Church's leading foes split bitterly
By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- For nearly five years, New England millionaire Robert Minton has bankrolled a civil lawsuit that blames the Church of Scientology for the death of Lisa McPherson.
On Friday, Minton, one of Scientology's most vocal critics, sat in court and testified for the church in a related case.
"Mr. Dandar is a lying thief," Minton said, hitting his fist on the witness box.
With Dandar seated just feet away, in the uncomfortable position of being the accused rather than the counsel, Minton said, "I am now of the belief Mr. Dandar is only in this for the money."
The jaw-dropping testimony amounted to a meltdown of Scientology's opposition front. Should the church succeed, it could seriously damage the biggest remaining legal challenge from McPherson's death in the care of fellow Scientologists in 1995.
"We've been saying since the beginning, this case is an absolute sham," said church spokesman Ben Shaw. "If you fight hard enough for justice, you'll eventually get it."
Outside the courtroom a group of Scientology critics, some of whom Minton once supported financially and counted as allies, was ready to be called to the witness stand to counter Minton's accusations and support Dandar.
The hearing clearly touched off a storm of emotion among those who count themselves as critics of the church. Minton's close friend, Stacy Brooks, sat in the audience, red-eyed and exhausted.
In his testimony, Minton said his one-time friend, former Scientologist Jesse Prince, was so angry to hear that he was testifying for Scientology that he threatened him. Then, Minton said, Prince told him: "You have become a Scientologist."
Minton said he ordered Prince to leave and told him, "I never want to see you again."
The irony was not lost on anyone, including attorneys for the church.
"In 32 years of law practice I have never seen anything like this," said Clearwater attorney Wally Pope, who represents the church.
Friday's hearing involved a lawsuit filed by the church against the McPherson estate, alleging breach of contract. The church is challenging Dandar's effort to name Scientology leader David Miscavige as a defendant in the wrongful death suit.
Tampa attorney Luke Lirot, representing Dandar, said the entire proceeding was another effort by Scientology to derail the wrongful death lawsuit, set to go to trial in June. He described the church's case against Dandar as "much ado about nothing."
After nearly seven hours of testimony from Minton and Dandar, the hearing was not finished on Friday. Lirot will argue Dandar's side when the hearing continues, although a date was not set.
In testimony, Dandar said he has never asked anyone to lie, nor has he done anything inappropriate with the money Minton gave him, as was insinuated during Friday's hearing.
Later, Dandar said in an interview that Minton's testimony felt like "your father killing you." He said he thinks the church is manipulating Minton by threatening him with a racketeering complaint.
"This man I adore, he was a saint," Dandar said. "It's like stabbing me in the heart. I'm just sitting there going, 'What did they do to you?' "
Minton's St. Petersburg attorney, Bruce Howie, denied that Minton had been threatened.
In his testimony, Minton said he'd just had enough of lying and, under the advice of his attorney, wanted to recant his false statements. Dandar, he said, had asked him to find a way to donate money to the case that could not be traced back to Minton's accounts.
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