Keith Henson, American activist on the run in Canada, thinks the controversial Church of Scientology has made him fair game for dirty tricks Looking back, maybe the joke about the "Tom Cruise Missile" wasn't such a good idea.
That online jest, made last year by Keith Henson, a peaceful if persistent critic of the controversial Church of Scientology, has led to his being found guilty of "intimidating a religion," and now on the run from the U.S., hiding out in plain sight in Oakville, a Toronto suburb, where he plans on claiming political-refugee status.
His case has shone a light on Scientology, a vaguely well-known organization founded by a middling science-fiction writer that maintains humans are tainted with the spirits of space aliens and that critics claim is simply a global scam to separate the needy from their money.
Like Waco and Jonestown, this case raises issues of how far freedom of religion goes and just how far a so-called religion can go to protect itself and its members from its dissidents.
"It's not that I care one way or the other about their beliefs," said Henson this week just after news of his flight hit the net. "If they want to believe in space cooties, galactic overlords or virgin birth, that's their problem. The problem is when they viciously violate my right to free speech." Keith Henson arrived at the place he calls Gold Base almost by accident.
Last May, the fiftysomething computer engineer from Silicon Valley was passing through the small village of Hemet, California, east of Los Angeles, and decided to check out Scientology's Golden Era film studios. "They acted so guilty when I started picketing - papering over the windows, going undercover, buying thousands of plants to block the view - that I stayed."
For Henson, semiprofessional agitator and longtime Scientology foe, July 8, 2000, unfolded like many others: some picketing of Golden Era, then onto the internet to post his activities. For Henson and many anti-Scientologists, the internet is not just a means to get their word out but a symbol and catalyst of their fight. In 1995 when a Scientologist tried to shut down the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology because it had become a hangout for critics and ex-Scientologists who had a nasty habit, to current Scientologists, of posting top-secret - and, for Scientologists, very expensive to obtain - internal documents.
"I had a 25-year history of being concerned with human-rights problems, like civil rights and Vietnam," said Henson. Trying to shut down the newsgroup "was the wake-up call for all of us. Most of the people now involved came in then. It was like they were a gang of thugs riding into town and burning down the newspaper. It got the attention of a lot of people."
But that day, Henson went a bit further than usual, taking on a faux-Austin Powers tone, posting the GPS co-ordinates for various landmarks on Gold Base, and ending up with the now infamous threat: The Tom Cruise Missile that said the only way to "get clear of the Scientology mess is to 'destroy them utterly.'"
Across the country, in the slightly seedy town of Clearwater, Florida, none of this surprises Stacy Brooks. Brooks, head of the anti-Scientologist group The Lisa McPherson Trust, is sitting in a dingy office on the main street of Clearwater, which is ground zero to Scientology's push to grow and expand.
In 1975, after a number of years at sea battling the American IRS over tax matters, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard came aground in Clearwater. Since then, the group has bought up much of the private property of the town, in the hopes of founding the first Scientology community. "Most people are very afraid of Scientology and what they're doing," says Brooks. "Downtown Clearwater is a ghost town, because no one wants to be here. The Scientologists are very frightening."
As the head of the trust - named after a Scientologist who died in controversial circumstances while under the care of the organization - Brooks has seen both sides now. "I was in Scientology myself and had been at a really high level," she says, "and I know what a fraud it is."
She and her husband left the organization in 1989 - "or should I say we escaped" - but didn't start speaking out until 1993, after a 1991 Time magazine cover exposť shone a harsh light on the workings of Scientology, calling it "the cult of greed."
After Brooks met with two attorneys planning to sue Scientology, she says she became a target. Scientology "had parabolic mics on our windows, trying to get us evicted. They poisoned one of my cats. They sent people trying to commit us as insane. Scientology had us under surveillance, monitoring our conversations, going through our trash," she charges.
"I had no idea, even being in the church, what they were capable of doing. We were fair game." Brooks is not alone. In the past, Scientology has devoted not a small percentage of its vast resources to silence its critics; they use lawsuits, rumour and insult to harass or bankrupt.
