Aerial view of Gold Base from the west
|Type||Secure compound bisected by public highway|
|Location||19712 Gilman Springs Rd, San Jacinto, Riverside County, California|
|Owner||Church of Scientology|
|Other dimensions||520 acres (2.1 km2)|
Gold Base (also variously known as Gold, Golden Era Productions, Int Base, or Int) is the confidential de facto international headquarters of the Church of Scientology. It is located at 19712 Gilman Springs Rd, San Jacinto in Riverside County, California (though technically it lies within the unincorporated county area of Gilman Hot Springs and not within the city limits of San Jacinto) and about 100 miles (160 km) from Los Angeles. The heavily guarded compound comprises about 50 buildings surrounded by high fences topped with blades and watched around the clock by patrols, cameras and motion detectors. The property is bisected by a public road, which is closely monitored by the Church with cameras recording passing traffic.
The Church of Scientology acquired the property, which had formerly been a resort called Gilman Hot Springs, in 1978. It had previously been a popular Inland Empire vacation spot and spa established in the 1890s but went bankrupt in the late 1970s due to changes in American vacation habits. Bought for cash in great secrecy by the Church, using the alias of the "Scottish Highland Quietude Club," it has since been developed and expanded considerably.
The base now houses numerous Church organizations and subsidiaries, including its in-house media production division, Golden Era Productions, which has its own movie studio on the site. The Church's leader David Miscavige and other senior church officials live and work on the base. It is also the location of a $10 million mansion built for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Although he never lived there before his death in 1986, the mansion and his living quarters are still maintained in anticipation of his predicted reincarnation. A number of prominent Scientologists have studied Scientology at Gold Base, notably Tom Cruise.
Up to 1,000 members of the Sea Org, the elite "inner core" of the Church of Scientology, live and work on the base. According to some former members of the Church, conditions are harsh, with staff members paid only $50 for a 100-hour week and subjected to punishments for failing to meet work quotas. Media reports have stated that around 100 people a year try to escape from the base but most are soon caught and returned by "pursuit teams". Despite many accounts of mistreatment from ex-members, law enforcement investigations and lawsuits against the Church have been thwarted by the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom and the Church's ability to rely on "ministerial exemptions" in employment law. The Church denies any mistreatment and calls the base "the ideal setting for professional and spiritual growth".
Gold Base is located at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. The base covers an area of 520-acre (2.1 km2) in unincorporated Riverside County, California, outside of San Jacinto, and north of Hemet. It is at or near 19625 Gilman Springs Road, Gilman Hot Springs, California, 92583 and is bisected by a public highway, Gilman Springs Road, just off California State Route 79. It consists of two compounds on either side of the road with underground pedestrian tunnels connecting them. Both parts of the property are surrounded by a chain link fence topped with "Ultra Barrier" spikes and razor wire, with motion sensors and lights about every 20 feet (6.1 m). There are five heavily guarded gates into the base, three on the south side of Gilman Spring Roads and two on the north.
A Scientology spokesperson, Catherine Fraser, told the Valley Chronicle newspaper that the spikes on the fences were intended to "prevent people and animals from intruding." When asked why half of the spikes face inwards towards the interior of the compound (as pictured below), Church spokesman Tommy Davis told KESQ-TV that "that's just how they were installed."
There are around 50 buildings on the property, many built in a mock-Scottish Highlands style. Most are obscured from public view by tall hedges and high walls, monitored by video cameras. According to the local Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper, Scientology employees in uniform and guards on motorcycles can be glimpsed by motorists through the metal fence that surrounds the compound. Although the road that goes through the middle of the compound is public property, the church has installed video cameras and lights adjacent to traffic signs to record traffic heading in both directions.
The south side of the base is primarily used by Golden Era Productions, the Church of Scientology's in-house movie studio. It includes a 74,000-square-foot (6,900 m2) studio in the shape of a Scottish castle, which was built in 1997–98 at a cost of $10.8 million to serve as a production facility for the Church's training and promotional films and videos. The building, known as the "Cine Castle", replaced an earlier building known as "The Gym" which used to house Golden Era's shooting stage, make-up, costumes, camera, lighting, and set sound departments.
