The rush of cars zooming down Gilman Springs Road reminds Francois Choquette to watch his step on the dirt shoulder of the busy, two-lane highway to his right. A tuft of his brown hair flaps in the wind as he looks back to check traffic. He’s dressed modestly today, no costumes, no masks. Instead, he wears dress pants and a crisp, blue collared shirt as he scouts for a good place to turn on his bulky digital camera in front of Golden Era Productions.
Centered on a sprawling stretch of land near San Jacinto, Golden Era’s location is ideal for the Church of Scientology International’s worldwide media manufacturing and film production headquarters. It’s lonesome and quiet there. Except for the cars. And the occasional picketers. Though Choquette is usually there to protest, today he’s doing what most local members of anti-Scientology group Anonymous love to do in front of this state-of-the-art film studio: watching. And filming.
Silence is Golden
Looking past the facility’s gates, topped with small spikes of ultra barrier, he squints to catch a glimpse of a member of the Sea Organization (a.k.a. Sea Org), the devout paramilitary group of top-level Scientologists who run the site’s daily operations. There are about 500 that live there, according to Golden Era’s Public Relations manager Catherine Fraser. Most are noticeable by their crisp blue uniforms that mimic something a naval officer would wear. Lately, they don’t seem to come outside to work as much as they used to.
To the average person, the idea of this pristine, church-operated production facility doubling as an inescapable labor camp run by devout Scientologists seems ridiculous. Local members of Anonymous have spent the last two years trying to prove that it is. And the harder they look the more evidence they see.
“I feel that because the [flood lights] are on at night, that the whole place is on full lockdown,” says Choquette. “They’re on DEFCON 4 panic attack. It doesn’t look like it, but they are.”
Spurred by stories from former Sea Org members and endless research into Church of Scientology International, local members of Anonymous have tried for years to get Golden Era investigated, citing allegations of physical abuse, false imprisonment and other human rights abuses. However, public officials and law enforcement in Riverside County say that these allegations lack hard evidence needed for an investigation.
Meanwhile, protesters offer up a constant stream of police reports, filed complaints, public speeches and video footage of run-ins with Golden Era’s security in an effort to validate their claims.
“We’ve tried for a long time to get [Golden Era Productions] investigated. I’ve written to all levels of government, right up to the Attorney General of the United States,” says Choquette.
So far, no formal charges of abuse have been filed on behalf of former Sea Org members partially due to gag orders placed on those who have previous settlements or current court cases involving the Church of Scientology.
Despite allegations of abuse at Golden Era, Sea Org members at the 500-acre compound characterize these claims as false and defamatory.
“These guys make it sound as if we’re some kind of prison camp. It makes me wanna vomit,” says Fraser, adding that protesters at Golden Era’s gates are ignored by the religious volunteers. “[The protesters] are so unimportant. They’re nothing [compared] to what we’re doing.”
Most Sea Org members at Golden Era would rather talk about the success of their community outreach, which includes literacy programs for children and adults, Narconon (the church’s popular anti-drug program) or Criminon (a rehabilitation program for prison inmates). And according to Community Affairs Director Muriel Dufresne, Golden Era’s Community Center and Golf Course, located less than a half mile from the Golden Era’s campus, helped earn $135,000 this year for local nonprofit organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America and the Police Activities League by hosting their fundraisers free of charge. These kinds of credentials starkly contrast the image of Golden Era put forth by protesters and former Sea Org members.
However, former Sea Org members like Marc Headley say they’ve experienced 100-hour work weeks and physical and verbal abuse stemming from the leader of Scientology, David Miscavige. Although most former Sea Orgs haven’t submitted formal claims to authorities, he and others like him say this violent behavior is common at Golden Era.
“Some people question whether or not people are being held there against their will,” says Headley, author of Blown For Good—Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology. Headley worked at Golden Era from 1990 until 2005.
“More to the point is that most people there have long passed having a will at all,” he says. “A will to be able to even consider leaving.”
According to protesters and former Sea Orgs, the main obstacle in getting Golden Era investigated is the relationship between high-ranking officials of the church and Riverside County politicians.
Friends in High Places
Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone (whose district includes Golden Era) and Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco are both accused by protesters of colluding with a Golden Era attorney and the facility’s public relations staff. Specifically, they question the drafting of Ordinance 884, a countywide residential picketing ban enacted in February 2009. The ordinance, passed by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, is designed to keep any protester at least 30 feet away from the property line of a targeted residence. This prohibits Anonymous protests and demonstrations from taking place near Golden Era’s staff dormitories.
Still, many Anons refused to stop protesting.
“Some of us felt it was important because of what information has come out about what goes on there,” says protester Mark Abian of Tustin. “It’s probably more extreme there than any other Scientology location.”
Attempts by Anons to investigate the drafting of Ordinance 884 led them to public financial reports that show campaign contributions from Scientologists between 2007-2010 to various Riverside County supervisors and the DA’s office. From 2007-2009, Fraser donated $600 to Jeff Stone’s campaigns for supervisor. Stone also got $835 from Dufresne during those two years. That’s in addition to contributions made by Dufresne to the four other members of the Board of Supervisors, Pacheco and Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff.
The Money Trail
There are questions about where these relatively modest donations would come from since members of Sea Org, including Fraser and Dufresne, don’t earn wages from Golden Era. All their food, medical expenses and room and board are taken care of.
