How Scientology turned its biggest critic
By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
This accounting was presented to Minton at a meeting March 28 in a law office in New York City. It was the first of at least 20 negotiating sessions in March, April and May between Scientology leaders and lawyers and the church's archenemy, millionaire Robert Minton.
Minton and Scientology had engaged in an acrimonious public battle for years, spending millions on mutual destruction.
Now they were talking truce. It wasn't long before Minton had become Scientology's star witness.
Minton's turnaround became public during court testimony in April. His former allies, the church's critics, have been left to wonder: Why is he doing this?
Answers have emerged during recent weeks of testimony in the courtroom of Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer. Along with court records and interviews, the testimony revealed the extent of the Church of Scientology's effort to neutralize its most hated critic. Details of the church's thorough, relentless offensive also shed light on how Minton's surprising cooperation with Scientology came about.
It's clear Minton was being crushed by Scientology's legal onslaught. For a year, the church has used discovery motions and depositions to pry into his personal and business affairs.
Scientology got his bank records, as well as information about guns he owns.
The church obtained the phone records of his now-defunct anti-Scientology organization, the Lisa McPherson Trust, which was based in Clearwater until late last year.
And Minton was concerned the church was gearing up to drag his wife into the fray by seeking to depose her. She had always steered clear of his anti-Scientology activities.Over and over Minton was ordered into depositions and grilled by Scientology lawyers about his financial dealings. When Minton invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, a judge ordered him to answer.
When Minton didn't show up for a deposition, he faced contempt of court.
Scientology attorney Monique Yingling testified that the church believed it was on the verge of uncovering serious abuses of the legal process, false affidavits and false allegations in the McPherson case.
"I think Mr. Minton was really feeling the heat," she said. "He was in a position where he was being forced to testify to things he didn't want to testify to."
Yingling was right. Minton was overwhelmed.
"It was like the Terminator was after you," he said.
And at that first negotiating session March 28, the church made it clear that it held him accountable for millions of dollars of litigation he had supported.
"It never escaped me for a moment there was only one deep pocket for them to come after," Minton said.
Now, after six years on the Scientology battlefront, Minton wants out.
"You know, this has been really hard," Minton said in court recently. "It's been -- I just can't do it anymore. I don't want to do it."
The wealthy crusader
Just eight months ago, Minton stood before a crowd in Cleveland and proudly accepted a human rights award recognizing him for "extraordinary courage" in the "battle against tyranny over the mind of man."
A nationally known Scientology critic, Minton talked in his acceptance speech of "terrorist cults" led not by Osama bin Laden but by "like-minded terrorists" such as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology leader David Miscavige.
Minton was Scientology's "Public Enemy No. 1."
In all, the retired investment banker spent $10-million supporting critics, lawyers fighting Scientology and anti-Scientology efforts around the world. He gave $2-million to Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar to help fund the wrongful-death lawsuit blaming the church for the death of Lisa McPherson, the Scientologist who died in 1995 after being cared for by fellow church members for 17 days.
Scientologists did not turn the other cheek, according to Minton and other church critics.
They circulated leaflets about Minton to his neighbors in New Hampshire and Boston calling him a "hate monger" leading a "KKK style" attack on a religion, according to a "harassment" timeline maintained by the critics and entered into court records.
Scientologists picketed him at his home and at airports. Minton said a Scientology official sent photos and a letter to his wife accusing him of adultery.
Scientology dug into Minton's finances. Minton said Scientology operatives stirred up an allegation that he helped a Nigerian dictator launder $12-billion as part of a business deal 12 years ago. Minton has not been charged and says the allegation is bogus.
"I've never seen such a concerted effort to destroy an individual," said Jesse Prince, once a high-ranking Scientologist who left the church and befriended Minton.
In the middle of 2001, Scientology changed its strategy, Minton said, and came after him through the legal system.
This spring, Minton decided it was time to settle his differences with Scientology.
At noon on Saturday, March 16, Minton picked up the phone and called Mike Rinder at the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles. "There was a gun aimed at me," Minton said. "Mr. Rinder is the man who had his finger on the trigger."
