Saturday, November 19, 2005

Battlefield Tilden


St. Petersburg Times
May 11, 1997


TILDEN, NEB. - In a no-stoplight town on the American plain, in a house where the King James Version lies open in the entryway, a woman unfolds her newspaper and begins to read.

The headline in the Tilden Citizen announces, "New Park Groundbreaking Ceremony Held.'' A picture shows 13 people posed shoulder to shoulder, their grins as frozen as the February soil. The mayor, a construction foreman on his afternoon break, has the familiar job of holding the shovel.

A banner in the background says, "L. RON HUBBARD PARK."

L. Ron Hubbard? The woman pauses in her reading, searches her mental files, retrieves a few scant details: Born in Tilden a long time ago, wrote something called Dianetics, founded the Church of Scientology. The woman read some Scientology pamphlets once, and found them vaguely troubling.

Now she wonders: Is Hubbard the kind of person his hometown should make immortal?

That afternoon, after tidying the kitchen, she fastens her infant son into a stroller and pushes him three blocks to the Tilden Public Library. There, she begins her research, which continues for days.

She copies the 1991 Time magazine cover story describing Scientology as "a hugely profitable global racket" that operates "in a Mafialike manner." She samples the Web sites where critics rage about "the cult of $cientology" and its history of harassing its enemies with lawsuits and dirty tricks. She absorbs a 1995 court opinion that denounces a Scientology legal blitz as "reprehensible," and another that dismisses the church's founder as "a pathological liar."

Among Hubbard's own writings, she finds the Scientology Code of Honor and goes cold at No. 12:

Never fear to hurt another in a just cause.

L. Ron Hubbard Park? The name won't do, Marcie Sextro decides. She has a husband, a house to keep up, three children besides the baby boy, and no experience as an activist. But she knows the park must not keep that name.

Back at the house, the Bible is open to the Gospel of John, and she is certain that Jesus doesn't say anything about just causes.


A couple of years ago, the city of Tilden, Neb., conducted a survey to see what the town needed most. One thing was a doctor. Dr. Bill Barr was getting along in years, and would eventually retire. Doctors named Barr - Bill Barr's grandfather, then his father and uncle, and now Bill himself - have been taking Tilden's temperature since 1910.

The other thing people wanted was a new park with a ballfield, walking trails, picnic areas, and so on. If Tilden - population 895, according to the sign - was to survive, it had to attract families. A civic group had already given the land. Twenty-two acres.

The City Council created the Friends of the Park Foundation to raise money for the park, build it and maintain it. The park foundation - a feed salesman, a florist, some insurance agents, a few others - decided to seek donations from former Tilden residents who had become famous.

Two people qualified. One was Richie Ashburn, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Ashburn's mother, who is in her 90s, still lives in town, and shovels her own front walk when it snows.

The other was Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, who was born at 405 S Oak St. on March 13, 1911. Hubbard's birth was the beginning and the end of his association with Tilden. His family left town when he was an infant, and he died in 1986 without ever having gone back.

The park foundation sent a letter to Los Angeles and quickly got a response from a group called the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. This group - which said it was made up of people, mostly Scientologists, who admired Hubbard - was so eager to help that the park foundation never got around to approaching Ashburn.

The Friends of L. Ron Hubbard pledged $50,000 to help build a biking-and-walking trail in the park. Later, they said they'd pay for the whole park, whose cost exceeded $800,000 as the park foundation's vision for it grew grander.

The Friends reached an agreement with the park foundation to name the park after Hubbard and to call the bike path The Way To Happiness Trail.

Hubbard published a pamphlet called The Way To Happiness in 1981. Some of the 21 Ways To Happiness echo the Ten Commandments: "Honor and Help Your Parents," "Do Not Steal," "Do Not Murder." Some offer fatherly advice: "Be Worthy of Trust," "Take Care of Yourself," "Love and Help Children." One recasts the Golden Rule in a curiously relaxed way: "Try To Treat Others As You Would Want Them To Treat You."


