Millionaire Opens Center to Crusade Against Scientology

Detroit News, January 19, 2000
By Jean Marbella/The Baltimore Sun

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 celebrity members such 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 Scientology perhaps has never come up against someone like Minton, who could be dismissed as just another gadfly if it weren't 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 early and fight these guys."

Church officials have fought back: Picketers have descended on Minton's various homes to denounce him as a religious bigot, and he says his family and friends also have been harassed. The church sought to block Minton's 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.

Minton's 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 fund a family member's civil lawsuit against Scientology. Both cases are scheduled to come to trial later this year.

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 have picked up in previous lives by going through a series of "auditing" sessions with a trained counselor.

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

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 revealed 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 city 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 record-keeping and disclosure methods for religious and charitable groups, but the church sued and ultimately got the law overturned as unconstitutional.

The church now owns more than 30 Clearwater properties valued at about $40 million, and it has begun construction on a giant training and counseling building that when completed will be the largest structure in downtown.

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

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 about five years ago to kill an Internet newsgroup dominated by former members and other detractors who criticized the church and sometimes published its secret documents. Groups devoted to the free flow of information on the Internet, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of which Minton is a member, rose up in protest.

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

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

Minton has since confirmed that he and Brooks indeed 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 relations between the city and the church. He declined, however, to discuss the McPherson case, saying it is a pending legal matter.

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

She was taken to a hospital, but 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 during which she hallucinated, vomited and struck 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.

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