Church critic trailed, arrested

The Church of Scientology investigated critic Jesse Prince, then passed information along to police

St. Petersburg Times/May 19, 2001
By Deborah O'Neil

Last spring, a private investigator working for the Church of Scientology went to Largo police with a tip: A vocal critic of Scientology named Jesse Prince was involved with illegal drugs. Prince, 47, is a former church member and a key witness in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the church.

Police investigated and arrested Prince, who is charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. The case is set to go to trial Wednesday. Depositions in the case taken earlier this week show private investigators hired by Church of Scientology lawyers watched, videotaped and trailed Prince virtually every day for at least four months, following him "almost wherever you can think of in the area," said Brian Raftery, the private investigator.

Another private investigator involved in the case said they were looking for "immoral activities and the possibility of illegal activities." The elaborate surveillance effort involved at least three private investigators, one of whom befriended Prince by using a false name. Church attorney Helena Kobrin, who has offices in Clearwater and Los Angeles, said her firm hires private investigators to protect the church from people such as Prince, a man she said has harassed parishioners and has a history of criminal behavior.

"We have hired for the church people who are former law enforcement who are involved in security for the church," Kobrin said. "If Mr. Prince is one of those people harassing the church, their security efforts may sometimes be directed in his direction."

Prince's Clearwater attorney, Denis deVlaming, says it's clear the church wants to intimidate his client and label him a criminal. "Everything we've learned about this case was the Church of Scientology was behind it from the very beginning," deVlaming said Thursday in court. Kobrin said that whether private investigators were following Prince has no bearing on the drug charges.

"I don't really see why you're trying to focus attention on the something else," said Kobrin, who is a Scientologist. "It's his actions that are significant, not the something else." She said her firm wanted Prince investigated because he is being offered as an expert witness against the church in a civil lawsuit stemming from the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson. Such investigations are standard in litigation, she added.

Ken Dandar, the attorney handling the lawsuit against the church, says Prince was once a top Scientology official who will testify about the church's inner workings. Kobrin said Prince worked as a janitor and a film technician, among other positions. On Thursday night, Kobrin delivered to the St. Petersburg Times a black binder full of personal information about Prince, dating back to 1975.

Among the 28 pages of documents in chronological order were copies of police and legal records from around the country, a 1997 jail mug shot of Prince and an affidavit signed by a Minnesota Scientologist that alleges Prince admitted to drinking excessively, using drugs and having extramarital affairs. "He's being offered as a witness. We think he has absolutely no credentials as a witness," Kobrin said. "Would we want to discredit him? Yeah, we'd want to discredit him. If there's something there that discredits him, you'd want to bring it to the attention of the court."

The effort to conduct surveillance on Prince included hiring a black private investigator from Lake Wales named Barry Gaston, Raftery said in his deposition. Prince also is black. Gaston was hired in February 2000 by another private investigator, Joseph Fabrizio, who worked for Kobrin's firm. The depositions show Fabrizio supplied Gaston with a photograph of Prince and information about where Prince might show up. Gaston hung out in those places for weeks before he finally spotted Prince and his girlfriend at Wilson's Lounge on Belcher Road. As Prince was leaving, he stopped and introduced himself to Gaston.

Gaston introduced himself as "Rinzy Trinidad," a name he made up. Eventually, Prince invited Gaston to his house, where Gaston saw Prince smoke marijuana, according to Gaston's deposition.

In the meantime, Raftery went to the authorities and the detective decided to go undercover and visit Prince's house with Gaston. Prince was arrested in August 2000.

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