The arrest of a member of an anti-Scientology group on terrorism-related charges last month thrust Las Vegas into the forefront of a worldwide dispute between the group and the celebrity-laden church.
Metro SWAT officers and counterterrorism detectives stormed the southwest Las Vegas Valley home of Colby Schoolcraft in the middle of the night Oct. 15 and seized a cache of weapons and ammunition, including an AK-47 machine gun.
Authorities say they believed acts of violence were about to be committed against the local Scientology church, which is creating a new 36,845-square-foot center on Eastern Avenue to cater to celebrities.
Schoolcraft, 23, is a member of "Anonymous," an Internet-fueled group that has thousands of members who organize protests against Scientology around the world. Members wear masks when they demonstrate, to minimize church retaliation, they say. They denounce the church's use of what they allege are cultlike techniques of control over millions of followers.
Anonymous also is dedicated to getting the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Scientology's tax-exempt status as a religious organization, something the Los Angeles-based church regained in 1993 after a bitter 26-year fight with the IRS.
Anonymous does not advocate violence. But in recent months some members elsewhere have been charged with cyber crimes against the church. There also have been media reports of members harassing Scientologist actor Tom Cruise.
Scientology's longtime lead counsel, Kendrick Moxon, had tipped off police to threats of potential violence against the local church that Schoolcraft allegedly made on an Anonymous Web site. A photo of Scientology leader David Miscavige with several bullet holes also appeared on the site, police said.
A criminal complaint has not been filed against Schoolcraft, a camera buff who has posted videos on YouTube of public demonstrations against the church's East Sahara Avenue facility.
District Attorney David Roger and lawyers for the church declined to comment on the case.
Schoolcraft's lawyer, Chris Rasmussen, said his client, was not planning any violence against the Scientologists, and was merely exercising his right to speak out against them.
In cases like this, especially since 9/11, authorities often have a tough time drawing the line between a criminal act and the constitutional rights to free speech and to bear arms.
"This group has been known to make suspicious-sounding communications that could be interpreted as threats," said Las Vegas FBI Supervisor Rod Swanson, who leads the Southern Nevada Joint Terrorism Task Force, which has been participating in the investigation.
Swanson said authorities were concerned that Schoolcraft might be acting as a "lone wolf," beyond the normal boundaries set by his group.
"In an abundance of caution, we were working with Metro to ensure that we did not have a threat to members ... or the church itself," he said.
According to a police affidavit used to obtain the search warrant for Schoolcraft's home, on Banbury Heights Way, Schoolcraft used the screen name "cameranonymous" to post a message on an Anonymous Web site against the church that was "dedicated to cause fear and panic commonly associated with terrorist acts."
The message encouraged members on Oct. 17 to "leave at 6 a.m., go out and blow (expletive) up with guns and explosives, then raid the (expletive) out of Scientology at 11 a.m.," the affidavit alleged.
A private investigator hired by the Scientology church to monitor the site discovered the posting. During a meeting in Las Vegas with detectives on the afternoon of Oct. 15, Moxon turned over a copy of the posting and a couple of others made by cameranonymous. After some initial investigating to confirm the thrust of the information Moxon had brought to them, detectives hastily put together the affidavit and persuaded a Las Vegas justice of the peace to authorize the search warrant.
But Rasmussen charged that detectives did not do enough independent investigating and, as a result, they misinterpreted his client's intentions.
Rasmussen said Schoolcraft's statements were taken out of context in an effort by the church to get police to "rattle some cages here" with an adversary of the church.
"Apparently, this church has a lengthy history of trying to suppress any negative commentary regarding their quasi-religious activities," Rasmussen said in court papers seeking the return of the lawfully owned weapons and other items seized from Schoolcraft's home.
Anonymous has posted a video on YouTube that, in a computer-generated voice, accuses Moxon of working with Metro Police to try to frame Schoolcraft in an attempt to "neutralize" a church opponent.
Rasmussen said his client was merely preparing to go to the desert and shoot at targets with other group members before staging a demonstration outside the Sahara Avenue Scientology facility, which officials estimate serves about 2,000 Las Vegans. Anonymous members commonly refer to their peaceful protests as "raids" and often practice shooting before they stage a protest, Rasmussen noted.
The demonstration took place Oct. 17 as scheduled without Schoolcraft, Rasmussen said.
In a Web posting attributed to "Las Vegas Anonymous" after Schoolcraft's arrest, local group members said some of them were "target-shooting enthusiasts."
The portion of Schoolcraft's posting that talks about blowing things up simply refers to destroying such things as "watermelons" and "jugs of water" on the shooting range with legally purchased firearms, the group members wrote.
"Cameranonymous is an upstanding and law-abiding individual," the posting said. "He is an avid hobbyist. Be it photography, automobiles, motorcycles, computers or firearms, he is a collector first and foremost."
But Lt. Kevin McMahill of Metro's Counter Terrorism Section said he believes authorities did the right thing in moving quickly to arrest Schoolcraft, who is not in custody.
"We would have preferred to have more time to investigate it, but we would have been entirely irresponsible if we didn't take the action we did," McMahill said. "I feel that we did what we had to do to keep the community safe."
On top of Schoolcraft's Web posting, detectives confirmed that he had purchased several weapons, including two AK-47s, a couple of months before the raid.
And the night of the raid, "we literally caught him in the act of loading his vehicle with the weapons," McMahill said.
He said he does not know if or when investigators will come up with enough evidence to formally charge Schoolcraft with any attempts to commit acts of terrorism against the church. Investigators are poring over a mountain of information contained in Schoolcraft's computers and are looking to see whether charges can be filed against others associated with Schoolcraft.
McMahill said the local chapter of Anonymous claims to have as many as 300 members, but he estimates the number is much fewer.
On one of its Web sites, Anonymous says it is made up of "people from all walks of life and has no rigid hierarchy or leadership." It continues: "Our organization is accomplished entirely through the voluntary action and collaboration of individuals, many of whom do not know each other."
In January 2008, Anonymous announced that it was ramping up its anti-Scientology efforts because YouTube, at the request of the church, had removed a video of Cruise discussing Scientology.
The group said it considered the pulling of the video censorship and an attack on free speech, and it intended to stop the church's "fearmongering."
"We acknowledge you as a serious opponent, and we are prepared for a long, long campaign," Anonymous told the church in a video it posted on YouTube. "You will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic."