At a pre-trial hearing in the Danny Masterson rape case last week, Judge Charlaine Olmedo laid down a basic ground rule.
“This is not going to become a trial on Scientology,” she said.
But the role of the church will nevertheless be a key theme in the trial, which begins with jury selection on Tuesday. Masterson, the 46-year-old former star of “That ’70s Show,” is facing three charges of forcible rape and a possible sentence of 45 years to life.
Masterson is a Scientologist, and all three of his accusers were members of the church at the time of the alleged assaults. Olmedo has indicated that she will allow some testimony about Scientology and its practices, especially to the extent that it helps explain why the accusers delayed going to the police — for two of them, by more than a decade.
At a preliminary hearing in May 2021, all three said they feared violating the church’s rules and being cut off from their faith community.
“If you have a legal situation, you may not handle it externally from the church,” testified one of the accusers, who is referenced as N. Trout in the proceedings. “You’ll be excommunicated.”
Another accuser, Jen B., testified that she worried that she would be declared a “suppressive person” if she went to the LAPD.
“My parents would have to disown me,” she said. “My friends, everyone I knew would disown me. I couldn’t speak to them… I could be lied, cheated, stealed, harmed or destroyed.”
At the preliminary hearing, one of Masterson’s lawyers, Sharon Appelbaum, argued that the three accusers had formed a “sisterhood” to try to take down both Masterson and Scientology. She pointed to the involvement of Leah Remini, an ex-Scientologist who explored the case against Masterson on her A&E documentary series.
The defense has also argued that the women are lying about consensual encounters because they want to extract a civil judgment. The three accusers filed a lawsuit in 2019 against Masterson and the church, alleging that they were victims of “fair game” attacks after going to the police. After three years of legal wrangling over whether the case should be decided through a church-run arbitration process, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the church’s appeal on that case last week, and the case will go forward in civil court.
One of the accusers, Jen B., also received a few hundred thousand dollars in a settlement for her rape allegation in 2004.
Olmedo has predicted that the criminal case will take less than the allotted four weeks, and has tried to keep the focus on the three alleged rapes.
One of the accusers, Chrissie Carnell Bixler, dated Masterson for about six years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In November 2001, she alleges that she awoke to find Masterson on top of her, penetrating her. She decided to fight back, and grabbed his hair, at which point she alleges that he struck her in the face. After she was able to get him off of her, he alleges that he spit on her and called her “white trash.”
Jen B. alleges that she went to Masterson’s house in April 2003. She testified at the preliminary hearing that he gave her an alcoholic drink and then threw her in a jacuzzi. After that, she started to feel like she would throw up. She alleges that Masterson brought her to a bathroom upstairs, where she vomited. She then remembered that Masterson put her in the shower and then onto his bed, where she passed out.
“When I came to, he was on top of me and he was inside of me,” she testified.
She said she tried to push him away, but that he grabbed both of her wrists and then pulled a gun out of the nightstand. “Don’t fucking move,” he said, according to her testimony.
The following year, she wrote a letter to the International Justice Chief within Scientology, seeking “permission” to bring a civil suit and criminal charges. She also said she feared that doing so would result in “losing all my friends and family who are Scientologists.”
The justice chief, Mike Ellis, responded a week later, saying she would have to “decide for yourself” whether to bring a civil suit. The letter did not address the possibility of going to the police.
“Regardless of your decisions in the legal arena, you do need to apply LRH technology as the ultimate solution to any problem,” Ellis wrote.
At the preliminary hearing, Jen. B testified that she took that to mean that “I could not go to the police.”
Masterson’s defense lawyers protested that the letter did not address that, and they argued that Scientology doctrine does not actually forbid members from going to the police.
Olmedo barred prosecutors from calling Claire Headley, an ex-Scientologist and church critic who was supposed to testify about church teachings. So much of the theological parsing may be left up to the jury.
Jen. B did ultimately go to the police in 2004, but the D.A.’s office declined to file charges.
“They said they couldn’t file because he was a celebrity — one girl wasn’t enough,” she testified. She said she cried after the decision was made.
Years later, she would be put in touch with Trout and Carnell Bixler, and they went to the LAPD, which reopened the investigation. Trout has alleged that Masterson raped her at his house sometime in late 2003.
Asked on the stand last year to explain why she had not reported the incident at the time — even to church authorities — she explained that Masterson was a celebrity and “his status offers more to the church.”
“Everybody was made aware within the church that certain people who are of a celebrity status… are to be protected in a certain way,” she said. “They have a lot more power in terms of ethics responses from the higher-ups in the church.”
The accusers have now told their stories many times, in police interviews, church proceedings, civil proceedings, and to friends and family. The defense — now led by attorneys Philip Cohen, Karen Goldstein and Shawn Holley — is expected to try to expose discrepancies in those accounts, and to argue that the allegations have evolved to become more violent and disturbing over time.
The prosecution, led by Reinhold Mueller and Ariel Anson, also sought to introduce as many as 27 separate incidents of harassment and stalking, which the accusers allege came in response to their decision to go to the police.
As she did at the preliminary hearing, Olmedo said she would allow some general testimony on that subject to show the witnesses’ states of mind, but would keep in within strict limits.
“We’re not going to start going off into a whole bunch of different instances,” the judge said.
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