Gilman Hot Springs — Nearly 30 years ago, the Church of Scientology bought a dilapidated and bankrupt resort here and turned the erstwhile haven for Hollywood moguls and starlets into a retreat for L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who founded the religion.
Today, the out-of-the-way 500-acre compound near Hemet has quietly grown into one of Scientology's major bases of operation, with thriving video and recording studios, elaborate offices and a multimillion-dollar mansion that former members say was built for the eventual return of "LRH," who died in 1986.
Like the previous owners, the church also has used the property as a sanctuary for its own stable of stars. It is here, ex-members say, that Hollywood's most bankable actor, Tom Cruise, was assiduously courted for the cause by Scientology's most powerful leader, David Miscavige.
Scientology has long recruited Hollywood luminaries. But the close friendship of these two men for nearly 20 years and their mutual devotion to Hubbard help explain Cruise's transformation from just another celebrity adherent into the public face of the church.
The bond between the star and his spiritual leader was evident last year when the two traded effusive words and crisp salutes at a Scientology gala in England. Calling Cruise "the most dedicated Scientologist I know," Miscavige presented him with the church's first Freedom Medal of Valor.
"Thank you for your trust, thank you for your confidence in me," Cruise replied, according to Scientology's Impact magazine. "I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant, a more compassionate being outside of what I have experienced from LRH. And I've met the leaders of leaders. I've met them all."
Founded in 1954, Scientology is a religion without a deity. It teaches that "spiritual release and freedom" from life's problems can be achieved through one-on-one counseling called auditing, during which members' responses are monitored on an "e-meter," similar to a polygraph. This process, along with a series of training courses, can cost Scientologists many tens of thousands of dollars.
As Scientology's highest-ranking figure, Miscavige, 45, has found in Cruise, 43, not just a fervent and famous believer but an effective messenger whose passion the church has harnessed to help fuel its worldwide growth.
"Across 90 nations, 5,000 people hear his word of Scientology — every hour," International Scientology News proclaimed last year. "Every minute of every hour someone reaches for LRH technology ... simply because they know Tom Cruise is a Scientologist."
Cruise and Miscavige declined requests for interviews.
A Scientology spokesman, Mike Rinder, called them the "best of friends," men who've achieved great success through "their force of personality and their drive to excel."
At the same time that Cruise's increasingly vocal advocacy of Scientology has drawn attention to his faith, it has collided with his career. While promoting "War of the Worlds" this year, the film's director, Steven Spielberg, grew concerned that Cruise was talking too little about the movie and too much about Scientology and his wide-eyed-in-love fiancee, Katie Holmes, who turns 27 today.
Their romance generated even more buzz when Holmes was seen in the nearly constant company of Jessica Rodriguez, who is from a prominent family of Scientologists. Holmes, who said after becoming engaged to Cruise that she was embracing Scientology, described Rodriguez as a close friend, though she was widely seen as a church-appointed companion.
Unlike Holmes' embrace of the church, Cruise's is not new. Long before he sprang onto Oprah's couch, jabbed an accusing finger at Matt Lauer and blasted Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants, Cruise undertook intensive Scientology study and counseling at the church's compound, according to current and former Scientologists.
The vast majority of Scientologists train at the church's better-known facilities, including those in Hollywood and Clearwater, Fla. Cruise also has trained at those locations, but for much of his studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he headed to Gilman Hot Springs.
He stayed for weeks at a time, arriving by car or helicopter, according to ex-Scientologists who saw him there on repeated occasions. The former resort, 90 miles east of Los Angeles, was an ideal place for Cruise to get out of the spotlight while focusing on his Scientology training, ex-members say.
Described by ex-members as the church's international nerve center, the property is largely concealed from outsiders by tall hedges and high walls. The complex's barbed-wired perimeter and driveways are monitored by video cameras, and motion sensors are placed around the property to detect intruders, ex-members say. Some also remember a perch high in the hills, dubbed "Eagle," where staffers with telescopes jotted down license plate numbers of any vehicle that lingered too long near the compound.
Behind the compound's guarded gates, Cruise had a personal supervisor to oversee his studies in a private course room, ex-members say. He was unique among celebrities in the amount of time he spent at the base. Others visited, they said, but only Cruise took up temporary residence.
"I was there for eight years and nobody stayed long at all, except for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during that period," said Bruce Hines, who clashed with Miscavige and left Scientology in 2001 after three decades in the group.
