I’d never heard my wife so upset. “The dog’s been poisoned,” she said into the phone. Her quavering voice was scared and panicked. Soon I would be, too. It was late 1985, and I’d just checked into a San Diego hotel with Bob Welkos, a reporter—like me—at the Los Angeles Times. Bob and I had been sent out of town by our editors in the turbulent wake of a story we’d written about the Church of Scientology. In it we revealed for the first time the secret teachings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who traced the origins of mankind’s ills to a galactic battle 75 million years ago, when an evil tyrant named Xenu reigned supreme. The story made international headlines, and the church was angry. The paper thought it would be best if Bob and I disappeared for a few days until things cooled down. So I’d packed a bag and headed south while my wife, Linda, stayed behind with our 13-year-old shepherd mix, Crystal.
Now the loyal dog I’d rescued from a Huntington Beach shelter a year or so after my high school graduation was dying. “She’s frothing and convulsing,” Linda told me from the vet’s office. Crystal’s illness had come on suddenly, she said, and the vet couldn’t pinpoint the cause. All we could do was keep her sedated. “Things like this don’t just happen,” Linda cried. A month or so later, after countless doses of phenobarbital failed to calm Crystal’s frightening seizures, I placed her on a gurney one final time and held her as we put her down.
Did I have proof the Church of Scientology was to blame? No. But I was haunted by the warnings I remembered getting at the start of what would become a five-year investigation of the church. More than one source had told Bob and me to keep an eye on our pets. Others who’d run afoul of church leaders had lost beloved animals under suspicious circumstances, they claim—but I hadn’t listened.
Not long after Crystal fell ill, I got another call—this one from Los Angeles Superior Court judge Ronald Swearinger. I’d never spoken to him, but I was covering a nasty civil trial over which he was presiding that pitted the Church of Scientology against a former church member who claimed he’d been relentlessly harassed. Thousands of Scientologists from across the country had converged on downtown Los Angeles to protest the trial and what they perceived as Swearinger’s religious bigotry. Now he was reaching out to me.
“I hear your dog was poisoned,” the judge said softly. I was startled. It’s highly unusual for judges to contact reporters during a trial, especially when they’ve already been accused of bias. There was a pause as Swearinger took a breath. “My dog was drowned,” he said, referring to his collie. “We found him dead in our pool. He’d never go near the water on his own.”
. . .