In 1995, Freedom, a Scientology publication, called the Cult Awareness Network, a leading anti-Scientology group, "The Serpent of Hatred, Intolerance, Violence and Death" and its head, Cynthia Kisser, the "mother of the serpent." The publication alleged she had previously been a stripper, according to a 1999 article in the New Times L.A. alt-weekly. In 1996, CAN went bankrupt from lawsuits filed by Scientology, and is now controlled by the organization.
Richard Behar, the author of the Time story that blew the lid off many of Scientology's practices, described in a sidebar to that story the tricks he put up with. He alleges Scientology got a hold of his credit record, financial information and personal phone bill and had a watch on his New York apartment, and that "at least ten attorneys and six private detectives were unleashed by Scientology in an effort to threaten, harass and discredit me."
Stacy Brooks believes these are not isolated incidents, but the result of one of L. Ron Hubbard's earliest orders, called "fair game." In 1967, Hubbard issued the fair-game policy, which said that opponents "may be deprived of property or injured by any means, by any Scientologist. He may be tricked, sued, lied to, or destroyed utterly." In essence, the policy can be described as the best defense being a good offense. Brooks says fair game is a way to defend the organization from its critics by targeting those critics by any means necessary. "Never agree to an investigation of Scientology, only an investigation of the attackers," she says, reading from a pile of Hubbard directives she keeps by her desk. "Start feeding lurid blood, sex and crime tales to the press."
One of the best examples of how Scientology defends itself went down in Toronto in the mid 1980s. In 1977, the Ontario Medical Association - the group that governs the province's doctors - asked the College of Physicians and Surgeons to investigate whether the Scientologists' use of e-meters and personality tests - both core Scientology so-called technologies used to recruit and audit members - meant they were practicing medicine without a license. That kicked off a conflict that later saw the Toronto police raid the organization's downtown headquarters, cart off millions of pages of documents, and lay bare the Scientologists' campaign to fight the OMA and the Ontario government.
In March, 1983, three buses of cops raided the offices and, from the pile of documents, Scientology and 18 people were later charged with infiltrating two law firms, the College of Physicians, the OMA, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Metro Toronto Police, the Attorney General of Ontario and the RCMP. Almost ten years later, Scientology and some of the people were found guilty of some charges, and ordered to pay $250,000.
After losing in court, Scientology then went after a court officer. Scientology sued Casey Hill, the prosecutor, claiming he misled a judge and tampered with documents. The case was dismissed, and Hill sued for libel; in 1991, he won $2.1-million in damages, the largest libel award ever in Canada. "Scientology decided that Casey Hill was the enemy and it set out to destroy him," the court ruled. "It levelled false charges against him. It persecuted him on these charges. In summary, the evidence suggests that Scientology set upon a persistent course of character assassination over a period of seven years with the intention of destroying Casey Hill."
From her office in Clearwater, Stacy Brooks said, dryly, "It seems that Henson is in the process of being destroyed utterly," echoing the words of the Ontario judges, Keith Henson and L. Ron Hubbard. After posting his Tom Cruise Missile Threat, Henson logged off the net and picketed again the next day. His words would soon be turned back on him. Sources in Hemet speculate Scientology pressured the local district attorney into moving against Henson and prosecuting him because of his threat.
Two weeks later, a Scientologist tried a citizen's arrest on Henson while he was picketing. Finally, in September, 2000, he was arraigned on three charges, one of "intimidation/threat/oppress because of colour/religion/gender"; one of terrorist threats, and one of attempt of a terrorist threat.
It was not the first time Henson's run-ins with the organization landed in a courtroom. In mid-1995, Henson posted six lines of Scientology text - one about how to communicate with plants and animals, another from a secret Scientology manual called NOTS 34 - and was later sued by the organization for copyright infringement. "I was successfully sued, at enormous cost to them," he points out, almost gleefully, over the phone. "I didn't spend hardly anything on it," he boasts, "I declared bankruptcy."
