Don Jason was a top member of the Sea Org, the paramilitary group that runs Scientology. He wanted out; but for members at the top of the cult there is no “just leaving” anymore than you could quit the mafia. This is a compelling story, one that shows the teeth behind the smile that Scientology shows the world. The following excerpts are from the November 3, 2009 St. Petersburg Times story, “Man Overboard: to Leave Scientology, Don Jason Had to Jump Ship.”
A division of some 350 people tended to their needs, providing counseling services considered to be the finest in all of Scientology. For seven years, Chief Officer Don Jason was their boss, the second in command of the “Flag Service Organization.”
In a group photo in a 1996 issue of Source, the official magazine of “Flag,” Jason stands front and center. Only Capt. Debbie Cook’s dress uniform had more ribbons.
That August, a senior officer from a higher division surprised Jason with a reprimand he found absurd. It inflamed the doubts that had nagged him for years about making a career in the church. He’d had enough.
He took off without permission, hid out for six weeks but returned to Clearwater, compelled by feelings of guilt and a desire to leave the church on good terms.
He agreed to a program of counseling and manual labor aboard the Freewinds, the church’s cruise ship in the Caribbean. He scraped oily sludge off a collection tank under the ship’s engines. For a time, his cabin was locked from the outside, and a security camera was trained on his bunk.
He repeatedly asked to leave; the answer was no. Twice, he tried to walk down the gangway. Twice, church guards blocked him.
The church’s account of how Jason left the Freewinds says only: “On 21 November 1996, Jason changed his mind and left, ending up in Milwaukee.”
That afternoon, right after lunch, he disappeared over the bow.
‘WE COME BACK’
Scientologists believe that people are spiritual beings — thetans — who live for eternity and are reborn into new bodies when they die. They are encouraged to think in terms of their “whole track,” the endless succession of lifetimes they will lead.
Members of the dedicated work force, known as the Sea Org, sign billion-year contracts to serve Scientology. Their motto: “We come back.”
Jason grew up in Milwaukee, a rowdy 20-year-old with a history of drug use when his older sister got him to take a Scientology communication course. He liked it so much he traveled to Clearwater for the next course and never left.
He worked on construction projects and his gung-ho manner got him promoted to the administrative ranks.
“I liked what I was doing. We were helping people. I was really into the cause.”
By his early 30s, Jason started looking ahead, not to his eternity but to middle-age. What if he hit 50 and decided to leave Scientology? Who would hire him? Could he survive?
The church describes the cruise ship as “a safe, aesthetic, distraction-free environment” where Scientologists receive high-level auditing “far from the crossroads of the workaday world.”
Rathbun says Miscavige wanted Jason on the ship to control him.
“The idea was you do it while you neutralize him as a threat because you can’t blow from the ship,” Rathbun said. “You lodge your passport with the port captain, it’s put in a safe and you’re a virtual prisoner at that point.”
Rathbun sold the idea to Jason as an opportunity to get away and get “cleaned up,” get his head back to a Scientology frame of mind. It would mean auditing, some training and physical labor.
Jason was wary, but he went for it. Before he flew to the Bahamas to meet the ship, he opened a new bank account in Clearwater and got some temporary checks.
When he boarded, he surrendered his passport but secretly kept the checks and his driver’s license, even slept with them at night.
He says his cabin was locked from the outside. A security camera was trained on his bed. To go to the bathroom, he waved at the camera and security guards opened the door remotely. Another camera in the hallway tracked him to the bathroom door.
It struck Jason that when he waved at the cabin camera, the guards immediately opened the door. Were they watching every second?
He asked the Freewinds staff to contact Rathbun, who called back the next day. This was not what he signed up for, Jason told him. “I’m not a prisoner here.”
Rathbun says he told the Freewinds staff to remove the lock but not the cameras. They were aboard a ship, he reminded them. Jason had nowhere to run.
Said Jason: “I’m on a ship that goes God knows where. I’m out of the country. I’ve got no passport. It’s a little scary. You have no identity. … That feeling of nothing’s under your control is a little eerie.”
Jason decided to act like a good soldier, the picture of compliance. Behaving got him better work assignments and more freedom to move about the ship.
He ruled out jumping overboard. The 40-foot drop was too dangerous, and the dock walls too high, with no ladders.
The thick, 30-foot cables that moor the ship to the dock seemed his best chance. He thought through the variables.
He would have to move quickly down the cable; the guards would hurry to the dock to head him off. Timing was important. Too many people on the dock and he would create a scene. Then again, he wanted at least a few witnesses.
When the ship docked each day, he watched the cables go taut and slack with the tide. A drooping cable would leave him short of the dock. He would have to time his descent so when he reached bottom, the cable would be taut. He would have to get around the metal plate that kept rats from climbing to the ship. He scavenged for materials to build a device that would help him quickly get down the cable.
He fashioned something like a rolling pin. Starting with a wooden dowel the thickness of a clothing rod, he sawed off a 16-inch piece. Around it he fit a 7-inch length of PVC pipe. To keep the PVC from moving side to side, he sunk drywall screws into the dowel on either end of the PVC. . .
He had been on the ship six weeks when he made his move. Jason can’t remember if they docked in Freeport or Nassau, just that the town had a decent-sized airport.
What he does remember was hiding his rolling pin device down his shorts, working his morning shift on a maintenance project and heading to his usual spot for lunch.
The cable came taut.
He crawled over the bow and twisted himself as he had rehearsed in his mind, legs and one arm around the cable to steady himself while he pulled the rolling pin from his shorts. He positioned it over the cable and zip-lined down. The ride was “pretty damned fast” but under control, and he could see two or three guards running for the dock as he descended. He scrambled around the rat guard, pulled himself to the dock and ran for the road, with a lead of about 30 feet on the guards.
They caught up as he got to a cab. One yelled in his face and held the door so he couldn’t get in. Another told the cabbie not to give him a ride because he wasn’t allowed to leave the ship.
Jason muscled his way into the front seat, closed the door on a guard’s hand and screamed at the driver: “I’m being held against my will! Take me to a g– d— airport!”
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