• "LAWYER'S DAYS IN CLEARWATER SPAWN MYSTERY" Clearwater Sun, Friday April 4, 1980

  • "Last week Merrell George Vannier, now 32, was accused of being a Church of Scientology spy..."

  • Vannier represented former mayor Gabriel Cazares in legal battles with the church!

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Part 1
Ritz: Scientology Spy

Chapter 1
Turf War

Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.
– Thomas Aquinas

A television satellite truck and a small army of men and women armed with video cameras and microphones were camped in front of the St. Louis Church of Scientology. All the attention was centered on church spokesman Fred Rock, who was dressed in a minister’s shirt, black with a white clergyman’s collar. I worked at the church and was returning from lunch. Other staff members were gathered around the perimeter of the media event. I moseyed over to check it out.

Rock was speaking. I only heard bits and pieces, but enough to catch his drift: He said the Missouri Institute of Psychiatry was conducting drug experiments on patients without their knowledge or consent. He waved a stack of documents, an inch or two thick, and said they were provided by an anonymous MIP employee and proved the existence of the illicit program. He handed out copies, then fielded questions. Yes, it is an ongoing investigation. Yes, we’ve turned over all our findings to law enforcement and will continue to do so, he said. We’re working with other patients’ rights groups to protect the rights of mental patients. And so on.

“Pretty cool, eh?” a voice said into my ear when the news conference wrapped up. I turned to see John Spencer.

“Yeah,” I said, then began walking toward the church’s front door.

“Got a minute?” he asked, motioning me aside. “You went to law school, I heard.” “For three semesters. I’m on a one-year leave of absence.” He gave me a puzzled look. “I know, I signed a staff contract for two-and-a-half years. I’ll figure it out later.”
“How would you like to join the Guardian’s Office?” he said. “We could use someone with a legal background.”

“What’s the Guardian’s Office?” I asked, and he explained that it was a separate part of the church that handled its external affairs, things like public relations and legal matters, and said they didn’t have anyone in the legal bureau yet but wanted to man it soon. Just as Rock passed by, he added, “Fred is in the G.O.” Rock turned, smiling at the mention of his name, but didn’t stop.

I decided that I would return to law school if I wanted anymore to do with law. “No, not really,” I said. “I like what I’m doing.”

* * *

“Don’t believe what you read in this,” I advised my parents about the Sunday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which contained an article entitled, “Expensive Trip to Spirituality,” the first in a five-part series. It was March 3, 1974, my twenty-sixth birthday, and I was visiting, with my wife Fran and our two-year old daughter, Angie. My parents lived just outside Wentzville, a small town forty miles west of St. Louis. My mother was a schoolteacher and my dad was a regional salesman for a livestock feed company. “It’s a bunch of crap, a hatchet job. Here, this says it all.”

I read a paragraph aloud: “‘Until its recent campaign against alleged drug experimentation abuses at the troubled Missouri Institute of Psychiatry, Scientology attracted little attention among St. Louis area churches, schools, public and private health agencies and governmental authorities.’

“See? It’s retaliation for us speaking out against psychiatric abuses at MIP.”

I was talking to both parents, but was only concerned about my mother’s reaction. She was a little distressed about me leaving law school to work for and study Scientology. She grew up in a devout Methodist family, and hoped to pass on her values to me. I was required to attend Sunday school every week and had a perfect attendance record over a ten-year period. There, I learned the basic Christian tenets: love thy neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, tolerance, and forgiveness. When people in our small town went astray, whether as a result of drunkenness, criminality or broken marriages, my mother would point out that they were not church-going Christians. It was a simple plan to follow and everything seemed to fit. Until one day it came crashing down.

* * *

“We might not ever see each other again,” Richard said to me. It was the last day of the 1961-62 school year and we were walking home together. My dad had taken a job in Iowa and was moving our family the following week. Richard added that he would begin his summer job the next day, working sunup to sundown.

“I guess not, then.”

That led us to reminiscing about our good times together. The school was about a half-mile from the center of town, where we would split off and go our different ways for another half mile; him to the east, and me to the north. He told me that I was his only white friend. Because of my newspaper route in what almost everyone called “colored town,” I had made a number of black friends but none as close as Richard, and I told him so.

He had practically saved my life one day. Some of his neighborhood kids ganged up, intent on beating the crap out of me. The front door to Richard’s house flew open in the nick of time. One thing about Richard, he was huge. The high school football coach often checked in on him to tell him how he couldn’t wait for him to graduate from elementary. Richard tore into those bullies, cussing and threatening to “kick their black asses all the way to Hannibal” if they so much as ever laid a hand on me. Hannibal was nine miles north, so that would be some ass-kicking, but I believe Richard could’ve done it. So did those hooligans. They cowered and slinked away, never to bother me again.

