A crusader sees evil in Florida city

Scientology: A millionaire opens a center in Clearwater, Fla., a hub of the religion, to battle what he calls a dangerous cult.

By Jean Marbella, Sun National Staff

January 19, 2000

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's a modest, two-story office building in a sleepy downtown. But for Bob Minton, it is the field office for nothing less than a war for the heart and soul of this quiet coastal city.

"We're going to liberate Clearwater," Minton declares.

Whether Clearwater needs liberating is open to debate. But after about 25 years of serving, often uneasily, as one of the Church of Scientology's most important bases in the country, Clearwater finds itself once again drawn into a battle over the controversial group.

Minton, 53, is a retired millionaire from New England who has protested and funded lawsuits against the church, which he says is a cult that has destroyed members' lives and trampled on the civil rights of its opponents.

Early this month, he brought his fight to the heart of the church's Clearwater operations by opening a center here to provide information on the group and provide "exit counseling" for members who want to leave.

The church, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and perhaps best known for such celebrity members as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, has drawn many detractors over the years -- from disenchanted former adherents to the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS fought a decadeslong battle with the church before finally restoring its tax-exempt status as a religion.

But it perhaps has never come up against someone like Minton, who could be dismissed as just another gadfly but for the fact that he seems willing to put considerable money where his mouth is.

To date, Minton estimates he has spent $2.5 million on his crusade.

"The only difference between me and any other critic," Minton says, "is I was fortunate enough to make some money to be able to retire earlyand fight these guys."

Church officials have fought back: Pickets have descended on Minton's various homes to denounce him as a religious bigot, and he says his family and friends have been harassed. The church sought to block the center from opening by offering the seller of the building twice the $325,000 that Minton paid.

"They're here only for one purpose, to harass Scientology," says Mike Rinder, a spokesman for the church. "It's an escalation of his campaign."

Named for Scientologist

The center is named the Lisa McPherson Trust, to memorialize a Scientologist who died here four years ago while in the care of fellow church members.

The church faces criminal charges in connection with McPherson's death, and Minton has helped to fund a family member's civil suit against Scientology. Both cases are scheduled to come to trial this year.

The case has created much turmoil in Clearwater.

Opponents of the church, including Minton, have picketed Scientology buildings to keep McPherson's case in the public eye. Scientologists have picketed the Clearwater Police Department and the St. Petersburg Times newspaper for its treatment of the church.

The church, founded in 1954, has long been controversial.

Its philosophy is part sci-fi, part self-help: Hubbard wrote that people are spirits who were banished to Earth 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler and need to be "cleared" of problems and ailments that they've picked up in previous lives by going through a series of "auditing" sessions with a trained counselor.

Critics say Scientology is actually a business that coerces members to spend tens of thousands of dollars on its literature and to go through auditing.

The IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1967, reversing the decision 26 years later only after a costly battle in which Scientology launched numerous lawsuits and its own investigation and infiltration of the federal agency.

A rough beginning

Scientology has also had a tumultuous time with Clearwater officials. The city and the church have sparred from the beginning.

"They came in under cover," said Rita Garvey, a former mayor and commissioner. "That was not a good way of starting off."

Scientology bought its first building in Clearwater, the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel, in 1975 under a pseudonym, United Churches of Florida. Documents seized in an FBI raid of Scientology properties elsewhere would reveal that the church arrived with plans "for taking control of key points in the Clearwater area" by infiltrating the government, police, media and other institutions.

Outraged officials held investigative hearings in 1982 to find out more about the church that had settled in their midst. The city subsequently passed an ordinance requiring strict recordkeeping and disclosure methods for religious and charitable groups, but the church sued and ultimately got the law overturned as unconstitutional.

Properties worth $40 million

The church continued to buy properties around town and now owns more than 30, valued at about $40 million. The church has begun construction of a giant training and counseling building that when completed will be downtown's largest structure.

Even without the new building, Scientology is a visible presence here, where the church's uniformed staffers seem to fill downtown sidewalks at lunchtime when they emerge from various buildings for lunch.

The church says about 10,000 members live in the Clearwater area. (The city has a population of just over 100,000.) And, the church says, on any given day, 1,500 to 2,000 are visiting here to take religious courses and training programs.

Church officials say Clearwater is second only to Los Angeles as a base for their operations. The church has annual revenue of more than $70 million from its Clearwater operations, according to one document in the IRS case.

But while the city has had its battles with the church in the past, both sides appear to be trying to ease tensions. For one thing, both are interested in seeing downtown redeveloped.

"You can't plan for downtown development without them," says Mike Meidel, president of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, "so let's include them in our plans for the future.

"Scientology has been here so long, we're kind of getting used to it," he says. "Maybe people just got tired of beating their heads against the wall. It's quieted down; the days of marching and picketing are over, I hope."

Some fear Minton's new center, though, will serve only to renew those tensions -- and with good reason. The blunt-speaking Minton plans to continue getting in the church's face.

"I'm as close to the anti-Christ as you can get," Minton boasts of his standing with Scientology.

A matter of free speech

Minton's crusade against Scientology began, he says, as a free-speech action.

Minton, who retired in 1992, says he learned of the church's attempt to kill an Internet newsgroup, alt.religion.scientology, about five years ago. The newsgroup is dominated by former members and other detractors who criticize the church and sometimes publish its secret documents. Groups devoted to the free flow of information on the Internet, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation that Minton is a member of, rose up in protest.

Minton says he became alarmed at what he says are the church's destructive tactics against opponents. Critics' homes have been raided and computer equipment seized, for example, as part of a Scientology suit for copyright infringement over documents published on the Internet.

Minton himself has had run-ins with church members over the years. Minton was charged with misdemeanor battery in October after scuffling with a church member during a picket outside the Fort Harrison Hotel. A judge ordered Minton and the member he struck to keep their distance from each other.

In July 1998, Minton fired a shotgun in the air after he says Scientology pickets trespassed on his weekend home in New Hampshire. Minton says he was angered that the pickets were yelling that he was having an affair with his guest that weekend, Stacy Brooks, a former church member with whom he has been working on anti-Scientology efforts.

Minton has since confirmed that he and Brooks are romantically involved and he has separated from his wife. Still, he says, his personal life should have no bearing on his fight against Scientology.

"He started it," Rinder, the Scientology spokesman, says simply. "He wants to picket us, but claims he's being harassed when Scientologists protest against him."

Rinder says Minton's Lisa McPherson center can only hurt the improving relations between the city and the church. He declined, however, to discuss the McPherson case, saying it is a pending legal matter.

Death among friends

Scientology's critics say McPherson's fate is emblematic of the dangers the church poses to its members. In the last two years of her life, she had spent nearly $100,000 on Scientology courses. In November 1995, after a minor traffic accident, she suddenly took off all her clothes and told paramedics she wanted help.

She was taken to a hospital, but she refused psychiatric treatment after a group of Scientologists showed up to meet her. According to court documents, they took her to the Fort Harrison Hotel, which serves as a retreat for the church. After 17 days in which she was occasionally hallucinating, vomiting and striking out at her attendants, McPherson died.

The medical examiner said the cause was a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest. McPherson had lost an estimated 47 pounds during her time at the hotel, and her body was bruised and scratched with cockroach bites.

The church was charged with abuse of a disabled adult and illegal practice of medicine. The trial is scheduled for October.