'They made her sign up for a billion years. What kind of people are they?'
The Observer, 19 March 1995, page 04
LISA O'KELLY Lisa O'Kelly meets a man who tried to rescue a friend from the Scientologists' evil grip and failed. STEPHEN Cooper admits he is a physical coward. 'If I see a fight, I cross to the other side of the road. Any trouble and I'll talk my way out of it sooner than use my fists,' he says. Yet one night, two years ago, Mr Cooper broke into the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology, taking on an army of uniformed guards, in an effort to reach his friend, Kathleen Wilson, whom he believed had been 'brainwashed' and imprisoned there. 'I still can't believe I had the courage,' he says. He wound up with his face mashed into the ground, his arm nearly broken and a prison sentence hanging over his head. That last threat was lifted a few days ago when Mr Cooper, a 27-year-old newsagent, was cleared at Lewes Crown Court of attempted kidnap and affray. His fears for Ms Wilson's safety persist. She remains with the Scientologists at Saint Hill Castle, East Grinstead, West Sussex. She told the court she did not wish to leave, but Mr Cooper still thinks she is being held against her will. He daren't attempt another rescue, but he and his girlfriend Lorna Bowden, 23, once Ms Wilson's best friend, worry that the next time they see her 'it will be in a coffin'. If this sounds melodramatic, you need only witness Mr Cooper and Ms Bowden clutching nervously at each other's hands to realise they are serious. Born into the small community of Brotton, Cleveland, they met six years ago through a shared interest in classic cars and would have married already had it not been for the strain of the trial. They had not heard of Scientology until they moved to Bognor Regis five years ago in search of work and persuaded Ms Wilson to join them. She and Ms Bowden had been friends since school, where Ms Wilson, a shy, only child of elderly parents, was in the remedial class. 'I took her under my wing and for years we did everything together, so I missed her,' Ms Bowden says. 'We were the brother and sister she never had.' The three of them lived in a small flat and the women worked in a garden centre until Ms Wilson found a job in a shoe shop in Chichester and moved there. 'Then one night she said she was going to a party with a lady who lived opposite her, which came as a surprise because she never went to parties,' Mr Cooper recalls. 'It was only afterwards that we realised the lady was the Scientologists' recruiting officer.' Ms Wilson came back saying she had met a man who had offered her a job as a nanny to his children. 'That seemed odd, too, since she had no experience with kids and couldn't cook,' Mr Cooper says. For months the couple saw and heard little of her, apart from a Scientology personality test she posted to them. 'We filled it in to please Kathleen, sent it back and went to see the recruiting officer,' Mr Cooper remembers. 'She wanted us to take a course costing pounds 50 each.' When they said they could not afford it, the woman tried to sell them a copy of the book Dianetics, the extraordinary confusion of techno-babble, sci-fi speak, naval jargon and biblical parody with which L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology 40 years ago. They declined but were pursued for weeks with daily phone calls. 'Eventually we got ourselves disconnected.' Ms Bowden's fears that Ms Wilson might have been overwhelmed by such attention intensified when her friend rang to say she was moving to the Scientology headquarters, where she had been given a job. That was in early 1991. Despite repeated attempts to get in touch with Ms Wilson, the couple heard nothing, save for one letter saying 'I'm OK - it's a lovely place', until 4 November the following year. 'First Kathleen's mother rang to say she was worried. Kathleen had rung her to say she was going to America but did not really want to. They were forcing her Then Kathleen rang. She wanted to meet and say goodbye.' They arranged to see her at Saint Hill Castle, where Ms Wilson was ushered in by a security guard. 'I was shocked and frightened. Kathleen was dressed in a blue uniform like an army officer and showed no emotion towards me at all. There was another woman there who started making small talk. Every time I asked Kathleen a question, she would answer for her.' After a few minutes, the guard tapped his watch and Ms Wilson got up to leave, but whispered to Ms Bowden that she would be catching a bus to the station at 10.30pm. Convinced this was a cry for help, the couple decided Mr Cooper should return to try to 'get her into a position where she could make up her own mind what she wanted to do'. As the court in Lewes heard he was overpowered before he could get close to her and Ms Wilson was spirited back inside the castle. Furious at the intrusion on its 'privacy' - and the damage the attempted 'kidnap' could do to efforts to improve the church's image - Scientology leaders pressed charges. Ms Wilson cut an unfamiliar figure on the witness stand. 'She looked so glamorous, like an air stewardess. She used to wear bright clothes, purple leggings and yellow T-shirts. Everything she said sounded unnatural and rehearsed. It wasn't like her at all.' The most worrying thing Mr Cooper says, was the expression on her face. 'She smiled at me once when she wasn't being watched by the guy with her and it was a real smile. Then she saw him looking and she snapped back into this weird, fixed stare.' In the United States, Scientology has in recent years gained tax-exempt status and such recruits as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Demi Moore and Lisa-Marie Presley. But Mr Cooper thinks its old image as a sinister and manipulative cult, preying on vulnerable people, is nearer the truth. 'They made her sign a contract for a billion years. What kind of people are they? They've taken her life away.'