He said I made up for it by helping him with his math studies, because math was doing to him what those boys wanted to do to me.

We reached the center of town near the Tastee Freeze when I said, “Hey Richard. I should treat you to a soda for being such a good friend.” He screwed his head cockeyed and stared at me like I was from Mars. “What?” I said.

“You know.”

“Know what?”

“I can’t go in there.”

Since he and I liked to cut up in class and had been sent to the principal’s office a time or two, my mind took me in that direction. “What’d you do?”

“No. Not that,” he said sharply.

“Then what? Stop being so mysterious.”

He finally let it out: “Because I’m colored.”

“Ah, that’s got nothing to do with it. This is a business, Richard. People in business want to make a profit. That’s all they care about.”

He kept looking at me as though I was from outer space. Then shot back defiantly, “Have you ever seen a colored in there?”

No, he had me on that one, but I hardly ever went inside the place myself. I had better things to spend my money on than sodas, I told him. Food and drinks were free at home, except there were no sodas. I spent my money on baseball cards, camping gear, and such. After thinking through his question, I flipped it on him. “Have you ever gone in there and been turned away?”

He softened just a little. “No,” he admitted.

“See there? You’ve been listening to gossip. You can’t go on gossip. Besides, the owner knows me. She’s in my church, and loves me. She buys everything I ever sell just because it’s me. She probably throws half the stuff away.”

As a kid, I was a budding entrepreneur, always looking for ways to make money so I could buy the things I wanted. In the summer I trolled the streets on my bicycle looking for lawns that needed mowing, and if one did, I’d knock on the door. In the winter I threw a shovel over my shoulder and searched the streets for people who were snowed in. I sold Grit magazine, greeting cards, you name it. I scoured the ads in each issue of Boy’s Life for new and exciting things to sell.

“Go in there with me as my guest, you’ll see.” I won him over and we trudged into the joint. I led him to a table beside a window looking onto the street and we sat down.

I should have known trouble was brewing when two men turned in their booth and glared at us. The owner, who was on the other side of the restaurant, did not flash her usual beaming smile. In fact, she looked serious as hell. She walked across the room, her somber attention fixed on me as though Richard didn’t exist.

“Merrell, we don’t serve coloreds here.”

Richard threw up his hands and leapt out of his seat. His face was twisted in sheer agony. “See, I told you,” he shouted at me, and bolted out.

My jaw was on the floor. I looked back and forth from the lady to Richard, who was flat-out sprinting down the sidewalk. I sprang out of my chair and sped after him.

I hollered for him to stop but he kept running. After my third plea, he slowed to a trot and then to a walk. When I caught up to him I told him I was sorry. He wasn’t in the mood for an apology; he was mad-dog furious, filled with pain, anger, hate, and who knew what else. “You did that on purpose,” he said.

“No I didn’t. Why would I do that? You’re my friend.”

“Yes, you did it on purpose. You knew. You had to know.”

I swore to him that I’d had no idea and was really sorry I hadn’t listened to him. He eventually calmed down some but still wasn’t ready to accept my apology.

“How long have you lived here?” he said testily.

“Nine years.”

“And you tell me you didn’t know, and you expect me to believe that?”

“I swear, Richard. I didn’t know. I thought she was a good person. She’s a Christian. She goes to church.” He snorted. “I swear, Richard. I really didn’t know.”

I could see him turning it over in his mind, relaxing a bit. Finally, he ventured a smile and stuck out his hand. “Okay, I believe you,” he said, and we shook.

“The only thing I don’t understand,” he said, “is how you can be so damned smart and so damned dumb at the same time.” His lips curled a little. He was joking. That was funny, really funny, because it was also true. I started laughing and he laughed with me. I knew things between us were back to normal.

As we walked off I asked him what other places in town denied service to coloreds. He pointed to one of the two liquor stores and to one of the two grocery stores, the IGA. My family shopped there. The owner was a Christian and active in Boy Scouts. He always greeted me and asked how I was doing. I thought he was a good person.

For the first time I could remember I had trouble falling asleep that night. Two things kept rolling over in my mind. One was a question I could not answer no matter how hard I tried: What was it like to be Richard? The puzzle interplayed with the stark reality that not all church-going Christians were good people. The ones who refused service to Richard and other people of color were cruel. They were not following the Christian principles I had been taught. They were hypocrites. The formula for life was not so simple after all. Something was missing for me.2

* * *

“What’s really going on,” I continued with my parents, “is a turf war between the psychiatric, medical and pharmaceutical industries, and Scientology. We have non-drug, non-medicinal tools to help troubled people, and they think that’s their turf. It goes back to the early 1950s. These groups ganged up and sicced regulators and media on us, trying to shut us down.” I put a book on the table next to the newspaper, The Hidden Story of Scientology by Omar Garrison, a non-Scientologist, investigative journalist. “Read this if you want to know the real story. Or ask me about it.”

