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The people who died, 2018: Arnie Lerma, ex-Scientologist who became Scientology's fiercest critic

Nov. 15, 1950-March 16, 2018

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Ever heard the story of Xenu, the genocidal alien dictator who, when faced with overpopulation troubles 75 million years ago, brought billions of his subjects to Earth to execute with a lethal combination of volcanoes and hydrogen bombs? Their disembodied spirits to cling to humans and their removal can only be achieved through the teachings of the Church of Scientology? If so, you can thank Arnie Lerma.

Arnaldo Pagliarini Lerma was born in Washington, D.C., in 1950, to a mother who was an executive secretary to the Sudanese ambassador and a father who was a Mexican agriculture official — and who divorced months after his birth, according to Lerma's autobiography. His mother was a Scientology official in the D.C. church around 1968, about three decades after American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard published the first texts that would form the basis of his new religion, Scientology. By the time Lerma joined Scientology at 16 at the urging of his mother, the church had been banned in several Australian states and stripped of its tax-exempt status by the IRS, which deemed it a commercial operation for Hubbard's benefit — though a U.S. appeals court later recognized it as a religion in 1969.

Lerma signed a "billion-year contract" to serve in Scientology's elite Sea Org, a paramilitary force that some have described as a totalitarian organization, according to The Washington Post. But his status among fellow Scientologists changed when Lerma and Hubbard's daughter, Suzette, fell in love (a claim that has been strongly disputed by the church). Lerma's entanglement with Scientology ended after other Sea Org members allegedly threatened to mutilate him if he didn't cancel his elopement with Suzette Hubbard.

Exiled from the religion that had been his home for years, Lerma became one of Scientology's fiercest critics. By 1994, he was posting public court documents involving the church online in the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup that "included testimony from former church officials who describe Scientology as a dangerous cult that brainwashes and blackmails its member and harasses defectors and critics," which earned him intimidating visits from men in dark suits at his Arlington home, according to the Post. In 1995, Lerma was the first to post the "Fishman Affidavit" — documents submitted by ex-Scientologist Steven Fishman that included criticisms of the church as well as the doctrine of Xenu, which Scientology officials argued was copyrighted and a trade secret.

The church accused Lerma of copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation, leading to a raid of his home by federal marshals, Scientology attorneys, and data technicians. The church's Religious Technology Center sued Lerma, his internet service provider, and Post reporters for quoting the affidavit. A federal judge found the reporters had not violated copyright for quoting a publicly available court document, but Lerma was held liable for a small number of non-willful copyright violations and ordered to pay a $2,500 penalty. The court, though, stated it was convinced "that the primary motivation of RTC in suing Lerma, DGS, and The Post is to stifle criticism of Scientology in general and to harass its critics," according to the 1995 ruling.

Lerma continued his crusade against Scientology on his website, Lermanet, which became a resource for other critics, and he gave interviews on the subject in print news stories, television, and radio.

On March 16, Lerma, 67, shot his wife, Ginger Sugerman, in the face with a handgun at their Georgia home before killing himself, according to the local newspaper, The Sylvania Telephone. Sugerman, 58, survived and told Tony Ortega — the former Village Voice editor who runs the Underground Bunker, a site that keeps a sharp eye on the world of Scientology — that her husband was taking oxycodone in his last months to deal with back pain and that his paranoia had increased. Ortega last reported that Sugerman, also a former Scientologist, was raising funds for her continuing surgeries and for efforts to honor Lerma's work, despite his last atrocity. —

From "The people who died, 2018."

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