Actor Danny Masterson convicted of two counts of rape at second Los Angeles trial

Los Angeles Times/May 31, 2023

By James Queally

Actor Danny Masterson was convicted of two counts of rape Wednesday after his second trial on charges that he sexually assaulted three women he met through the Church of Scientology, ending a years-long legal saga that marked a rare instance of the controversial faith’s practices being dragged into a courtroom.

After a week of deliberations, jurors were convinced the 47-year-old actor — who rose to prominence as the mercurial Steven Hyde on the sitcom “That ’70s Show” — had sexually assaulted two women identified as Jen B. and N. Trout inhis Hollywood Hills home in the early 2000s.

The jurors hung on a third count stemming from allegations made by Chrissie B., who was once Masterson’s longtime girlfriend. The jury foreperson said the panel was leaning toward a guilty verdict on that count but was deadlocked 8 to 4 in favor of conviction.

Masterson remained calm and even chatty in the hallways of the downtown L.A. courthouse during deliberations. He did not visibly react to the verdict. His wife, model and actress Bijou Phillips, let out a pained cry when the verdict was read and sobbed heavily as Masterson was led away in handcuffs.

Masterson faces 30 years to life in prison at sentencing. He is due back in court in early August. A spokeswoman for his defense team declined to comment on the verdict.

“I am experiencing a complex array of emotions — relief, exhaustion, strength, sadness — knowing that my abuser, Danny Masterson, will face accountability for his criminal behavior,” N. Trout said in a statement. “I am disappointed that he was not convicted on all counts, but take great solace in the fact that he, the Church of Scientology, and others, will have to fully account for their abhorrent actions in civil court.”

Jurors previously hung on all counts against Masterson during a trial in late 2022, with most leaning toward an acquittal. But prosecutors sought a retrial, and in their second attempt, Deputy Dist. Attys. Reinhold Mueller and Ariel Anson focused much more heavily on the idea that Masterson not only preyed on members of his own church, but also used drugs to isolate them and make them vulnerable before each assault.

The church loomed large over the proceedings, as it has ever since Los Angeles police began investigating Masterson in 2017. At the time, the actor dismissed the claims as an attempt to slander Scientology.

But after then-Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey brought rape charges against Masterson in 2020, prosecutors made the church’s teachings a central tenet of their case. Each of the victims, they argued, waited years to report the rapes to police because they feared excommunication from Scientology for reporting Masterson.

At various hearings since 2021, the women have testified that they were either discouraged from contacting law enforcement by Scientology officials or were told the incidents they described were not rape.

On the witness stand, each victim also expressed fear that reporting Masterson would lead the church to label them “suppressive persons,” effectively enemies of Scientology, and that their families would be barred from speaking to them.

Scientology officials have repeatedly denied prohibiting members from cooperating with police. But after a 2021 preliminary hearing in Masterson’s case , L.A. County Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo ruled the church has “an expressly written doctrine” that discourages members from reporting one another to law enforcement.

The church has said Olmedo’s interpretation is incorrect. At the time of Olmedo’s ruling, Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw said church policy “explicitly demands Scientologists abide by all laws of the land, including the reporting of crimes. This is blatantly clear in the documents we understand were put before the Court — and many others.”

In response to a request for comment Wednesday, Pouw provided a statement from the church that called the “introduction of religion” into the trial “an unprecedented violation” of the 1st Amendment: “The District Attorney unconscionably centered his prosecution on the defendant’s religion and fabrications about the Church to introduce prejudice and inflame bigotry. The DA elicited testimony and descriptions of Scientology beliefs and practices which were uniformly FALSE.”

The church has appeared sensitive to the optics of the Masterson case. Beginning during the first trial last year, the church began to run commercials featuring its leader, David Miscavige, urging viewers to learn more about the religion from the church itself.

“If you haven’t heard it from us, we’re not what you expect,” Miscavige says in the advertisement.

During the trial, a church organization claiming to oppose discrimination against Scientology has repeatedly targeted journalists covering the case, mocking them online and plastering the word “bigot” across doctored pictures of each reporter following any coverage that could be perceived as negative.

“The fact that it’s Danny Masterson from ‘That ’70s Show’ … it’s not just local media reporting on a local case, it blows it up way bigger. It becomes part of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein,” said former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, who is now an outspoken critic of the church, during a 2021 interview with The Times. “That instantly puts it into a different zone. Within Scientology, this becomes panic stations, high alert.”

All of the women described falling prey to Masterson after he served them drinks that made them disoriented and nauseated. Phillip Cohen, one of Masterson’s defense attorneys, repeatedly noted that prosecutors presented zero forensic evidence to prove the victims were drugged.

Chrissie B. said she endured a tumultuous and abusive relationship with Masterson in which he repeatedly spat on her, called her “white trash” and initiated sex with her while she was asleep. She alleged that one night in November 2001, she awoke to Masterson forcing himself on her. When she said no, he struck her, pinned her down and raped her, she testified.

She also alleged that she lost consciousness after Masterson served her a drink at La Poubelle restaurant in Franklin Village in 2001, waking up the next morning in serious pain at the actor’s Hollywood Hills home. Masterson told her they had sex, to her horror, according to a letter she wrote to a Scientology official that was presented at trial. That incident did not result in criminal charges.

“I am devastated that he has dodged criminal accountability for his heinous conduct against me,” Chrissie B. said in a statement Wednesday. “Despite my disappointment in this outcome, I remain determined to secure justice, including in civil court, where I, along with my co-plaintiffs, will shine a light on how Scientology and other conspirators enabled and sought to cover up Masterson’s monstrous behavior.”

Jen B. described becoming weak and woozy after having a drink with Masterson, who she said brought her to his home and violently raped her, wielding a gun and suffocating her with a pillow.

N. Trout described a similar experience, saying Masterson isolated her at his house once she grew weak. She alleged he groped her and digitally penetrated her in a shower before raping her so violently that she vomited.

Masterson denied all wrongdoing. He did not testify at either trial, and his attorneys did not put forth a defense at the second trial. But across his cross-examinations and arguments, Cohen repeatedly noted that the prosecution had no way to corroborate any of the assaults and no evidence of drugging, while questioning if the victims were motivated by a bias against Scientology rather than anything Masterson had done.

In addition to the women’s allegations that Scientology officials discouraged them from reporting the rapes to police, the revelation that a church attorney obtained discovery materials in the case last month has sparked an LAPD investigation and allegations of impropriety from prosecutors.

The materials obtained by attorney Vicki Podberesky included redacted text messages exchanged between Masterson’s accusers and LAPD investigators, according to Mueller.

A hearing to determine how Podberesky got the materials was set to take place Wednesday morning but was rescheduled by Olmedo because deliberations were ongoing. That hearing is now expected to take place next week.

Podberesky said last month that she got the documents legally and did nothing wrong but declined to explain how they came into her possession. The church has not commented directly on that matter.

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