CRASH the meter went. Boy, was there ever some charge on it. Times he had the chance to steal and failed to do so.

It took HOURS to run it, there was SO much stuff. All sorts of things came up, many that would have seen him serving life sentences. Anyway, I did the job. We were good friends after that.

McDonald owned a 65-foot high-speed former air-sea rescue boat, the Bluefin, which he gave to the Sea Org as a training vessel in San Diego. Hubbard himself announced the addition of the vessel to the Sea Org’s Pacific Coast fleet from January 12, 1969 in a newsletter issued the same month. McDonald was posted to command the vessel – renamed the Aries after it was sold to Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue – with the Sea Org rank of Warrant Officer. He also owned the Makaira, a former US Navy subchaser, which he likewise allowed the Sea Org to use (though he retained ownership of the vessel). Hubbard was evidently delighted with the gifts, as he appointed McDonald to the position of Commander Pacific Flotilla, announced in his March 29, 1969 “Orders of the Day.”

Although Scientology did not know it at the time, the Bluefin/Aries was already the subject of an extensive US Customs investigation because of a report that it was involved in narcotics smuggling from Mexico. It had been purchased in 1968 for $50,000 by Warren Hudson, a former navy pilot who worked for a major narcotics smuggling ring based in Culiacan in Mexico’s Sinaloa state. He regularly flew marijuana for the ring from Mexico to Tucson, where it was trucked to San Francisco. In June 1968, Hudson stole $64,000 from the ring and spent most of it to buy the Bluefin, which he hoped to use for his own smuggling business. After the vengeful smugglers tracked Hudson down, he was murdered in October 1968 by a hitman hired for $5,000. McDonald does not seem to have been linked to the murder, at least in published reports.

The Bluefin was subsequently acquired by McDonald, who was an associate of Hudson’s and purchased it from his widow for $20,000. McDonald subsequently purchased the Makaira for $19,000 — $10,000 up front and the rest to be paid off in monthly installments over three years. The two vessels were used by the Sea Org for training purposes, sailing between southern California and northern Mexico. It is unclear where McDonald got the money to purchase either vessel, but given his connections it seems very possible that both were purchased with drug money.

From Chamberlain’s account, McDonald was likely already involved in criminal activity when he joined the Sea Org. McDonald almost certainly did not admit, though, that he was also working for US Customs. Confidential US government documents acquired by the Guardian’s Office a few years later stated that McDonald had been working for US Customs, presumably as an informant, since 1968 — in other words, while he was still in the Sea Org.

According to Scott Meyer, another former GO member, McDonald had a reputation as a “hard man,” who was “widely rumored to have been a former mercenary and a paid assassin in Europe. He was known throughout the Sea Org for taking care of difficult problems. If someone was giving a problem in some area Jerry McDonald would just appear there.” Meyer wrote in a 1994 affidavit that McDonald “was also the kind of guy who would have people over to his house every now and then and would get out his automatic weapons, clean them and put them together in front of people. In this way, he would let people know that he was really conversant with his craft. He carried a 9mm pistol on him all the time and he was always talking about arms sales and deals that he was doing.”

Some time probably around 1969, Meyer says he was ordered by his superior to go with McDonald to Rosarito in Mexico, where the Sea Org had a nursery ranch for “overflow kids that could not be housed in Los Angeles.” Thieves were reportedly harassing the ranch and stealing regularly from it. Meyer said that he and McDonald were “asked to put together a mission to go down to Mexico, take some infrared optics and some guns and rifles, wait for the Mexican bandits to attack the ranch again and then take care of them. We were told to kill them if necessary.”

The Pacific Sea Org fleet was also under investigation by the US Coast Guard, which had become aware of its activities under farcical circumstances. The President of the Los Angeles Yacht Club saw the Aries and Makaira carrying out “paramilitary drills” off Ensenada and mistook the Sea Org insignia for that of the Coast Guard. He reported it to the admiral in charge of the 11th Coast Guard District as a case of “impersonating the Coast Guard” and asked if the FBI should be informed. The USCG likely did contact other agencies. It would have found that the US Customs service was very interested in why the Aries and Makaira were going back and forth between the US and Mexico. The matter became the focus of a multi-agency US government investigation, initially localized to the West Coast but which Customs reportedly planned to extend nationwide. The USCG’s 11th District’s intelligence division “highly suspect[ed]” Scientology of involvement in “murder, extortion, dope smuggling, and carrying U.S. money to communists.”

The Makaira was boarded by US Customs officers on November 19, 1969. It is not clear what happened on that occasion, but on January 15, 1970, according to a Guardian’s Office log seized by the FBI in 1977, McDonald and Terry Milner, the Deputy Guardian for Intelligence US, agreed to work together with US Customs “on a drug smuggling project.” Milner set up an operation with Customs and the Los Angeles Police Department “to remove X-Scientologists drug runners off Scientology lines.” The GO’s secondary motive appears to have been to gain good publicity for Scientology. A later GO document records that by providing assistance to law enforcement, the GO hoped to “get a commendation for the Church – use this as a D.A. document.” A “D.A. document,” in GO parlance, was a document that helped Scientology with “dead agenting” or refuting hostile claims against it. The intention was presumably to immunize Scientology against suspicions that it was engaged in smuggling or more broadly to improve Scientology’s reputation with the government.