The name is said to have come from the cover story used by the Church to conceal its activities at the base. According to Marc Headley, who worked on the base for 15 years, "the permit to build the studio was applied for under the guise of a 'Basketball Gym.' Any and all references to the building were to be specified as the 'Gym'." The Gym still stands and is now reported to be used as a small (supplementary) studio and special effects facility.
A short distance to the east, a garage formerly used as a public gas station is now the location of Motor Pool Gold and serves as the maintenance facility for the entire property. The base's Estates Division, responsible for maintenance and construction work, is located here. The western part of the building was formerly used by Golden Era's Set & Props Departments before the construction of the Cine Castle. In the 2000s, the garage was reportedly used to house a makeshift shower for the inmates of "The Hole", a punishment facility on the base.
Various buildings are located nearby for use in connection with the studio's administrative and production activities. The Church's "E-meters" are manufactured on the base in a building known as Building 36, which houses production facilities for HEM (Hubbard E-Meter Manufacturing). It also houses tape production facilities and Golden Era's administrative functions.
A number of "Staff Berthing" blocks are located a few hundred yards away, housing around 1,000 members of the Church's Sea Org. In keeping with the base's Scottish theme, each building is named after a different Scottish clan and bears its crest. The "G Units" – VIP accommodations – are situated on the far eastern edge of the base. Tom Cruise is reported to have stayed there in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was studying Scientology at the base. Underground tunnels allow staff to cross from the Staff Berthing and Massacre Canyon Inn buildings to the north side of the base without having to exit the compound.
The rest of the southern part of the complex is a landscaped open area with a lake and sports facilities such as basketball and volleyball courts and a baseball diamond. They were reported to be disused as of 2008. The lake was reportedly used for punishment on various occasions in the 2000s. According to author Janet Reitman, Miscavige ordered dozens of senior executives at the base to go out of doors in the middle of the night and assemble at the lake or the base's open-air swimming pool. They would then jump or be pushed into the water, often in freezing conditions, while fully clothed and with Miscavige watching. The Church acknowledges that this practice took place but characterises it as part of its "ecclesiastical justice" system for dealing with poor performance.
A "Purification Center" stands near the lake and is used to administer Scientology's Purification Rundown program to staff on the base. Nearby is a now-overgrown circular feature which was formerly used for the "Running Program", ostensibly part of the Purification Rundown but reportedly used sometimes as a punishment. Vicki Aznaran, formerly the President of the Church of Scientology's Religious Technology Center, alleged that after she disagreed with a plan to restructure the church's finances in 1982, she was ordered to run around an orange pole every day from 7 am to 9:30 pm for about 120 days, with 10-minute breaks every half-hour and 30-minute rests for lunch and dinner.
The Church of Scientology's international management is based on the north side of the base. Hubbard's mansion, "Bonnie View", occupies a prominent spot on high ground with panoramic views of the San Jacinto Valley. According to property records, it cost $9.4 million and is equipped with a lap pool and a movie theater. It has been described as "high-end beautiful but not ostentatious" but Hubbard died long before it was completed. According to ex-members of the Church, it is meant to be used by him when he returns after being reincarnated. It is used in part as a museum, housing most of Hubbard's belongings.
The house is still maintained as if Hubbard is due to turn up tomorrow, with glasses of water covered with plastic wrap, toothbrushes set out in Hubbard's multiple personal bathrooms and "identical sets of Thom McAn black thongs ready for him to step into after a shower or bath." A full-time staff regularly launders Hubbard's clothes and cleans the property. His cars are kept in the garage with full tanks of gas and the keys in the ignition, ready to be used at a moment's notice. The rear of the house incorporates guest apartments and amenities which have reportedly been used by Tom Cruise on some of his visits to the base.
Adjacent to Bonnie View is the RTC Building, the headquarters of the Religious Technology Center chaired by David Miscavige, the Church's current leader. The 45,000-square-foot (4,200 m2) building, which was completed in 2004, is said to have cost over $70 million to construct. According to Tom de Vocht, who was put in charge of completing it after it fell years behind schedule and vastly over budget, it had been already completed twice over at a cost of over $47 million – $1,200 per square foot – but on each occasion the entire interior had to be ripped out as it did not meet with Miscavige's approval.
De Vocht discovered that the building had been so shoddily built that it would have collapsed during even a minor earthquake. The walls were not connected to the floors, the building had a 1.25-inch (3.2 cm) tilt and there were no architectural drawings, only renderings of how it should appear. He was ordered to rebuild it, which cost a further $23 million. Millions more had to be spent on landscaping after Miscavige decreed that the building, which is situated in the middle of the Californian desert, should appear to be set in a forest.
