A crusader sees evil in Florida
Scientology: A millionaire opens a center in Clearwater, Fla., a hub of the religion,
to battle what he calls a dangerous cult.
By Jean Marbella, Sun National Staff
January 19, 2000
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It's a modest, two-story office building in a sleepy downtown. But for
Bob Minton, it is the field office for nothing less than a war for the heart and soul of
this quiet coastal city.
"We're going to liberate Clearwater," Minton declares.
Whether Clearwater needs liberating is open to debate. But after about 25 years of
serving, often uneasily, as one of the Church of Scientology's most important bases in the
country, Clearwater finds itself once again drawn into a battle over the controversial
Minton, 53, is a retired millionaire from New England who has protested and funded
lawsuits against the church, which he says is a cult that has destroyed members' lives and
trampled on the civil rights of its opponents.
Early this month, he brought his fight to the heart of the church's Clearwater operations
by opening a center here to provide information on the group and provide "exit
counseling" for members who want to leave.
The church, founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and perhaps best
known for such celebrity members as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, has drawn many
detractors over the years -- from disenchanted former adherents to the Internal Revenue
The IRS fought a decadeslong battle with the church before finally restoring its
tax-exempt status as a religion.
But it perhaps has never come up against someone like Minton, who could be dismissed as
just another gadfly but for the fact that he seems willing to put considerable money where
his mouth is.
To date, Minton estimates he has spent $2.5 million on his crusade.
"The only difference between me and any other critic," Minton says, "is I
was fortunate enough to make some money to be able to retire earlyand fight these
Church officials have fought back: Pickets have descended on Minton's various homes to
denounce him as a religious bigot, and he says his family and friends have been harassed.
The church sought to block the center from opening by offering the seller of the building
twice the $325,000 that Minton paid.
"They're here only for one purpose, to harass Scientology," says Mike Rinder, a
spokesman for the church. "It's an escalation of his campaign."
Named for Scientologist
The center is named the Lisa McPherson Trust, to memorialize a Scientologist who died here
four years ago while in the care of fellow church members.
The church faces criminal charges in connection with McPherson's death, and Minton has
helped to fund a family member's civil suit against Scientology. Both cases are scheduled
to come to trial this year.
The case has created much turmoil in Clearwater.
Opponents of the church, including Minton, have picketed Scientology buildings to keep
McPherson's case in the public eye. Scientologists have picketed the Clearwater Police
Department and the St. Petersburg Times newspaper for its treatment of the church.
The church, founded in 1954, has long been controversial.
Its philosophy is part sci-fi, part self-help: Hubbard wrote that people are spirits who
were banished to Earth 75 million years ago by an evil galactic ruler and need to be
"cleared" of problems and ailments that they've picked up in previous lives by
going through a series of "auditing" sessions with a trained counselor.
Critics say Scientology is actually a business that coerces members to spend tens of
thousands of dollars on its literature and to go through auditing.
The IRS revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1967, reversing the decision 26 years
later only after a costly battle in which Scientology launched numerous lawsuits and its
own investigation and infiltration of the federal agency.
A rough beginning
Scientology has also had a tumultuous time with Clearwater officials. The city and the
church have sparred from the beginning.
"They came in under cover," said Rita Garvey, a former mayor and commissioner.
"That was not a good way of starting off."
Scientology bought its first building in Clearwater, the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel, in
1975 under a pseudonym, United Churches of Florida. Documents seized in an FBI raid of
Scientology properties elsewhere would reveal that the church arrived with plans "for
taking control of key points in the Clearwater area" by infiltrating the government,
police, media and other institutions.
Outraged officials held investigative hearings in 1982 to find out more about the church
that had settled in their midst. The city subsequently passed an ordinance requiring
strict recordkeeping and disclosure methods for religious and charitable groups, but the
church sued and ultimately got the law overturned as unconstitutional.
Properties worth $40 million
The church continued to buy properties around town and now owns more than 30, valued at
about $40 million. The church has begun construction of a giant training and counseling
building that when completed will be downtown's largest structure.
Even without the new building, Scientology is a visible presence here, where the church's
uniformed staffers seem to fill downtown sidewalks at lunchtime when they emerge from
various buildings for lunch.
The church says about 10,000 members live in the Clearwater area. (The city has a
population of just over 100,000.) And, the church says, on any given day, 1,500 to 2,000
are visiting here to take religious courses and training programs.
Church officials say Clearwater is second only to Los Angeles as a base for their
operations. The church has annual revenue of more than $70 million from its Clearwater
operations, according to one document in the IRS case.
But while the city has had its battles with the church in the past, both sides appear to
be trying to ease tensions. For one thing, both are interested in seeing downtown
"You can't plan for downtown development without them," says Mike Meidel,
president of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, "so let's include them in our plans
for the future.
"Scientology has been here so long, we're kind of getting used to it," he says.
"Maybe people just got tired of beating their heads against the wall. It's quieted
down; the days of marching and picketing are over, I hope."
Some fear Minton's new center, though, will serve only to renew those tensions -- and with
good reason. The blunt-speaking Minton plans to continue getting in the church's face.
"I'm as close to the anti-Christ as you can get," Minton boasts of his standing
A matter of free speech
Minton's crusade against Scientology began, he says, as a free-speech action.
Minton, who retired in 1992, says he learned of the church's attempt to kill an Internet
newsgroup, alt.religion.scientology, about five years ago. The newsgroup is dominated by
former members and other detractors who criticize the church and sometimes publish its
secret documents. Groups devoted to the free flow of information on the Internet, such as
the Electronic Frontier Foundation that Minton is a member of, rose up in protest.
Minton says he became alarmed at what he says are the church's destructive tactics against
opponents. Critics' homes have been raided and computer equipment seized, for example, as
part of a Scientology suit for copyright infringement over documents published on the
Minton himself has had run-ins with church members over the years. Minton was charged with
misdemeanor battery in October after scuffling with a church member during a picket
outside the Fort Harrison Hotel. A judge ordered Minton and the member he struck to keep
their distance from each other.
In July 1998, Minton fired a shotgun in the air after he says Scientology pickets
trespassed on his weekend home in New Hampshire. Minton says he was angered that the
pickets were yelling that he was having an affair with his guest that weekend, Stacy
Brooks, a former church member with whom he has been working on anti-Scientology efforts.
Minton has since confirmed that he and Brooks are romantically involved and he has
separated from his wife. Still, he says, his personal life should have no bearing on his
fight against Scientology.
"He started it," Rinder, the Scientology spokesman, says simply. "He wants
to picket us, but claims he's being harassed when Scientologists protest against
Rinder says Minton's Lisa McPherson center can only hurt the improving relations between
the city and the church. He declined, however, to discuss the McPherson case, saying it is
a pending legal matter.
Death among friends
Scientology's critics say McPherson's fate is emblematic of the dangers the church poses
to its members. In the last two years of her life, she had spent nearly $100,000 on
Scientology courses. In November 1995, after a minor traffic accident, she suddenly took
off all her clothes and told paramedics she wanted help.
She was taken to a hospital, but she refused psychiatric treatment after a group of
Scientologists showed up to meet her. According to court documents, they took her to the
Fort Harrison Hotel, which serves as a retreat for the church. After 17 days in which she
was occasionally hallucinating, vomiting and striking out at her attendants, McPherson
The medical examiner said the cause was a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and
bed rest. McPherson had lost an estimated 47 pounds during her time at the hotel, and her
body was bruised and scratched with cockroach bites.
The church was charged with abuse of a disabled adult and illegal practice of medicine.
The trial is scheduled for October.