The Church of Scientology came to court Monday hoping its No. 1 enemy, Robert S. Minton, would never again be allowed near church properties in Clearwater.
Instead, church officials learned that Minton, a 53-year-old New England millionaire, plans to be much too close for their comfort.
Clearwater lawyer Denis de Vlaming told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr. that Minton has purchased a building next to the Clearwater Bank Building on Cleveland Street, one of Scientology's signature properties downtown. Later, de Vlaming clarified, saying Minton will not be closing on the building for a few weeks.
Either way, Minton wants to use the building as a headquarters for a new, anti-Scientology organization named after Lisa McPherson, the church member who died in 1995 while under the care of Scientology staffers. Minton also plans to live in the building, de Vlaming said.
Scientology officials and their lawyers were surprised by the news. "I think it's more of his provocative action seeking to stir up trouble and, as he says, be in the face of Scientologists," said Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official.
The plans came to light during a hearing on whether a temporary restraining order against Minton should be made permanent. The church secured the order Nov. 4, three days after Minton was arrested for misdemeanor battery, accused of striking church staffer Richard W. Howd.
Minton was picketing in front of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel with a companion, Stacy Brooks, who was training a video camera on Howd. At the same time, Howd was videotaping Minton, having followed him around town most of the day. Minton has said he was bothered by the proximity of Howd's camera. On a Scientology videotape, he appears to turn and push Howd. On tape, Howd's head and shoulders appear to snap backward before he spins to the pavement and lands on his back, remaining there for several moments. He was taken to the emergency room with small scratches above and below his left eye.
De Vlaming called the incident "a self-defense situation" and said Minton would plead innocent.
A prominent defense attorney, de Vlaming's last high-profile client was the Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, who was convicted of racketeering and grand theft.
Under the temporary restraining order, Minton must remain 150 yards from the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Clearwater Bank Building, which houses offices and dining areas, and 15 other local Scientology properties.
The church argued that Minton has "committed a series of acts that seriously alarm, annoy, harass and/or threaten violence" to Howd and others Scientologists nationwide.
Minton was arrested last year after a similar incident outside a Scientology building in Boston, but the assault charge was dropped. Earlier that year, police in Sandown, N.H., where Minton owns a farm, investigated after Minton fired warning shots into the air when four Scientologists allegedly trespassed on his property. No one was charged.
Minton, a retired investment banker, has spent about $2.5-million to finance Scientology's critics and those who are in litigation against the church. He says Scientology abuses its members and critics.
Church officials portray him as a violent, unstable interloper who has improperly interfered in litigation, most notably the wrongful-death case against Scientology filed by Lisa McPherson's family.
The temporary restraining order was extended until Nov. 29 after de Vlaming told Penick he had just met Minton on Monday and needed more time to speak with his client, view the evidence and hire a First Amendment lawyer. If the order is made permanent, Minton would be prevented from driving his car through much of downtown Clearwater, de Vlaming said. "It would keep him from exercising his right to protest," he said.
The church had its own First Amendment lawyer on hand Friday, plus two additional lawyers and eight staff members who carried boxes filled with documents and rolled in a television set for showing video of the incident. Minton was accompanied by Brooks, a consultant and Ken Dandar, the Tampa lawyer who brought the wrongful-death lawsuit.