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Scientologist won't face trial in scuffle with critic

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 29, 2006

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Shawn Lonsdale, 38, continues filming on the streets of downtown Clearwater last month. The filmmaker, who has been making a documentary critical of Scientology, recently got into a scuffle with a church member.

CLEARWATER - The State Attorney's Office has decided not to pursue charges against a Scientologist accused of assaulting a church critic who was shooting video of Scientologists downtown next to a sandwich board that read "Cult Watch."

Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson, after viewing a video of the confrontation captured by a Church of Scientology security camera on a nearby building, determined "it is just not going to be a prosecutable case."

The video, he said, shows "pretty much mutual aggression" between Scientologist Michael Fitzgerald of Clearwater and Shawn Lonsdale, who has been filming a documentary critical of Scientology.

"Mutual aggression my a--," Lonsdale said on Monday. "I don't know how they can come to that conclusion."

Clearwater police arrested Fitzgerald after the July 8 scuffle, and charged him with misdemeanor assault.

The altercation began when Fitzgerald walked out of the Starbucks and crossed the street toward Lonsdale, shouting that he was a bigot and shouldn't target Scientologists.

Lonsdale, 38, said he raised his handheld camera and began to film Fitzgerald, who objected to being videotaped and grabbed the camera. Lonsdale said Fitzgerald lunged at his camera twice and pushed it into his face, and that after the second time, a 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.

Fitzgerald and Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church later delivered a security tape that showed the wrong person was arrested.

But Clearwater police Deputy Chief Dewey Williams later said he did view the Church of Scientology video and he concluded his officers made the right call, that Lonsdale appeared to be the victim.

Fitzgerald's attorney, Jan Andrew Press, sent a letter to the State Attorney's Office urging them to view the church security video and drop the charges. Press also included some Internet postings by Lonsdale in which Press contends Lonsdale appeared to be bragging about the run-in.

"When you look at the video, it appears to be pretty aggressive on both sides," Davidson said. And the Internet postings clearly show Lonsdale had animosity toward the Church of Scientology, he said.

"It makes it pretty much unprosecutable from our standpoint," Davidson said.

Fitzgerald, 52, a self-employed carpenter, could not be reached for comment on Monday, but his attorney, Press, said the "it's obviously the right decision,"

Lonsdale was "spoiling for a fight," Press said, while Fitzgerald was "merely confronting him verbally and calling him out as a religious bigot."

According to Press, Lonsdale put the camera right in Fitzgerald's face and Fitzgerald, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee, reached up toward the camera to block him from filming. Lonsdale reacted violently, Press contends, lunging for Fitzgerald's throat and pushing him backward into a large glass window.

Lonsdale's attorney, Luke Lirot, said he plans to view the videotape and determine whether a lawsuit against Fitzgerald is appropriate.

"It is another example of the State Attorney's Office's historical reluctance to tangle with Scientology," Lirot said.

[Last modified August 29, 2006, 00:10:37]

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