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Scientology tried to ‘derail’ star’s rape trial by harassing prosecutor, suit says; church calls claim ‘false’

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 14, 2024, 11:30am
4 Photos
The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles is pictured at 4810 Sunset Blvd. on Feb. 7, 2024, in Los Angeles.
The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles is pictured at 4810 Sunset Blvd. on Feb. 7, 2024, in Los Angeles. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — Nearly six months after actor Danny Masterson was convicted of sexually assaulting two fellow members of the Church of Scientology, lawyers for his victims filed a document that contained a stunning new allegation against the faith.

Submitted in a downtown Los Angeles court as part of a years-old civil lawsuit against Scientology, the document referenced a purported effort by the church to “derail” the criminal proceedings against Masterson.

“Defendants and their agents engaged in a campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at one of the prosecutors assigned to Defendant Masterson’s trial,” the declaration from civil attorney Simon Leen read. “That prosecutor’s home and car windows were broken, the prosecutor’s home electronics were tampered with, and Defendants’ agents surveilled the prosecutor.”

The December 2023 declaration didn’t name the prosecutor or offer any additional detail, and Leen declined to comment. The claim, which was deep within a 372-page document, has not been previously reported. The church has vigorously denied that Scientology had anything to do with the incidents involving the prosecutor.

But it was not the first time the church was quietly — and publicly — accused of attempting to interfere in Masterson’s years-long legal saga.

In a speech last fall, L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller delivered remarks that contained allegations nearly identical to those from the lawsuit, according to a video reviewed by The Times.

In the speech, given after he received an award for his work on the Masterson case, Mueller told hundreds of colleagues, including former District Attorney Jackie Lacey, about a pattern of disturbing incidents he allegedly experienced in late 2022, ahead of the sitcom star’s first trial.

Mueller said he was “run off the road” and that his home was vandalized, according to the video. He also said that cellular and internet service had been inexplicably knocked out at his residence.

LAPD detectives on the case were also “stalked,” Mueller said in the video, and had their “photographs taken while they were off-duty.”

Mueller didn’t directly blame Scientology in his speech, but two law enforcement sources told The Times that he accused the church of being behind the incidents in discussions with the L.A. County district attorney’s office’s Bureau of Investigation, which reviews threats against prosecutors.

Los Angeles police officers responded to an attempted break-in at Mueller’s home in February 2022, according to a document reviewed by The Times. Responding officers noted damage to a window and described the incident as an “attempted burglary,” according to the document, which describes the suspect as “unknown.”

After the break-in, the district attorney’s office conducted a “threat assessment” of Mueller’s home and had security stationed there for at least one night, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Mueller declined a request for an interview and a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment.

No criminal charges have arisen from Mueller’s claims, and it does not appear the prosecutor has provided evidence for his allegations that the incidents were carried out at the direction of the church.

Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the church, said, “allegations that the Church harassed or intimidated witnesses, prosecutors, or law enforcement officers are categorically false. There is zero evidence to support these scandalous allegations — indeed, all available evidence demonstrates the Church had nothing to do with the alleged acts.”

Pouw said “anti-Scientology bias” was on display throughout the trial. She has accused a judge of making an “unconstitutional” interpretation of church doctrine and also alleged Mueller is “biased” against the church.

Mueller, however, was not the only person involved in the Masterson case to accuse the church of harassment and intimidation. LAPD detectives who investigated the actor also said they “had been surveilled, watched” or experienced “some type of harassment” which “they attributed to agents or individuals from the Church of Scientology,” according to former LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

An LAPD investigation turned up no proof that the church harassed the detectives, Moore said in an interview late last year.

One of the women behind the December legal filing that contained the harassment allegations involving a prosecutor was Chrissie Carnell Bixler, who claimed in the suit that the church or its agents tampered with her home security systems and vandalized her car and described an incident in which someone attempted to “run [her] off the road” after she accused Masterson of rape.

The Times typically withholds the identity of victims of sexual assault but Bixler has spoken publicly about the case and is a named plaintiff in the suit.

Another plaintiff in the case, whose name is not public, alleged that unidentified men were following her in downtown L.A. during the trial. The church has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in that lawsuit, and Masterson dismissed it as an attempt to smear Scientology when it was first filed in 2017.

Masterson was convicted of two counts of rape in May of 2023 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The count involving Bixler resulted in a hung jury. Masterson has filed an appeal on the other counts. The civil lawsuit remains pending.

