Big FBI raid led to conspiracy trial of cult leaders

Toronto Globe and Mail/January 22, 1980
by John Marshall

About 100 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation learned on July 6, 1977, that they would be participating two days later in an operation unprecedented in the United States.

The notification, described two years later in a Washington courtroom, said the agents would be raiding offices of an organization that some governments, in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, officially classified as a religion-the Church of Scientology.

The next day, a Thursday, the agents were given eight hours of briefing by five of their superiors and two assistant U.S. attorneys.

It was explained to them-as U.S. District Judge Charles Richey later said-that "there was probable cause to believe that the leaders of a large religious organization were involved in complex, sophisticated conspiracies to illegally obtain government documents and to cover up their activities."

They were also cautioned about the sensitive nature of the operation, about "priest-penitent privilege and were told to act accordingly ... and that they could expect unfavorable press coverage."

The raids at two locations in Los Angeles and one in Washington began at 6 a.m. Friday, July 8, 1977. Before the searches were completed 20 hours later, about 50 more FBI agents were called in to help.

They seized lock-picking tools, electronic bugging equipment, guns and 48,000 documents, many of them obtained clandestinely from the files of government and private agencies, including some in Canada.

About 15,000 of the documents were returned to the Scientologists. The remainder, forced into court records by the defendants' own efforts to have the raids declared illegal, are evidence of their international practices of planting spies in public and private offices, stealing documents, framing and harassing critics, and establishing front organizations to promote their own propaganda and to fight those they consider to be enemies.

The evidence implicated a great many of the cult's leaders and their followers. Eleven top officials, including Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of cult founder L. Ron Hubbard, were indicted by a grand jury on Aug. 15, 1978, on charges of conspiracy to steal government documents and obstruct justice. Mrs. Hubbard and eight others were convicted last month. Prosecutors are seeking the extradition of two more from Britain. Another leader who became an FBI informant before the 1977 raids is awaiting trial.

Twenty-three others, including Ron Hubbard, were named as co-conspirators but not indicted. Federal prosecutors say investigations using the evidence obtained in the raids are continuing at the state level.

Also continuing is the cult's effort to have the documentary evidence from the raids invalidated. They have carried that battle to the U.S. Supreme court, which is expected to make its decision on whether to hear the appeal later this year.

There has been only one court ruling in favor of the U.S. Scientology leaders, who have been defended by a team of 16 lawyers. Nineteen days after the 1977 raids, a District of Columbia court said the warrants used in the Washington search were invalid. But that ruling was reversed by the District Court of Appeals on December, 1977.

Yesterday the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the Scientologists for the return of the documents and for a ruling that they not be used in any future criminal proceedings against the church or its members.

An integral part of the 2 ½ years of legal battles has been the complex legal manoeuvring of the past year. Plea bargaining resulted in a rarely used procedure that allowed the nine officials who were tried to bypass a plea of guilty or not guilty.

But they had to agree to accept as factual a 282-page stipulation of evidence from the prosecuting attorneys. They also agreed that they would accept, and that they could not appeal, a verdict of guilty on one charge each. This was a reduction from the 28-count indictment returned by the grand jury.

Becoming impatient with haggling in the final days of the trial, Judge Richey more than once threatened to schedule the case for a normal trial.

He finally gave his verdict of guilty last Oct. 26. On Dec. 6 and 7 he imposed jail sentences and fines on all of the accused. All but one of them served brief periods in prison before being released just before Christmas pending the Supreme Court's decision on the validity of the documentary evidence.

If the evidence is found to have been illegally obtained, the federal case could be thrown out even though the defendants accepted the truthfulness of the prosecution's case under their signatures. (A court demand for the signatures was one of the last-minute issues.)

There could be retrials involving other evidence, including that from Michael Meisner, a former Scientology spy in the U.S. tax offices who turned informer after he was held under guard gagged and handcuffed by fellow Scientologists. He has agreed to plead guilty to an as-yet-unspecified felony for which a maximum five-year sentence is possible. He is living in a secret location as a protected witness.

Mrs. Hubbard was sentenced to the maximum possible term of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for conspiring to obstruct justice. She was given 10 days to report to prison after she submitted that she had a health problem that could be exacerbated by life in jail. Judge Richey said that, after she served three months, prison officials should report on whether she could continue to serve her sentence.

All the others convicted were sent directly from the courtroom to prison, except for 29-year-old Sharon Thomas. She was fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail and five years of probationary community service work on a charge of stealing government documents. She was put in her parents' custody pending the appeal on the validity of the evidence.

