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At home: Critics public and private keep pressure on Scientology

Scientology leaders say they want peace. They say they want to stay out of court. But with both foes at home and foes abroad, that goal may be elusive.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 1999


Leaders of the Clearwater-based Church of Scientology say they hope the years of heavy legal expenses are over.

That may not be a realistic hope.

While the number of cases Scientology is currently pursuing is down in the United States, a survey of the cases still under way shows a persistence and bitterness on both sides that make it hard for either to walk away.

Take, for example, Keith Henson, a 56-year-old computer consultant who has taken up picketing to protest the death of Lisa McPherson, a Clearwater woman who died after being held by Scientologists for 17 days.

Unlike many of those who regularly picket Scientology in Clearwater, Boston, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and England, Henson has never been a member of the church. He simply took exception to Scientology's efforts to stifle criticism of the church on the Internet and was outraged at McPherson's death.

To counter his pickets, Scientology has accused him of being a dangerous, crazed man who is capable of cutting off human heads and exploding bombs like the one that blew up the federal courthouse in Oklahoma. Henson says the allegations come from the days he worked with a cryogenics program that takes the heads from dead bodies to be frozen in hopes that medical science will one day find a cure for whatever caused their death. His experience in bombmaking dates back to a job for the mining industry in the Arizona desert where he used dynamite and other explosives.

At one point, Glen Barton, a Scientologist, made a citizens arrest, accusing Henson of battery and violating a court order in Los Angeles. In another instance Scientology tried to get a judge in Riverside, Calif., to stop Henson from picketing at all. After a hearing, the judge tossed Scientology's case out of court, saying Henson has a First Amendment right to picket.

Scientology failed to block his pickets or win a criminal conviction against Henson, but did succeed in winning a $75,000 judgment against him in federal court in San Jose because he posted a copyright Scientology document on the internet.

Henson, now in bankruptcy, is appealing and continues to picket Scientology centers whenever he has time. He, like other Scientology critics, chronicles his efforts on the Internet.

Scientology reacts to the pickets by sending staffers out to confront them and take pictures. Increasingly, Scientologists go out and picket critics' homes or offices, distributing fliers that accuse them of being "religious bigots." Some pickets say Scientologists have frightened elderly family members with visits and questions about their picketing.

Robert S. Minton, a Boston financial consultant who has spent more than $2.2-million helping Scientology critics involved in lawsuits, has been a primary target. Scientologists have picketed his homes in Boston and New Hampshire, distributed literature accusing him of religious bigotry and adultery and had him arrested while he was picketing outside the Boston Scientology center. The assault charges filed by a Scientologist who came out to confront Minton were later dropped.

Twice in 1998, Scientology sought injunctions to stop Bruce Pettycrew from picketing its center in Mesa, Ariz. Pettycrew, an outspoken critic who pickets with a sign condemning McPherson's death, was accused by Scientology of harassment by yelling at the staff and passers-by. Pettycrew, Scientology alleged, was unstable and "likely to commit a violent act at any time."

The courts initially issued temporary restraining orders without notice to Pettycrew, but after a hearing decided to allow Pettycrew to picket as long as he moderates the volume of his speech while outside the center.

Pettycrew is often joined on the picket line by Jeff Jacobsen, a Phoenix critic who has caused no end of problems for Scientology. In early 1996 Jacobsen and other critics were planning a trip to Clearwater to picket when he took a look at Clearwater's home page on the World Wide Web. On the city's police site, Jacobsen noticed a request for help in solving a "suspicious death" that occurred at 210 S Fort Harrison Ave., the address of the Fort Harrison Hotel operated by Scientology.

Jacobsen mentioned the notice in a newsletter he sends to other critics and sent it to newspapers, where it quickly got attention and escalated into one of the Scientology's most significant problems. In December, criminal charges were filed against Scientology in Clearwater in connection with the death.

In England pickets travel with a toy dog that wears water wings. They carry signs suggesting that Duke, the dog of Los Angeles Judge Ronald Swearinger, drowned at the hands of Scientology. The church has vehemently denied any responsibility for Duke's death.

Mike Rinder, one of Scientology's top officials, says the church seeks an injunction only against pickets who have threatened violence. Rinder also said the counterpickets conducted by Scientologists at the homes and businesses of critics are "spontaneous" events, not something that is organized by Scientology.

Critics scoff at the notion of spontaneity, noting that virtually identical fliers assailing pickets as "religious bigots" have been distributed at homes in Canada, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, San Francisco, Phoenix, Boston and Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Trying to recover money

Another persistent source of legal challenge against the church has come from onetime members who quit and sue to recover funds they charge were taken inappropriately.

It was a free personality test that first attracted Raul Lopez into the Church of Scientology in 1987. He was learning to walk again after a near-fatal traffic accident left him brain-damaged and unable to handle his own financial affairs.

The woman offering Lopez a free personality test also asked Lopez about his injuries and asked if he had recovered any money as a result of the head-on collision with a semitrailer truck that nearly took his life.

After Lopez said yes, the lawsuit alleges, Scientologist Jim Hamre told him that he could get help for all of his problems, mental and physical, by signing up for "auditing," a counseling process. The lawsuit says Lopez was told his hand tremor could be cured by Scientology.

Within two weeks, Lopez, a resident of Oxnard, Calif., had given Scientology copies of his medical records and spent $30,000 on Scientology courses and literature. His mother, hospitalized at the time of his initial encounter with Scientology, accompanied him to the Buenaventure Scientology Mission with a demand for a refund. After some discussion, she collected $28,500 and was told to stay away from Scientology forever.

Despite that warning, Scientologists again contacted Lopez and urged him to resume auditing -- while keeping it from his mother, the lawsuit alleges. Lopez resumed his association with Scientology, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for services and products. He also began investing some of his money in business schemes brought to him by other Scientologists.

Before ending his association with Scientologists, Lopez had spent all of the money he received from his $1.4-million accident judgment in addition to mortgaging two of his homes and running up the maximum debts on his credit cards.

In December 1998, Lopez and his mother and guardian, Alicia Lopez, sued Scientology centers in Buenaventura, Los Angeles and Clearwater and the individual Scientologists who allegedly took his money. The suit, filed in Los Angeles by California attorney Daniel Leipold, accuses Scientology, a lawyer and accountant who also are Scientologists of abusing a relationship of trust and defrauding Lopez of his money.

Scientology's conduct was "vile, base, contemptible and loathsome," Leipold alleges in the suit, which also seeks an injunction to keep Scientology from making medical claims in future contacts with the public.

As a result of his association with Scientology, Lopez says he put more than $180,000 into a company that was supposed to put pay telephones in prison cells and was enticed by a Scientology lawyer to invest $70,000 in ostrich farming. His money bought two eggs, but both animals died.

The lawsuit contends that a Scientology lawyer and others initially convinced Lopez that he should not file a lawsuit against those who took his money, but should pay a membership fee and join WISE, a Scientology business association that would handle his complaint.

After WISE failed to resolve his complaint, Lopez and his mother hired Leipold and filed the suit. It includes professional malpractice claims against Jones, lawyer Michael Haley and accountant Raul Valle, all identified as Scientologists.

Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder said Lopez waived his right to a refund when he returned. Rinder said he believes Lopez is recovering the money he invested.

"We've seen a lot of these cases arrive in a barrage of publicity and leave in silence," Rinder said.


-- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.


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