Three villas left over from the old resort, known as the Upper, Middle and Lower Villas, stand below Bonnie View. They have been used as executive apartments by David Miscavige and other senior figures. Alongside the Villas is the Star of California, a replica clipper ship now used as a site for community events. Other buildings located nearby include the "Ranchos", a cluster of buildings used to house the book compilation, editing, design and typesetting units, the "Del Sol" building (formerly the Hotel Del Sol) used for staff training and various additional facilities for Golden Era Studios.
One of these buildings, known as "Studio One", houses the "LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] Music Studio Complex" with state-of-the-art music recording facilities. Headley describes it as containing "very upscale conference and dining facilities for visiting musicians that are brought up to the Studio for recordings." Another studio on the north side, known as "Studio Two", houses additional audio production facilities.
A pair of double-wide trailers adjacent to the highway were installed to house the Church's Central Marketing Unit (CMU) and various Golden Era technical facilities, and were later used as the offices of the Commodore's Messenger Org International (CMO Int) and the International Executive Strata (Exec Strata). They have since become known as "The Hole", where up to 100 senior Scientology executives have reportedly been confined in "degrading conditions" since 2004. A building known as "The Spa", which used to be the center of the old spa resort that existed on the property before the Church of Scientology acquired it, is now used by the base's Qualifications Division.
At the extreme west end of the north part of the base is a compound within the compound, physically separated from the rest by chain fencing. A building called "OGH" (Old Gilman House, named after the family who built the old resort and lived in the house) is located here. It is reportedly used as a detention facility where staff are kept under guard while being "handled" or being prepared for "offloading" (expulsion). Some are reported to live there permanently, having been forbidden to leave the base. On the hillside above the base is a heavily camouflaged "sniper-style nest bunker" called Eagle that overlooks the entire property and the surrounding area. It was reportedly used as a lookout post where security staff with telescopes noted the license plate numbers of vehicles that lingered too long near the compound.
The Golden Era Golf Course is located to the east of the main part of the base, south of the highway and outside the main boundary fence. It was built between 1988–91 on the site of the resort's original golf course. It was open to the public between 1991–2007 but is now a private golf course. Although it is used for charitable golfing tournaments and other community events, base staff are reportedly not allowed to use it.
The land on which the base now stands was first developed in the late 19th century by Sidney Branch of Riverside. In 1890, Branch bought a parcel of land north of San Jacinto on which were natural hot springs that had been known to local Indians for centuries. He developed it into a resort called Relief Hot Springs before selling it in 1913 to the three Gilman brothers – W. Earl, Grant and Forest Gilman. The Gilmans purchased the property for $53,000 ($1,231,135 today) and changed the name, first to Gilman Relief Hot Springs and ultimately to Gilman Hot Springs. It was one of three hot springs resorts near San Jacinto that offered vacationers the opportunity to relax, bathe in and drink hot mineral waters bubbling up from the San Jacinto Fault, an offshoot of the San Andreas Fault.
The Gilmans substantially expanded the resort, which they owned until 1978. In 1913 they built a bathhouse and added a swimming pool the following year, which was later expanded to an Olympic size. A hotel was built to accommodate guests but had to be rebuilt after burning down in 1918. Many visitors came to the resort by train via San Jacinto, where they were met by representatives of the hotel to be transported to Gilman Hot Springs. By the 1940s, the hotel had 200 rooms. The resort also had a post office, garage and service station for the use of its visitors. Many cottages were also built at the resort for visitor use.
There were four main springs found on the property – Black Sulphur, White Sulphur, Soda and Lithia, which were claimed to have health benefits for drinkers. By the 1920s advertisements for Gilman's were calling it "the ALL YEAR RESORT where the sick can be won back to health and where those in health can keep that way." Other visitor activities included walks within the resort, hiking in the nearby hills, mud bathing and dancing on Friday nights in the resort's own dance hall, with a pianist, violinist and drummer contributing the music.
The resort was the site of many popular events such as beauty contests and golfing on the resort's own course. Built alongside the San Jacinto River, the course was originally opened with nine holes in 1930 and later expanded to 27 holes. The golf course was later destroyed by flooding.