“That’s a huge problem,” says Choquette. “Churches are not allowed to give political contributions to candidates.” However, Fraser says that she does have her own bank account, despite not currently getting paid at Golden Era.
The Temecula branch of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a prominent law firm held primarily by Golden Era attorney Sam Alhadeff, has made larger contributions to many of the same elected officials, including Stone. The firm issued $2,399 in donations to Stone’s 2010 state Senate campaign. They also donated $2,150 for Stone’s district in 2009, $3,500 in 2008 and $5,400 in 2007 according to public finance reports. Alhadeff also represented Stone as a defendant in a personal lawsuit through his previous law firm, Alhadeff & Solar, in 2003 and also in 2008. Several phone calls and emails to Stone and Alhadeff regarding these issues were not returned.
It was Stone who successfully pushed for the anti-picketing ordinance—despite the fact that a fellow supervisor, Bob Buster, said such a ban would quash free-speech rights.
Though protesters view these financial records and questionable political ties as ammunition to try to get an investigation into Golden Era, it is the stories of those who actually lived there that truly compel their efforts.
“There is a complicated situation [at Golden Era] that involves a serious amount control over a person,” says Headley—currently suing Golden Era for back wages that he says he should have been paid while at the facility. Before leaving the church in 2005, Headley worked at Golden Era in audio/video production and editing scripts for Scientology’s instructional videos. He never lived in the dormitories. But he and a handful of Sea Orgs were supplied with homes on a small housing tract on Sublette Road—just steps away from Golden Era’s gates. Headley says he spent endless hours inside the facility. He says his schedule often forced him to sleep at his desk along with other Sea Orgs.
Another former Sea Org, Amy Scobee, says those punished for disobeying rules at Golden Era were sent to a clandestine detention center on the property called the Rehabilitation Project Force or “RPF.” Scobee, who also left the church in 2005, was an operations manager at several Scientology organizations including Golden Era. She alleges that the RPF is dedicated to the punishment and rehabilitation of Sea Orgs labeled “suppressive” or insubordinate with the rules and values of the church. Headley and Scobee say those inside the RPF during political elections aren’t permitted to vote, and are subjected to forced manual labor and unable to see their families for long periods of time. Scobee also says that Sea Orgs were kept insulated from protesters by top-level Sea Org staff.
“There’s a lockdown that occurs with the staff members,” says Scobee. “All blinds are closed. Everyone’s supposed to stay right where they are—it doesn’t matter where you are—until the people who are outside leave.”
According to Headley and other former Sea Orgs that spoke to the Weekly, workers inside Golden Era can’t come and go freely from the property. All incoming mail, phone calls and personal contact are screened by security. At a media press conference in Hollywood on February 12, 2010, Headley described horrendous beatings of people like himself, who at one time was allegedly punched repeatedly by Miscavige during an argument in 2004.
However, reports from current Sea Org members at Golden Era paint an entirely different picture of life on the compound.
Fraser gave the Weekly pages of written comments from current Golden Era Sea Org members. They supposedly give an insider’s perspective on life at Golden Era. However, they weren’t permitted to speak in person or on the phone to the Weekly.
Barbara Mace, a resident there since 1979, works in post-production editing at the facility and has helped create a number of Scientology-based educational films. She talks fondly of her time at Golden Era, according to the written comments.
“I am proud of what I do,” Mace writes. “I am extremely lucky to be doing something I love doing which helps people all over the world.”
Sea Org member Francois Dejust, came all the way from France to live and work at Golden Era. Dejust has worked as a cinematographer there since 1994 and describes the compound as “professional,” “peaceful” and “productive.”
Spy vs. Spy
According to Riverside County Sheriff’s Sgt. Stephen Mike, the supervising officer in the area around Golden Era, local law enforcement shares a good rapport with Golden Era.
However, the authorities will not hesitate to investigate any formally filed first-hand claims of abuse there. In February, Mike says deputies did a walk-through inspection and welfare check on Golden Era’s property and found nothing that warranted investigation. However, Mike would not say who requested the welfare check or why it was being done.
Nancy Many says she spent 27 years as a Scientologist, a stint that included working as an agent for the Guardian’s Office, the church’s intelligence bureau (now called the Office of Special Affairs) until about 1986, the same year as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s death.
She says that when it was discovered she was thinking of leaving her post, she was harshly interrogated by other OSA operatives and suffered a nervous breakdown that took her years to recover from. It’s a process she chronicles in My Billion Year Contract—her autobiography about her time as a spy for Scientology. Despite what she has endured, one thing she and many of the protesters try to make clear is the distinction between their feelings about the religion of Scientology and the alleged abuse instigated by the church’s leadership.
“Stop abusing people”
“I don’t want Scientology to close down,” says Many. She says that despite its leadership, the counseling and training were beneficial in some respects.
“Do I think it was worth the price that I paid in my time and my life and my money? That’s a whole different question. It think it had value and still has value. Just follow the law and stop abusing people.”
For those who continue to carry signs outside of Golden Era, the fight for an investigation into Golden Era remains an uphill battle. And it’s questionable whether it will ever happen. For now, people like Choquette prefer to focus on the small wins here and there, which typically mean trying to catch the attention of Sea Org members inside the gates and plead with them to leave the church.
“Occasionally you’ve got one that you can talk to and that makes us happy,” says Choquette as cars whiz by on the desert stretch of road. “If I could just have one stop by the fence and yell at me or insult me, I’d be happy with that because so far, they just won’t listen.”