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How much oddity can one town take?

Scientology critic Bob Minton and his staff are just the latest element added to the unique mix that is downtown Clearwater.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2000


CLEARWATER -- "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!"

Bob Minton's resonant voice sounds friendly, but the Scientologists don't return his greeting.

Pumping a picket sign, Minton walks along narrow Watterson Avenue, a downtown side street where uniformed staffers from the Church of Scientology arrive by the hundreds for evening meals at two church dining halls.

"It's safe to look; it's safe to talk," Minton shouts.

"When you have problems with Scientology, call us at 467-9335! Remember, that number could save your life! 467-9335.

"Have a great dinner tonight!"

Minton also tells them: "Hit your knives and forks on the table and demand reforms now!"

He urges the unthinkable: Oust David Miscavige, Scientology's worldwide leader.

He spies a Scientology security guard across the street: "I hope one day we can be friends with each other!"

The guard is all business, reporting Minton's movements via cellular phone. Another Scientologist is just a few feet away videotaping Minton.

But the 53-year-old New England millionaire has hired his own videographer, who captures the unusual street scene for later broadcast over an Internet Web site.

As for the hungry Scientology staffers: They hustle on and off church buses, never giving Minton so much as a glance.

It is a surreal moment, one of many that have unfolded in downtown Clearwater since Minton arrived in early January to joust with the church full time.

In a move that has pierced Scientology's comfort zone, Minton bought a building 30 feet from the church's stately property at 500 Cleveland St., the former Bank of Clearwater Building.

With a paid staff of six, his mission, in part, is to create a refuge for Scientologists who want to defect.

His in-your-face strategy comes across as extraordinarily bold to locals who have come to know Scientology as a church that does not turn the other cheek. To them, it is a bit like whacking a bee hive then waiting around to be swarmed.

Minton has become one more curiosity in a downtown trying to shed its unconventional image as Scientology's mecca, where hundreds in uniform crowd the streets and are shuttled around in converted city buses.

But the added spectacle of Minton vs. the Scientologists couldn't come at a worse time for city officials who are courting out-of-town developers and dreaming of a new downtown waterfront, just two blocks west of Watterson.

"We're going to have to deal with the consequences of all this," laments City Manager Mike Roberto. "It is not a situation that brings a lot of value or assets to the community."

Pushing buttons

The church's Fort Harrison Hotel, holding picket signs

Scientology offices along Cleveland Street, holding picket signs.

A Scientology-sponsored 10K road race, holding picket signs.

Even at the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast with members of Clearwater's black community.

Three members of Minton's staff sit one table away from Church of Scientology executives who regularly attend such events.

Later that morning, the Minton staffers head back to their downtown headquarters. As they park and feed the meters, a Scientology staffer with an earplug appears in a doorway off Watterson Avenue, videotaping.

Suddenly, Minton's videographer is there, too. He draws his own camera and walks toward the Scientology staffer.

If only it were high noon, the Wild West image would be complete.

"They're here to create a conflict," complains Marty Rathbun, a top Scientology official who is based in Los Angeles but lately is tied up in Clearwater.

He says the church is trying to ignore Minton, but adds: "I worry about this guy because he's deranged." No Scientologist is interested in his message, Rathbun says.

Minton's crusade against the church began more than two years ago after he learned about Scientology's efforts to keep critics from posting its teachings on the Internet. As his involvement with church critics deepened, he quickly became a target for Scientology counterattacks.

A retired investment banker with undisclosed millions, Minton began financing legal actions against Scientology, including a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of Lisa McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.

Then in October, Minton formed the Lisa McPherson Trust, which states its mission is "to expose the abusive and deceptive practices of Scientology and to help those who have been victimized by it."

Minton says he wants the Clearwater group to educate the public about Scientology, provide "exit counseling" for disaffected members and generally push Scientologists into reforming their church.

He says the trust's start-up brings to more than $3-million the amount he has spent rattling Scientology's cage.

"Clearly, we're trying to elicit responses from church members," Minton says. "Yes, we're pushing buttons. And the buttons we're pushing are ones the management of Scientology is very uncomfortable seeing pushed."

'Maintaining peace'

In late January, Roberto, the city manager, paid a visit to Watterson Avenue, a one-way northbound street. His solution: change its direction to southbound so Scientology staffers could step from church buses and disappear behind the dining hall doors without seeing Minton

A city worker was on a ladder with a wrench in hand, preparing to reverse the one-way sign, said Paul Bratsos, manager of Jimmy Hall's Steak House, which has an entrance off Watterson.