The Massacre Canyon Inn, named after a nearby beauty spot, was opened in 1963 on the south side of Gilman Springs Road to accommodate dining and dancing. A training camp for boxers was also built in the grounds of the resort and was in use in the late 1960s. Among the boxers who used the facility were Muhammad Ali, Ike Chestnut, Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini, Armando Muniz, Ruben Navarro, Ken Norton and Jerry Quarry.
Acquisition by the Church of Scientology (1978)
Changing vacation habits and a decline of public interest in mineral waters meant that by the late 1970s the resort was no longer a viable business. After it went bankrupt in 1978, Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard authorized the purchase of Gilman Hot Springs to serve as a headquarters. The Church claims that Hubbard "had a fascination with all things Scottish [and] chose the Gilman Hot Springs property after discovering it while scouting filming locations that looked like Scotland".
It was acquired in conditions of extraordinary secrecy. $2.7 million in cash was paid by the new owners, who called themselves the "Scottish Highland Quietude Club". A Los Angeles attorney named Richard Hoag, acting for the owners, said that the resort had been purchased for a condominium project. The money for the purchase was fronted by the "November 1, 1978 Private Trust", a secret trust of which Hoag served as the trustee.
According to a defector, Silvia Garritano, "Hubbard disguised his operation at Gilman Hot Springs as the 'Hoag Scholarship Foundation'. The idea was to convince local businessmen that . . . Hoag owned the place and that he conducted a program designed to help young people learn trades and skills. Hubbard's purpose was to conceal from public scrutiny the management level of Scientology." Hoag himself was unaware of the identity of the buyer and said later: "I think they really didn't want people to know because it was controversial."
A church spokesman, Heber Jentzsch, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that he had "no information" of any Scientology involvement with the former resort. Other spokesmen for the trust that bought the property claimed that it had been purchased by "wealthy Eastern investors" or wealthy investors from the Palm Springs area. The Riverside County Sheriff's Office took an interest after it was rumoured that pornographic films were being made there or that an organized crime group had taken over the resort, but the property was hurriedly vacated before an official investigation could begin.
The signs posted at the entrance to the property did not mention the Church. One, erected in the fall of 1979, attributed ownership to the "Western States Scientific Communications Association" while another, replacing the first in April 1980, proclaimed: "Massacre Canyon Development Co. – Future sites condominiums and homes." A man calling himself "Dan Pook" met with local civic groups to explain the condominium project, telling residents in March 1980 that the site was to be used for the construction of "condominiums, mobile homes and single-family residences". He was later identified as Ronald Pook, a Church public relations official responsible for disseminating "shore stories" (or cover stories) about the Church's plans for the property.
The intense secrecy was due to the Church of Scientology's acute legal difficulties at the time. The Church was embroiled in a huge scandal that posed major dangers for Hubbard personally. His wife Mary Sue and a number of other Scientologists had been arrested by the FBI the previous year and charged with running an enormous espionage network, Operation Snow White, against the United States Government. Hubbard himself was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator". He went into hiding in a desert ranch in La Quinta, which was codenamed "W" (for "winter headquarters"). Gilman Hot Springs was similarly codenamed "S", for "summer headquarters".
The La Quinta property was closed down in March 1978 and Hubbard moved to an apartment complex in Hemet, codenamed "X". Hubbard's personal staff, known as the Commodore's Messengers, shuttled between "X" and "S" using various counter-surveillance methods to shake off anyone tracking them: switching between locations, using secret meeting points, relaying information covertly, using aliases and so on.
Nobody was allowed to travel directly between the two locations but had to make indirect trips of up to 120 miles. Hubbard himself was at the centre of an elaborate security system with buzzers and red lights to warn him if strangers turned up. Staff were drilled to deny any knowledge of him and maintained a getaway car for Hubbard that was accessible through a garage that opened onto a different street. The existence of Gilman Hot Springs was kept secret even from other Scientologists. Staff members on the base were not allowed to make telephone calls or to send mail directly. If they did get permission to use the telephone, they were instructed to say that they were calling from Clearwater, Florida, where Scientology's Flag Land Base is located.