This was the deal: The people of Tilden could have their park, complete with an ice-skating pond, wildflower meadow and baseball field. All they had to do was name it after Hubbard and post his moral precepts on markers along the Way To Happiness Trail, one every 190 feet.

All this might have happened if Marcie Sextro hadn't picked up her copy of the Tilden Citizen and seen the picture of the groundbreaking.

After she did, Tilden began to experience some of the same fear and confusion that befell Clearwater when the Church of Scientology quietly began buying property there 22 years ago. Clearwater is now Scientology's spiritual headquarters.

Tilden, a cluster of silos, barns and two-story brick buildings 150 miles northwest of Omaha, straddles two counties, Madison on the east and Antelope on the west. Scientology divided the town a second time, with the park foundation people on one side and the Concerned Citizens Coalition - Marcie Sextro and friends - on the other.

People who had known each other since the first grade didn't speak when they met at the bank. Karen Decker, a park foundation member, would not pass through the doors of the Johnsons' grocery store because the Johnsons were aligned with the coalition.

In the midst of all this, strangers arrived from California, people whose religious leader spoke of engrams and thetans and the galactic ruler, Xenu.

The Church of Scientology says its members got involved in the park project on their own, not at the behest of the church. "The fact is that the "church' was never in Tilden," president Heber C. Jentzsch, said in a letter to the Times.

He'd have a hard time convincing Tilden of that.


Three Scientologists visited Tilden in September 1995 as guests of the park foundation. One said she was the director of the L. Ron Hubbard Office of Public Relations International in Los Angeles. The others represented the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. This, they said, was the private foundation that would give the money for the park.

The Scientologists stayed several days. They took a hayride to the park site. They talked about the kind of tribute they would like to see there. They had lunch. They handed out copies of The Way To Happiness.

They gave some books to the Tilden Public Library. One was called What Is Scientology? That what was the question Tilden had to answer before it decided what to do with the park.

What is Scientology? The church Web site says it is an "applied religious philosophy" that seeks to help the individual "solve his own problems and so better his own life." The church - which in 1993 was declared tax-exempt by the IRS - says Scientology has helped countless people quit drugs and alcohol and live happier and more productive lives.

Here's how: Hubbard said every human being has a "thetan" inside. He once said thetans were sent to Earth, which he called "Teegeeack," by the cruel king Xenu. This was 75-million years ago. Thetans go to Venus when their hosts die.

The trouble with thetans is that they carry "engrams," lingering images of past psychic injuries. Engrams confuse and sicken the beings they inhabit. To overcome these painful memories - to "go clear" - one must receive "auditing."

Auditing is a conversation between a trained Scientologist and the "preclear," or subject. The auditor operates a device called an Electropsychometer, or E-meter, which looks like a futuristic radio with two tin cans attached by cords.

According to What Is Scientology?, the device "measures the mental state or change of state of a person, helping the auditor and preclear locate areas of spiritual distress or travail so they can be addressed."

Scientologists who go clear can become Operating Thetans. OTs can progress through eight levels, with the highest known as Truth Revealed. The church won't say what all this costs, but former members say they have had to pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Marcie Sextro, 32, came across much of this information during her research. The things she read did not make her a friend of L. Ron Hubbard.

She learned that 11 Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, went to prison in the 1980s for infiltrating and burglarizing the IRS, the Justice Department and other agencies to thwart their investigations of Scientology.

And that Hubbard was suspected of stealing millions from the church and socking the money away in Swiss banks.

And that federal authorities were seeking to charge him with tax fraud when his thetan went to Venus in 1986.

The source for much of this was the 1991 Time magazine cover story, "Scientology: The Cult of Greed." The church says the article is full of lies and errors. It filed a $416-million libel suit against the magazine, but a federal judge dismissed the suit last year, saying that "no reasonable jury" could conclude that the statements in the article were published with malice.