Miss Thomas had penetrated the U.S. Coast Guard's intelligence service and worked as a secretary in the U.S. Justice Department so she could steal files involving Scientology and matters of interest to the cult, the court was told.

She also played the role of a drunken pickup in Washington in a 1976 scheme to blackmail Gabriel Cazares, then mayor of the Florida city of Clearwater, the court documents revealed. The cult had used a front to make extensive property purchases in Clearwater for its top training base. Documents before the court indicated the U.S. Scientologists wanted to "take control" of Clearwater.

In addition to Mrs. Hubbard, the most senior official of those charged (she is called Controller or Commodore Staff Guardian; Mr. Hubbard is Commodore), two others were sentenced to five years and fined $10,000 for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

One is Gerald Bennett Wolfe, 30, who infiltrated the Internal Revenue Service as a Scientology spy with the code name Silver. He also stole documents from a U.S. attorney's office, and he admitted to Judge Richey that he had lied to the grand jury that subsequently indicted him.

Asked why he had lied, Mr. Wolfe said: "I feel it is immoral to be an informant."

Judge Richey commented: "For you to tell this court that it is immoral to tell the truth is incomprehensible."

Cindy Raymond, 41, also was sentenced to five years and fined $10,000. The prosecutors described her as the co-ordinator of coverup attempts after two of the spies, Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Meisner, were arrested. The court was told that she prepared cover stories designed to stymie the grand jury investigation of the cult's illegal activities.

Four others-Henning Heldt, Duke Snider, Gregory Willardson and Richard Weigand-were sentenced to four years in prison and fined $10,000 each for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

On a charge of conspiracy to illegally obtain government documents, Mitchell Hermann was given four years and fined $10,000. He was involved in the bugging of an important 1974 meeting of IRS officials exchanging information on a long-time investigation of the tax affairs of the cult and its leader.

A report of what was said at the meeting and picked up by the church's electronic bugs-planted after its spies found out well in advance when and where the meeting would be held-was in the files seized by the FBI.

Other documents before the judge also showed the Scientologists had stolen the tax records of people such as singers Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, California Governor Edmund Brown, and Los Angeles mayors Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty. And they were looking for actor John Wayne's.

A Dec. 4, 1975, memo by one church official suggested: "Legal could also inform the IRS of the receipt of the data and that we are holding off on using it as an added pressure on them to finish the audit (of Scientology tax matters) favorably."

There was no indication that the Scientologists, who had been in a running battle over tax-exempt status, had ever triggered their threatened blackmail scheme, which the documents called "The Juicy Clanger". That was one of many code names for various clandestine operations by the church.

The Scientologists, according to the evidence, stole material from several IRS offices, including ones supposed to be under extra security. They also entered a special area and made false identification documents for themselves and other Scientologists.

Both in statements during the trial and in the documents submitted to the court, the Scientologists indicated they felt there was a conspiracy on the part of many government departments and private agencies against their movement.

Defence lawyers argued that their clients were trying "to preserve a religion from what the defendants ... perceive as a powerful campaign by government agencies and others to destroy it."

Many internal communications found in the seized files indicate a worry about the organization's own security. A report from the Clearwater base in April, 1976, identified a staff member as a "definite security risk" who had been a plant in the cult's San Diego organization giving data to someone else, who gave it to the FBI. (U.S. Scientology leaders once thought there was a "plant" in the Toronto organization.)

Mr. Heldt said, in speaking to the sentencing, that the Scientology leaders were reacting to government attempts to "destroy their religion and make a mockery of their beliefs."

Judge Richey, however, rejected the proposition that the Government was harassing the organization.

He said that "slander, coverup and conspiracy in the name of religion will never explain that kind of conduct."

Mrs. Hubbard said: "I accept full responsibility for the charge upon which I've been convicted and sincerely regret my role in it. I've done everything in my power to make sure nothing like this can ever be done in the future."

Others sentenced also expressed remorse, but in each case that brought an angry denunciation from assistant U.S. attorney Raymond Banoun, who has worked on the case for more than two years.

When Mr. Willardson asked for a reduced jail term and the opportunity to do community service work instead, the prosecutor noted that a blackjack, lock-picking equipment and bugging devices were found in Mr. Willardson's church office.

"What is the example that Mr. Willardson can set for young people he wants to help?" asked the prosecutor.

Mr. Banoun told the judge the Scientologists' crimes went further than the conspiracy against the Government and the temporary kidnapping of the state's chief witness, Mr. Meisner. "It was not only the Government they were after, it was anyone who was critical of them."

And the documents he filed before the court-about 33,000 of them listed in a 525-page inventory-were concerned with much more than the cult's clandestine operations in U.S. Government offices and in the obstruction of justice afterwards.

