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Testimony: Church of Scientology spurred critic's arrest

May 23, 2001

CLEARWATER - For months, a high-profile attorney for a prominent critic of the Church of Scientology has tried to show the church is behind a minor drug charge against his client.

Now, on the eve of Jesse Prince's trial on a misdemeanor charge of growing marijuana, defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming has hit what he considers pay dirt.

Pinellas County Judge Michael Andrews still must decide whether jurors get to hear how private detectives working for the church shadowed Prince for months before succeeding in having him charged with growing a marijuana plant on his deck.

The prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney Lydia Wardell, has said the involvement of the private detectives is irrelevant. Wardell needs only the testimony of a Largo police sergeant who, with the help of church detectives, twice visited Prince in his home before obtaining a search warrant for the plant.

During a series of hotly contested hearings, de Vlaming has locked horns with a private lawyer who denied working for the church. Lawyer Paul D. Johnson, who acknowledged his uncle Paul B. Johnson has long acted as a church attorney, maintained he was only working for the private detectives, who sought to avoid being questioned by de Vlaming.

The judge allowed the questioning, and at closed-door depositions May 15 another lawyer explained the church's involvement to Andrews.

The private detectives work for her firm, Moxon & Kobrin, lawyer Helena Kobrin told the judge. Moxon & Kobrin is involved in a civil case involving allegations of wrongful death, she said.

Upon further questioning by Andrews, Kobrin acknowledged what de Vlaming has been alleging all along. Moxon & Kobrin, a Los Angeles law firm, represents the church.

The estate of church member Lisa McPherson has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the church in Pinellas. Prince, a former church official now employed by a group that is critical of the church, is listed as an expert witness in the wrongful death case, Kobrin said.

``Our contention is that he is in no way shape or form qualified to be an expert witness,'' Kobrin said, according to a transcript of one of the May 15 depositions.

Largo police Sgt. Howard Crosby testified he quickly learned of the church's involvement after a private detective accused Prince of being a marijuana and cocaine dealer. ``From Day One ... when they told me who these people were that were involved and what's going on, I just wanted to get rid of this case as quickly as possible,'' Crosby said.

After Prince's August 2000 arrest on the misdemeanor cultivation charge, the private detective suggested additional charges of sale or possession of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, because a school was near Prince's home, and child abuse, because two children lived in the home, Crosby said.

``And I said, `A marijuana plant on the back porch? I'm not going to go there.' ''

Jury selection is today in the drug case.