Hubbard did not live at Gilman Hot Springs but ordered that Bonnie View, a Tudor-style house at the resort, should be renovated for his use. He instructed that it was to be "dust-free, defensible" and that high walls with "openings for gun emplacements" were to be constructed around it. Scientologists who had been posted to the Rehabilitation Project Force – a kind of punishment unit – were made to carry out the work of redecorating the house and ensuring that it was free of dust and odors. The original house was eventually torn down and rebuilt but the new construction was not finished until 2000, long after Hubbard's death in January 1986.
Development of the site
In February 1980, Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter Dick Lyneis achieved a journalistic coup when he broke the story that L. Ron Hubbard was living in Hemet and working at Gilman Hot Springs. The disclosure caused Hubbard to flee Hemet and sparked a panic at the base which the Church's national spokesman, Robert Vaughn Young, was sent in to resolve. He decided to present what Scientology would call an "acceptable truth", turning a small, shut-down film and audio unit in the compound into a working facility called Golden Era Studios which could be presented to the press as the "real" function of the base. The conversion happened literally overnight:
Through that night and into the morning, the facility was converted. I had the paper covering all the windows taken off. Everything was cleaned. Equipment and desks were rearranged to hide certain tasks and to create others. Tapes, films, scripts, and costumes were dragged out and made obvious. Many international management staff were sent off the base to reduce the number of personnel.
The next day, the "Scottish Highland Quietude Club" had become Golden Era Studios. A media tour went without a hitch. The tape-production area wasn't cranking yet, but I did get people busy making costumes and booklets or doing artwork. We found a makeshift studio that "just happened" to be working when the tour came through. Asked about "international management," I said yes, they did manage distribution of films and tapes, which did go to churches worldwide. No one noticed I had avoided the question and diverted attention to the film and tape production.
The news that night was perfect. The Riverside Press-Enterprise story had been countered. Gilman was no longer considered the headquarters of Scientology. It was just a bustling film and tape facility that supplied the Church of Scientology.
After the "flap" had died down, the international management staff moved back into the base and have remained there ever since. The tight security remained, nonetheless; the Boston Globe noted that "curious, unannounced visitors are quickly surrounded by guards, photographed, asked for identification, then urged to leave. Before they do, the license plate numbers on their cars are jotted down for good measure."
The jailing of Mary Sue Hubbard on conspiracy charges in 1981 set off a power struggle within the Church of Scientology that was won by the Commodore's Messenger Organization, a group of mostly young Scientologists – many of them teenagers, some of them as young as ten years old – which took over international Church management by the end of 1981. In 1981 a body called the All Clear Unit was set up at Gilman Hot Springs under the management of the then 21-year-old David Miscavige. Its purpose was to make it "All Clear" for Hubbard to come out of hiding. They were sufficiently confident of success that, in 1982, a mock ship called the Star of California was built at Gilman Hot Springs as a present to the nautically minded Hubbard. It is a full-size replica of the deck and interior of a three-masted 19th century clipper ship, constructed at a reported cost of $500,000. The Church was able to reduce costs by using its own staff as labor, paying them less than $20 for a 100-hour week.
In February 1988, the Church won permission from the Riverside County Planning Commission to rebuild the golf course at Gilman Hot Springs. The Church's application was opposed by many area residents, who were concerned about the disruption that the development would cause. The commission's public meeting was packed by nearly 200 people, mostly Scientologists wearing lapel buttons supporting the Church's expansion and renovation program. The Church also disclosed plans to construct additional studios, offices, storage buildings, housing and recreational facilities, as well as renovating 35 existing buildings to bring them up to required standards. The Church was given a year to complete the golf course, but it was only reopened in 1991.
Since 1998 the Church has spent at least $45 million expanding the base and acquiring dozens of nearby homes and vacant lots. According to an April 2011 map published by the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the Church now owns almost all of the land on either side of Gilman Springs Road from the intersection with Sanderson Avenue to the road's terminus at State Street, a total distance of 2.32 miles (3.73 km). The Church says that it intends to expand the golf course but has not yet developed any specific plans.
The Church of Scientology has also undertaken a considerable amount of community outreach to improve its relationship with its neighbors. The base has hosted Chamber of Commerce events and has allowed the local high school band to use its recording studio. Fishing tournaments for children have been held at the compound's lake and politicians and public officials have been invited to liaise with base staff.
