CLEARWATER -- Mention of the name Merrell
Vannier prompts interesting reactions in Clearwater
legal and social circles these days: throats clear
loudly, eyebrows furrow and, sometimes, cheeks
Vannier is remembered as a mild-mannered and likeable man by those who know him as an attorney and local Jaycee member in 1976 and 1977. He is described as outgoing when it came to making new friends but curiously protective of his personal life.
Last week Merrell George Vannier, now 32, was accused
of being a Church of Scientology spy in a lawsuit filed -by former mayor Gabriel Cazares, whom Vannier represented in battles with the church.
Vannier's former legal and social compatriots took the news with responses ranging from anger to laughter. Some joked that their suspicions about the mysterious Vannier were confirmed, while others felt betrayed. Partners of the law firm Vannier worked for, are embarrassed and am reluctant to publicly discuss the matter.
While them is no hard evidence that Vannier was a secret agent for Scientology, suspicion mounts with a look into his activities here. And law enforcement officials are interested in those activities as well.
In Tampa, a federal grand jury investigating local Scientology activities has subpoenaed Vannier according to reliable sources. The FBI confirms it has looked into his affairs, and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell says Vannier has entered into his overall investigation regarding Scientology.
In Los Angeles, a woman answering the phone at Vannier's last known address says she is a Scientologist and Vannier is too, But the woman. Mrs. Gregory Elmo, said this week that Vannier moved
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recently and she doesn't know where he now lives.
In Missouri, a man calling himself Cleveland Vannier says his brother Merrill used to be a Scientologist but isn't one any more. Cleveland said this week he doesn't know where Merrell is.
Cazares's lawyers, Walt Logan and Tony Cunningham, are in the process of tracking down Vannier to have him served with a copy of the $1.5 million lawsuit alleging he was part of a Scientology-inspired legal harassment campaign against Cazares.
"It's more difficult finding him than we imagined," Logan said.
Vannier's activities in Clearwater are not easy to document either - memories are clouded and some old friends won't discuss it.
It appears, however, that coming to Clearwater was part of Vamier's plans since admission to the Missouri Bar in September 1975 . Several months later, he decided
to leave the fledgling firm of. Kirby and Vannier in
Raytown, Mo., and apply for a Job as Clearwater's
assistant city attorney.
Vannier's former partner, Clifford Kirby Jr., would not disclose why Vannier picked Clearwater. "I know very little, and what little I know I don't care to discuss," he said.
In late 1975, about the time the Church of Scientology
was establishing itself in Clearwater and its officials
were drafting plans to "take control" of the city, Vannier
wrote City Attorney Tom Bustin and said he was interested in the assistant's job and would be taking the
Florida Bar exam in February 1976. Bustin said he
needed someone to fill the job sooner than that.
After coming to Clearwater with his wife, Francis, and
daughter Vannier tried for a job with the Pinellas-
Pasco State Attorneys office. That office was a 'prime
target for Scientology infiltration, according to FBI-
seized sect documents released by federal courts.
Vannier was turned down for an assistant state
attorney's post, but convinced one senior prosecutor to
let him "hang around" the St. Petersburg office as part of a "learning experience." At least that's how State Attorney James Russell remembers Vannier's brief stay.
But if Vannier was a spy, Russell hastens to add, "He was in the wrong office," Russell said Vannier frequented the Petersburg office for about two weeks,
but he isn't sure of the exact dates.
In the summer of 1976, the still-jobless Vannier made a
diligent effort to find work at the law firm of Fowler,
White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal & Banker, which was representing the Clearwater Sun in libel suits filed against it by the Church of Scientology.
Attorneys at Fowler, White recall that the then 28 year - Vannier literally "camped out" In the reception room , attempting to get an interview.
Vannier wanted to see Hugh Smith, the attorney handling the Sun litigation. Although Vannier had been told by the firm that no jobs were available, he told smith he would work with him for free. In an Aug. 18, 1976, letter to Smith, Vannier wrote: "My persistence is not aimed at annoying you .... I really want to work for your firm." Smith declined the offer of free services.
Vannier's wife Frances, meanwhile, was having better luck finding volunteer and paying positions. She joined the campaign staff of Gabe Cazares, who was attempting a bid for Congress in early 1976. Then she found a secretarial job at the law firm of Baynard, Lang, Ballard & McLeod, which represented the St. Petersburg Times.
Reports on activities of the campaign and the law firm are included in court-released Scientology documents
Vannier eventually found a A at the Clearwater law firm of Phillips, McFarland, Gould, Wilhelm & Wagstaff, but not as an attorney. Partner Norris Gould hired him as a part time law clerk in September 1976, other partners recall. It was an "unusual arrangement," one firm member says, stemming from Vannier's persistence in wanting a job of any kind.
Vannier worked his way up to become a full time
attorney, handling personal injury litigation. He joined
the Sparkling City Jaycees - small group dedicated to
downtown growth -- and the the larger Clearwater Jaycees. He began mingling with Clearwater attorneys such as Raymond Gross , Michael Stuckey and Patrick Doherty, becoming a lunchtime regular and partner in darts and cards on Friday afternoons.
Doherty was representing Gabe and Maggie Cazares in their libel suits against the Church of Scientology and in the sect's lawsuit against them. By January 1977, Doherty and the Cazareses had developed "irreconcilable differences" - the nature of which are still unclear today - and the then - mayor sought a new attorney.
Cazares picked Merrell Vannier, whom he had met through Mrs. Vannier's work on Cazares's congressional campaign.
Cazares says he was having trouble finding any other attorney to handle his litigation and Vannier seemed competent and trustworthy, if somewhat persistent in seeking the job.
Cazares also knew Vannier through the Clearwater Jaycees; Vannier was captain of the Clearwater group's softball team.
Walt Logan, Cazares's current attorney, sums up
Vannier's handling of the Scientology litigation this
"Anything good for Cazares, Vannier didn't do."
The Cazareses were advised to drop their suits against the sect in May 1977; the sect has kept its 1976 lawsuit against the former mayor in the courts.
And not long afterward, Merrell and Frances Vannier were gone. Jaycees remember that Vannier left their softball team in the late spring. "We started winning then," recalled one.
Records at Phillips, show Vannier went off the payroll in October 1977, according to one partner. Members of the firm are unwilling to discuss his departure publicly, saying that while the whole affair has meant bad public relations, they don't feel anyone is to blame.
"It came as a complete surprise to us that he may have been a Scientologist, says one partner. "What more can we say. "
Other attorneys say jokingly that the firm should have been suspicious when Vannier left so abruptly.
"He even forgot to take his diploma off the wall," notes one.
Webmaster Notes: The pattern described above about Vannier, should be compared to the strange events surrounding Scientology, Bob Minton, the LMT and the Lisa Mcpherson case. Scientology can not change. "We will never do that" (change) said Mike Rinder to this webmaster. in December 1995.
More Articles by reporter Richard Leiby