We do not want Scientology to be reported in the press, or anywhere else than on the religious page of newspapers. It is destructive of word of mouth to permit the public presses to express their biased and badly reported sensationalism. Therefore, we should be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest chance so as to discourage the public presses from
–L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986)
The city of Clearwater, Florida is known for its picturesque beaches and central location just northwest of St Petersburg and across the bay from Tampa. It’s a modern, diverse metropolis of a little over 110,000 people and serves as the seat of Pinellas County.
But back in the 1970s, Clearwater became an unwitting participant in the worldwide dealings of the Church of Scientology.
Scientology — the controversial new religious movement founded by prolific science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard — began to shift gears in the late 1960s and early 70s. Hubbard himself had drawn significant interest from various federal agencies in the US, including the FBI, the IRS and the FDA. In 1966, he publicly resigned as the church’s executive director and formed what he called the Sea Org, which operated a fleet of ships and attempted to establish Scientology strongholds around the world. While at sea, Hubbard began developing Scientology doctrine beyond his original magnum opus book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. He attempted to flee to both France and the UK, but was denied visas in both countries.
Hubbard eventually returned to the US in the mid-70s but became extremely paranoid. Hoping to enact his own personal vendetta against the US government, he started several plots to infiltrate various federal agencies with practicing Scientologists and then destroy them by any means necessary.
Hubbard called it Operation Snow White, and it grew to include theft of official documents, wiretapping and infiltration of over 136 government agencies, foreign embassies and consulates. The goal was simply to purge any and all information that was critical of either Hubbard or Scientology itself.
One of the biggest con-jobs that Scientologists pulled was taking over a historic hotel in Clearwater and making it the new worldwide headquarters of the church.
The Fort Harrison Hotel was named for the eponymous US Army fort that was built nearby during the Seminole War in the 1830s and later named for William Henry Harrison, a hero of said war and the future President of the United States. The hotel opened in 1926 and was originally owned by Ransom Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile. But after Olds’s death in 1950, the hotel gradually began to deteriorate. By the time Scientology arrived, the building was a shell of its former self.
The Church of Scientology — under the fake titles of the “United Churches of Florida, Inc” and the “Southern Land Development and Leasing Corporation” — purchased the hotel themselves in 1975. The following year, the local paper, the St. Petersburg Times, revealed that it was actually the church that had bought the property.
Today, the hotel is known as “Flag Land Base” and is considered Scientology’s own Mecca. It houses church visitors and parishioners who are in town for “auditing” — the Scientology term for counseling and training in an attempt to “free the mind” of all reactive and reactionary thought. This will ostensibly give the Scientologist the state of “clear.” The hotel was the home for the Sea Org for many years.
Clearwater’s then-mayor, Gabe Cazares, was a World War II veteran who had won a narrow and surprising victory in 1975. Even though he wasn’t a Florida native, Cazares was popular among senior citizens and working-class Hispanic voters and wasn’t afraid to butt heads with local officials on important issues. When the Scientologists arrived, the outspoken mayor had a new fight on his hands.
The Church of Scientology had told Cazares that they were an ecumenical religious non-profit hoping to improve the ethics and morality in the city. Cazares was almost immediately suspicious that a group of Los Angeles church people would travel all the way across the country to promote moral values. He began investigating the “United Churches of Florida” and soon discovered that all the group’s leaders were Scientologists and had lied about their credentials. He found the same when he investigated the so-called Southern Land Development Leading Corporation.
Thanks to an FBI raid in 1977 that uncovered previously confidential church documents, it was revealed that the purchase of the Fort Harrison Hotel was part of Project Normandy, which in the church’s own words, was intended to “obtain enough data on the Clearwater area to be able to determine what groups and individuals we will need to penetrate and handle in order to establish area control. Our major target is to fully investigate the Clearwater city and county area so that we can distinguish our friends from our enemies and handle as needed.”
Cazares didn’t mince words. He publicly said that the Church of Scientology was trying to take over the city and claimed that the whole project was “a paramilitary operation by a terrorist group.”
