When the fundraisers found a far bigger building, said Elliott, staffers were asked to give money. One local director took out a million-dollar loan. According to Tony DePhillips, another local Seattle donor and an Operating Thetan VII, the church's second highest level, "They would have you do anything — sell your house, give away your 401(k) — to raise the money." DePhillips and his wife ended up giving more than $100,000 over several years, money earned from hard work at the small jewelry business in Seattle they co-own. At the time, he was also paying $30,000 a year to stay at the Thetan VII level.
DePhillips' close friend, Bert Schippers, and Schippers' wife, Lynne Hoverson, were some of the biggest donors — they co-owned a successful manufacturing business in Seattle and wanted to give back. Schippers' donation came on top of the estimated $1.2 million he had paid into Scientology's hierarchal system of seminars, services, and donations between 1986 and 2008, when he left the church.
"They pump you up when you're giving money," DePhillips says. "You feel like a big shot. Ultimately, you find out that the church doesn't give a rat's ass about you the minute you're not on the same page."
Elliott makes a lot less than Schippers. But he still gave: more than $40,000 since 1980, when he joined as a fresh-faced college recruit. In the 2000s, that included $24,000 to the Ideal Org project in Seattle. More than just a donor, he was a treasurer for the local church, a community icon, and a budding auditor, Scientology's version of a life counselor. In 2005, when his mother passed away, he gave the local church "about $7,000" of his inheritance.
In February 2005, the Seattle donors finally raised enough to buy the central church's chosen structure for $3.7 million. But the CSI's plan for the Seattle congregation wasn't finished yet. For four more years, "the building sat idle, while more fundraising occurred to raise money for renovations," says Schippers. The structure stayed unoccupied and unrenovated until 2009. He grew impatient — why the wait for their new holy site? But the fundraising still wasn't over.
Elliott says that the fundraisers from the central church asked for $2.1 million to beautify the building, and then surprised him by asking for $1.1 million more to buy another one: an affiliated "Scientology Life Improvement Center" in downtown Seattle. The second building was purchased in 2007, but also stayed empty until July 24, 2010.
And the fundraising targets kept rising. "There were many hundreds more fundraising rounds," says Schippers. "In the last two or three years, it was fundraising more than once a week."
"They would always seem to miss their [donation] quotas," says DePhillips. "They would tell you it would be a certain number one month, then as they got closer to it, they'd raise it."
According to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed, the money drive officially closed on Feb. 20, 2010: "Across the eight years," the email says, "we raised a total of $13.9 million with 33 Humanitarians [church jargon for those who make a] (Donation of $100,000 or more)." Both Schippers and DePhillips made the list.
Of that $13.9 million given to the CSI's central fundraisers, a total of $4.8 million was spent on buying the two properties. Was the remaining $9.1 million spent on local improvements? Due to the religion's closed books, it's hard to say. The fundraising goal for renovating the Life Improvement Center was just $1.5 million, say Schippers, Elliott, and DePhillips. And the donors doubt that even that sum was spent. "I thought that was completely bogus," says Schippers. "I got a tour of the finished building, and it wasn't $1.5 million of renovations. I would estimate $100,000 … It is possible that renovations were as high as $500,000, but even that seems too high."
Even if the church did spend $1.5 million on improving the Center, that leaves $7.6 million to renovate the main Ideal Org. Jason Rosauer, a senior vice president and partner at Kidder Matthews, one of Seattle's largest commercial real estate firms, took a look at the building and estimated that it would cost "between eight and nine million to put up brand new." If the church spent the remainder of its raised funds on renovating the Ideal Org, he says, "it would not be out of the realm of possibility…but that's a hell of an improvement."
"When I look at the building," DePhillips says, "it's not an impressive one. The idea that it would cost millions to renovate that seems preposterous."
As the drives intensified and the requests mounted, it's hard not to wonder why the guys on the ground agreed to give, give, and keep giving. "When you're a hardcore member, you believe that the church will help the planet, that it will stop wars, that it will help there be peace for all, that it will help you personally with your life," Schippers says. "It was a huge part of my life, and most of my friends were involved."
DePhillips complained to a staff member that the aggressive, post-purchase, empty-building fundraising "went against Hubbard's financial policy." The staffer responded by suggesting he report himself to the church's Ethics department, which would help him "get [his] shit together." He ultimately resigned and was branded a "suppressive," a church enemy with whom no Scientologist is allowed to communicate.