Sacramento -- Former Palo Alto engineer Keith Henson's decade-long battle with the Church of Scientology forced him into bankruptcy, sent him on the lam to Canada to seek political asylum, and recently landed him in a solitary jail cell in Riverside County.
Friday, he asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to set him free.
A 64-year-old longtime computer consultant, Henson has pursued many causes during his life, many outside the mainstream but all of them, family members say, with the intensity of a scientist on the brink of a big breakthrough. In the mid-'70s he helped found the L5 society that was dedicated to creating a space colony where Henson hoped to live someday. He has advocated cryonics, the practice of freezing people with diseases in the hopes of reviving them once a cure is found.
Then Henson set his sights on Scientology. Scanning Internet news groups in the mid-1990s, he was drawn to a page critical of Scientology and quickly became convinced. With typical zeal, Henson set out to expose the religion, which some critics charge operates more like a cult, and things quickly escalated into a nasty, protracted battle.
"People react in different ways to things," Henson's wife, Arel Lucas, said. "Some people get angry, other people feel like walking away. He got angry."
His crusade ultimately led to a misdemeanor conviction and six-month jail sentence - of which he has served about two months - for interfering with the rights of others to practice their religion. Friday, his wife and daughter arrived in Sacramento after a two-day drive that started in Arizona, and delivered a petition to Schwarzenegger's office seeking a pardon, or short of that, a reduced sentence.
A Schwarzenegger spokesman declined to comment, other than to say the governor would give the petition the same careful consideration he does other such requests.
Henson's troubles began when he posted on the Internet Scientology documents about its approach to medical treatment. The church, which closely guards its teachings, sued him for copyright infringement. In 1998, after a four-day trial before U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, Henson was ordered to pay $75,000 to the Religious Technology Center, a wing of the Scientology organization.
"It's amazing the trouble you get into for trying to warn the public about health hazards," Henson told the Mercury News after the verdict. "This was just a loss of a battle in a larger war."
Indeed it was. The fine forced Henson into bankruptcy, but he wasn't ready to let go. Henson (who, after more than a decade living in Silicon Valley, moved to Southern California) picketed Scientology organizations around Los Angeles. According to his wife, he was roughed up more than once and was a frequent target of death threats.
The Church of Scientology did not return calls requesting comment.
According to court documents, starting in May 2000 Henson staged daily protests for nearly two months straight outside Golden Era Productions, a Scientology facility in Riverside County that produces promotional materials. Police arrested him July 19 of that year, and prosecutors later alleged that he had threatened to bomb the building.
He was charged with three misdemeanors, two for allegedly making or attempting to make terrorist threats, and one for allegedly interfering with another's right to exercise civil rights, namely to practice religion.
According to his wife, Henson worked for an explosives company in the 1970s and has experience with pyrotechnics. And he once jokingly suggested online launching a "Cruise missile" at a Scientology building - a reference to actor Tom Cruise, an active church member.
But that's a far cry, she said, from being a terrorist. "He never had access to weapons of mass destruction or had the ability to launch them," she said. "He's not some kind of bomb-throwing, threatening person. He never threatened anyone."
The jury hung on the two terrorist charges but convicted Henson of interfering with religion, a misdemeanor.
But shortly before his sentencing date in 2001, when he was expecting to be sent to jail for six months, Henson bolted for Canada. According to his wife, he feared that Scientologists would harm him in jail, and so he accepted an invitation from a Canadian friend.
Barely a month later, shopping at a suburban Toronto mall, Henson was surrounded by a police SWAT team and arrested, his wife said, for failing to disclose his criminal status when he crossed the border. After five days in a high-security jail, he was released. The reason: Henson had applied for political asylum, claiming that if forced to return to the United States, he faced injury or even death at the hands of Scientologists.
Henson's petition for refugee status languished in the Canadian court system for more than four years - a period he spent working for several computer firms and continuing to picket Scientology facilities - before being denied in mid-2005. Knowing he would soon be deported, he slipped quietly back into the United States and stayed with friends for a year before winding up in Prescott, Ariz., in September.
Henson spent the next five months writing, researching, working on his house and - perhaps not surprisingly - posting critiques of Scientology on the Web. He made his writings look as if they were coming from a computer in Canada.
But Henson wouldn't manage to sidestep the law much longer. In February, he was arrested by undercover officers in Prescott - he believes Scientologists hired investigators to track him down - and later was deported to California to begin the jail sentence he had avoided for so long.
Since May, Henson - described by his wife as a compassionate man with a boisterous laugh who "likes to talk and project his thoughts about the future" - has sat in a solitary jail cell in Riverside County. Lucas said her husband's troubles are undeserved. He was only trying to protect people, she said, from what he's convinced is a corrupt organization.
Will Henson continue the fight after his jail term? Moments after leaving the state Capitol on Friday, clutching letters from supporters in her hand, Lucas said she doubts her husband's crusade will resume anytime soon.
"His lawyer thinks he's going to have to cool it."