A Times review of court documents also found that during the Masterson trial, a longtime Scientology attorney tried to affect the outcome of an unrelated case involving the church in the same courthouse. According to court transcripts, L.A. County prosecutors and the public defender’s office, the church’s lawyer tried to broker a plea deal for a man accused of attacking a Scientology security guard — offering to help negotiate lesser charges, as long as the man said his actions were inspired by a Scientology critic.

Pouw called the allegations against the church “delusional” and “biased” against Scientology.

“The entire story is a work of fiction; it is the Church that is being harassed and it is the Church that is being subjected to false allegations,” she said.

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The initial rape case against Masterson ended in a mistrial, and Mueller recounted in his award acceptance speech that concerns about Scientology were a constant before it reached a courtroom.

He spoke about bringing a colleague onto the case and said, “I felt it was important to let her know this was the Church of Scientology and they have a strong influence in this case. They’ve had a big impact on these victims and I wanted her to have a heads up that there may be some shenanigans … some harassment, stalking, retaliation, those things might be a possibility.”

Two other attorneys declined to sit second chair in the case for fear of church interference, Mueller said in the video, before Deputy District Attorney Ariel Anson took the job.

Anson declined to be interviewed for this story. Mueller was the only prosecutor known to have alleged any harassment.

While he was on a trip outside California shortly before Masterson’s second trial, Mueller received a panicked phone call from his wife, said the two officials not authorized to speak publicly. She’d heard glass breaking and went downstairs to find a window had been damaged.

The incident led district attorney’s investigators to guard Mueller’s home overnight. Los Angeles police were also called to the scene, police records show.

“[Unknown] suspect used [unknown] tool to break window. [Suspect] did not make entry and fled,” read the LAPD report, which listed Mueller’s wife as the victim.

LAPD Capt. Kelly Muniz, the department’s chief spokeswoman, said an investigation into the break-in remains ongoing.

Pouw said the church has never been contacted by Mueller or the district attorney’s office about the alleged harassment. She called the claims “outlandish” and “unbelievable on their face.”

The church has long held that the case against Masterson, a lifelong Scientologist, was tainted by religious bias — a claim Pouw again leveled.

“If Mueller said these things, then it is part of a campaign of blatant harassment against the Church,” she said. “The Church never engaged in the conduct he alleges.”

Mueller’s colleagues defended him.

“He has a reputation as being extremely careful, honest and straightforward,” said Deputy District Attorney Eric Siddall, former vice president of the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors.

Masterson starred as the bad boy Steven Hyde on “That ‘70s Show,” and in court his victims said they waited years to come forward because of his celebrity status — and because Scientology forbids a parishioner from reporting fellow members to law enforcement.

Although the church has long denied it had such a policy, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled otherwise after a 2021 preliminary hearing in the Masterson trial. Hearing witnesses also testified that church officials dismissively refer to secular police and courts as “wog-law,” a reference to a pejorative term for non-Scientologists. The organization has its own “International Justice Chief” to handle internal disputes, according to trial testimony and documents presented during the case.

The Church has denied allegations that it has a policy barring members from reporting one another to police.

After learning of Mueller’s speech and the lawsuit accusing the church of harassment from The Times, Claire Headley, a former Scientology executive who testified as an expert witness at Masterson’s trial and unsuccessfully sued the church in 2009, said the alleged incidents sounded similar to tactics allegedly used by the Office of Special Affairs.

Formerly known as the Guardian’s Office, the church wing “manages all legal and public affairs,” which can include campaigns to “destroy” and “silence” critics of the church, former members and journalists, Headley said in a recent declaration in a lawsuit filed by actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini.

In a court declaration in the Remini case, Headley also accused the church of using private investigators to harass her organization, the Aftermath Foundation, which offers support to those who have left Scientology.

In court filings in the same case, the church has dismissed Headley as one of Remini’s “partners in bigotry” and said she’s been removed from the church for too long to have any direct knowledge of its current operating procedures.

Mike Rinder, a member of the Aftermath Foundation’s board, once served as head of the Office of Special Affairs and described it as “Scientology’s CIA” in a recent declaration in Remini’s lawsuit.

Rinder, a former Scientology spokesperson, said the church’s tactics include hiring “private investigators to surveill and intimidate targets,” harassing “targets’ family, friends, and employers in order to intimidate them” and enlisting “homeless and mentally ill people to harass and intimidate targets,” according to the declaration.