The section of Gilman Springs Road that bisects the two parts of the base has undergone major changes at the behest of the Church of Scientology. Until the early 1990s, the two parts of the base were accessed via gates on either side of the highway. This presented safety and security problems; moving hundreds of people across the road at meal times posed a hazard to traffic. These issues were tackled by building pedestrian tunnels under the road for base staff to use and rebuilding the configuration of the road to narrow it and slow down through traffic. However, a number of accidents have subsequently occurred on that section of road. In 2001, a 16-year-old girl was decapitated by a tractor operated by a Golden Era contractor who was operating it without a valid driver's license. In 2011 a man was killed in a head-on collision outside the compound.
Demonstrations and controversy
Anti-Scientology demonstrators began picketing the base in 1997, prompting litigation from the Church of Scientology against one protester, Keith Henson. A Church bid to impose a temporary restraining order on Henson was overturned in February 1998 when Judge Stephen D. Cunnison of Riverside Superior Court ruled that Henson was legitimately exercising his right to free speech. He told the Church's attorney, Kendrick Moxon: "You don't have a situation here where the defendant is stopping people. This is not an abortion clinic situation." Moxon complained that Henson's one-man demonstration was threatening the safety of motorists along the state highway and Golden Era employees. Henson was later convicted of a misdemeanor charge arising out of a demonstration at the base and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
Members of the hacktivist group Anonymous picketed Gold Base in November 2008. The demonstration was held outside the property but prompted clashes between Scientology guards and demonstrators which were recorded on video. As giant loudspeakers in the Scientology compound broadcast noise to drown out the demonstrators, guards tackled one demonstrator to the ground and tripped another one with a leg sweep. They told Riverside County Sheriff's deputies that the first demonstrator had bitten one of them and that he was guilty of trespassing on private land.
The Church of Scientology subsequently lobbied the county authorities to ban the demonstrations. At a public hearing in December 2008 the Riverside County Supervisor, Jeff Stone, accused the protesters of "oppressing Jews, Christians and black people and encouraging youth suicide and terrorism." The county supervisors approved a proposal, fast-tracked by Stone, to impose restrictions barring picketers from approaching within 300 feet (91 m) of a targeted residence.
Stone did not disclose at the time that his political fund had received a $5,400 donation from the law firm that represented the Church of Scientology at the hearing, and another $600 from the head of the public relations department at Gold Base. After the donations were disclosed, he was fined $16,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to properly report $84,052 in contributions. The measure, known as Ordinance 884, was adopted in March 2009 but attracted controversy for what critics said were its unconstitutional restrictions on free speech. The distance was eventually reduced to 30 feet (9.1 m) and then to just 3 metres (9.8 ft) after the Riverside County supervisors found that they had effectively banned their own existing practice of protesting against sex offenders living in the county.
In 2009, Church officials began lobbying to close Gilman Springs Road, which is used by about 17,000 cars daily. The request was opposed "under any circumstances" by the San Jacinto City Council. The Church subsequently backed a proposal to realign the road to go around the base, but a decision was put off indefinitely by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors after discussions in January 2011.
Life at Gold Base
The Church of Scientology maintains strict criteria for those living and working at Gold Base. Many are the children of high-ranking Scientologists, including some of Hubbard's own children and grandchildren. According to author Janet Reitman, those seeking to be assigned to Gold Base had to be members of the Sea Org. They were required to undergo IQ tests and pass a battery of leadership, personality and security tests. Members with family connections to the government or media, or with any friends or family who had left Scientology on bad terms, are not allowed to work there. They were also not allowed to disclose the location of the base or to discuss their jobs or activities at the base with anyone outside the base, even fellow Sea Org members. They were banned from taking any form of public transport or taxis and instead had to travel on special Scientology buses or in private vehicles driven by approved staff members.
According to Marc and Claire Headley, two Scientologists who left the Church in 2005, residents at the base are not permitted to leave without the permission of a supervisor and have to work at least 16 hours a day, from 8 am to past midnight, with shorter hours on Sundays and little time for socialising. Communications with the outside world are effectively cut off; cellphones and Internet access are generally banned, mail is censored and can only be sent via the internal mail system. Passports are kept in a locked filing cabinet.
Although this system was reportedly dropped around 2000, workers are still subject to a regime of privileges and punishments. Weekly pay is said to be only around $50, given out in cash on Fridays. This amount is only nominal, however, as fines for infractions are commonplace; according to Lawrence Wright, the amount actually paid is often as little as $13 or $14 a week.
