Here, in this seaside hamlet, full of retirees and fishermen, Marty Rathbun was fighting an extraordinary religious war. The 'squirrel busters' were among its (possibly self-appointed) foot soldiers. At stake in the dispute, which has now been running for almost three years, is the future of one of the world's most controversial and headline-prone spiritual institutions: the Church of Scientology.
Marty was a fully-paid-up Scientologist for 27 years, before quitting in 2004. For much of this time, he was a high-ranking executive in the Church, helping steer some of its most sensitive legal campaigns. He was also acquainted with many celebrity members, including Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise.
Marty says he left the Church for two reasons. The first is what he calls the increasingly onerous financial demands it places on followers. The second is a series of personal disagreements with its leader David Miscavige, a charismatic former associate of Hubbard who has reigned over Scientology since the mid-1980s.
When Marty left, eight years ago, he dropped off the radar and attempted to build a completely new life. But in 2009, after renewing contact with a handful of disaffected former colleagues, he changed course. First, he launched a blog, which has become a popular forum for the Church's critics. Then he turned his home into what he calls a "half-way house", offering refuge to people attempting to leave Scientology.
Today, Marty has become one of the Church's most public detractors, and has appeared in that guise on virtually every major US news network. Tony Ortega, the Village Voice editor and one of the most prolific journalists covering Scientology today, wrote recently: "There may be no greater outside threat to the continued existence of the Church of Scientology than a lone man who lives near Corpus Christi and who operates a blog he updates about once a day".
I spoke to several ex-Scientologists who have stayed with Rathbun. "When I left Scientology, I lost every friend I had," said Samantha Domingo, who quit in 2009, after 20 years. "Then I went to see Marty. He gave me certainty, gave me hope, and made me realise I wasn't alone." Domingo, the British former daughter-in-law of the opera great Placido, now lives happily in Kent. "He picked up the broken pieces of my life and put them back together," she said.
John Brosseau, who quit the Church in April 2010, after 30 years, recalled: "Leaving felt like jumping out of an aeroplane with no parachute. But after two weeks at Marty's place I got my feet back under me. He put me in touch with a community of former Church members. One even offered me a job. It's been two years since then; I've now got a home, a wife, and a wonderful six-month-old daughter."
The Church called Rathbun "an anti-Scientologist, desperate and delusional". It said he was "expelled from the Church for violating Scripture" and has "a history of malfeasance" recently exposed in detail by Freedom, Scientology's in-house magazine, which claims he belongs to a "posse of lunatics". It advised me to research Marty via the website whoismartyrathbun.com. Among other things, it dubs him a "cult militia leader" and claims, "Rathbun's eyes glow with a psychotic gleam".
Marty still subscribes to many key tenets of the religion. He continues to practice "auditing", the form of counselling Scientologists use to seek enlightenment, and he continues to revere Hubbard, whose books and lectures he frequently quotes. Like L Ron, he believes firmly in reincarnation. "The way I see it," he told me, "this faith has a lot in common with Zen Buddhism."
Marty insists, however, that the Church, which he calls "corporate Scientology", has become estranged from its core values. In recent years, he argues, an organisation created to harness individualism became obsessed with loyalty, discipline and control, with getting members to obey rules, and, above all, with separating them from their money. "I never doubt the gains that I got from Scientology," he says. "I've never doubted the effectiveness of auditing. But I believe there's a real problem with the Church. The core poison is greed. I look at Scientology, and I think it's being destroyed by this quest for the buck."
In the eyes of supporters, Marty is not even an enemy of Scientology. Instead, he is leading a sort of Reformation. "Marty presents himself as a true believer," says Janet Reitman, the author of Inside Scientology, perhaps the most complete history of the Church. "He still believes in the faith, but he's trying to reform it. He sees himself as a Martin Luther figure."