During a week that will mark the five-year anniversary of the viral #MeToo movement, "That 70's show" actor Danny Masterson will stand trial in a criminal rape case that could end up highlighting what accusers and observers describe as the Church of Scientology's specter of control over its congregants.
In 2020, Masterson, who was raised a Scientologist and is currently a member of the church, was charged with 3 counts of rape against three women who sued him in 2019, following accusations of sexual assault that were made public against him in 2017. By May 2021, Judge Charlaine Olmedo, having heard testimony from the accusers – all three of whom were former members of the church – ordered Masterson to stand trial.
In the criminal complaint, Masterson is accused of sexually assaulting former girlfriend Chrissie Carnell Bixler multiple times between 1996 and 2002, drugging and raping another woman twice, in 2002 and 2003, and sexually assaulting a woman who was too intoxicated to consent within that same timeframe.
Masterson has maintained his innocence. He could face a potential sentence of 45 years to life in prison if convicted. His attorneys did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
The Church of Scientology is not a defendant in Masterson's criminal trial, but the women who sued Masterson also accused the Church of stalking and harassing them for internally and externally reporting their claims in a separate civil lawsuit. In a statement sent to Insider, a representative for the Church of Scientology previously denied the allegations in the civil suit, calling them "obvious, cynical, and self-serving fictions," adding that "The Church will prevail against those slanderous charges."
The Church of Scientology did not comment to Insider on the criminal trial.
The judge has said Masterson's case will not be 'a trial on Scientology'
In the lead-up to trial, Olmedo had said in a hearing that "This is not going to become a trial on Scientology" after rejecting attempts from the defense to preclude any mention of the church.
Given the nature of the criminal claims, revealed witness lists, and the accusers' history with the organization, an expert on Scientology told Insider that the inner workings of the Church of Scientology will likely come into play during the criminal trial.
Rick Alan Ross, the Executive Director of Cult Education Institute, told Insider that this may be one of the most momentous cases involving the Church since senior church officials including Mary Sue Hubbard were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in 1978.
"For a Scientologist, to come forward and say something negative or to go so far as to charge someone who is a celebrity Scientologist with a heinous crime like rape is a very, very difficult undertaking," Ross, who has testified in court as an expert witness on Scientology, told Insider.
"The nature of the machine that is Scientology, the process of that machine, the net results of the influence and the techniques of that machine are overwhelming," Ross said, adding that the trial may expose " how granular the control is."
A linked civil suit follows Masterson's criminal trial
The three women claimed that after reporting the alleged sex crimes to police in Los Angeles, they were targeted by Scientology through a wiretapping campaign, and Bixler alleged that individuals working for the Church of Scientology killed her dog.
This month, the Supreme Court upheld the California Supreme Court's decision to allow the women to pursue their claims without having to go to Scientology's religious arbitration process.
"They failed to be able to force that, which will have tremendous repercussions," Ross told Insider. "Because Scientology created a kind of arbitration as a poison pill to eliminate the probability of litigation from people that have been hurt by Scientology that would want to sue them for personal injuries."
Explosive witness testimony and documents could define the criminal trial
In the high-stakes trial, Masterson is represented by a legal team of attorneys that includes star attorney Shawn Holley, who is representing the likes of rapper Tory Lanez and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer in separate cases.
Another accuser separate from the lawsuit who said Masterson sexually assaulted her in 1996 will take the stand, and the prosecution will also be able to reference internal Scientology documents and agreements from the women.
And this week, Deputy Los Angeles District Attorney Reinhold Mueller revealed segments of the prosecution's witness list during jury selection, which included the singer and daughter of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie Presley. Presley, who left Scientology in 2014, is set to testify after Jane Doe #1 had claimed in previous hearings that Masterson told her not to reach out to Presley.
"For Presley to take the stand for the prosecution against a prominent Scientology celebrity as a former Scientology celebrity – it just has not happened," Ross added.
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