Claire Headley describes how staff lived in constant paranoia due to being required to submit "knowledge reports" on each other if they heard any critical statements or casual asides. Becoming the subject of a report meant that the accused person was interrogated and made to recant or publicly confess their "crimes" against Scientology. Janet Reitman comments that "everyone at the Int Base lived in fear of everyone else and what they might be saying, or reporting, about one another."
Food is basic, consisting of meat, potatoes and salad for those not being punished, or rice and beans for those who are. The average cost per meal, according to Marc Headley (who was involved with the financial planning), was only 75 cents per head in 2005 – significantly less than is spent on Californian prison inmates. Unmarried staff live in dormitories, while married couples share two-bedroom apartments with two other couples, meaning that one pair gets to spend each night sleeping on the couch. Many of those on the base are reported to have not left the property for over a decade.
The Church of Scientology describes conditions at the base as being "like one would find in a convent or seminary, albeit much more comfortable."
In the mid-1980s, women with children under the age of six were banned from joining the Sea Org, as the Church no longer wanted it to provide child care for the very young. A new policy was formally enacted in 1996 which banned Sea Org members from having children at all, as they were seen as "interfering with the productivity" of the staff. Ex-members of the Church have said that they were pressured to terminate their pregnancies to comply with the policy. According to Claire Headley, somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent of the women on the base had had at least one abortion, with some claiming indigence to get the county to pay for the procedure. Janet Reitman comments: "If a pregnant woman refused, she would be separated from her husband, put on heavy manual labor, and vigorously 'sec checked' [interrogated]. If she still refused to get an abortion, she would be sent from the base in disgrace, alone." The Church has denied that it has pressured anyone into having an abortion and says that it does not consider pregnant women to be "degraded beings."
The Tampa Bay Times reports that dozens of workers tried to escape from the base – some of them repeatedly – but were caught and returned by Sea Org "pursuit teams". The odds are stacked against escapees, as the compound is out in the desert, there is only one road in either direction and the surrounding terrain is mountainous and barren with plenty of scrub and rattlesnakes to hinder movement across country. Lawrence Wright describes how one successful escapee, Guy White, managed to get away from the base in October 1988:
Each evening, he went for a stroll along the fence line, a little farther each time, carrying a snack for the German shepherd guard dogs. One night, he jumped the fence, but the dogs betrayed him and began barking. He had to dive off the road when he saw the lights of the blow team coming after him. For hours, he stumbled through the brush, bleeding, his clothes torn, until he made it to Hemet, where he pounded on the door of a bowling alley. In broken Spanish, he told the person who peeked out that he had been in a car wreck.
According to Janet Reitman, whenever someone escapes or "blows", a special "blow drill" is launched to recover the escapee. The individual's files are combed to work out where they are likely to be headed, such as friends or family on the outside. "Blow teams" stake out bus and train stations, airports and hotels in the vicinity to intercept the runaway. Another method was to call hotels, motels and airlines in the guise of a sick relative to try to find out if the escapee was booked in for a flight or a stay. Although such information was supposed to be confidential, company privacy rules were evaded by escalating the calls to an ever-higher level of seniority until an answer had been gotten. On one occasion reported by Wright, the vice-president of an airline was cajoled into giving up an escapee.
Some escapees were tracked down through their personal interests. Gary Morehead, who worked as the chief of security at the base in the 1990s, cites the example of a senior executive who fled in 1992. The executive was known to be a baseball fan. A week later, Morehead caught him in the parking lot of the San Francisco Giants stadium. If all else failed, according to Morehead, the homes of the blown member's friends and family were staked out by Scientologists using scanners to listen in on cordless phones and cell phones, and tracing the license plates of any vehicles that turned up.
The captured escapees are said to have been subjected to isolation, interrogation and punishment after being brought back to the compound. According to Wright, they often did not even argue when they were caught, knowing that they would have to spend months or even years being punished while working their way back into good standing.
For its part, the Church says that the compound is "the ideal setting for professional and spiritual growth," where its members can focus on furthering Scientology's goals while avoiding the distractions of big-city life. It denies that blow drills exist.
