First the retirees flocked to Clearwater. Then the Scientologists. Since then the sunny, small city in Florida, situated on the warm-watered Gulf of Mexico, has become one of the most bizarre places in America.
Young people in uniform stream busily through the once sleepy downtown, security guards patrol with video cameras and earsets, surveillance cameras probe the Scientology-owned buildings and the streets around them. About 5,000 adherents of the "Church of Scientology," judged to be a profit-oriented corporation in Germany, live here; according to sect statements, up to 2,000 more come from all over the world daily to obtain costly courses in the Mecca of the "Thetans." "Here," said the German Scientologist Antje Victore defiantly, "I can live like any other person."
She said she could not do that in her homeland. The 45-year-old woman, who has earned her money by being, among other things, a jockey, is the first and, so far, the only German to enjoy political asylum in the United States. In 1997, her case raised eyebrows around the world and hampered German-American relations.
Shortly before the New York Times distributed the news about the Victore affair, Federal Minister Klaus Kinkel was still being blamed by Washington for alleged discrimination against Scientologists in Germany. The Kohl administration was completely astonished. "We implore you to put an end to the shameful, organized persecution," wrote 34 American celebrities - among them Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn and producer Oliver Stone - in an open letter to the CDU Chancellor.
The Scientologist woman was said to have submitted "thousands of documents" to the immigration officials at the time which supposedly proved that she had been persecuted in Germany. They included "newspaper articles and official forms which asked for religious affiliation," said Victore over the telephone; she was not ready to meet for an interview. Today she works for a car rental agency.
"Stern" research now shows that the spectacular Scientology asylum case was staged. No trace of "religious persecution." The lady simply had money problems, as her letters show. "On April 1, I need - and it has to be certified received in cash in Berlin - DM 13,100.51. Please tell me what is wrong now and whether you will eventually know who could invest (settle) the tax amounts for me," she faxed on March 23, 1996 to a [Scientology] member. Six months later she wrote to her female friend Dagmar H. (full name is known to the editors), who was a Scientologist of the highest trained rank at the time, an "Operating Thetan 8": "Today I received a forfeiture notice from the Schoenberg Revenue Office. The thing with the taxes is slowly getting very hot. I don't know any more. Please help me Dagmar. What should I do?"
Victore clung to the hope that she would still come up with the money for her tax debts. She took part in capital investment companies with nice-sounding names that promised fabulous returns, like Jackson Services and Lincoln Limited. What she didn't know yet: she was dealing with a fraudulent business to which she had been referred by Swiss Scientologist Erwin Dossenbach. She faxed him repeatedly, demanding and pleading for her money back. She was repeatedly consoled. The Swiss district attorney has been investigating Dossenbach since the mid 1990s and accused him of investment fraud. The amount of damage in the dubious deals with lively Scientology participation: a total of about ten million franks.
That also included the money on which Antje was waiting in vain. Her tax debts in Germany bore down on her more and more from month to month and her U.S. visa, extended multiple times, was running out soon. In letters to Dagmar H., Victore began to talk more about her asylum application. She said she needed "urgently all available entheta articles from this year." By that she meant press reports which discussed Scientology in a critical manner and in which the organization was accused of having totalitarian strategies. "Whatever you can find, Dagmar. I am supposed to provide more 'proof' that is is really so bad in Germany. You've told me before that you could deliver enough 'stuff' to me," she implored her friend.
The stuff was delivered - by the Scientology intelligence agency, OSA, in the German center of the psycho-corporation in Hamburg. But that was not enough to convince Immigration Judge Rex J. Ford in Tampa, Florida. Her first application was refused in Summer 1996. "Solely and alone, what the government does is decisive. Only those sort of things are useful. Unfortunately I have too little of that, namely only an interview with Bluem in Spiegel," she complained. I don't want to land in prison like Karl-Erich. But that is exactly what is going to happen if I can't pay!"
Karl-Erich is a member of Scientology who was convicted by the state attorney's office for tax evasion. Antje Victore had built up an advertising company with him in Schwaan, near Rostock, in the beginning of the 1990s. When the law caught up with him and his partner, Victore took over management of the company, but could not pay income, business or sales tax for 1993: exactly the 13,100.51 marks which she later was asking other Scientologists for.
"OSA also had a very real interest in getting Antje's application for asylum approved so she could stay in the States," said Jens Billerbeck, who was in close contact with Victore at the time, but has since then left Scientology. "They were trying to prevent her from appearing as a witness in the trial against her former company chief." The boss, at the time, of the international Scientology intelligence service, Kurt Weiland, was concerned that she could reveal delicate details about the psycho-business and also about the German Scientology Center. "Antje knew a lot."
All the more forcefully Weiland effected the "handling" of the problem. Billerbeck: "Antje proudly reported to me that Weiland and an OSA attorney worked on the method of procedure personally in her asylum proceedings." The strategy to convince the Immigration Judge, was as tricky as it was effective: German Scientologist who have a business, authored letters to Antje Victore in which it was pretended that she had put in for a position with them. With "deep regret" they rejected Victore because of her membership in Scientology.
"Since the attacks of the press are also directed against companies which employ Scientologists, it is anticipated that the revelation of this membership in a religion would be disadvantageous to a company," was in that letter. Other "rejections" were similarly founded. The "restrictive politics" of the state governments in Munich and Berlin were repeatedly mentioned, whereby it was said that Scientologists were not allowed to work in public institutions and were excluded from all agreements and contracts. "Under these conditions I cannot employ you; I would risk discrimination and business loss," wrote one of the businesswomen.
The company chiefs glibly kept quiet about their membership in Scientology. They were to let on to the U.S. immigration judge only that "in Germany many Scientologists are unemployed, and that it was very difficult for practicing Scientologists in Germany to lead a normal life." In her telephone discussion with the "Stern," Victore dodged the question about these letters: she said it was absolutely insignificant whether the letters were personally directed to her - for the application for asylum the proof of general persecution was decisive, "it was not about me."
Jens Billerbeck and Dagmar H., who have left the [Scientology] organization since then, have verified for "Stern" magazine in sworn testimony that they were asked for such letters by Antje Victore and, as a favor to a fellow Scientologist, they wrote and sent her the letters. Actually, Victore had never put in an application with them. On October 10, 1996, Victore faxed Billerbeck several such letters which he was supposed to use as a model. She would be super happy if he would be able to write her the letter in English, she told him. She put the word "letter" in quotation marks. "Stern" magazine has a copy of five such faked company letters.
The deceptive bluff was a success. When the "asylum case" was won the end of February 1997, Victore sent Billerbeck a letter of praise typical for Scientology, of which "Stern" has a copy: It said that "for the first time in history" a German citizen had obtained political asylum in the USA. Billerbeck: "On the telephone she explicitly asked me not to tell anyone about the asylum decision. The decision in court was to be published by Scientology itself at an opportune moment. This was the express wish of OSA." The sensation was printed in the New York Times in early November. The woman was said to have "clearly and convincingly" demonstrated that her fear of persecution on account of her belief had been founded, announced Weiland.
When Federal President Johannes Rau was in Washington recently, he had to defend himself anew from harsh criticism: the U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky accused Germany of discriminating against the award of public contracts to companies who did not want to sign a "sect filter" statement in which they distanced themselves from the organization.
As if that were one of the "pieces of evidence" in the Victore asylum case.