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Scientology, critics spar in weekend court

The judge calls the unusual session after the two sides trade accusations of spying and violating an injunction.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Church of Scientology and its Clearwater nemesis, critics known as the Lisa McPherson Trust, spent a full day in court Saturday trading accusations and trying to get the other rebuked by a judge.

In nearly seven hours of testimony from a dozen witnesses, these points emerged:

Confrontations between church critics and process servers hired on behalf of the church have played out in bay area restaurants.

Trust founder Robert Minton has challenged Clearwater police officers hired to do security work for the church while off duty.

The Church of Scientology has more than 100 cameras monitoring the outside and inside of its Clearwater properties.

Both sides were in court trying to get the other held in contempt of court for violating a Nov. 30 injunction issued by Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick. The injunction orders church and trust members to stay 10 feet from each other and delineates where each group can picket in downtown Clearwater.

Citing a packed calendar, Penick set the hearing for this weekend. So Saturday, the St. Petersburg Judicial Building, normally closed on weekends, opened at 8 a.m. Six bailiffs, all earning overtime pay, manned the entrance and courtroom.

"Very rarely are we here on Saturdays," said Sgt. Penny Cooke, bailiff supervisor.

Some didn't seem to mind spending a warm, sunny day in a courtroom. By 9 a.m. Penick's courtroom was nearly full.

"You have to be somewhere," trust lawyer John Merrett joked.

Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope, an attorney for the church, said he went to bed at 9 p.m. Friday, abandoning a 60th birthday party thrown for him.

"I didn't get to drink nearly as much wine as I would have liked to," he said.

The trust is claiming that under the guise of official court business, the church has harassed trust members and skirted the 10-foot rule. Merrett questioned how process servers hired by the church knew how to find trust members at three different restaurants. "There's no other way to know except by following or engaging in surveillance," he said.

Clearwater police Officer Larry Harbert testified that while doing off-duty work for the church on Jan. 7, he and Minton got into a confrontation. Minton, an outspoken church critic, was standing in the middle of Watterson Avenue downtown. Harbert said he told Minton to move onto the sidewalk.

"He became very agitated and began cursing at us," Harbert said. "He said we were all considered officers of the church. He said all officers of the church were instructed to stay 10 feet away from him."

After several warnings, Minton complied, Harbert said.

The final witness of the day was Scientology staff member Ahmed Elkamel. He testified that as a security officer, he sits in a room at the Fort Harrison Hotel and watches live video feeds from more than 100 cameras on Scientology properties. He said that's how he saw trust member Tory Bezazian walking with picket signs on a public sidewalk alongside a Scientology building downtown.

Later, church spokesman Ben Shaw told a St. Petersburg Times reporter that the majority of cameras are inside Scientology facilities.

The daylong proceeding had several oddball moments. At one point, Merrett, the attorney for the trust, was cross-examining a church witness about an incident Merrett himself was involved in.

Then there was a midday outburst from a back corner of the courtroom.

Penick was dismissing court for lunch and announced the courtroom would be locked, except for lawyers. Suddenly, there was a shout: "Why?"

Heads turned. Penick ordered the bailiff to bring him whoever was talking. The bailiff brought trust members Grady Ward and Bob Peterson to the front of the courtroom.

"Where are we today?" Penick asked, looking none too pleased.

"We are in your courtroom, your honor," Ward responded.

"Do you have any questions about that?" Penick asked.

"No, your honor."

The hearing resumes today at 12:30 p.m.

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