The Church of Scientology, which is famously private and protective of their inner workings, maintains their main base of operations in Hollywood. But its international headquarters, also known as the "International Base," is in Riverside County.
What allegedly happened inside that compound near Hemet is being called into sharp focus because of a lawsuit making its way through the courts.
Debbie Cook, a former Scientology executive, is being sued for breach of contract for criticizing the church in an email after she signed an agreement promising to remain silent. Last week, she took the stand in a San Antonio courthouse and testified about what she said happened on the property near Hemet in trailers she called "The Hole."
"There's a place called 'The Hole,' the windows were barred, the one entrance was guarded by security 24 hours a day," she said on the witness stand.
For 17 years, Cook was Captain of the church's Flag Service Organization, which is Scientology's spiritual Mecca in Clearwater, Fla.
"I had a tremendous passion for what I did. I had a tremendous love for what we did every day there," she said in her court appearance.
Cook testified that in 2005 she was summoned by the church's top leader, David Miscavige, to Scientology's "International Base" in Riverside County near Hemet and that's when she learned about "The Hole."
"Mr. Miscavige briefed me about it and explained that he had put about 40 executives of Scientology International into basically, locked up into a room called 'The Hole' and he took me there personally and showed me," she said in court.
Cook testified that in May 2007 she herself was sent to "The Hole."
"Someone pried the window open of the office that I was in and two big guys came in through the window. And Mr. Miscavige said to me on the phone, 'Are they there?' And I said, 'Yes, they are.' He said goodbye, and two men physically took me away to this trailer area, which is called 'The Hole.'"
Cook testified she was kept in "The Hole" for seven weeks with other Scientology executives, in a place she described as ant infested.
"I was put in a trash can, cold water poured over me, slapped, things like that. And one time it went on for 12 hours," she testified.
Cook also testified about Miscavige, saying she saw him physically strike a church executive.
"I witnessed Mr. Miscavige physically punching in the face and wrestling to the ground another very senior executive at Scientology International level," she said in court.
She testified that on another occasion Miscavige ordered his secretary to slap her.
"She slapped me so hard I fell, fell over into the chairs. One time he, Mr. Miscavige, ordered his communicator to break my finger if I didn't answer his question," Cook said.
The church, vehemently denies Cook's allegations, calling them "outrageously false"
"As we predicted and feared, the defendant and her attorney used the court process to make numerous gross, false and disparaging statements," George Spencer, an attorney for the church, said in court.
The Church of Scientology gave Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, each a check for $50,000 when they left the church in October of 2007. They received the checks at a meeting which took place at a Scientology compound in Florida and was videotaped by the church.
Cook and Baumgarten also each signed an 11-page confidentiality agreement in front of Scientology's top attorney, Elliot Abelson. In the confidentiality agreement, Cook and Baumgarten agreed to waive their Constitutional rights to free speech, never utter a disparaging word about the church, and never disclose any information about the church.
In the videotape, Cook is asked by Abelson if she feels the $50,000 offer is fair and generous, in which she replies, "Far more than fair and far more than generous." Abelson also asks Cook if she is signing the agreement voluntarily and was not threatened or forced. Cook is heard saying, "Not at all, whatsoever."
However, Cook's attorney, Ray Jeffrey, argued that the contract is "unenforceable" and that they signed the document under duress, something church attorneys strenuously deny.
"We certainly dispute and believe it's totally false that they were subjected to duress and undue influence," Spencer told the judge.
"If I had refused to sign the agreement, I wouldn't have been able to leave," Cook testified. "I would have done anything, basically, at that point."
The lawsuit, filed 20 days ago by the church, stems from an email critical of the financial practices of the church that Cook sent on New Year's Eve to more than 3,000 Scientologists. The email soon became front page news. The church sued saying the email violated the confidentiality agreement and asked for at least $300,000 in damages.
"You knew that the church would see what you did as a violation of your agreements, right?" Spencer asked Cook in court.
"No, I knew the church would not be happy about what I did, I didn't see it as a violation of the agreement," Cook said on the witness stand.
The church says Cook is now a "bitter apostate" who "has an agenda to disparage and damage the church."
But after the hearing, Cook said she still believes in the principles of Scientology.
"What we've done, we've done for the greater good for Scientology and Scientologists," she told Eyewitness News. "This has definitely not been easy and it's taken a lot, but we know that this is what's right."
The hearing ended abruptly Friday morning, when the church dropped its request for an injunction to prohibit Cook from speaking publicly about Scientology. But the church says it will continue its breach of contract lawsuit against Cook.
The Church of Scientology has so far not agreed to do an on camera interview with Eyewitness News.
- Read statement released by Scientology spokeswoman on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012
- Read final statement released by the Church of Scientology International on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012
- Watch the video of Debbie Cook's meeting with church attorney Elliot Abelson and the signing of the confidentiality agreement