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Inside a theater on a desolate stretch of East Hollywood, a group of about 100 people gathered Friday evening for something called HowdyCon.
Don’t let the name fool you. These weren’t fans of Roy Rogers, but rather the most avid readers and commenters on The Underground Bunker — an anti-Scientology website overseen by journalist Tony Ortega.
A spinoff of Ortega’s column at the since-shuttered Village Voice, the blog has grown since 2012 into perhaps the biggest single thorn in the side of the controversial religion, which has counted Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley among its most famous adherents.
This was the fourth HowdyCon and the first in Los Angeles. Previous iterations of the annual meet-up — named for Steve “Captain Howdy” Cox, a popular commenter who died in 2015 — were held in Cleveland, Denver and Chicago.
Over bottles of supermarket wine and bags of chips, a few hot topics hung in the air. A lawsuit filed June 18 by a former Scientologist against the church and leader David Miscavige, accusing them of “false imprisonment, kidnapping, stalking, libel, slander, human trafficking, labor violations,” had energized the bunker dwellers, some of whom flew great distances to converse face to face.
Also on everyone’s lips: the June 19 NXIVM ruling, in which alleged cult leader Keith Raniere was found guilty of all charges related to sex trafficking and child pornography. The crimes were committed by Raniere under the guise of running an empowerment and self-help organization.
Both had the potential to turn the tide against Scientology, the buzz went, which has managed to emerge relatively unscathed from previous lawsuits while retaining its tax-exempt status in the U.S.
The event space was provided by the Center for Inquiry West, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that sets out to debunk all manner of claims relating to paranormal activity and pseudoscience, and Free Inquiry, a magazine dedicated to secularism and atheist thought.
Toward the back of the room, a man in his 30s lingered alone. He is Failboat, a member of the online collective Anonymous, which targeted Scientology with a series of online hacks and street protests in 2008 and 2009.
That action, dubbed Project Chanology, was a direct response to the leaking of a Tom Cruise video in which the star made outlandish boasts about Scientology. (One was that only Scientologists are properly equipped to help victims after a car accident.) Failboat directed me to photos of a 10th anniversary protest — he’s the one in the Guy Fawkes mask.
Then Spanky Taylor and Tory Christman, two former Scientologists now classified as SPs or suppressive persons, introduced themselves. Both worked closely with Travolta while inside the church. Taylor, who was featured on Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and in the 2015 doc Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief, was tasked with reading and responding to all of Travolta’s fan mail. Christman was a handler tasked with ensuring that no “entheta” (i.e., negative forces) got too close to his aura.
Christman claimed that she shadowed Travolta at the premiere for Battlefield Earth, the 2000 sci-fi movie based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. It was Scientology’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It would also be its last: A critical and financial disaster, Battlefield is said to be one of the worst movies of all time. “They had high hopes it,” Christman noted. “But it didn’t go the way they wanted.”
Also on hand was Karen de la Carriere, ex-wife of Heber Jentzsch, a former Scientology public relations director. It was Jentzsch who informed the press of Hubbard’s death in 1986. Jentzsch has not been seen or heard from publicly in many years. De la Carriere, who sports a wig of brassy blonde ringlets, left the church in 2010 after 40 years inside.
“[Heber] had fallen into disfavor with David Miscavige,” she explained of her former spouse’s disappearance. “He was locked in an SP Hole.” (The Hole is allegedly a facility at Scientology Gold Base in Hemet, Calif., where church members have been held for anywhere from months to years.)
In 2012, a Facebook message from a stranger informed her that her 27-year-old son, Alexander Jentzsch, was “lying dead in the L.A. morgue.” Her son, who had a prescription opioid habit, had developed walking pneumonia and, according to de la Carriere, was denied a doctor visit.
“I was in this cult for 40 years and they didn’t have the decency to tell me my son was dead,” she says. (Scientology is almost exclusively referred to as “the Cult” at HowdyCon.)
After two hours of networking, gossiping and reminiscing about the dark days, the main program began. Someone brought out an electric guitar and sang a welcome ditty to the tune of the 1963 surf rock song “Wild Weekend.” That was followed by a live recording of the inaugural episode of The Cult Awareness Podcast, co-hosted by Jerry Minor, a onetime Saturday Night Live player last seen as Martin Luther King on Netflix’s Historical Roasts.
Minor’s mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, an organization he left in his teens. But he feels a kinship to ex-Scientologists, having been kept away from her until her death.
“We ran out of time,” Minor told the HowdyCon audience. “Don’t run out of time.”
The Church of Scientology did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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