I told them the American Medical Association (AMA) was really just a powerful trade union that considered any non-professional outsider to be a quack and used its vast influence with the government and media to stomp on anyone who dared trespass into its zone of operation. “The book goes into what they’ve done to Scientology. They got the FDA3 to seize our E-meters for being a medical device used to diagnose and treat disease, which is a complete fabrication.”

The E-meter is used during Dianetics and Scientology auditing sessions. An individual undergoing counseling holds two metal cans that are connected to the meter by wires. A tiny, imperceptible electrical current runs through the cans and through the subject’s body, measuring changes in electrical resistance and skin conductance. Because it detects emotional trauma, and because the part of a person’s mind that contains the source of that trauma is out of view to an individual, the meter is highly effective in helping identify moments in a person’s life that need to be addressed.

“The evidence is in the book. The AMA and the FDA worked together to stop Scientology. The FDA had an undercover agent enrolled in a Scientology course in the Washington, D.C. church. Their plan was to gather evidence that the E-meter was being used for medical purposes and therefore shut it down. The FDA is just an enforcer for the AMA and drug companies; it’s there to protect the public in name only.

“You know that, dad. Look at how they treat nutrition.” My father had a degree in animal husbandry from the University of Missouri. He was fond of saying that the Ag school taught nutrition in order to keep livestock healthy and prevent disease, but the medical school didn’t teach nutrition so that doctors could keep people healthy and prevent disease. Instead, the medical industry was geared toward treating sick and injured people. He would bring home vitamins and minerals he sold to farmers for their livestock to give to our family. It sounds weird, but they worked to keep us healthy and out of doctors’ offices.

My father nodded. “I sure do.”

“Same here,” I said. “The FDA raided the Washington church in 1963 and hauled away enough E-meters and Scientology publications to fill two vans. The church had to battle it out in the courts for six years. A U. S. court of appeals finally ordered all the material returned and declared that Scientology was a legitimate religion and the E-meter was being used as a religious device.”4

I tapped the book. “It’s all in here. Psychiatrists are members of the AMA. Not only does Scientology threaten their interests, but L. Ron Hubbard publicly denounced some of their practices as being barbaric. Electroshock therapy; prefrontal lobotomies; and mind-numbing drugs that don’t cure anything. We keep expanding and digging up their dirt and they hit back with propaganda pieces like this.”

My dad totally got it. My mother seemed fairly satisfied as well.

* * *

John Spencer intercepted me outside the St. Louis church. “Someone from Los Angeles wants to meet you.” I cocked my head. “About the Post-Dispatch articles,” he continued. “Are you interested in talking to him?”

This time I was receptive. I had seen the fallout from the series. One person I ran into even had the gall to laugh and tell me I had fallen under “the spell of a cult.” I asked him what he knew about Scientology. Plenty, he said; he’d read the Post-Dispatch articles. Then it was my turn to laugh. I was amazed. Not many people insulted me to my face, but I could tell that the articles had made an impact. I didn’t blame the people I ran into. Most people trusted and believed what the news media told them. I used to myself. I blamed the Post-Dispatch. And I wanted to do something about it.

“I have to be back at work at seven,” I said.

“I covered that for you,” Spencer said. “This is important.”

* * *

He led me to a booth in a back corner of a restaurant that was occupied by a friendly-looking guy about our age, mid-twenties. He had curly dark hair and toyed with his moustache. His eyes passed over me, scanning behind and all around us. Not until Spencer slid into the seat across from him, and I took the open spot, did the guy zero in on me.

“Don Alverzo,” he said, extending his hand. I was immediately drawn to him.

“John told me you were in law school before coming to St. Louis?” he said.

“Yes, at UMKC, University of Missouri – Kansas City. Three semesters. I took a leave of absence during my fourth and moved to St. Louis to train to be an auditor in Dianetics and Scientology technology.”

Alverzo motioned for me to speak more quietly. I nodded as he carried on the conversation without missing a beat. I marveled at his ability to pay attention to our surroundings while engaging me. I was liking this guy more with each passing minute.

I explained how I had gotten interested in Scientology during my third semester and had scarfed up all the books I could find on the topic, and was so engrossed in the subject matter I had little time left to do my homework the following semester. Something had to give.

As I spoke, I watched him closely. He seemed to absorb every word I said with interest, yet his eyes continued to glide all around. I realized he was just as attentive to potential onlookers and eavesdroppers as he was to what I was saying. I had never known anyone who could do that so smoothly.

