Scientology’s First ‘Victim’

L. Ron Hubbard called her a bitch, the FBI found files on her in its raids: The story of Scientology’s most famous critic.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

“That bitch Paulette Cooper!”

Those were the choice words belted out by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard back in 1974 as he pounded on his desk while playing Commodore aboard his yacht, the Apollo.

Cooper, one of the earliest writers to look into the Church of Scientology’s inner workings, has long maintained that Hubbard (or LRH, as he’s often referred to) had it out for her. Just tally up the 19 lawsuits slapped against Cooper by the Church, the 40 lawyers she retained, and the 50 days of depositions—including one reportedly involving a Scientology lawyer who pressed Cooper for a stool sample. (Cooper quipped back: “If you want one, you’ll get it—on your head.”)

This story of Hubbard’s maritime rage is an incredible nugget in the middle of Tony Ortega’s new book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which lands on bookstands this week. Ortega managed to unearth the anecdote after poring over a deposition of Tonja Burden, who was only 15 at the time. Burden was one of Hubbard’s "Messengers,” young females tasked with lighting his cigarettes, prepping his showers, and laundering his shirts “13 times to get any smell out of them.” LRH apparently had a nasty aversion to flowery scents, especially “rose perfume,” the book reveals.

The book’s title plays off Cooper’s supposed code name within Scientology, “Miss Lovely,” which she gained “because she was so beautiful,” Ortega told me. Other citizens have reported being harassed and bullied by Scientology, but nothing to the extent of Paulette Cooper’s story. She’s the first one many people think of when it comes to Scientology’s alleged victims.

The book is a wallop of a read and Cooper is presented as sympathetic, tragic, and, for a brief bit, unreliable, as she allegedly plots against the Church in her own way. But Ortega also makes some incredible claims that seem to rely upon deep reportage, tracking down people Ortega identifies as long-lost Scientologists and weaving their testimonials into a gripping narrative.

A Church of Scientology spokeswoman, in a statement, emphatically denounced the book and called Ortega “a parasite” for using “bigotry and false allegations about the Church of Scientology to create a cottage industry of hate.”

The statement went on to suggest that out of the many claims in the book, none of them dignify a thorough response.

“Despite Tony Ortega’s desperate need for publicity, we see no reason to revisit the subject or respond to debunked falsehoods concerning events three to four decades old involving individuals who have long since been expelled,” the statement read.

The Church added that it settled all claims with Cooper in 1985.

“It is a matter of public record that the current Church management disbanded the rogue unit with which she was having trouble long before then. The Church has neither heard from nor been involved in anything related to Ms. Cooper for 30 years,” according to a Church spokeswoman.

Out of all the writers who have gone head to head with Scientology, Cooper’s story is perhaps the most incredible. She was dashing and easily made hearts skip a few beats during her early years in Manhattan, where she lived and plied her craft as an independent journalist.

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Cooper says she remembers how Scientology came knocking at her front door on June 6, 1968. It was the day after Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated and Cooper was a twenty-something advertising copywriter trying to cut her teeth as a magazine stringer in New York City.

The Brandeis psych grad, who spent some time at Harvard studying mental health patients, says she received a former boss at her Manhattan apartment.

Cooper recounts in her own book how the man began singing Scientology’s praises and how he’d been doling out wads of charity cash to random homeless people. Then, Cooper says, he told her he was God, the lord and savior, and that "God has decided to rape you.”

Cooper managed to fend him off.

But her journalist instincts kicked in and she enrolled in classes at the Scientology Org in Midtown Manhattan under a pseudonym. She says she only lasted a few days before higher-ups in the organization's Ethics department were onto her. But Cooper says she remembers engaging in staring contests where she hallucinated—and says she was subjected to “bullbaiting,” wherein Scientologists allegedly chastised her for no reason and made propositions like, “You know what I’m going to do to you," supposedly to see if she would break.

Cooper ultimately began cobbling together her intel on this new religion and turned it into a feature story for the magazine Queen.

Before long, Cooper was living every day in fear, as she claims she was fielding death threats. She was convinced she was being followed and that her phone line was tapped.

In 1977, when the FBI raided the Los Angeles and D.C. offices of the Church, they found scores of documents that they used to send several high-ranking Scientologists to the slammer.

These same documents, Ortega's book says, also indicated that the Church had been monitoring Cooper’s movements since 1971 and ordered some members to lift pages from her diary, according to Ortega’s book. The group seemed particularly interested in the pages that catalogued teenage angst aimed toward her parents, the book says, or the ones that included sexually-charged thoughts.

Ortega’s book says that, in an attempt to frame Cooper, Church members typed up two anonymous bomb threats and sent them to the Church of Scientology headquarters in New York with Cooper’s fingerprints on them. Cooper maintains the Church got her fingerprints by getting a stranger to goad her into signing a petition to help the activist Cesar Chavez.

Soon, Cooper was hauled in front of a grand jury in Manhattan to answer for the terroristic threats and almost faced a trial until her attorneys used Cooper’s passing of a Q&A test, while on sodium pentothal, to get the charges chucked.

In the course of his research, Ortega says he managed to track down FBI Special Agent Christine Hansen. She was one of the few women at the bureau in the 1970s. This is apparently the first time anybody has managed to interview the former special agent. Because of her tenacity and eagle eye, on June 11, 1976, Hansen says she caught a Scientology member named Gerald Bennett Wolfe in the act of cribbing files from the IRS, the Department of Justice, and a dozen other government offices. He ended up serving five years in prison. His colleague Michael Meisner ultimately flipped for the Feds.