Pouw dismissed Rinder as a bitter, excommunicated member of the church, describing him as an “inveterate liar.”

“He has made a career of attacking his former religion,” she said. “Rinder knows for a fact there is no way on God’s green earth the Church would ever harass, nor have we ever harassed, any law enforcement in any way, shape or form. The accusations are false, defamatory and outrageous.”

Rinder did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Scientology officials have similarly long denied the existence of “Fair Game,” a practice that Rinder and others allege is a no-holds-barred approach to quashing criticism.

“Any and all statements that the Church has a policy of ‘Fair Game’ are false; the implication that such a policy endorsed violating the law of the land is also false,” Lynn Farny, an ordained Scientology minister and corporate officer of the church, said in a recent court declaration from the Remini case.

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Allegations that Scientology was attempting to influence the Masterson case first spilled into court last May, when Mueller told the trial judge that the church had obtained “a very large quantity” of discovery materials. The files, according to a transcript of the hearing, included emails and text messages between investigators and Masterson’s accusers.

Mueller said in court that he learned the materials were in the church’s possession after an attorney for Scientology mistakenly attached them to an email to the district attorney’s office. The message was intended to be a complaint against Mueller and his co-counsel, but it also included a message to the LAPD chief written on church letterhead that included links to about “570 pages” of the “people’s discovery,” the prosecutor said in court.

Weeks earlier, Moore had met with the Scientology representatives in his office at LAPD headquarters.

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According to the former chief, who retired at the end of February, the church had accused LAPD detectives and prosecutors on the Masterson case of misconduct. Moore said he agreed to hear them out.

The meeting last April was not listed on a copy of the chief’s official schedule obtained by The Times. Moore and an LAPD spokesperson said it was attended by Scientology’s “head of security” and Vicki Podberesky, the attorney who accidentally emailed the protected files to Mueller.

Podberesky did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She previously told The Times the documents were “legally and properly obtained.” Two other attorneys responsible for disclosing the files were sanctioned by Masterson’s trial judge.

The church and Moore have given contradictory accounts of the reason for the meeting.

According to Moore’s recollection, Podberesky and her group reminded the chief that the church was not part of the trial, but said they had come to share allegations that detectives and prosecutors on the case had “falsified witness testimony, overstated or coached witness testimony [and] withheld evidence.”

Podberesky also claimed to have “boxes and files and electronic documents that would demonstrate clearly such misconduct,” according to Moore.

Pouw, the church spokeswoman, insisted the meeting had nothing to do with the Masterson case.

“The Church requested to meet with Chief Moore to present complaints about bias and misconduct by LAPD officers with respect to the Church, including accepting and maintaining open investigations of blatantly false reports about the Church,” she said in a statement. “The LAPD accepted the complaints and opened an investigation for the reported misconduct, which includes the disposition of open cases as to the Church. It was explicitly stated that the meeting was not in connection with the Masterson trial, and the prosecutor was never discussed.”

In both a November 2023 interview with The Times and in response to questions about Pouw’s statement, Moore remained steadfast that the meeting was in relation to the Masterson trial. Through an LAPD spokeswoman, he reiterated that church officials brought “boxes of alleged evidence of misconduct by our detectives and the prosecution.”

The judge in the Masterson case, Charlaine Olmedo, ruled last year that the church’s complaints about Mueller and his co-counsel were “demonstrably false.”

Moore said the department conducted its own internal investigation, which was not completed at the time of his interview. He does not believe law enforcement committed any misconduct in the case.

Moore’s decision to take the meeting set off alarm bells, both within the LAPD and the district attorney’s office. Masterson had been the target of an LAPD investigation, and even if Moore took no action, there were concerns the meeting could create an appearance of impropriety.

One high-ranking LAPD official and two sources within the district attorney’s office said it was highly unorthodox for him to personally receive an internal affairs complaint.

“The timing seemed extremely inappropriate to me,” said the LAPD official, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from the department. “In the middle of a trial, you’re going to take a meeting because they’re high up attorneys with the Church of Scientology?”

In court, Mueller said the church’s visit to LAPD headquarters impacted the case — noting that one of the lead detectives, Esther Myape, expressed reservations about testifying after news of the meeting surfaced. Olmedo described the timing of the church’s allegations against the detectives as “calculating,” noting the meeting with Moore took place days before Myape was scheduled to testify.

In his declaration in the civil lawsuit on behalf of Masterson’s victims, Leen also accused the church of “filing baseless accusations against the detectives and the prosecutors in the Masterson case” that were timed to “interfere with the retrial of Masterson.”