But he couldn't wiggle this time. On April 26, after a near-disaster of a defense - in which all of the passages that would indicate Henson's threat was little more than a sophomoric joke were barred - the jury found Henson guilty of the first indictment - intimidation - and hung on the other two counts.
On May 15, Henson came north to the Toronto suburban home of Gregg Hagglund, another anti-Scientologist, to - what else - do some picketing. Shortly thereafter, he decided to stay and skip out on sentencing. While the Hemet district attorney's office estimates that the sentence for his misdemeanour crime may amount to five years of parole, a fine, and maybe a year in the county jail, Henson says he faces harassment, or worse, from Scientology convicts in the system. Plus, he seems to relish the idea of trying to turn his strange case into an international incident.
"The point of this whole business is to expose Scientology so they reform internally, or have reform forced on it, or it is destroyed utterly. Not one stone left upon another and salt in the fields," he declares, with Hagglund whispering something unintelligible in his ear.
Since the verdict and the flight, pro-Scientology netizens - none of whom responded to repeated email contacts - have charged Henson with all manner of evil, from outright cowardice at not staying for sentencing, to child molestation, to homicide and driving around with the victim's frozen head in the trunk of his car.
"Similar to the Tim McVeighs of the world, he's a man who would blow himself up to make a point," said Ken Hoden, general manager of Golden Era. "It did come out during the trial that Henson has taught kids how to make pipe bombs; has an extensive history of setting off explosives similar to those that blew up the Oklahoma building; that he stalked church buses; intimidated church staff. And as a result of this, a jury of ten men and women found him guilty of a hate crime."
Henson denies the charges, and says his explosives days were years ago, when his family set off big bangs in the desert for fun. Hoden curtly denied the organization has a policy of "fair game," and says the church is the real victim of a hateful madman. "Just like there have been people who have attacked the Jews and the blacks, I don't think you can get a logical answer for his insanity." You think he's crazy? "Oh yes. And very dangerous, too."
It all started when L. Ron Hubbard, Second World War vet, pulp sci-fi writer, founder of Scientology, published Dianetics in 1950. Sometimes subtitled a "user's manual for the brain," Dianetics is a New-Agey type self-help manual wrapped around the crude psychotherapeutic theory called "auditing."
Using a Hubbard-designed "e-meter" - a crude lie detector that measures electrical resistance on the skin - subjects talk about their intimate life. Hubbard claimed that unhappiness was the result of "engrams" or mental aberrations that could be cleared with the help of the e-meter. In the early '60s, Hubbard declared that humans contain "thetans," the spirits of space aliens brought to earth about 75 million years ago by a galactic overlord named Xenu.
The drive to clear believers of thetans through auditing - and thus improve them individually and humanity in general - forms the basis of Scientology. To do that, Scientologists pay for hours and hours of increasingly expensive auditing and buy taped lectures from Hubbard, books, and other Scientology paraphernalia all to progress up the Hubbard-defined "bridge."
Although Hubbard died a virtual recluse in 1985, deemed a "pathological liar" by a California judge, the organization he founded now spans the globe, counts some of the world's biggest celebs as its adherents and spokespeople, and has its hands in a number of social and political pies. Scientology claims over eight million members in over 65 different countries around the globe, including famous faces like John Travolta - who, Time Magazine reported in 1991, cannot leave the church for fear of the information the church has on his sexual habits - Tom Cruise, Beck, and even Nancy Cartwright, the voice of noted iconoclast Bart Simpson.
In addition to the church, Scientology owns or controls publishing houses that churn out the L. Ron oeuvre, organizations to reform and recruit drug addicts and criminals - Criminon and Narconon, not to be confused with Narcotics Anonymous - a multimillion-dollar film studio, and even the Cult Awareness Network, once a rabid critic of Hubbard's church, driven out of business by the church through lawsuits, and bought at bankruptcy auction by a Scientologist.
The church has also bought much of the private property in Clearwater, Florida, in the aim of establishing the first all-Scientology city.