The tiny town of Ingleside on the Bay occupies about a third of a square mile of sand across the water from Corpus Christi. It is known primarily for its nearby shipping traffic, a closed naval station, and rustling palm trees; its 615 citizens are a placid bunch of retirees, Canadian snowbirds, shrimpers, and championship Bunco players. But in the past year, the hamlet has become a battleground, as Marty Rathbun, an ex-Scientologist who moved here in 2006, has tangled with a group of self-appointed defenders of his former religion. In the process, the town’s residents have found themselves at the center of one of the strangest religious dustups in America.
Scientology has long captured popular imagination with its Hollywood Boulevard personality tests, cosmic belief system, and celebrity followers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The religion was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, and according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the Church of Scientology has around 25,000 adherents nationwide. Under its ecclesiastical leader, David Miscavige, the church has become a powerful entity, with tentacles that reach as far as Taiwan and a 440-foot cruise ship that roves the Caribbean. It does not take kindly to defectors. A church dropout who continues to practice Scientology in unauthorized ways is termed a “squirrel” and is investigated, lest he or she become, as Hubbard once wrote, “the implanter, the warmonger, the wrecker.”
One of the most well-known heretics is Rathbun, a 55-year-old from California who spent 27 years in the church and rose to the rank of inspector general of the Religious Technology Center—a position directly under Miscavige—before leaving in 2004. A few years later, Rathbun, whom the church describes as a “defrocked apostate” who was expelled for malfeasance, began giving damning interviews about the institution to, among others, the St. Petersburg Times, the Village Voice, Anderson Cooper, and the New Yorker. In February 2009 Rathbun launched a blog, labeling himself an “independent Scientologist” and offering counseling to fellow defectors, who began flocking to his doorstep from around the world. All of this was seen as an egregious violation by the church, which has publicly condemned Rathbun’s actions.
In Ingleside on the Bay, residents neither knew nor cared much about Scientology when Rathbun moved to town. But as his notoriety grew—he says his blog got 2.5 million hits in 2011 alone—he attracted the attention of Squirrel Busters Productions, a band of filmmakers who made it their mission to expose his unsanctioned Scientology practices. (The church denies an association with the group, saying it is an independent production company.) The town was quickly overrun: SBP crews began following Rathbun in April 2011, filming him in the street, trailing him into restaurants, and confronting him at the airport and his house. Local radio ads cautioned listeners about Marty “the Squirrel” Rathbun. Residents found 41-page “neighborhood alert” booklets affixed to their front doors.
For six months, Rathbun’s neighbors witnessed daily filming sessions, which sometimes included shouting matches between Rathbun and the Squirrel Busters. (The group posted the exchanges on its YouTube channel, SquirrelZone.) In September, standing a legal ten feet from Rathbun’s yard, a two-man crew held a camera as a reporter read “breaking news” from cue cards. Wearing a black baseball cap and a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of Rathbun’s face on the body of a squirrel, the woman accused Rathbun of having a drinking problem. (Rathbun was arrested in New Orleans in July 2010 for public drunkenness; the arrest was expunged.) Also, she continued, he had no regard for his wife as a woman. “We know that from the type of sex toys in his collection,” she stated gravely.
The Squirrel Busters presented themselves as documentarians, and aggrieved ones at that. Earlier in the summer, John Allender, a producer for SBP, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that Rathbun was fostering a “hate campaign against his former religion” and that SBP was making a documentary to chronicle his harmful influence. (Allender did not return calls for this story.) But as filming turned increasingly into what Rathbun considered harassment, residents of Ingleside on the Bay found themselves officially caught in the middle. Sheriff’s deputies became inundated with competing calls from Rathbun and SBP, with both parties offering video evidence of the other’s transgressions.
For the most part, though, the town seemed to close ranks around Rathbun. In 1991 Ingleside on the Bay fought a proposed annexation from neighboring Ingleside and incorporated with a popular vote; as Jim Isbell, a retired research scientist, told me, citizens are rigorous about their rights. “Look, I’m not a member of Marty’s religion. I’m a Lutheran,” said the 75-year-old, who runs the local tea party group. “But I am a believer in the First, Second, Fourth, and Tenth Amendments. And the Squirrel Busters are trying to take away Marty’s right to free speech.” A petition to stop SBP from filming was circulated. Yards sprouted signs forbidding the entry of Squirrel Busters. Residents whispered about a film-interrupting plot involving popcorn and seagulls. Rathbun’s next-door neighbor, 70-year-old Charlie Orr, ambushed the crew by turning his sprinklers on them. (They returned wearing raincoats in the 100-degree heat.)
“You gotta understand,” said Christian Wiseman, the owner of a local steakhouse, Nightlinger’s Chuck Wagon. “There is nothing going on in this town. Nothing. This place is wallpaper, man. So the paparazzi tactics, the cars with cameras all over them, the cloak-and-dagger stuff, it was wild. By the way, have you watched the videos? Comedy gold.”
A city filming ordinance was created, only to be rescinded after SBP retained a lawyer. (The county attorney found nothing illegal in SBP’s activities, and Mayor Howard Gillespie explained to me, “I don’t like the Squirrel Busters being here, but they have their rights too.”) In July, as residents’ exasperation grew, a spirited public hearing was held—the most-attended town hall meeting in years and, naturally, one recorded by SBP—during which Rathbun volunteered to leave town when his lease expired, in November.