Behind closed doors
High on Scientology's list: dismissal of the Lisa McPherson wrongful-death lawsuit. The case was set for trial in June
Minton had funded the case, and the church believed he controlled it, said Yingling, who took part in the meeting. "If he was controlling it, he could dismiss it."
Another lawyer ticked off the damages the church believed Minton had caused. Total: $28-million.
A racketeering claim against Minton and others was mentioned. Minton said the church never presented him with a RICO lawsuit. But Prince said in court records that after the meeting Minton showed him a draft of a RICO suit prepared by Scientology, seeking $110-million in damages.
To Dandar, the lawyer in the McPherson case, there is only one way to interpret the mention of RICO. "It's an absolute, factual threat," he said.
Dandar said he believes Minton was threatened with something Scientology discovered related to his overseas financial affairs. Minton has invoked the Fifth Amendment when pressed for details about his finances and when asked if he has underreported his income to the IRS.
On Good Friday, March 29, Dandar said, he got a frantic phone call from Minton.
"Ken, you have to help me," Dandar recalled Minton saying. "They've got me this time. If you don't drop the case Monday morning, the blood and death of my daughters, my wife and myself will be on your hands."
Prince said in a court document that Minton told him: "Scientology had gathered enough information . . . to get him prosecuted, convicted and jailed. Specifically, (Minton) said that Scientology had information to also convict his wife."
Church spokesman Ben Shaw repeatedly has said the church never threatened or manipulated Minton. Yingling said the same thing when testifying. Minton, too, says the church did not threaten him in any way. He said critics like Prince are making up stories.
"The thing that amazes me the most about all of this testimony is that pretty much people are willing to do anything to paint Scientology as completely evil," Minton said, acknowledging he once behaved that way. "What it showed to me is how deeply seated people's hatred toward Scientology is."
Many of those critics say Minton's reversal is so radical it only can be the result of a grave threat, extortion or blackmail.
"They totally burned him out," said Steve Hassan, a Boston mental health counselor and mind control expert who has known Minton for years. "They were going to destroy him if he didn't cooperate."
Confessions in Clearwater
Their meeting April 6 at Pope's office was a turning point. It was so important, Rinder -- a top Scientology official who handles the church's legal and public affairs -- summoned his lawyer, Yingling, from Paris, where she was on other business
The church long had suspected wrongdoing in the McPherson case. During the meeting, Rinder told Minton, "I really want you to think seriously about telling the truth in what has happened in this case," Minton said.
Minton excused himself. Outside, he decided it was time to come clean. There were lies told in the case, according to Minton. He said he feared Scientology would uncover those lies in court and he would be sent to jail for perjury.
He became so distressed, he gagged in the bushes.
Recalling the negotiation, Minton said: "It wasn't something I wanted to do. I wasn't looking to start trusting the Church of Scientology and I especially wasn't looking to trust Mike Rinder."
Back inside, he began to reveal to Rinder a series of lies he said he had told under oath at Dandar's direction.
Yingling said she was shocked to hear Minton's account of what had been happening in the case. The Times sought comment from Rinder for this story, but he did not return repeated calls. Shaw, speaking for the church, has said Scientologists are pleased the truth finally is coming to light.
Now the church is using Minton's testimony to support an effort to get the lawsuit dismissed. It has left Dandar fighting not only for the McPherson case but for his own reputation. Dandar has denied all of Minton's accusations, saying Minton's lies started after he met with Scientology. Testimony before Schaeffer is to resume this week. "They are committing a charade on the court," Dandar said. "They have Minton coming in as if he were this pitiful lying witness who wanted to come clean. He was coming in claiming to be a perjurer because he was told to do that."
The lives of many critics have been defined by Scientology just as his was, Minton said. "I don't want my life defined by Scientology anymore.
After he settles his litigation with the church, he said, he just wants to walk away.
The church will never let that happen, said former Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim, one of the few who have successfully sued Scientology. He accused the church of mental abuse that pushed him to the brink of suicide, and after years of litigation, recently was paid a judgment of $8.6-million.
Wollersheim said Minton is an essential target for the church. "They will never walk away from this guy until he's decimated, until he's in an institution, until he's penniless."
Minton has heard that, but he doesn't seem worried.
For now, he has one concern, and one concern only, settling with Scientology. He told a judge recently:
"I just want some peace."
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