Attempts to contact Myape were unsuccessful. Det. Javier Vargas, the other lead investigator in the Masterson case, declined to be interviewed.

Moore said that several LAPD detectives on the Masterson case reported “some type of harassment,” which they attributed to “agents or individuals from the Church of Scientology.” An internal LAPD investigation, however, found no evidence of church involvement, Moore said.

Pouw said neither Moore nor any other LAPD official contacted the church about the supposed harassment. She denied any contention that the meeting with the chief was an attempt to intimidate the investigating officers, and suggested the detectives were attempting to deflect from their own alleged misdeeds.

Moore acknowledged frustration in the ranks about his meeting with Scientology officials, but maintained the situation warranted his involvement.

“The person who represents themselves as the counsel for that institution was making very aggressive and very serious charges of prosecutorial misconduct, as well as department misconduct. And I, out of the abundance of caution, wanted to ensure that they understood that we took that seriously,” Moore said.

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While Masterson’s second trial played out in front of the cameras last year, another criminal case involving the Church of Scientology wound through the legal system in the same downtown L.A. courthouse.

Armando Garcia, a 52-year-old convicted sex offender, was awaiting trial after he allegedly drove his car at a Scientology security guard outside the church’s West Coast headquarters on Sunset Boulevard in February 2022, according to a probation report. Garcia told The Times he was distributing leaflets claiming the church has connections to Satanism when he was confronted by the guard, who told him to leave.

According to a probation report, Garcia got into his car and drove in the guard’s direction, but did not actually strike him. Although the man was not harmed, Garcia still faced assault with a deadly weapon charges. His public defender, Adella Gorgen, said last April that a church attorney approached her with an offer to broker a deal, according to court records.

Kendrick Moxon, a lifelong Scientologist and prominent church attorney, wanted Garcia to say he “did what he did because he was ‘inflamed’ by documentaries and a potential reality TV show that is currently airing or has aired on Netflix,” according to a transcript of a preliminary hearing in the case.

The documentary Gorgen referenced was “Scientology and the Aftermath,” created by Remini, the actress and outspoken former church member. The former “King of Queens” star sued the organization last year, alleging that the church and its members have harassed and stalked her since she defected in 2013. Remini also regularly attended Masterson’s trial in support of the victims.

Under the proposed deal, if Garcia blamed his alleged actions on Remini, the Scientology attorney would ask prosecutors to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor or “even less,” according to the transcript. Gorgen did not respond to a request for comment.

Court transcripts show Garcia called the church an “abomination” — but he maintains Remini’s show had nothing to do with his actions. His public defender accused Moxon of trying to use the case to further the church’s battles with Remini, according to the court transcript.

“It’s clear that the Church of Scientology, for whom the security guard is employed, has an agenda that is bigger and absolutely unrelated to Mr. Garcia, and they are using Mr. Garcia, in this case, as a pawn in order to be able to get these documentaries off the air,” Gorgen said.

A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office confirmed that a Scientology attorney approached prosecutors and said the church would accept a lighter sentence against Garcia if he admitted “on the record the Leah Remini documentary influenced him to commit the offense.”

In a sworn declaration in Remini’s lawsuit, Moxon said Garcia’s initial attorney, public defender Justin Page, had told him Garcia’s actions toward the church were motivated by Remini.

In a statement to The Times, Page said the contents of Moxon’s declaration were “baseless.”

An attorney for Moxon denied all wrongdoing and said there was nothing improper about his client’s actions on behalf of the church. Moxon was acting as a victims’ rights attorney in the case and has “often appeared as counsel for victims in prosecutions arising out of crimes in which the Church and/or individual Scientologists were the victims,” his lawyer said.

A judge reduced the charge against Garcia to a misdemeanor after reviewing video of the incident. Garcia was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to stay away from the church, the district attorney’s office said.

Remini said she wasn’t shocked to hear her name invoked at proceedings she had nothing to do with.

“They will stop at nothing to protect Scientology,” she said of the church.

Bixler, one of Masterson’s accusers who has filed a civil lawsuit, said that as with many others the church allegedly harassed, no resolution can undo the fear they instilled in her.

“I can count on two hands the amount of times I’ve left my home in the last few years,” she said in her victim impact statement at Masterson’s sentencing hearing last year. “This, and so much more, is the life sentence Mr. Masterson and Scientology have given me.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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