There was one other thing that disturbed Sextro. The church says Scientology can be used to supplement other religions, but Christianity apparently isn't one of them. Hubbard said Christ is a myth and heaven "is a very painful lie."

Sextro - who goes to a foot-stomping, hand-waving, tongue-speaking Christian church - took offense at that. So did the Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Church of Christ members who were helping her with her research. These people didn't want anybody's religion in the park. And they wanted Hubbard's there least of all.

Sextro and her friends - including another housewife, a teacher at the Lutheran preschool, a bull rancher and an auto mechanic - took their case to the mayor and City Council.

Which, it turned out, couldn't be bothered with it.


About the time the Sextro group was doing its research - the spring of 1996 - four members of the park foundation flew to Los Angeles to pick up a $50,000 check from the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. The money was to be used for the Way To Happiness Trail.

Why didn't the park foundation ask the Scientologists to put the check in the mail?

"It is our responsibility as citizens of Tilden to find out more about L. Ron Hubbard," park foundation leader Dave Decker told the Tilden Citizen.

The park foundation people fulfilled this responsibility by spending three days in a Scientology hotel at the expense of Scientologists. They attended a reception at the Way To Happiness Foundation, toured the Scientology publishing house and enjoyed a day at Disneyland.

Decker's wife, Karen, received a free auditing session in Los Angeles. Scientology says the purpose of auditing is to improve one's "beingness." Mrs. Decker reported that her beingness was about the same after the session as it was before.

Dave Decker used to have a feed store on Center Street, but that didn't work out. Now he's building a small shopping center and - like a lot of people in Tilden - raising a few hogs. But mostly he works on the park.

"It's going to be something nice for our children," he says.

Decker, fiftyish, has a broken halo of brown hair, fingers like kielbasas, half-glasses on his nose. His checks bear pictures of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd. "Most people, when I write a check, figure it's a Looney Tune anyway," he says.

Decker says the town needs tourism for economic development. Including his.

The state of Nebraska is laying a 300-mile bike path that will run through Tilden. Decker backed the park plans in hopes that tourists - including Scientologists - would bicycle into town, veer off into the park and then visit his shopping center.

He has heard that people using the state bike trail will spend $83 a day.

"They gotta spend that someplace," Decker says.


The Concerned Citizens Coalition first approached the Tilden City Council last August. The council usually meets in a room the size of a one-car garage, but so many people came that the meeting had to be held in the gymnasium, between the basketball hoops and beneath the Nebraska state flag. The townspeople sat in the bleachers.

After voting to let the fire department buy a ventilation fan for $850, the council took up the park issue.

Stan Grubb said the Scientologists had to be stopped "before they get a foothold in the community." Jean Marie Shermer waved a copy of the Time magazine story, which the Concerned Citizens had provided to the council. She said she didn't want a tribute to Hubbard in Tilden.

Scott James said Scientology is a religion, not a cult, and everybody should calm down. Council member Darrell Wyatt said Scientologists do some pretty darned good work.

The council took no action. This turned out to be what the council did best. Most of the council members did not read the Time article, or any of the other materials the Concerned Citizens gave them. Some still haven't.

"We have people refusing to be informed," Sextro says.

Not refusing, exactly. Declining. The mayor of Tilden, Steve Rutjens, is the foreman of his family business, Rutjens Construction. He wears a baseball hat that says "Ditch Witch," the name of a company that makes trenchers and plows.

"I don't have time to sit down and read books to figure out what this stuff is. I told them I wished they had an audiocassette," he says. L. Ron Hubbard, Tilden's most famous son, may have been a genius. Or maybe he was a demented liar. Rutjens really can't say.

The mayor and council members weren't prepared for such a contentious issue. They serve mostly because nobody else wants to, and get paid a couple hundred dollars a year for their trouble. Normally they make easy decisions such as whether to spend $1,000 to replace the brooms on the street sweeper, which they did, but then it broke down again.

