It was 2:15 p.m. when Keith Henson and his friend Gregg Hagglund finished picking up contact-lens solution and shaving lotion at a suburban Toronto mall and climbed into their car. Before they could fasten their seat belts, two unmarked vans squealed up, pinning their Mazda economy sedan in from the rear and the passenger side. A handful of emergency-services task-force officers - Canada's version of a police SWAT team - spilled out, wearing body armor and carrying submachine guns. As shoppers hurried into the nearby mall food-court entrance, Hagglund found himself staring down the barrel of a Glock pistol. "You could stick your fist down one of those things," he recalled.
When the May 29 takedown was over, Henson, a Palo Alto computer consultant, was in custody at the "super-maximum-security" Metro West Detention Centre on a Canadian immigration warrant. The warrant was based on Henson's April 26 criminal conviction in Hemet, California. And what was the Internet activist's crime? Espionage, perhaps? Terrorism? Henson was found guilty of a single misdemeanor count of interfering with a religion. To those familiar with a ferocious five-year war between the church and its Internet critics, it comes as no surprise that the religion was Scientology.
Earlier this month, Henson was freed, pending a hearing on his application for political asylum in Canada. Henson, who says he did no more than post nasty Usenet messages and picket Scientology locations, claims the church set him up. He may go down in history as the first person to file an international human-rights claim over a misdemeanor conviction. The case is likely to raise questions of how far a religion can go to protect itself from dissidents, and of free speech on the Net. And if Henson has his way, it will probe whether Scientology has reverted, in the words of a St. Petersburg, Florida, Times editorial, to historic practices of "spend[ing] virtually unlimited time and money on pursuing, setting up and bringing down its critics."
"We may get involved," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an Internet civil-liberties organization. "There's a general concern that Scientology was out to get Keith Henson." Henson, a graying, bespectacled, 58-year-old grandfather, seems an unlikely candidate for international fugitive on the run. A self-proclaimed "small-l libertarian," he is known in the Net community as a founding member of the L5 Society, advocating space colonization. Another cause to which he has lent his not-inconsiderable zeal is cryonics, the practice of freezing diseased human bodies in the hope of saving them with future medical cures. In short, he's a not-atypical Netizen, brilliant, maybe, eccentric, yes, but thoroughly nonviolent, associates say.
"He's certainly been interested in fringe areas of science, but I don't think any of those are harmful areas," said John Gilmore, an EFF founder who has done business with Henson. "He's an ordinary guy who got in the face of Scientology." How Henson, who is neither a former church member nor a relative of one, became embroiled with the controversial religion calls for some explanation. Skeptics, who have long questioned whether Scientology is a religion or a business, congregated on alt.religion.scientology (ARS), a lively but not exactly headline-grabbing Usenet group. In 1995, Scientology tried to shut the site down. The retrospectively ill-advised attempt was followed by denial-of-service and "sporging" (forgery and spoofing) attacks, which raised the hackles of the hardcore Net community. A new generation of anti-Scientology activists was born. Alt.religion.scientology now is one of the most popular Usenet groups.
"Scientology's action had the psychological effect you would have seen of a gang of thugs riding into a Midwestern town and burning down the newspapers," Henson said. Henson began contributing to ARS, then graduated to posting top-secret Scientology "sacred texts" on the Net. The dissemination of "scriptures" such as the story of Xenu, a galactic overlord who supposedly solved an intergalactic overpopulation problem 75 million years ago by space-transporting excess beings to Earth and blowing them up with hydrogen bombs, is a sore point for Scientology. The church not only fears scaring off new recruits; sales of the texts are a moneymaker. The church went so far as to surreptitiously install censorware on members' computers, blocking sites likely to post texts. Scientology has also waged a legal campaign against the postings.
When Henson posted the so-called NOTs 34 advanced training manual on the Net, Scientology sued him for copyright infringement. The church won a $75,000 judgment, forcing Henson into bankruptcy. Being nothing if not persistent, Henson also began picketing Scientology facilities nationwide, including the church's film-production compound outside Hemet. The razor-wire-enclosed spread, called Golden Era Productions, occupies 500 acres along Gilman Hot Springs Road. Inside its faux-English castle-inspired building, workers produce an array of videotape programs, radio and television addresses, and Sunday services for the church. Other projects include restoring recordings of L. Ron's 3,000 90-minute lectures, producing posters, fliers, magazines and books, and translating materials into 16 languages. Critics, who call the facility "Gold Base," claim the compound also houses the church's highly secretive security apparatus. Many of the 700 Scientologists who work at Golden Era are bused in from apartment complexes in Hemet, dressed in those blue seafaring uniforms you see outside the church's building in Hollywood (one of Scientology's world headquarters).â By varying estimates, Henson spent 40 to 50 days last summer walking the highway in front of Golden Era.
His protest signs focused on the deaths of several women in the care of the church, most notably Lisa McPherson, whose controversial death is the subject of an upcoming civil trial in Florida (another Scientology world headquarters). He accompanied Scientology buses to the employee quarters, taking down church members' license numbers and addresses.