He inquired about my military background. That meant he either had access to my staff application or had been briefed by Spencer, who may have known about it. I told him I had completed a three-year enlistment in the Navy, where I trained and worked as a fire-control technician, handling the ship’s weapons control system – radar, computers, and related equipment.

“How about you?” I asked.

“Vietnam,” he told me. “Helicopter pilot.”

I asked him what that was like. He answered only briefly, then asked whether I had a security clearance in the Navy. That was my first inkling that he was screening me for something and not just getting to know me. And a masterful job it was, since I’d barely recognized it was going on. I had a Secret security clearance, I told him. A military vet would know that Secret was not very high. As we went into that, Alverzo reached for a pack of Marlboros, pulled one out, fitted it into a filtered cigarette holder, and lit up.

He offered me one but I turned it down. “I quit.”

“Good for you. I should do that.”

“It’s easy,” I said. “I’ve quit dozens of times.” They both broke up over that. I didn’t bother to credit Mark Twain for the joke.

Spencer didn’t smoke, either. In fact, he was clean-cut all around. He had short blond hair, blue eyes, was always friendly and polite, and dressed in a nice shirt and slacks. He looked like he belonged in an early-60s folk music trio.

We ordered drinks and a bite to eat. Alverzo said it was on him, so I opened up a bit and got a sandwich and fries to go with a Coke even though I had already eaten. He bantered with the waitress as she took our orders, which obviously pleased her.

Alverzo asked what I thought about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles. I told him they were really messed up. “Going to psychiatrists and the heads of other religions for information about Scientology is like asking Nazis about Jews or Baptists about Catholics. And relying on former members who have an axe to grind? Geez. But a lot of people eat it up. It’s amazing. Grown people. Educated people.”

“They know how gullible the general public is,” he said. “They created the effect they wanted to create. Do you know why they attacked us?”

“Yeah, the thing Fred Rock did. Drug experiments at MIP.”

He asked if I knew about the PR team that was sent to the newspaper before the series was published. I told him I didn’t, and he explained that they went there to help the newspaper get its story straight. “One of the PR people reported back that she overheard one of the writers of the articles, Elaine Viets, holler out to someone who had called for her, ‘Not now; I’m trying to save MIP.’”

He added, “The State threatened to cut off funding for MIP after the local Guardian’s Office exposed their illegal drug experiments, and the Post-Dispatch was trying to save it by attacking the church.”
Spencer leaned in, his face aglow. “That was our operation. We uncovered the MIP scandal and gave the story to Fred Rock in PR to run with. Kate Toftness was the one who overheard the reporter admit that. Viets didn’t know we had a PR team there when she blurted it out.”

Toftness was the Dissemination Secretary, the head of my division, so I knew her well, but didn’t know she was part of a PR team sent to the Post-Dispatch. Nor did I fully understand the distinction between PR functions conducted by the Dissemination Division of the church and those run by the G.O.
“So what do you do, John?” I asked.

“I’m in the Information Bureau. So’s Don. He’s from U.S.G.O., in Los Angeles, which oversees all the local G.O. offices in the United States. We do intelligence.”

“Do you know what intelligence is?” Alverzo asked. I shook my head. “We find out what is really going on, hopefully before any attacks occur so we can head them off.” He said they gathered information overtly and covertly. Overt data collection relied on public sources, like libraries and newspapers. Covert data collection was information gathered from non-public sources, undercover.

Hearing it described that way, of course that’s what it meant. I had heard the word before but had never connected it with those specific activities. I was stoked. It was a different approach. These were the kind of thoughts that had been running through my mind lately, and suddenly here was Alverzo, blown in by a west wind.

“That’s exactly what I think needs to be done,” I said. “A libel lawsuit isn’t the answer. The reporters covered their tracks and made their articles appear balanced and authoritative. Someone should go inside the Post-Dispatch undercover and find out what’s really going on.”
Alverzo grinned and turned to Spencer. “We’ve got a good one, here.”



1. The length of the contract is symbolic of the commitment to accomplish the aims of Scientology – the spiritual salvation of all persons – no matter how long it takes, and should not be taken literally.

2. Richard (Murphy) did not play football in high school. That summer he was injured in an accident involving farm machinery and one of his legs had to be amputated just below the knee.

3. Food and Drug Administration.

4. Founding Church of Scientology of Washington, D. C. v. U.S. (1969) 409 F2d. 1161.



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arrows in the dark cover

A Tale of Power, Corruption & Secrecy... With a Billion Dollar Empire Hanging in the Balance.

Learn the inside story about the fall of Scientology's intelligence network—the notorious Guardian's Office. And how this set the stage for a takeover of the church by 21-year-old David Miscavige. Was Miscavige's motive to save Scientology from an out-of-control intelligence network? Or was it something more sinister? Stunning controversy that flips the narrative on the subject of Scientology.

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