He said he once provided spiritual counseling to the actress before she and Cruise divorced. Kidman, who had taken Scientology courses, has largely remained silent about the group in recent years.
While at the complex, Cruise stayed in a renovated bungalow near a golf course on the property.
"It was sort of like an upscale country place," said Karen Schless Pressley, a former Scientology "image officer," whose duties included interior design and creating military-style uniforms for Scientology staffers.
While hardly palatial, the guest digs where Cruise stayed were luxurious compared with the drab apartments in Hemet, where Schless Pressley and hundreds of other base staffers lived, with few amenities and almost no privacy.
She said she and her ex-husband shared a two-bedroom unit with another couple and were not allowed to make personal phone calls. Schless Pressley said she left the church because of what she alleged were invasions of members' privacy and other deprivations— a claim church officials say is unfounded.
At the same time, she and other former members say, Miscavige was seeing to Cruise's every need, assigning a special staff to prepare his meals, do his laundry and handle a variety of other tasks, some of which required around-the-clock work.
Maureen Bolstad, who was at the base for 17 years and left after a falling-out with the church, recalled a rainy night 15 years ago when a couple of dozen Scientologists scrambled to deal with "an all-hands situation" that kept them working through dawn. The emergency, she said: planting a meadow of wildflowers for Cruise to romp through with his new love, Kidman.
"We were told that we needed to plant a field and that it was to help Tom impress Nicole," said Bolstad, who said she spent the night pulling up sod so the ground could be seeded in the morning.
The flowers eventually bloomed, Bolstad said, "but for some mysterious reason it wasn't considered acceptable by Mr. Miscavige. So the project was rejected and they redid it."
Other ex-members say it wasn't the only time that Miscavige put them to work to please Cruise.
Miscavige, a firearms enthusiast, introduced Cruise to skeet shooting at the compound, according to an ex-member who said the actor was so grateful that he sent an automated clay-pigeon launcher to replace an older, hand-pulled model. With Cruise due to return in a few days, Miscavige again ordered all hands on deck, this time to renovate the base's skeet range, the ex-member said.
Dozens worked around the clock for three days "just so Tom Cruise would be impressed," the ex-member said.
Rinder, head of Scientology International's Office of Special Affairs, said such accounts were fabricated by "apostates," members who had abandoned the religion.
He said he knew nothing about the skeet range incident. The wildflower planting never occurred and might be a confused version of repairs done after a 1990 mudslide, he said, adding that he couldn't account for ex-members' detailed recollections, including those of Bolstad, whom he specifically described as not credible.
"I don't know exactly how to explain every one of these bizarro stories that you hear," he said.
Rinder also disputed the contention by numerous ex-members that Cruise's stays at the facility were exceptional, saying that many celebrity Scientologists had stayed there.
Cruise has made no extended visits to the complex since the early 1990s and has done 95% of his religious training elsewhere, Rinder said. Miscavige, he said, spends only a fraction of his time there and divides the rest of his time among offices in Los Angeles, Clearwater and Britain. He also stays aboard the Freewinds, Scientology's 440-foot ship based in Curacao in the Caribbean, Rinder said.
However, voter registration records list the Gilman Hot Springs complex as Miscavige's residence since the early 1990s and as recently as the 2004 general election. Rinder said the church leader simply had not updated his registration. Miscavige's wife, father, stepmother and siblings also have resided at the complex, according to voting records and interviews.
The base has changed significantly in the years since Cruise spent long days in intensive training, from which he would occasionally take time out to ride dirt bikes or go sky diving with Miscavige, ex-members said.
For years, the property has been home to Golden Era Productions, where Scientologists work around the clock producing videos, audio recordings and e-meters, to be sold to church members. Rinder said nearly all of the members at Golden Era have signed billion-year contracts to serve the church.
Since 1998, the church has poured at least $45 million into expanding the facility and has bought dozens of nearby homes and vacant lots, public records show. The additions include an $18.5-million, 45,000-square-foot management building with a wing of offices for Miscavige.
The most striking building is a mansion that sits on a hill — uninhabited. Dubbed "Bonnie View," ex-members say, it was built for the church founder, who died in secrecy on a ranch near San Luis Obispo amid a federal tax investigation that was dropped after his death. The mansion has a lap pool and a movie theater and was completed in 2000 at a cost of nearly $9.4 million, property records show.