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Compared to the conditions in which ordinary staff members work, life at Gold Base is reported to be more comfortable for leader David Miscavige and celebrity Scientologists. Most staff were not permitted to have their own vehicles but Miscavige was reported to have a customized Yamaha motorcycle which he rode around the base as well as a range of other vehicles, including a Mazda Miata roadster, a Range Rover luxury SUV and a high-performance BMW M6 as well as a custom-made armored GMC van equipped as a mobile office. According to Claire Headley, who managed Miscavige's finances from 2000 to 2004, his food costs ranged between $6900 to $69,000 a week, with food flown in fresh from the East Coast or Canada. His villa is said to have a $169,000 sound system and its own private screening room.
According to Wright, Miscavige is also a dog lover and has maintained up to five dogs on the base. They wear their own miniature Sea Org uniforms and hold the rank of Captain. Staff are required to salute the dogs as they pass by. On April 30 each year, staff are encouraged to donate their back pay to buy a birthday present for Miscavige. One year he was given a $69,000 motorcycle; in other years, he received diving equipment, high-end cameras and Italian shoes. Church spokesman Tommy Davis has said that "from [the staff's] perspective, it was the least they could do to express their affection."
One of the most prominent VIP visitors to Gold Base is the Scientologist actor Tom Cruise, who first visited in August 1989 to have lunch with Miscavige aboard the Star of California. Miscavige persuaded Cruise to do all of his Scientology training at the base and thereafter Cruise began to commute between Gold and Los Angeles by helicopter each weekend. The actor was given his own VIP condo in a secluded area in the southern part of the base and was assigned his own valet and a personal chef, Sinar Parman, who had previously been L. Ron Hubbard's cook. The condo was renovated in 1990 when Cruise was wooing Nicole Kidman; on one occasion, Sea Org members were assigned to fill the place with balloons as a surprise for Kidman. Tennis courts were built nearby at a cost of $269,000 when the couple wanted to take up tennis.
Wright reports that when Miscavige heard that Cruise had a fantasy of running with Kidman through a meadow full of wildflowers he ordered Sea Org members to plant an area of the desert. It failed to meet expectations, so it was plowed up and laid with grass instead. However, torrential rain triggered a mudslide that washed away the "meadow". Miscavige was said to have held the entire base responsible for ruining the romantic idyll and ordered everyone to work sixteen-hour days to restore it to its former condition. The Church's chief spokesman, Mike Rinder, denied the story to the Los Angeles Times, saying that "the wildflower planting never occurred and might be a confused version of repairs done after a 1990 mudslide." Rinder himself fled 18 months later.
According to Jeff Hawkins, the Church's former marketing director, elaborate measures were taken to ensure that Cruise did not see what was going on elsewhere on the base. He told KESQ-TV: "The staff is not allowed to talk to him. He's been given tours and I've been on the other end of those and they're very orchestrated. They're on walkie-talkies and they go, 'He's going into this building, he's going into that building.' They have certain staff set up and rehearsed in those spaces to give him a certain scripted talk."
Attempts by law enforcement to investigate conditions at Gold Base have been blocked by legal difficulties and the unwillingness of those on the base to talk to the police. According to Lawrence Wright, who wrote about the base in his 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, the Riverside County sheriff's office has never received a complaint from someone at the base about their treatment there, despite the many accounts of mistreatment. Wright attributes this to the fear that many Scientologists have of bringing shame upon Scientology and of being forced to break off contact with their friends and family members within the Church.
A few people have brought complaints in the courts. In 2009, Marc and Claire Headley sued the Church under the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 for their treatment at Gold Base (Headley v. Church of Scientology International). The Church acknowledged that the rules under which the Headleys lived included a ban on having children, censored mail, monitored phone calls, needing permission to have Internet access and being disciplined through manual labor. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals noted in a ruling given in July 2012 that Marc Headley had been made to clean human excrement by hand from an aeration pond on the compound with no protective equipment, while Claire Headley was banned from the dining hall for up to eight months in 2002. She lost 30 pounds (14 kg) as a result of subsisting on protein bars and water. In addition, she had two abortions to comply with the Sea Org's no-children policy. The Headleys also experienced physical violence from Scientology executives and saw others being treated violently.
But the Court also upheld the lower court's dismissal of Headleys' suit against the Church, with this observation: "The act bars an employer from obtaining another's labor 'by means of' force, physical restraint, serious harm, threats or an improper scheme ... That text is a problem for the Headleys because the record contains little evidence that the defendants obtained the Headleys' labor 'by means of' serious harm, threats or other improper methods."
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