One of the defence complaints early in the litigation included the contention that the FBI agents had exceeded their warrants and had seized material beyond that which they were seeking.

And they argued at one point that because of this all evidence seized should be suppressed.

Judge Richey said he found that "the Government made good-faith and reasonable efforts to limit the searches and seizures to items within the warrants or otherwise legally seizable."

On the latter point, he noted that during the search of a cabinet labelled "Confessional Formulary" in the information bureau of the Scientology offices in Los Angeles, agents found a document that prompted an order to all those participating in the raid "to watch for documents marked 'red box' because 'red box' meant that some of the documents might have been stolen."

Before the raid, the judge added, the agents had been told that "it was possible that they could find evidence which could be used for probable cause elsewhere."

The "red box" lead resulted in the discovery, among other things, of documents forwarded to the U.S. Scientology headquarters from cult officials in Canada.

There was a June 19, 1974, letter signed "Love, Marion," from the Toronto Guardian's Office. (All those charged were Guardians, who, according to the evidence, are responsible for press and public relations, discipline, legal and financial matters and a variety of covert activities ranging from the training and planting of agents to the investigation of organizations and individuals inimicable to Scientology. Some Guardians are ordained ministers of Scientology.)

The letter from Marion to Duke Snider, one of those convicted in the conspiracy, was headed: "Re: Police and Intelligence."

It briefly outlined the contents of documents she was forwarding with it. And she commented: "Some info I came across that I thought might be of use for you ... correspondence between the Att.-General Ontario and Attorney-General U.S. ... a connection between the L.A. Police Intelligence and Ontario Provincial Police ... hope this is of some help to you."

The Ontario Government documents, from 1970 and 1971, included confidential communications between the province's attorney-general at the time, Arthur Wishart, and his deputy, Rendall Dick. The memos were about police intelligence operations to fight organized crime.

Also in the "red box" files seized by the FBI agents were private documents from the Ontario Health Ministry, including a 1966 memo from then health minister Matthew Dymond to his deputy. The memo said Dr. Dymond was passing along a Scientology pamphlet and added: "If Hubbard is contravening the Hypnosis Act I think we should take some steps to persuade him to change his mind."

Among the Scientology papers filed in court was also a large selection of internal communications of the ministry's Committee on the Healing Arts, which had included Scientology in a study of sectarian healing.

The Health Ministry documents were presented to the court with a covering letter dated July 25, 1972, from "Jaan", a Toronto Guardian official, to someone called Terry in one of the U.S. Guardian offices.

The document discovered in the "Confessional Formulary" by one of the raiding team identified as Special Agent Orphy was a March 25, 1977, letter signed "Love Judy" and directed to "all concerned" in senior offices of the cult in the United States.

This letter, filed as U.S. Government exhibit 219 and FBI number 7984, was to introduce "the complete red box system" into the church's operations.

Attached to the letter was a "red box data information sheet" with instructions to senior officers to keep the information away from junior assistants.

"Red box," the document made clear, was the code name for a portable file that could be easily removed from a Scientology office "in case of a raid."

In the file was to be kept, among other things, "proof that a Scnist is involved in criminal activities ... anything illegal that implicated MSH, LRH (the Hubbards) ... large amounts of non-FOI docs (documents not obtained through legal means under Freedom of Information legislation) ... evidence of incriminating activities ..."

The information sheet said large amounts of "red-box data" not needed for day-to-day activities could be kept elsewhere than in the portable file, which could be just a briefcase.

The "red box" document was not one of the search targets specified in a list of 62 items in the warrants, which were supported by a 35-page affidavit detailing events leading up to the Government's request for a search.

However, Judge Richey ruled it was found under the "plain view doctrine," which allows evidence of a crime that is seen in plain view to be seized along with other evidence specified in a search warrant.

"The court finds that the agents' seizure of red-box data, and evidence of covert infiltration of private and state organizations to obtain documents were reasonable," the judge said.

He told the objecting defence lawyers the FBI agents had probable cause to believe these and other documents were evidence of criminal activities.

In his lengthy ruling on the admissibility of the documentary evidence and the legality of the raids (he concentrated only on the Los Angeles ones and said the Washington seizures were not used before the grand jury), Judge Richey noted that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was cited by the defense, was intended to prevent searches by unchecked authorities.

He commented: "No one in our civilized society is pleased by searches of churches lasting 20 hours and involving over 150 FBI agents ...

"However, the Fourth Amendment cannot become so inflexible that criminal activity can be completely insulated from our criminal justice system by the talismanic invocation of religion.

"We can only hope that never again in our history will the Government be required to perform such an unseemly task."

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