At times, the Hemet protests took on a faintly ludicrous, Spy vs. Spy cast, with Scientology agents and picketers bombing around Hemet, watching one another. Ida Camburn, a 78-year-old anti-Scientology activist who houses out-of-town protesters, says Scientology P.I.s tailed her from her residence at the Sierra Dawn Mobile Home Park. "They had five private investigators sitting in my neighborhood last summer when Keith was here, following me around and scaring me half to death," Camburn charged. "One morning I was turning left, one pulled up beside me on the right side, as I made a left, she also turned left real fast out of the right lane, so close I could feel her . . . I went into the medicine shop, and there she's sitting grinning at me."
The Sierra Dawn park manager told police that residents were frightened because of "the private investigators who sit in cars for hours at a time and watch Ida's house." Henson also continued to contribute to alt.religion.scientology, which is closely monitored by the church. One of his postings was a suggestion to land a "Cruise missile" on Gold Base; another said of Scientology, "destroy it utterly." Henson says the messages were inside jokes: "Cruise" referred to actor Tom Cruise, a longtime Scientologist, and the "destruction" quote was a takeoff on one of L. Ron's own incendiary statements.
"Like I'm going to take a bomb out of my pocket and throw it over the fence," Henson said. "Does that even pass the giggle test?" asked EFF's Cohn. But Golden Era general manager Ken Hoden says Henson's bomb postings were taken seriously. "Based on evidence we were able to collect off the Internet, his intention was to destroy [the production facility] utterly, to leave not one stone unturned," Hoden said. Hoden denies that the church tailed Camburn or other activists, and says instead that Henson, whom he compares to Timothy McVeigh, is a stalker with an extensive background in explosives.
"He's no different. The man's obsessed, and he's a dangerous individual," Hoden said. "He would take pictures of people, take down their license-plate numbers, and he wasn't carrying a sign then; it's pretty intimidating stuff," agreed Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz, who prosecuted Henson.
But from the beginning, the Henson investigation was hardly business as usual. Opened at the behest of Scientology, the case relied on evidence provided by the church's "Internet expert," Gavino Idda, and private investigator Edwin G. Richardson. At one point, Riverside County Sheriff's Detective Tony Greer, the lead investigator, said, "In reviewing all of the Internet postings I did not see any direct threat of violence towards the church or any personnel of the church." At the D.A.'s direction, however, the investigation continued. Scientology lawyers also attended the trial, and conferred with Schwarz during the breaks.
Schwarz said it was not unusual for victims to help prosecutors. "Scientology has absolutely no say in whether or not we file a case," Schwarz said. After a disastrous non-defense defense - Henson and supporters say Riverside County Superior Court Judge Robert Wallerstein gutted their case - the jury hung on two counts, but convicted Henson of the interfering charge, which is classified as a hate crime.
Facing a recommended 200 days in Riverside County Jail, which Henson feared had been infiltrated by the Scientologists' Criminon rehab program, the defendant fled before his sentencing date to Toronto, where he and Hagglund, a Canadian Scientology foe, picketed a downtown Scientology office. The church complained, bringing out the SWAT team. "We get notified by Scientology, we check, and he's an undesirable," Toronto Police Fugitive Squad Detective Phil Glavin said of Henson. "We look on the Internet, and he's a self-proclaimed bomb expert."
Henson worked in the 1970s for an explosives company in Arizona, and arranged pyrotechnic parties in the desert "similar to Burning Man," he acknowledged, but that's a far cry from mad bomber. Henson told deputies his aim against Scientology was "psychological warfare." This goal, and some of Henson's tactics, may sound extreme. But the activists say he was just giving back as good as he got from the church, which has repeatedly picketed, videotaped, defamed and followed him. Outside Golden Era, P.I.s spat upon and intimidated him in a practice known within the church as "bull baiting."
"Scientology goons accused me of having sex with girls, boys and goats," Henson said. Henson blames his prosecution on a Scientology doctrine called "fair game." In 1967, Hubbard announced that any suppressive person (Scientology jargon for "enemy") "may be deprived of property or injured by any means, by any Scientologist . . . He may be tricked, sued or lied to, or destroyed." Hoden says fair game doesn't exist. But a number of former Scientologists say that not only is fair game in force, they helped carry it out. One of the apostates, Frank Oliver of Florida, flew in to testify on Henson's behalf, but the judge refused to let him take the stand. Oliver told New Times Los Angeles his Scientology duties: "Spy on people. Gather intelligence. Write reports." ("Oliver is a liar," Hoden said.)
A former Scientologist, Tory Bezazian, says she didn't believe in fair game until she left the church. "They always say they're not fair gaming. But they do it. That's what they did to Keith, that's what they did to me." Bezazian, at the church's behest, was arrested last year in Florida, as was former Scientologist Jesse Prince, who was charged with marijuana cultivation. The case was instigated by Scientology and ended in a mistrial. The St. Pete Times editorialized against the prosecution: "The Church of Scientology set out to destroy Jesse Prince . . . [who is] one of those people the Church of Scientology perceives as an enemy because he is a vocal critic."
"I have nothing against Scientology's beliefs; it's their practices I oppose," Henson said. "All we're trying to do is practice our religion," Hoden responded. Henson's asylum application could take nine months to two years to resolve. In the meantime, he plans to be back on the picket line soon, despite a Canadian order to keep away from the church. "I have 100,000 fans following my case," Henson said. And they aren't quitting either. "They will never shut me up, because I won't shut up," Camburn said.