When Roberto walked over to ask Bratsos if the change was okay with him, Bratsos said it would inconvenience longtime customers who drop off their parties at the door.

At that point, Bratsos said, church officials who accompanied Roberto offered to pay for a carport for Jimmy Hall's. City officials offered to fashion a special parking zone on public property for restaurant customers, and even put several parking meters out of commission.

When Bratsos declined, Roberto called off the impromptu street change.

"We were trying to find a way of avoiding confrontations between the two groups," the city manager explains, "because confrontations accomplish nothing."

Still, Bratsos was struck by the apparent ease with which the change was nearly accomplished. "I wouldn't have had the power to get that done," he says.

The previous week, the city painted two white lines across a section of Watterson Avenue, creating a zone where neither Minton nor his staff may walk while church buses load and unload.

Also, Scientology has hired off-duty police to monitor the dining hall entrance, but police Chief Sid Klein says the officers will remain neutral if any disputes arise.

Minton has complained, saying the lines are another example of the city bending to Scientology's demands.

"We see it as maintaining peace," Klein says. "And if it takes two white lines to do that, then so be it. . . . If either side gets out of line they're going to jail, no questions asked."

Digging in

In July 1998, Minton fired a shotgun into the air to scare off Scientologists who trespassed on his New Hampshire farm and challenged him with questions about his personal life

In two other encounters, including one on Halloween night in Clearwater, Minton has been charged with misdemeanor battery on Scientologists.

After the Halloween incident, a judge ordered Minton and his associates to stay at least 10 feet away from church properties. He also ordered the Scientologist who provoked the incident to stay 20 feet from Minton.

"Frankly, I'm afraid for people's lives," Rathbun says. "It seems the more he's ignored, the more he flies off the handle."

Minton has apologized for the physical confrontations, which also have brought criticism from some of his allies on the Internet. But he argues that Scientologists have baited him and overdramatized the incidents.

Meanwhile, the church last month sent Scientologists to picket and spread leaflets about Minton near his homes in New Hampshire and Boston. When Minton cries foul, church officials call him a hypocrite.

The problem for Scientology is that Minton and his Lisa McPherson Trust appear to be digging in for a long stay.

The new headquarters has five phone lines, a suite of offices with a conference room, equipment for editing videotapes, five computers to maintain Internet contact, two paper shredders and living quarters on the second floor.

Most of the staff, including four former Scientologists, already has moved to Clearwater.

Just a short stroll down Watterson Avenue, Rathbun, the church official, is reviewing videotapes like a football coach on Monday morning.

His jaw is clenched. He wears a look of frustration and disgust as he plays video taken by church security.

One Minton follower, Grady Ward, is seen standing immediately outside the dining room door, saying, "No matter what they tell you, we don't bite."

Another, Patricia Greenway, yells across Watterson Avenue: "Free telephone calls home!"

Former Scientologist Jesse Prince, referring to Lisa McPherson's mysterious death, calls one church security guard a murderer.

Mark Bunker, the videographer, walks up to another guard and says, "Welcome to Bob Minton City."

Minton is seen circling an idling Scientology bus on Watterson, the church's head of security walking with him.

He is hoisting his picket sign up to the bus windows. He is yelling over the engine noise, telling the occupants that L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, would never approve of the church's current management.

Rathbun stops the tape and says with disdain: "So he's L. Ron Hubbard's friend now?"

It's harassment, he says.

"This is demeaning. Like you're some kind of cult or something."

Mike in the middle

Meanwhile, Minton and his staff say they have been welcomed by residents and business people who have offered to help

The night of Jan. 20, city commissioners listened stoically as Minton showed up at City Hall to publicly accuse Roberto and his staff of being "too cozy" with the church, which has battled controversy since coming to Clearwater in 1975.

He called it a "dangerous coalition," alleging City Hall had asked local landlords not to rent office space to the trust.

Snubbed by leasing agents, Minton bought his new building at 33 N Fort Harrison Ave. on Jan. 5 for $325,000 from local accountant Scott Brauer. When church officials tried to intercede with a $600,000 counteroffer, Brauer turned them down, saying he would honor his handshake deal with Minton.

Brauer also took a call that night from Roberto, which he took as a subtle, if tardy, attempt to stop the sale.

Roberto defends his call, saying he simply asked about the sale "because I realized we were going to have to deal with the situation."

He says he has not taken sides in the dispute between Scientology and its critics, but added that his practice of talking with all parties is misinterpreted as favoritism.

"I've had to deal with that from the beginning," says Roberto, who became city manager in 1997.

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