"It's high-end beautiful but not ostentatious," decorated with Craftsman furniture, and draperies and other items that were designed to be changed with the seasons, Schless Pressley said.
Former members say they were told the mansion was built for Hubbard's return.
"The whole theory of that house was that before Hubbard died in 1986, David Miscavige told us, Hubbard told him he was going to come back and make himself visible within 13 years," Schless Pressley said.
The mansion, Rinder said, is merely a museum that contains most of Hubbard's belongings.
"It's preserved because the life of L. Ron Hubbard is extremely important to Scientologists," he said.
Miscavige, who spent his teenage years as one of Hubbard's cadre of young aides, rose to the head of Scientology after the founder's death. Little known outside the organization, Miscavige in the early 1990s succeeded in gaining tax-exempt status for the church after he and another Scientology official personally approached the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service to negotiate a settlement.
As chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, which holds the lucrative rights to the Scientology and Dianetics trademarks, he is the church's ultimate authority — and is treated as such.
Miscavige's living quarters and offices in renovated bungalows were modest compared with Bonnie View but reflected his taste for the best of the best, including state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment, said ex-members who viewed the accommodations.
"He's about five-seven and everything was built in proportion to his body size," Schless Pressley said. "And everything was the best. You know how everybody has a pen cup on his desk? His pen cup had about 20 Montblanc pens in it."
Shelly Britt, who joined Scientology at 17, said she was at the base for nearly 20 years before leaving the church in 2002. She said she worked directly with Miscavige much of that time. She recalled a Beverly Hills tailor visiting to measure Miscavige for his suits, and said moldings of his feet were taken and sent to London for custom-made shoes.
"His lifestyle so far exceeds anyone else's. He had his own personal staff to handle his food and his room and his clothes and his ironing and his dogs," she said. "His uniforms were specially tailored and he had, like, Egyptian cotton shirts, special pants, special shoes, special everything. And it was all of the highest quality."
Although Hines, Britt and other ex-members describe Miscavige as extremely demanding of those under his command, they say he treated Cruise "like a king." Among other things, Britt said, Miscavige and his wife attended the star's 1990 wedding to Kidman in Colorado and then followed up with frequent gifts.
"They don't do that for every celebrity," she said. "I remember one time I had to go pick up one of those big fancy picnic baskets and china and silver and take it out to Burbank to Tom's pilot. I even took pictures of it so Dave and his wife could see I took it out to the plane."
Rinder said that Cruise was treated no differently from other members and that his highly public support of Scientology came straight from his heart.
"It's a reflection of his own decisions and personal conviction," Rinder said.
The church's belief in the power of celebrity to promote Scientology dates to its earliest days when, in 1955, the church issued "Project Celebrity," a call to arms for Scientologists to recruit show business "quarry" such as Walt Disney, Liberace and Greta Garbo to help expand the religion's reach.
Although the church failed to enlist those famous figures, it has been successful in attracting many others in addition to Cruise, including John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Anne Archer, Jenna Elfman, Beck and Chick Corea.
More than any other celebrity, Cruise has helped fuel the growth of the church, which claims a worldwide membership of 10 million and in the last two years has opened major centers in South Africa, Russia, Britain and Venezuela. Cruise joined Miscavige last year for the opening of a church in Madrid.
In his own spiritual life, Cruise has continued to climb the "Bridge to Total Freedom," Scientology's path to enlightenment. International Scientology News, a church magazine, reported last year that the actor had embarked on one of the highest levels of training, "OT VII" — for Operating Thetan VII.
At these higher levels — and at a potential cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — Scientologists learn Hubbard's secret theory of human suffering, which he traces to a galactic battle waged 75 million years ago by an evil tyrant named Xenu.
According to court documents made public by The Times in the 1980s, Hubbard espoused the belief that Xenu captured the souls, or thetans, of enemies and electronically implanted false concepts in them to keep them confused about his dirty work. The goal of these advanced courses is to become aware of the trauma and free of its effects.
At Cruise's high level of training, ex-members say, devotees also are charged with actively spreading the organization's less secretive beliefs and advancing its crusades, including Hubbard's deep disdain for psychiatry, a profession that once dismissed his teachings as quackery.
"When you hear Tom Cruise talking about psychiatrists and drugs," said one prominent former Scientologist who knows Cruise, "you are hearing from the grave the voice of L. Ron Hubbard speaking."