Scientology Defector’s Epic Showdown Begins in New Braunfels Court

Mark Rathbun speaks to a reporter outside the Comal County courthouse Thursday, as his wife's lawyer, Ray Jeffrey, walks out behind him.
Patrick Michels
Mark Rathbun speaks to a reporter outside the Comal County courthouse Thursday, as his wife's lawyer, Ray Jeffrey, walks out behind him.

It reads like a half-baked Hollywood treatment.

A top official in the world’s most notorious church flees a secret compound and, presumed dead, escapes to a new life on the Texas coast. When he and his new wife are discovered, they’re so hounded by church enforcers that they haul the church to court for a restraining order. And now, inside a quaint historic courthouse in a Texas town, the church and all its big-time legal firepower must defend itself before a rural judge.

That’s the real-life story as Mark and Monique Rathbun tell it, and her lawsuit filed in Comal County last month spells it out in even more compelling detail. Before a dozen or more lawyers for the Church of Scientology and others she’s accused of stalking her, Monique Rathbun took the witness stand Thursday and described being stalked from one home to the next, harassed at work and followed overseas.

Les Strieber, a San Antonio lawyer representing the church, began building a defense based on religious freedom, suggesting Mark and Monique Rathbun are heretics who’ve been practicing Scientology outside the bounds of the church—and in violation of the church’s trademarks—and intoning that this “stalking” is constitutionally protected religious speech. With a little courtroom righteousness worthy of Matthew McConaughey, Strieber delivered one of the day’s great lines: “Your honor, I am not a Scientologist. But I am a disciple of the First Amendment.”

Judge Dib Waldrip, meanwhile, gave a promising first performance as the sleepy but straight-talking voice of Texas justice, bragging to the lawyers that, as they’re in Comal County, they’ll have to work their schedules around “the oldest continuously running fair in Texas.” Tony Ortega, the once and longtime Village Voice writer who’s covering the trial freelance, quipped Thursday that Waldrip looked like Ricky Gervais with Colonel Sanders’ facial hair. Waldrip, when Ortega’s name came up during the hearing, asked what a “Village Voice” is, and then looked completely baffled by the answer, like it had something to do with MTV.

Thursday’s hearing was a preliminary matter, as lawyers argue about extending the temporary restraining order Monique Rathbun has secured against the Church of Scientology and the people she says have been stalking her and her husband. All but one lawyer for the defense passed up the chance to cross-examine Rathbun yesterday, saying they’d rather hold their questions for the trial itself.

So Monique Rathbun spent more than two hours Thursday afternoon on the story of how she met and fell in love with Mark Rathbun—once a top official in the Church of Scientology, now one of the church’s most outspoken critics—and how their peaceful life on an impossibly idyllic Corpus Christi Bay became a nightmare. Beginning in late 2009, Mark and Monique Rathbun became the targets of sustained harassment by the Church of Scientology’s heretic-trackers known as “Squirrel Busters.”

This is the point at which one of world religion’s great curiosities became a local Texas story. The Rathbuns’ neighbors rallied to chase the buffoonish Squirrel Busters from cozy Ingleside on the Bay—but when the Rathbuns discovered hidden cameras trained on their home after the Squirrel Busters’ departure, they fled to a remote new home in Comal County.

Prompted by her lawyer Ray Jeffrey, Monique Rathbun choked up Thursday as she recalled finding surveillance cameras hidden in the trees behind their new home earlier this year, pointed at their house.

“It was just devastating,” she said. “It was just… this is never gonna stop.”

“How much more of this can you take?” Jeffrey asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

Strieber, the Church of Scientology’s attorney, got Monique Rathbun to concede that neither the Squirrel Busters nor any private investigators the Rathbuns encountered had physically harmed them or trespassed on their new home.

Because Mark and Monique Rathbun had both been “auditing” people at their home—a form of religious counseling particular to Scientology—outside the church’s purview, and had been using a piece of equipment known as an “E-meter” without the church’s approval, Strieber suggested any harassment Monique Rathbun alleged was just an attempt to protect the orthodoxy of the church. And its registered trademarks.

Though she hasn’t been a member of the Church of Scientology, Monique Rathbun said she’d dabbled in Scientology practices since marrying Mark.

“At any time, did you consider stopping auditing, [or] use of the Scientology materials … as a way of ending this religious debate between the church and your husband?” Strieber asked her.

“No, I did not,” she said. “I didn’t think that’s what this fight is about.”

Any trial in the case is a long ways off—even the decision on extending the restraining order is likely weeks away. Lawyers are back in court today to fight over an attempt to get Jeffrey, Rathbun’s lawyer, removed from the case. They’ll be back in New Braunfels again later this month or early next month—depending on the schedules of Scientology’s legal team and, of course, the longest-running county fair in Texas.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 12:04 pm CST