Two hours east of Los Angeles, in Hemet, California, sits a 500-acre Scientology compound known as the “Gold Base.”
The Church characterizes the base as a slice of Scientology utopia, with state-of-the-art facilities and gorgeous landscaping.
“If you talk to the staff, they'll tell you it's a worker's paradise,” Scientology attorney Monique Yingling told ABC News “20/20.” “It couldn't be a better place to work.”
But that’s not how Ron Miscavige remembers it.
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Ron Miscavige, the father of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, and his wife Becky moved onto the base in 2006, where he said they were forced to live under serious restrictions.
“I’m living on a compound…where your mail going out is read before its seal and sent out, where before you get your mail, it’s opened and read before you get it,” Ron Miscavige told “20/20” in an exclusive interview. “Phone calls, you’re on the phone, somebody else is listening on an extension.”
Gary Morehead, a former Scientologist turned Church critic, says he was once director of security for the Church and would go through people’s belongings at Gold Base to collect information on them.
“I would go through people’s personal belongings out of their berthing, where they slept… obtaining bank records, date of birth, passwords, any personal information, where their family addresses were,” Morehead told “20/20.”
Before he moved to the base, Ron Miscavige had joined the Sea Organization, or “Sea Org,” the clergy of the Church, in 1985 and was working as a musician and composer for the Church’s Golden Era Productions. But Miscavige said by the late 2000s, the crushing workload, rigid lifestyle and lack of sleep on the base became unbearable.
The Church rejects those claims, telling ABC News in a statement that “long and hard hours” and a “restrictive lifestyle” are part of the mission that Sea Org members sign up for.
“These are people that have dedicated their lives to something they really believe in,” Yingling said. “They may work hard. They may work really long hours… but they enjoy it.”
As for Ron, he “was working with first-class musicians in one of the best studios in the world,” she continued. “He had nothing to complain about.”
To prove it, the Church gave “20/20” photos of Ron enjoying fancy birthday meals they said his son David Miscavige provided and a car David and his two sisters had bought their father for his birthday.
The Church also sent ABC News video testimonials and letters from Ron’s former bandmates and other staffers in which they called Ron “lazy,” and claimed he used “racial and ethnic slurs,” was a “poor musician” and a “disgusting pig.”
All of which Ron Miscavige disputes, pointing to a video showing him being allowed to play at a birthday party the Church threw for Tom Cruise, and asking why he would be allowed to be a part of the celebration if Church members thought so little of him.
Ron also claims he was subjected to a practice called “over-boarding,” a disciplinary measure in which a Sea Org member in trouble with the Church is thrown overboard from the Sea Org ship into the water with clothes on. The Church claims over-boarding is voluntary.
“When you jump off… you commit yourself to the sea, so that you’ll be cleansed and come back, you know, better,” Yingling said. “There’s… some sort of an ecclesiastical discipline thing or it can be done as a group, and when a group does it, it’s more, sort of, because they’re all agreeing that somehow they screwed up, and ‘let’s get together and cleanse ourselves of it.’”
But Ron disagreed.
“I’m going out there and I’m thinking to myself, this is straight lunatic asylum stuff,” Ron Miscavige said. “This is going to make me better? The only effect it had on me is make me all the more want to possibly get out of there.”
For months, Ron Miscavige and his wife Becky said they planned what they called their escape from Gold Base by conditioning guards into letting them make regular Sunday trips to the music studio across the street. It all came to a head one day when Ron drove his car up to the security gate and pressed the button. To his relief, the gate opened.
“I drove out slowly so it wouldn’t arouse suspicion,” Miscavige said. “When I turned left, I put my foot right to the floorboard… I knew we were free. I knew they couldn’t catch us.”
“It was an escape,” he continued. “You can’t leave. You think you can just walk out? No. You will be stopped. I escaped.”
The Church denies that this was an “escape.” Yingling told “20/20” that Gold Base “is not a prison.”
“People can come and go as they please, and they do,” she said.
But Gary Morehead said he had many ways to discourage would-be deserters from leaving the base.
“I wouldn’t open up the gate,” he said. “I would send my rover guard down there to meet up with them face-to-face in case he started scaling in and I would try to calm, cool and collectively talk to him on the intercom.”
During his tenure there, Morehead said he tracked people down who he said had deserted and got them to come back.
“I used to have to keep a statistic which is a printed out graph of security threats, and that was the people who wanted to leave or the people to had left that we brought back and were undergoing handling,” Morehead said. “So every time somebody left, I learned something new to make it that much quicker for me to find somebody… the amount of sheer pressure that I would get until that person was back here was incredible.”
At the time, he said he thought that he was “helping that person.”
“They’re obviously having troubles, they’re leaving for a reason,” Morehead said. “So I’m going to be the one to help bring them back and… regain their spiritual enlightenment… and that sheltered my true view of the way I should look at it.”
The Church told ABC News in a statement that Morehead hasn’t worked at “any Church of Scientology” for 20 years, his comments are false and, “He is a teller of tales with no credibility.”
Once Ron and Becky Miscavige were off the base, they said they drove for three days to Wisconsin where Becky’s mother lives. But despite all of Ron’s complaints about the Church, he said he sent his son David Miscavige a letter asking for money soon after they left.
“In that letter, I said, ‘Hey, listen, I spent a lot of years in the Sea Org, I couldn’t live under those conditions, and I have very little money paid into social security. If you can give me some financial help, I would appreciate it,’” Ron Miscavige said.
He said his son David gave him $100,000, from money David had inherited from his mother, to buy a house.
“Maybe he read it and he’s thinking, you know, ‘he is my old man and he’s old, maybe I’ll help him out,’” Ron Miscavige said. “And then on the other hand… I think, ‘well, maybe he did it just so it would be insurance that I wouldn’t do anything.’ And I wasn’t going to do anything.”
Ron Miscavige wrote a memoir, “Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me,” with Dan Koon, a former Church official who is now a vocal critic. It's out in stores on May 3.