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