The reported effort to steal the files from government agencies and law firms was known as the “Snow White Program,” Hansen told Ortega.

Ortega also dives into “Operation Freakout,” the Church’s apparent attempt to target Cooper and frame her as insane, to get her committed.

Ortega’s book claims that a Scientology spy approached Cooper at a popular NYC watering hole and asked her to read a bad joke off of a piece of paper. Her fingerprints on the joke stationary were used, Ortega says, in threatening letters sent to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The Church allegedly enlisted a woman who sounded like Cooper and would be tasked with calling Kissinger’s office to make phone threats, as well as another woman cast to dress like Cooper and to play her doppleganger.

According to Ortega’s account of the documents seized in the FBI raid, Scientologists had instructed, “Several different outfits should have been obtained by [Paulette’s double] so that when the caper goes down, she can immediately change into the color or type of outfit that Paulette has on.” Then, the book says, calls would be made to Arab embassies with the Cooper lookalike claiming: “I’m going to bomb you bastards!”

After the raids, Ortega says, "Operation Freakout" was never fully completed.

Still, even after Cooper appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about Scientology, Ortega’s book suggests that several plots continued to target “Miss Lovely.” In one of them, a supposed friend called Jerry Levin, who had come into Cooper’s life suddenly and mysteriously, allegedly told Cooper to jump from a 33-story ledge above a rooftop swimming pool.

“Why on earth would Jerry want me to climb that ledge,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. “He was up there, it would have taken the slightest push and that would have been in it.”

According to Cooper, Levin was a secret Scientologist who had befriended her and lived with her during some of the lowest months of her life.

Not long after Levin moved out, and as Cooper was awaiting trial for making bomb threats (which she says were actually made by her Scientology impersonators), she says the only thing that saved her from a suicide-by-Valium attempt was a friend’s phone call wishing her a happy birthday.

By 1980, Cooper had decided to fight back against the Church. That was the year, the book says, that she met a private investigator named Richard Bast. (He passed away in 2001.) Cooper says Bast told her he was working for a rich Swissman who had lost his daughter to suicide. The girl had been a Scientologist and after her death, Bast said, the man had hired him to build a case against the Church.

The book says the two began to cook up ways to undermine the Church. Cooper would find every news clipping related to Scientology and bring them to Bast. But soon, the book says, Cooper started to hatch some of her own schemes to fool the Scientologists.

Ortega lays out how Bast suggested Cooper sleep with people in order to get intel and even allegedly suggested that a friend should plant drugs in the Church’s D.C. office, so that Cooper could then tip off the cops. “The point I want to make is, if we have any kind of police raid, this gay friend of mine.... probably [could] get us some. A couple of things you might want to consider—leaving them there that might make much bigger headlines. Like cocaine,” she told Bast, unaware that he was taping her statements, according to court transcripts that Ortega included in the book.

But Bast wasn’t working for a Swiss tycoon at all—he was doing the Church’s bidding, the book says. And he had caught Scientology’s Public Enemy No. 1 with dirty hands. Before they went through with some of the alleged schemes to attack Scientology, Cooper had discovered the damage she’d caused herself. Her reputation now seemed undone again.

Cooper’s lawyer Mike Flynn believed the tapes could actually benefit her case. “Whatever is on them, the fact that they hired someone to befriend you, given your vulnerabilities, will only backfire on them. Whatever you said would pale in comparison to what they put you through,” he said at the time, according to Ortega’s book.

Cooper’s lawyers expected that they’d have to spin Bast’s tapes in her favor in the many lawsuits she was facing. Yet not much was made of the taped chats with Bast until years later, when Cooper says she was confronted by researchers from a Scientology hub website, who asked her several questions about them.

The Daily Beast provided a Church spokeswoman with a list of some of the book’s claims, including Ortega’s contention that he found the man who called himself Jerry Levin (Ortega says he was known in Scientologist circles as Don Alverzo); that a Vanity Fair writer (who was friendly with Cooper) had been on Scientology’s payroll for years; and that Charles Manson was a Scientologist. Ortega says he worked off of many sources, including The New York Times and Cooper’s own book, in which she wrote that “one famous, in fact infamous person interested in Scientology that they do not boast about, talk about, or probably even want is Charles Manson, the convicted murderer of Sharon Tate and her friends.”

The Church stressed that it’s erroneous to say the convicted serial killer was a Scientologist. In the statement, a spokeswoman wrote that “the Church debunked the Manson myth four decades ago… Manson never had ties to Scientology.” While the Vanity Fair writer wasn’t named, Ortega says he did track down Alverzo, who allegedly played dumb on the phone. “I’m sorry, I don’t even understand what language you’re talking. I guess you have the wrong person,” Ortega says Alverzo told him.

Cooper says that she still has to look over her shoulder to make sure she is not being followed or watched by Scientology operatives. Since her run-in with Scientology, she’s gone on to pen almost two dozen books, though she’s steered clear of writing about the Church again.

Her newest book—Was Elvis Jewish? Plus Hundreds of Fascinating Facts: & Amazing Anecdotes no Rabbi Ever Told You—takes on the King of Rock & Roll and sets out to prove that his great-grandmother on his maternal side was Jewish. “He loved matzo-ball soup, his mother wanted him to be a doctor, and he had a nose job,” she told The Daily Beast. “Convinced?”

Meanwhile, “I’m hoping not to have too many problems when [Tony Ortega’s] book comes out,” she told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “But the reality is that if you ever write a book against Scientology you have to be prepared to have them keep tabs on you for the rest of your life and I did a tremendous amount of damage to them over many many years so I have to accept the consequences.”