When the park controversy started and people demanded that they take a stand, they were taken aback. They hadn't signed up for anything like this.

The Concerned Citizens Coalition didn't let up. It hired a lawyer, a clear indication that things in Tilden had gotten out of hand.

Attorney Mark Albin, whose office is in Norfolk, 22 miles east, made the council members uncomfortable. He pointed out that the City Council had no control over the park foundation. It had no idea how much money the foundation had, where the money came from, or how the foundation was spending it.

This was important because the park foundation had used the $50,000 from the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard to get state matching funds for the Way To Happiness Trail. If the City Council decided not to approve a trail by that name, and if the Scientologists took their money and went home, Tilden would have to come up with $50,000 to make good on its deal with the state.

Albin had another point: What if the city built the trail and somebody sued on the grounds that Tilden had violated the Constitutional separation of church and state?

Not to worry, the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard said. The Way To Happiness is "a common-sense moral code," not Scientology scripture.

Call it religion or call it common sense, the Way To Happiness was making the Tilden City Council miserable.

Finally, Mayor Rutjens came up with a solution. It wasn't exactly Churchillian, but it would have to do.


The members of the Concerned Citizens Coalition measure their words carefully when they talk about Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. They don't call it a cult of greed or a racket; they let Time magazine do that. They don't mention that Hubbard falsified his military record, claiming honors he didn't have; they leave that to the Los Angeles Times.

And they don't speculate about what happened to 36-year-old Lisa McPherson, who died under mysterious circumstances after spending 17 days in the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Scientology spiritual retreat in Clearwater. Instead, the Concerned Citizens point to coverage of the case in the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune.

Sextro and the others don't speak ill of Hubbard or the church because they know what happens to people who do. They read about Paulette Cooper, the author of The Scandal of Scientology, who was framed by Scientologists on charges that she made bomb threats against the church. Cooper was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1973, only to be exonerated after the FBI raided Scientology's offices and uncovered the plot against her.

The church says that's ancient history.

Just 18 months ago, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that a church lawsuit against the Washington Post was "reprehensible" because its purpose was to "(stifle) criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology and (destroy) its opponents." The church's Web site says the judge's decision was "erroneous."

Even Dave Decker, Scientology's best ally in Tilden, is frank about the church's tactics. "If you have ever defamed the church, you better be careful, because they'll come after you," he says.

Still, he sees no reason not to honor Hubbard. The Los Angeles City Commission did. If Los Angeles can have an L. Ron Hubbard Way, Decker asks, why can't Tilden have an L. Ron Hubbard Park?

Decker says the park wasn't meant to promote Scientology, and the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard took pains to distance themselves from the church that Hubbard founded. The articles they wrote for the Tilden Citizen never mentioned the word "Scientology."

Early on, Nebraska's Norfolk Daily News (circulation 21,000) published a story saying the Church of Scientology was contributing to the park project. The park foundation demanded a correction, and the paper published one that said the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard are "not associated with the church."

Maybe not, but they certainly were dedicated. One day, Marcie Sextro got a phone call from Dave Decker. Would it be all right if someone from the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard called to talk about the park?

When Kaye Conley called, Sextro switched on her answering machine and said she was recording the conversation. "I didn't trust her," she said. Yes, things had changed in Tilden.

Conley said she didn't know why people were suspicious of the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. "It appears that it is considered that we have some vested interest," she said.

BEEP! Sextro's answering machine emitted a loud, shrill sound, its way of announcing that it was still recording. Conley gathered herself and went on. But the sound interrupted her again, and then again, and then again, at 15-second intervals. The sound was a distraction at first, then an annoyance, and finally a form of torture.

"Let's just forget that I'm a Scientologist . . ."


"Our children can't be educated because they're so drug-inflicted . . ."


"I don't know where this idea comes from that we worship some kind of devil . . ."