Almost immediately — to the shock of no one — the Church of Scientology sued Cazares for $1 million. The mayor and his wife counter-sued for $1.5 million, and an aggressive smearing campaign ensued. Scientology attempted to frame Cazares for having an extramarital affair and staged a fake hit-and-run accident. In the same FBI raid on the hotel, agents found Scientology plans to infiltrate and take over all media in the Tampa-St. Pete area, while slamming Cazares and derogatorily referring to him as “Speedy Gonzalez.”
Cazares resigned as mayor in 1978 and was elected county commissioner two years later. He also attempted two unsuccessful Congressional campaigns and later retired from politics for good in the 1990s. The two parties finally settled out of court in 1986 — the same year as L. Ron Hubbard’s death — although Cazares remained vehement in his criticisms of Scientology. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 86.
Local media keen on breaking a juicy Scientology story didn’t fare much better. The chairman of the St. Petersburg Times, Nelson Poynter, was falsely accused by the church of being an undercover CIA agent. Reporter Mark Sableman was accused of molesting an underage boy.
Since Scientologists took over the Fort Harrison Hotel, there have been at least three suspicious deaths and numerous other disturbing incidents on the premises:
- Scientology whistle-blower Hannah Whitefield spent months living in what she described as “prison-like” conditions at Flag Land Base. She did hard labor and construction work for slave wages for 14 hours per day. Actress Leah Remini, another prominent ex-Scientologist, described similar abusive conditions when she was a teenager attempting to qualify for the Sea Org in the late 70s.
- In February 1980, a Scientologist named Joe Havenith was found dead at the Fort Harrison — in a bathtub of boiling water hot enough to have burned his skin off. The official cause of death was a drowning, even though Havenith’s head was never submerged below the surface.
- In August 1988, Heribert Pfaff died of a seizure in his hotel room. He had been told to stop taking his anti-seizure meds while taking Scientology courses in favor of vitamin supplements.
- Lisa McPherson had become a Scientologist shortly after graduating high school and worked for a publishing company that was owned by Scientologists. In June of 1995, McPherson was placed in a special monitoring program after the church accused her of mental instability. In December 1995, McPherson died in Room 174 of the Fort Harrison. Two years later, a Scientology spokesperson stated — and then immediately retracted — a statement saying that McPherson had died in the hotel, not on the way to the hospital. The official cause of death was a blood clot caused by bedrest and dehydration. McPherson had been trapped in the room for 17 straight days. The Church of Scientology was charged for two felonies, including negligent homicide, but charges were eventually dropped and the state medical examiner was forced to change it to an accidental death in June 2000. Four years later, the Church of Scientology settled out of court with McPherson’s family.
- In 1997 alone, local police received over 160 emergency calls from the Fort Harrison — and every time, they were denied access to the building by security.
As for actual indictments, eleven Scientologists, including L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, were convicted of obstruction of justice, burglary of federal facilities, and theft of government property on August 15, 1978. The Church of Scientology was also forced to settle out of court with Paulette Cooper, a journalist who had published a scathing expose called The Scandal of Scientology in 1971.
Hubbard himself was never indicted for any federal crime thanks to his ongoing disappearing act. He fled to southern California, wrote some more sci-fi books, and continued to be heavily involved with Scientology. Suffering from chronic health problems, Hubbard passed away of a stroke on January 24, 1986 at the age of 74. Since his death, the church has been led by Hubbard’s protege, David Miscavige, who’s been embroiled in his own controversies.
According to Tracy McManus, one of the reporters that published the Pulitzer-winning story in the St. Pete Times, the Church of Scientology still owns about 60 buildings in the city of Clearwater, and added new properties as recently as 2017. McManus is still extremely concerned about the local impact the religion is having and feels a responsibility to continue uncovering the truth.
“It’s also the only religious group I’m aware of that arrived in the ‘70s with written plans to take control of an entire area. It has had a long history of hostile behavior towards the city government and the community,” McManus says.
“No other religion has behaved this way. It’s our job to hold powerful institutions accountable. And Scientology is a powerful institution in Clearwater and they own a lot of property. They have influence and, you know, it’s our job to shine a light on the behavior.”