Unorthodox Arrest

Church of scientology calls cops and has one of its harshest and most vocal critics jailed

Now Magazine/June 7, 2001
By Enzio Di Matteo

It's an unshaven and frazzled-looking Keith Henson who shuffles into the converted jail cell used as a hearing room Thursday morning at the Metro West Detention Centre.

He's in broad-rims, jail-issue orange jumpsuit and blue canvas runners that he's wearing like flip-flops because they're too small for his feet. A flap of grey hair is swooshed over a bald spot on the top of his head.

The unrepentant Scientology foe was arrested in a parking lot in Oakville by Halton regional police and detectives from the Toronto fugitive squad a few days ago, in a scene that, to hear a friend who was with him tell it, was right out of America's Most Wanted.

He looks like he should be out in a backyard somewhere pruning roses, but it turns out that Henson is on the lam, wanted for failing to show for a sentencing hearing in his native California back on May 16. He was convicted on a charge of "making threats to interfere with freedom to enjoy a constitutional privilege" -- i.e., the right of Scientologists to practise their religion. A misdemeanour.

His travails have attracted the attention of a worldwide network of self-described Internet citizens who seem to dedicate most of their waking hours to unmasking the perceived evils of Scientology, the self-improvement technology/religion founded by sci-fi- writer-turned-personality-cult-leader L. Ron Hubbard.

A defence fund has been set up, and messages have been flying back and forth through an Internet newsgroup. A posting about the goings-on at this morning's hearing will be on the Web within hours. That's quickly followed by a call to NOW's offices from an interested watcher in the Netherlands who hears we were the only media at the hearing. News travels fast in anti-Scientology circles. Henson is their latest hero.

But the foot-high stack of documents sitting in a file in front of Irene Dicaire, the senior lawyer with Immigration who will be making the case against Henson's release, doesn't paint a flattering portrait of the activist. "There's a certain psychological profile that emerges," Dicaire says.

"As far as we understand, Mr. Henson is an explosives expert who has threatened to target sites involving the Church of Scientology. "It's not known at this time," Dicaire adds ominously, "if this may involve any Canadian targets." There may be information coming on that later, but the cop at 52 Division with the supposedly incriminating evidence is on vacation and won't be back until Monday.

It's all sounding a little fishy to Henson's lawyer, Joel Sandaluk. If the threat were serious enough, presumably, the police would have acted on it by now. His client hasn't been charged with anything, yet now Dicaire is asking the adjudicator to detain Henson on evidence that hasn't been presented and is not properly before the board. "This is all very vaporous," says Sandaluk.

He's trying his best not to sound too dismissive about the "bomb threats" -- musings on the Internet about the ease with which an ICBM could be aimed at Scientology -- that Henson's alleged to have made. "This alleged threat is so completely grandiose as to require a complete suspension of disbelief," Sandaluk says.

He makes a persuasive argument. But it's an open-and-shut case. Henson is wanted in the U.S. And while even the adjudicator in this case agrees he may not be a threat to the public, she rules that Henson poses a flight risk. Release denied. Henson remains still throughout the hour-plus-long hearing, at the end of which he asks for his blood pressure medicine.

Over the phone from Palo Alto, Henson's wife, Arel Lucas, says her husband has been harassed by Scientology ever since he began picketing the organization's desert compound near Hemet, California, about five years ago.

She says allegations that her husband has threatened Scientology have been "fabricated" by the group and are based solely on Internet postings "taken completely out of context."

"I've known this man for 20 years. He's never hurt anyone," Lucas says. "He's a very gentle, peaceful person. And it's horrifying to me and to his friends how they've managed to twist his words."

She says flyers were posted around the neighbourhood vilifying her husband. Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles did not respond to a request for comment on Lucas's claims. And Scientology's Toronto spokesperson, Al Buttnor, to whom NOW's questions were referred, says he "doesn't know anything about it." Down in Riverside County, meanwhile, deputy district attorney Robert Schwarz is a little miffed that reporters from Canadian newspapers calling to enquire about the conviction against Henson have characterized it as a picketing offence.

Schwarz says Henson has followed buses taking employees in and out of the Scientology desert compound, written down licence plate numbers of Scientologists and photographed their comings and goings.

Then there are those "bomb threats" Henson is alleged to have made, including the one about sending an ICBM the Church's way. The jury came back hung on that one. And Schwarz will admit that the idea sounds a little out there. But "in this country, when you make people afraid, we call that a crime," he says. Henson's tactics may seem over-the-top to outsiders. But he'll say he's just giving Scientology a taste of its own medicine.

Zenon Panoussis, another Internet critic of Scientology who has been following the Henson case from Holland, says Henson has been among the most active of Scientology critics, a cause célèbre. Once you get caught up in the Scientology fray, Panoussis says, it's difficult to get out. "Something happens. The wheels start rolling and you're in it. And once you're in it, they give you every reason to continue."

Scientology is not recognized as a church here in Canada. In the U.S., though, Scientology was granted tax-exempt status years ago by the Internal Revenue Service after a protracted legal battle.

Unlike other churches, Scientology's materials, or "technologies," as they're called, are protected by copyright and sold to members à la self-improvement course materials available on the market. Critics charge that Scientology is not a church at all, but a business.

Critics who've posted Scientology material on the Internet to play up the group's more unusual teachings -- e.g., the intergalactic legend of Xenu -- have quickly found themselves on the receiving end of lawsuits.

In 98, a California court awarded Scientology a $3-million judgment against Grady Ward for posting portions of the group's secret "technologies" on the Internet. Henson was himself sued by Scientology in 96, fined $75,000 by a California court for posting part of a Scientology instruction manual on the cures to illness. He eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Buttnor says Scientology is just trying to protect the "purity" of the group's "scriptures." "This is not just a church where you come to believe," he says. "There's a path you have to follow that employs a whole organization to provide for you. The only reason you get any benefit out of anything is if you also provide an exchange for that. Spiritually, in order to gain something, you have to also contribute."

Scientology, however, has not always won the day in court. Larry Wollersheim, a former member who alleged abuse in a suit in 97, won $1.5 million in damages. Closer to home, a former Crown attorney won a seven-figure libel suit against Scientology in Toronto. In that case, missing documents from the attorney general's office were found in Scientology's possession. In Germany, fear of Scientology is so pronounced that members of the group have been banned from holding positions in the public service.

The official police line is that Keith Henson was picked up because he failed to tell immigration authorities when he entered Canada that he was facing a sentencing hearing in the U.S. But it's clear that Scientology had something to do with the arrest. "Yeah, we called the cops," says Buttnor.

Detective constable Phil Glavin, the officer in charge of Henson's arrest, says it's not at all unusual for heavily armed police to pick up someone who's wanted for a misdemeanour offence. In any event, it's not his job to determine how real a danger Henson poses. He's wanted. He was arrested.

"We hunt people down that are fugitives in Canada," Glavin says. "It doesn't matter what you've done. You're wanted. You don't belong in Canada. You're arrestable. We arrest you." Over the phone from the West, Henson says he had every intention of returning to the U.S. "I only brought two changes of clothes," he says.

But he's been receiving threats lately and is now afraid to return. He says he's planning to file a claim for refugee status in Canada.

He calls the allegations against him "ridiculous," and says Scientology's attempts to silence its Internet critics are to him "as vile and disturbing as somebody coming into town and burning your newspaper down." Time in jail is not going to keep him from criticizing Scientology. "This is a serious fight."

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