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Two tussle over filmmaker's camera

A longtime Scientologist has been charged with battery in a sidewalk scuffle over a filmmaker's videocamera.

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published July 11, 2006

CLEARWATER - A longtime member of the Church of Scientology was arrested Saturday after he scuffled with an amateur filmmaker who was videotaping on a downtown sidewalk next to a sign reading "Cult Watch," police and a witness said.

Michael Fitzgerald, 52, a self-employed carpenter, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on a misdemeanor battery charge and released after posting $250 bail.

Fitzgerald said Monday his attorney had instructed him not to comment on the case. He added, however, that he had obtained a videotape of the incident and promised to "give the whole story" at a future date.

On Saturday at 5:30 p.m., Shawn Lonsdale, 38, of Clearwater was filming at the northwest corner of N Fort Harrison Avenue and Cleveland Street, as he had done for the past two weeks. Lonsdale says he is making a documentary about Scientology for a public-access cable station.

This is how the confrontation unfolded, according to Lonsdale: Fitzgerald walked out of the Starbucks and crossed the street toward him, shouting that he was a bigot and shouldn't target Scientologists.

Lonsdale raised his handheld camera and began to film Fitzgerald, who objected to being videotaped and grabbed the camera.

Both men went to the pavement, where Lonsdale told Fitzgerald to release the camera. When Fitzgerald complied, Lonsdale filmed him again.

Fitzgerald lunged for the camera a second time, pushing it into Lonsdale's face, and a brief scuffle ensued until they were separated.

A police officer who was called to the scene looked at Lonsdale's tape and interviewed the men and other witnesses before deciding to arrest Fitzgerald, police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

Fitzgerald "did not want victim videotaping him in public ... confronted victim and grabbed victim and camera," an arrest report states.

One witness, Drew Sweet, 50, a Scientologist, provided an account similar to Lonsdale's. However, in Sweet's telling, Lonsdale hit Fitzgerald when Fitzgerald grabbed the camera the second time.

Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said members have been cautioned to avoid Lonsdale, adding that many have complained to police that he was stalking them.

She said the church had a video of the incident, which it had given to police.

[Last modified July 11, 2006, 07:30:18]


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