Scientology Defector’s Epic Showdown Begins in New Braunfels Court

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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.

  • http://twitter.com/Scientology_411 Scientology_411

    It’s absolutely disgusting how the Church of Scientology has relentlessly harassed and tormented the Rathbuns. What kind of “church” engages in such creepy and perverse behavior?!?

    • BERTCHADICK

      “What kind of “church” engages in such creepy and perverse behavior?!?” Every kind of church that has ever existed has behaved in such a perverse manner. Scientology is just the newest practitioner of the ancient art of heretic lynching.

      • http://twitter.com/Scientology_411 Scientology_411

        Hardly. While there are plenty of other similar cults I’ve seen plenty of churches that do not behave that way.

      • John D Marsh

        Yup! Well put.

      • Guest

        Yeah, I was just reading a story on a team of Baptist “squirrel busters” where were stalking former members — NOT!! See how stupid that sounds?

      • Victor Edwards

        Yeah, I was just reading an article about some Baptist “squirrel busters” from Texas traveling to California to harass and stalk some former members… NOT!! Bert, do you not see how ridiculous this makes you look?

  • texasaggie

    If they are so worried about trademark infringement, it sounds a lot more like a corporation than a church. Do they have tax-free status? And if so, why?

    • Just Dee

      Yes they have tax free status, unfortunately. As to the “why” you need to wiki Operation Snow White. It’s quite an eye opener regarding this CULT.

  • william trent

    Just another example of how Scientology is an evil, destructive cult.

  • aquaclara

    My heart goes out to Monique Rathbun for having to endure this kind of harassment from a group of thugs that have little interest in kindness, helping others or charity-what religions are usually about. True Texas fair play is about to replace Scientology’s destructive “fair game” behavior. Excellent reporting….

  • Watergate

    So glad the Texas Observer is all over this. This is an important case. The fact that it happens to be in New Braunfels is poetic justice and a boon to the Observer. I hope Patrick Michaels is able to cover this case’s future developments. I urge Patrick to seek out Austin’s Pulitzer prize-winning author Lawrence Wright who, if he has time, can get Patrick up to speed on what is one of the strangest, most criminal organizations in the United States. I realize that sounds harsh, but I’m not toning it down. And if Wright is too busy to offer color commentary, then Patrick — please read his book, Going Clear – Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. It’s a barn burner.

  • SoberMoney

    Scientology should be renamed the Church of Grandiosity.

    Its followers think they are superior to other human beings – as they believe the human race is descendant of space beings who came to Earth long ago, giving believers a superior intellect (but only if they go through the Cult’s expensive cogntive auditing process).

    Erasing bad memories is their spiritual MO. But extorting past and current members is their church culture.

    Watch Tom Cruise on talk shows. He is a perfect example of one of their alien egos.

  • John Weeks

    Sounds like it’s time for squirrel-buster season to open in Texas.