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Scourge of Scientology dies in apparent suicide

He seemed to abandon the fight in the last year.

By Jonathan Abel and Robert Farley, Times Staff Writers
Published February 19, 2008


Shawn Lonsdale documents people in downtown Clearwater while filming as part of his "cult watch." From hours and hours of footage of Scientology buildings, staff, security guards and verbal confrontations, he made a film that aired on local cable television.
photo
[Douglas R. Clifford | Times (2006)]
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Previous coverage

photo
[Scott Keeler | Times (2006)]
Shawn Lonsdale looks through documents he picked out of a Scientology-owned company's curbside trash in Clearwater in 2006.

CLEARWATER - Shawn Lonsdale, whose one-man crusade against Scientology made him a public enemy of the church, was found dead at his home over the weekend in an apparent suicide. He was 39.

Police discovered Lonsdale's body at 12:20 p.m. Saturday after neighbors reported a foul odor. They found a garden hose stretched from the exhaust pipe of Lonsdale's car into a window of his home at 510 N Lincoln Ave., according to Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Daly-Watts.

Daly-Watts said there were no signs of foul play, and police found what appeared to be a suicide note. It was not immediately available.

The medical examiner's office said the official cause of death is pending toxicology reports.

It was a lonely end for a man who emerged out of nowhere in 2006 as a thorn in the side of the Church of Scientology.

For a few months in mid to late 2006, Lonsdale stood alone in downtown Clearwater beside a sandwich board that read "Cult Watch" in the heart of Scientology's religious headquarters.

Videocamera in hand, he taped hours and hours of footage: Scientology buildings, church staffers walking the streets, security guards watching his movements and verbal confrontations with Scientologists. He then edited them into a "pseudo-documentary" about Scientology that eventually aired on local cable television.

Lonsdale, who was never a Scientologist, was an odd nemesis. He had no connection to the church before arguing with a Scientologist over redevelopment issues at a Clearwater City Council meeting.

But the self-described loner stepped into his new role with enthusiasm. At night, he dropped fliers on the doorsteps of downtown businesses. On his lunch break, he parked his car across the street from the church's cafeteria with posters in his window that claimed people could find free versions of secret church texts on the Internet. He even picked church-related documents from piles of trash in front of a Scientology-owned business and posted some of the documents online.

The Church of Scientology and some its members fought back. They hired a private investigator to look into Lonsdale's background and found two misdemeanor convictions for lewd and lascivious conduct, both related to public sex with men, in 1999 and 2000.

They called Lonsdale's employer at a title company and his landlord and said that Lonsdale was a religious bigot, possibly dangerous.

In the fall of 2006, the church subpoenaed Lonsdale for a deposition, contending he was an agent of an anti-Scientology group that was legally barred from protesting in certain places downtown. Attorney Luke Lirot, who has battled Scientology in the past, came to Lonsdale's aid.

"I found him to be quite affable and truly a very intelligent man," Lirot said in an interview Monday. "I certainly hope that a very thorough investigation is conducted."

In the last year, though, the confrontation between Lonsdale and the Church of Scientology seemed to have run its course.

Lonsdale let his anti-Scientology Web site lapse. He posted less and less on anti-Scientology blogs. Church spokeswoman Pat Harney said it had been months since the church heard from Lonsdale.

Randy Payne, a former Scientologist, said Lonsdale found it impossible to be a full-time church critic and make a living.

Payne said that he last spoke to Lonsdale two months ago, and that Lonsdale had found steady work on the night shift at a local company, stocking shelves. He talked about going back to school and getting a private investigator's license.

"He was getting on with his life," Payne said. "He had every reason to live."

Landlord Joe Critchley said Lonsdale was an ideal tenant: He paid the $650 rent on time every month and he kept the place clean. The last time they talked, Feb. 1 or Feb. 2, Lonsdale seemed fine. "He would be one of the last people I would expect to commit suicide," Critchley said. "But you never know."

Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

[Last modified February 19, 2008, 11:33:16]


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