Conley mentioned Scientology's opposition to psychiatry - especially electroshock therapy. "We don't believe you can make a person better by frying his brain . . ."


Conley gave up.


This is what Mayor Steve Rutjens told the people of Tilden: I'll do whatever you tell me to do.

If bending to the will of the majority doesn't sound like leadership, the people didn't mind. In a place like Tilden, it's more important to be neighborly than it is to be sure of yourself. A City Council vote on the issue was scheduled for March 11 of this year.

Rutjens' "stand" turned the park issue into a numbers game: Whichever side got the most signatures would get its way, at least with him. In the days before the decisive City Council meeting, just about everybody in Tilden was asked to sign a petition for one side or the other.

Both sides delivered their stacks to the city office before the meeting. Most of the coalition's petitions were signed by longtime residents of Tilden. Some of the names on the park foundation petitions were less familiar: Rivera. Portillo. Morales. Ponce. Perez. Guajardo. These were Mexican immigrants who live in a trailer park on North Elm and work in the meat-packing plant in Norfolk.

In a city where second-generation families are seen as new blood, the Mexicans are all but invisible. Some people might be inclined to discriminate against them, but they'd have to notice them first.

Some in Tilden didn't appreciate the park foundation bringing the Mexicans into the controversy. "They know nothing about the park and trail," City Clerk Pat Borgelt says. Decker seized the opportunity to cry bigotry.

Borgelt finished tallying the petitions on the day of the big meeting. If the council deadlocked, the mayor would know how to vote.

The council held the first part of the meeting in the garage-size room. After voting to solicit bids for the shingling of the fire house roof, the council members got up and walked to to the city gym, where 200 people in a town of 900 sat waiting.

Tilden had a lot at stake. Business people who had taken a position were suffering for it now. Old friends had stopped talking to each other. The mayor had received two letters demanding that he accept the money from the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. The letters were from his mother and his niece.

Tilden - which had struggled to raise even a few thousand dollars - was now being offered an $800,000 park. All the council had to do was say yes.

The meeting lasted until midnight. The park foundation spoke. The Concerned Citizens Coalition spoke. Mayor Rutjens repeatedly asked the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard what they would do if the city decided not to honor Hubbard. Would they take back the money? The mayor could not get a straight answer.

By a 4-2 vote, the council decided not to name the park for Hubbard, and not to build the Way To Happiness Trail. The mayor didn't have to vote.

After the meeting, the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard took back their $50,000 and left town.


A lot of people in Tilden don't want to talk about Scientology now. The Lutheran pastor has no comment. Jeannene Kerkman, of the park foundation, doesn't return calls. The wife of park foundation member Duane Eggers says, "He isn't available." As in, ever.

But few people don't want to talk about Scientology as much as Jerry Fields doesn't want to talk about it. Something, or someone, has made this Nebraska insurance man as edgy as a little boy in the dark. He sits behind the desk in his office, not talking. He won't even talk about why he won't talk.

"I really don't want to be in this," he says, meaning this newspaper story. Or this office, this town, this area code.

Fields is the only person in Tilden who was on both the park foundation and the City Council. As a park foundation member, he seconded the motion to make a deal with the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard. Later, in a City Council meeting, he voted against holding a public referendum on the park issue. Clearly, the Hubbard people had him on their side.

Then some of the coalition members cranked up the heat. They told him they would take their business elsewhere if he didn't vote their way. He could lose his livelihood. The Scientologists pressured him, too, he says. But he doesn't want to talk about it.

Jerry Fields empties his lungs with a long, shrinking sigh.

"People are cruel," he says.

He was among those who ultimately voted against honoring Hubbard. Soon after, he quit the City Council and focused on selling insurance.

Hanging on the wall of Fields' waiting room is a plaque that the Friends of L. Ron Hubbard gave him before he turned on them. It is inscribed with a quotation from Hubbard:

"On the day when we can really trust each other, there will be peace on Earth."