According to Milner, Customs believed that Scientology was involved in the drugs trade because of the involvement of some ex-Scientologists, one of whom (unidentified in the log) had been caught while smuggling drugs and claimed that he was on a secret mission for the Sea Org. McDonald was assigned to act as a triple agent — informing on the drug smugglers for Customs and the LAPD, but also informing the Guardian’s Office of what Customs was telling him about Scientology. When Milner discovered (probably through McDonald) that Scientology was suspected of drug smuggling, he attempted to set up a meeting with the head of the USCG’s intelligence division but was rebuffed.

The smugglers in question included Herbert Bryan Berez (also known as Baron Berez) and Douglas Edward Rambo, two ex-Sea Org members. They had joined the Sea Org in 1968 as part of a wave of new recruits. At that point the Sea Org accepted people with a history of prior drug use but Berez, according to Hubbard, was not only a user but a “pusher.” In his “Orders of the Day,” Hubbard blamed Berez and two other individuals for being “the basis of all our trouble and overwork.” He said that Berez, who had served in the role of Master at Arms – responsible for discipline – had contributed to the Apollo’s reputation for being a “violent and savage ship.” After Berez was removed from his position, Hubbard issued a mocking farewell notice in December 1968: “Goodbye, Mr. Berez. You who used ethics most wrongly were found with a huge tin of marijuana to be the most out-ethics person aboard … So goodbye Mr. Berez. I trust you will soon go up in smoke.” Rambo also had a prior criminal record for offenses including assault and battery. All three were expelled from Scientology.

In early 1970, according to a later GO report, McDonald had “blown [left the Sea Org] with Makaira … and [was] using it for drug smuggling.” He told Customs on February 17 that he had left Scientology but his wife and children were still in. McDonald was part of a major marijuana smuggling operation centered on Puerto Vallarta and Punta Banda, Mexico. It involved the use of three vessels – the Roughneck, Marine Club I and Makaira. In mid-February 1970, the Roughneck, a former salvage vessel, received about two tons of marijuana from the Makaira in Mexican waters and brought it to Los Angeles. Five people, including Los Angeles investment counselor Carl Thompson, were later indicted on federal charges and another nine were named as co-conspirators relating to that operation.

Another shipment was intercepted at Long Beach, CA on March 19 when a ton and a half of marijuana was seized from the Roughneck as the contraband was being transferred into a barge. Another three tons were seized from a second barge in what was said to be the biggest marijuana bust in US history. Eight people were arrested, including McDonald’s former Sea Org colleagues Berez and Rambo. Investigators said that it appeared that the gang had smuggled many tons of marijuana into California over the previous three years. The authorities had been trying for months to catch up with the Roughneck but had repeatedly failed, leading them to nickname the vessel “The Flying Dutchman.” It later emerged that information from McDonald had led to the seizure of the marijuana and a separate haul of cocaine in San Francisco.

Terry Milner reported on June 15, 1970 that Rambo had been offered leniency if he gave information on Scientology, though Milner said that Customs had denied this when challenged. While awaiting trial, Rambo was arrested again in Mill Valley in Marin County after the seizure of 1,000 lb of marijuana and $23,000 from homes in Tamalpais Valley and in Fairfax, where Rambo lived. He attempted unsuccessfully to bribe narcotics agents with $5,800 that he had in his pocket and was charged for that act too. Rambo, Berez and another man were convicted in a February 1971 trial, with nine other individuals either pleading guilty or being convicted in separate trials. Both Rambo and Berez fled before the trial and were the subject of bench warrants for their arrests.

— Chris Owen

In the next part, we’ll look at what happened to Jerry McDonald when the law finally caught up with him – and how his smuggling rackets caused problems for Scientology for years afterwards.


Make your plans now!


Hey, we’re less than a month away from this year’s HowdyCon in Chicago, June 21-23. As in past years, we’re looking forward to meeting readers of the Bunker, culminating in Saturday night’s main event.

The biggest difference this year is that our Saturday night event is separate from that evening’s dinner. Chee Chalker is setting up an inexpensive pizza dinner that you don’t need to pay for ahead of time, after which we’ll walk over to the theater where our event, hosted by Chicago Fire star Christian Stolte, will take place. Because it’s a separate event, we’re asking that you pay $10 each to get into the Saturday night event, which will help us recoup what the Bunker paid for the venue. (We have never made a penny on our HowdyCon meetups, we only try to break even.)

Please email your proprietor (tonyo94 AT gmail) in order to reserve your spot for Saturday night’s main event. Seating is limited, and we’re going to have some really interesting people on stage and they may make a few announcements that you don’t want to miss.



Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,130 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 1,733 days
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 276 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 164 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,339 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,113 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 2,887 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,233 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 10,799 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,467 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,727 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 1,767 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,479 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,005 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,094 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,234 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,554 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,529 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 885 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,187 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,293 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 1,696 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,568 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,150 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,655 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 1,899 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,008 days.


3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on May 30, 2018 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2017 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2017), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

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 | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news


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