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Since erecting a billboard near Dodger Stadium on Monday, April 4, Phil and Willie Jones, a 60-something married couple from Las Vegas, have drawn a great deal of media interest — including an appearance on Today — to a deeply personal cause. The Joneses want to speak to their two adult children, Mike, 42, and Emily, 38, whom they say they’ve lost all contact with through a process known within the Church of Scientology as “disconnection.” The family once was enmeshed deeply in the organization, but the parents began to have doubts about it five years ago, whereupon Phil’s sister, also a Scientologist, allegedly reported them to church leaders. They were excommunicated swiftly, and communication with their children immediately reduced to a trickle, say the Joneses. They have neither seen nor heard from either of their kids for more than two years. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Phil Jones about his “Call Me” billboard campaign.
How did you choose the location for your billboard?
We had first chosen a billboard location on Hollywood Boulevard, down by the [church’s] “Big Blue Building” complex. At the last minute, they shut us down. I’m pretty sure Scientology got to them on that. Then we found one on Hollywood Boulevard closer to La Brea, not far from where [Scientology leader] David Miscavige lives. We paid them in full, had the printing done, were one day from installation, and Scientology shut us down. They had one of their people call and offer to buy millions of dollars worth of billboard space all over the area just to shut us down.
Were you ready to give up at that point?
Luckily we found another company called Lamar Advertising, and I told them, “Look, we’ve been shut down twice. Scientology is doing everything it can to stop this billboard from going up.” This company was fantastic. The first thing they said was, “We believe in the First Amendment. As long as it’s not nudity or hate speech, we can do it.” We chose that location because it gets a million-plus views per month. We’re hoping the message gets out wide enough, and hopefully our kids will call.
Tell me about the unveiling.
It was up on Monday. We had a little dedication on Wednesday morning. I figured there would be five people, maybe a camera — but there was a whole film crew and a helicopter overhead. My wife and I are low-key kind of people, but we lost our kids to this. And it’s not just us, at this point. People started chipping in for the campaign. They sent notes about their own disconnection stories. The pain suffered from people who suffered from Scientology disconnection is incredible. People who haven’t seen their families for 30 years. There was a 10-year-old girl who donated $5 because she lost her sister to Scientology disconnection.
Explain what disconnecting is, for the uninitiated.
If you leave Scientology and make any kind of critical remark at all, every Scientologist has to disconnect from you: family, friends, business. Because my wife and I were in it for so many years, our entire lives were surrounded by it. Literally overnight we were cut off from everyone, including our own children. There’s no recourse. You can’t call the kids up and talk about it. We’ve tried to phone, letters, we go to the building, and the security people come out: “You’re not welcome here.” We were at a loss as to what else to do, and that’s when we came up with the billboard. We wanted to make a statement: We want our families back. They’re holding them hostage.
How did your kids get so deeply involved?
When I was 16, a couple Scientologists came to town and did a lecture on drugs, and there was food afterward, so I stuck around. Once you’re in it, there is a process that has a creep factor, there’s a degree of hypnotism, of mental conditioning. Once you get in too deep, it’s tough to break out. My wife and I met in Scientology when she was 17 and I was 18. We’ve been together ever since. We raised our children in it. We moved to be near the Scientology base in Clearwater, Fla. My son and daughter joined the Sea Organization, which is the full commitment. That’s where you sign a billion-year contract. You work there, eat the food there, you work 100 hours a week for 10 cents an hour. It’s just brutal. Now my son works in L.A. at the Celebrity Centre on Franklin Avenue, and my daughter works on Hollywood Boulevard for author services for [Scientology founder] L. Ron Hubbard’s fiction. She used to work directly for David Miscavige.
Miscavige has been accused of abuse before and has vehemently denied it. Are you aware of any committed against your daughter?
Not that I know of. I know she went through something a few years ago that gave her quite a bit of distress, but we are not allowed to hear about it. I know about 15 years ago, she was engaged to a guy also on Miscavige’s staff. They eventually split up. We recently found out they actually did get married while they were on a ship, then David Miscavige said they couldn’t be together until he did the ceremony. He never did it, and they were forced to divorce.
How much do you estimate you gave to the church?
Less than most. Probably around $100,000-$150,000. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a lot less than most Scientologists end up giving. I had a fair bit of money when I first entered Scientology as a teenager, through inheritances. Within a month they had it all, every penny of it.
When’s the last time you saw your children?
We haven’t seen the kids in three or four years. The last time we talked to the kids was about two years ago. I used to talk to my son Mike every week on the phone. We’d send little videos back and forth to show what we were doing.
Did they have ambitions outside Scientology?
When Michael left home when he was 18, he was a guitar player, and he wanted to have a music career. So he went to California to pursue that. A single young Scientologist would be fair game for recruitment. He called a couple months later, and he said, “They have me doing work at the Scientology Center in Orange County.” Then he joined the Celebrity Centre, and they killed his dream. They convinced him the music industry is insane and that he could only play guitar once the planet was “clear.”
But isn’t one of the big Scientology lures all the connections they can give you in show business?
There are a lot of people who have developing careers who drop them when they join Scientology staff. The ones who have big careers — the Tom Cruises and John Travoltas of the world — they had their careers before Scientology.
Do your kids have cellphones?
Michael used to. Most staff have their cellphones taken away. Our daughter, I think, has one — she had a bit more freedom because she’s so high up in the hierarchy. It’s doubtful Michael does. If they want to make a call, it’s monitored by the organization. Same with emails or letters. If there’s anything negative in there at all, the message is intercepted by their office of special affairs.
If it was my kid, I think I would probably try to kidnap the kid and get them out of there.
I understand that. And believe me, that’s a whole temptation. The problem is, it’s not legal and would never work. Another problem is that, because they are so conditioned mentally, they will not want to go. A couple years ago, the FBI was going to try to do a raid on the Scientology base down in Hemet, Calif. There were people locked in what they call “the hole.” It’s a prison with bars and locked doors, about 100 or 200 people locked in there. They’d eat leftover food and sleep on the floor with ants. It was really a horrible thing. But the FBI were warned not to go in. Every single person will say, “No, I want to be here. I’m here of my own choice.” Because there is a brainwashing to it, a hypnosis. If I’d try to take my kids out, they will not want to go.
Well, how do other families deal with these kinds of situations?
It’s a tough one. I know a few people who have gotten friends and family members out of other cults. It usually takes a few days. In 20 years, our kids were never allowed to leave for Christmas or visit us. We could visit them and maybe get an hour with them. What usually happens is, something triggers them to want to leave. Sometimes something changes in their life, or they get beat up badly. The other thing is, the majority who get out say, “I read something on the Internet,” or, “I saw something on the news.” That’s why we’re doing the billboard. This interview is huge. I can’t state that enough. Those stories being out there are probably the No. 1 thing that helps them get out.
The Church of Scientology issued the following statement in response:
The billboard in Echo Park is simply the latest in a series of publicity stunts by Phil and Willie Jones to stalk and harass their adult offspring, Mike and Emily Jones, who are in their 30s and 40s.
For the past several weeks Phil and Willie Jones have been working with a reality TV producer staging stunts intended to harass their adult children, despite their children telling them directly to back off and stop.
Clearly, there is no fact checking with billboards. It is shameful that two people desperate for publicity would hook up with a reality TV producer to shamelessly exploit and harass their two adult children for money. It is equally despicable that these individuals would use a private family matter to promote anti-religious hate and bigotry and harm their kids.
Jones responded to THR: “Yes, we’re documenting our journey on this. Not much more I can say on it, at this point.”
April 8, 7:24 p.m. Updated with a statement from the Church of Scientology.
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