Feb 6, 2000
by THOMAS C. TOBIN;
Scientology critic Bob Minton and his staff are just the latest element added to the unique mix that is
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!" Bob Minton's resonant voice sounds
friendly, but the Scientologists don't return his greeting. Pumping a picket sign, Minton walks along
narrow Watterson Avenue, a downtown side street where uniformed staffers from the Church of
Scientology arrive by the hundreds for evening meals at two church dining halls.
"It's safe to look; it's
safe to talk," Minton shouts. "When you have problems with Scientology, call us at 467-9335!
Remember, that number could save your life! 467-9335. "Have a great dinner tonight!"
tells them: "Hit your knives and forks on the table and demand reforms now!" He urges the
unthinkable: Oust David Miscavige, Scientology's worldwide leader. He spies a Scientology security
guard across the street: "I hope one day we can be friends with each other!" The guard is all
business, reporting Minton's movements via cellular phone. Another Scientologist is just a few feet
away videotaping Minton. But the 53-year-old New England millionaire has hired his own
videographer, who captures the unusual street scene for later broadcast over an Internet Web site.
As for the hungry Scientology staffers: They hustle on and off church buses, never giving Minton so
much as a glance. It is a surreal moment, one of many that have unfolded in downtown Clearwater
since Minton arrived in early January to joust with the church full time.
In a move that has pierced
Scientology's comfort zone, Minton bought a building 30 feet from the church's stately property at
500 Cleveland St., the former Bank of Clearwater Building. With a paid staff of six, his mission, in
part, is to create a refuge for Scientologists who want to defect. His in-your-face strategy comes
across as extraordinarily bold to locals who have come to know Scientology as a church that does
not turn the other cheek. To them, it is a bit like whacking a bee hive then waiting around to be
swarmed. Minton has become one more curiosity in a downtown trying to shed its unconventional
image as Scientology's mecca, where hundreds in uniform crowd the streets and are shuttled around
in converted city buses.
But the added spectacle of Minton vs. the Scientologists couldn't come at a
worse time for city officials who are courting out- of-town developers and dreaming of a new
downtown waterfront, just two blocks west of Watterson. "We're going to have to deal with the
consequences of all this," laments City Manager Mike Roberto. "It is not a situation that brings a lot
of value or assets to the
Wherever there are Scientologists in
Clearwater, Bob Minton and his followers have been there:
church's Fort Harrison Hotel, holding picket signs. Scientology offices along Cleveland Street,
holding picket signs. A Scientology- sponsored 10K road race, holding picket signs. Even at the
annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast with members of Clearwater's black community. Three
members of Minton's staff sit one table away from Church of Scientology executives who regularly
attend such events.
Later that morning, the Minton staffers head back to their downtown
headquarters. As they park and feed the meters, a Scientology staffer with an earplug appears in a
doorway off Watterson Avenue, videotaping. Suddenly, Minton's videographer is there, too. He
draws his own camera and walks toward the Scientology staffer. If only it were high noon, the Wild
West image would be complete.
"They're here to create a conflict," complains Marty Rathbun, a top
Scientology official who is based in Los Angeles but lately is tied up in Clearwater. He says the
church is trying to ignore Minton, but adds: "I worry about this guy because he's deranged." No
Scientologist is interested in his message, Rathbun says.
Minton's crusade against the church began
more than two years ago after he learned about Scientology's efforts to keep critics from posting its
teachings on the Internet. As his involvement with church critics deepened, he quickly became a
target for Scientology counterattacks. A retired investment banker with undisclosed millions, Minton
began financing legal actions against Scientology, including a wrongful- death lawsuit filed by the
family of Lisa McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of
church staffers in Clearwater. Then in October, Minton formed the Lisa McPherson Trust, which
states its mission is "to expose the abusive and deceptive practices of Scientology and to help those
who have been victimized by it."
Minton says he wants the Clearwater group to educate the public
about Scientology, provide "exit counseling" for disaffected members and generally push
Scientologists into reforming their church. He says the trust's start-up brings to more than $3- million
the amount he has spent rattling Scientology's cage. "Clearly, we're trying to elicit responses from
church members," Minton says. "Yes, we're pushing buttons. And the buttons we're pushing are ones
the management of Scientology is very uncomfortable seeing pushed."
has responded in part by calling on Clearwater city officials for help. In late January, Roberto, the
city manager, paid a visit to Watterson Avenue, a one- way northbound street. His solution: change
its direction to southbound so Scientology staffers could step from church buses and disappear
behind the dining hall doors without seeing Minton. A city worker was on a ladder with a wrench in
hand, preparing to reverse the one-way sign, said Paul Bratsos, manager of Jimmy Hall's Steak
House, which has an entrance off Watterson. When Roberto walked over to ask Bratsos if the
change was okay with him, Bratsos said it would inconvenience longtime customers who drop off
their parties at the door. At that point, Bratsos said, church officials who accompanied Roberto
offered to pay for a carport for Jimmy Hall's. City officials offered to fashion a special parking zone
on public property for restaurant customers, and even put several parking meters out of commission.
When Bratsos declined, Roberto called off the impromptu street change.
"We were trying to find a
way of avoiding confrontations between the two groups," the city manager explains, "because
confrontations accomplish nothing." Still, Bratsos was struck by the apparent ease with which the
change was nearly accomplished. "I wouldn't have had the power to get that done," he says.
previous week, the city painted two white lines across a section of Watterson Avenue, creating a
zone where neither Minton nor his staff may walk while church buses load and unload. Also,
Scientology has hired off-duty police to monitor the dining hall entrance, but police Chief Sid Klein
says the officers will remain neutral if any disputes arise. Minton has complained, saying the lines are
another example of the city bending to Scientology's demands.
"We see it as maintaining peace,"
Klein says. "And if it takes two white lines to do that, then so be it. . . . If either side gets out of line
they're going to jail, no questions asked."
Scientology officials say Minton is unstable, citing three well-
publicized incidents in which he has lost his temper with church members who confronted him. In July
1998, Minton fired a shotgun into the air to scare off Scientologists who trespassed on his New
Hampshire farm and challenged him with questions about his personal life. In two other encounters,
including one on Halloween night in Clearwater, Minton has been charged with misdemeanor battery
on Scientologists. After the Halloween incident, a judge ordered Minton and his associates to stay at
least 10 feet away from church properties. He also ordered the Scientologist who provoked the
incident to stay 20 feet from Minton.
"Frankly, I'm afraid for people's lives," Rathbun says. "It seems
the more he's ignored, the more he flies off the handle." Minton has apologized for the physical
confrontations, which also have brought criticism from some of his allies on the Internet. But he
argues that Scientologists have baited him and overdramatized the incidents.
Meanwhile, the church
last month sent Scientologists to picket and spread leaflets about Minton near his homes in New
Hampshire and Boston. When Minton cries foul, church officials call him a hypocrite. The problem
for Scientology is that Minton and his Lisa McPherson Trust appear to be digging in for a long stay.
The new headquarters has five phone lines, a suite of offices with a conference room, equipment for
editing videotapes, five computers to maintain Internet contact, two paper shredders and living
quarters on the second floor. Most of the staff, including four former Scientologists, already has
moved to Clearwater.
Just a short stroll down Watterson Avenue, Rathbun, the church official, is
reviewing videotapes like a football coach on Monday morning. His jaw is clenched. He wears a
look of frustration and disgust as he plays video taken by church security. One Minton follower,
Grady Ward, is seen standing immediately outside the dining room door, saying, "No matter what
they tell you, we don't bite." Another, Patricia Greenway, yells across Watterson Avenue: "Free
telephone calls home!" Former Scientologist Jesse Prince, referring to Lisa McPherson's mysterious
death, calls one church security guard a murderer. Mark Bunker, the videographer, walks up to
another guard and says, "Welcome to Bob Minton City." Minton is seen circling an idling Scientology
bus on Watterson, the church's head of security walking with him. He is hoisting his picket sign up to
the bus windows. He is yelling over the engine noise, telling the occupants that L. Ron Hubbard, the
founder of Scientology, would never approve of the church's current management.
Rathbun stops the
tape and says with disdain: "So he's L. Ron Hubbard's friend now?" It's harassment, he says. "This is
demeaning. Like you're some kind of cult or something."
Mike in the middle
Minton also is a problem
for Mike Roberto, who is trying to engineer a downtown renaissance, in part with a marketing
strategy that portrays Scientology's dominating presence as a positive economic factor. Meanwhile,
Minton and his staff say they have been welcomed by residents and business people who have
offered to help. The night of Jan. 20, city commissioners listened stoically as Minton showed up at
City Hall to publicly accuse Roberto and his staff of being "too cozy" with the church, which has
battled controversy since coming to Clearwater in 1975. He called it a "dangerous coalition," alleging
City Hall had asked local landlords not to rent office space to the trust.
Snubbed by leasing agents,
Minton bought his new building at 33 N Fort Harrison Ave. on Jan. 5 for $325,000 from local
accountant Scott Brauer. When church officials tried to intercede with a $600,000 counteroffer,
Brauer turned them down, saying he would honor his handshake deal with Minton.
Brauer also took
a call that night from Roberto, which he took as a subtle, if tardy, attempt to stop the sale. Roberto
defends his call, saying he simply asked about the sale "because I realized we were going to have to
deal with the situation." He says he has not taken sides in the dispute between Scientology and its
critics, but added that his practice of talking with all parties is misinterpreted as favoritism.
to deal with that from the beginning," says Roberto, who became city manager in 1997. "I think the
failure of this community has been to just say, '(Scientology) is a liability. Let's walk away from it.' "
Caption: New England millionaire Bob Minton pickets Scientology church followers and their public
Scientologists arrive for lunch in Clearwater. The white lines on Watterson Avenue show
where Minton's group isn't allowed to go.;
(1997) Robert; Minton;
(1998) Marty Rathburn;
Roberto; Photo: COLOR PHOTO, JILL SAGERS; BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO, JIM
DAMASKE; BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO, Times files; BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO,