Nightmare on the Net

Strange things happen around Lawrence Wollersheim.
His businesses collapse. His Boulder apartment gets raided by federal marshals, his computers seized. When college students offer to help him rebuild his computer bulletin-board system, they receive threatening phone calls--anonymous voices urging them to stay away from Larry.

A California judge who presided over a lawsuit in which Wollersheim was the plaintiff told reporters he'd encountered a lot of "funny stuff" during the five-month trial, including slashed tires on his car and strangers tailing him. Recently, Wollersheim says, someone claiming to be him contacted his bank in a clumsy attempt to obtain his financial records.

"We've been under constant security threat for the last several weeks," he says. "My girlfriend's family has been scared. My friends have been called up and harassed. I spend time repairing my staff, who are intimidated. I'm used to it, but college kids don't know how to deal with stuff like this. What they do is eat pizza and work on computers, and all of a sudden, somebody's following them."

He shakes his head. "I can't talk about this, but I can tell you, there are countersuits coming," he says. "We're going to sue the living shit out of everyone involved in this. It's going to be one lawsuit after another and another. They're going to be burned in public relations and financially."

"They," in Wollersheim's world, happen to be the leaders of the Church of Scientology International, the religious empire founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, which Wollersheim blames for many of the darker moments in his life. A former Scientologist who left the church seventeen years ago, he's been mired in litigation with CSI and its various corporate entities ever since--a multi-million-dollar struggle that's been waged in a series of state and federal courts and has even stretched into the darkest regions of cyberspace.

In recent years Wollersheim and other Scientology critics have used Internet chat rooms and newsgroups, private bulletin-board systems and Web pages to publicize their grievances, offering savage commentaries on church teachings, claims of alleged criminal activity by church leaders, first-person accounts of alleged retaliation against dissidents, and archives of legal documents stemming from the voluminous civil litigation filed by disenchanted ex-members. Scientology supporters have responded by denouncing the efforts as a smear campaign, by anonymously canceling messages or spamming entire newsgroups they consider offensive.

The confrontation escalated to new heights two years ago, when church officials escorted by federal marshals conducted a series of raids and seized computer equipment in California, Virginia and Colorado, claiming that the owners had obtained unauthorized copies of the secret, upper-level scriptures of Scientology and had distributed the material on the Internet, in violation of copyright and trade-secret laws ("Stalking the Net," October 4, 1995). Attorneys for Bridge Publications and Religious Technology Center, the CSI-affiliated groups that administer the copyrights to Hubbard's published and unpublished writings, also sued or threatened to sue Internet service providers, an anonymous remailer in Finland (a service that allows users to post e-mail anonymously), and dozens of Internet users who posted excerpts of the contested documents online--triggering gigabytes of outrage that have drawn free-speech activists, computer law experts, hackers and Net-heads into the conflict.

One of the principal targets of the raids was the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet), a Golden-based computer archive and bulletin-board system founded by Wollersheim and ex-Scientologist Bob Penny. Church officials seized computers from Wollersheim's apartment, from Penny's home in Niwot and from FACTNet boardmember Arnaldo Lerma in Virginia and filed federal lawsuits against the three, whom they branded as "copyright terrorists" bent on damaging CSI economically. (At present, the only church-sanctioned way to view Hubbard's closely guarded "Advanced Technology" [AT] writings is to submit to hundreds of hours of costly Scientology training until one has attained the "proper level of spiritual enlightenment" to be exposed to the materials.)

Since the raids, the FACTNet case has taken more turns than a corkscrew. The church's attorneys have hailed as a "clear victory" the decision of a federal judge in the Virginia case, who found that Lerma committed copyright infringement by posting Scientology materials; yet that same judge concluded that the church's "primary motivation" in suing Lerma and his Internet provider "is to stifle criticism of Scientology in general and to harass its critics."

FACTNet hasn't escaped unscathed, either. Over the course of the litigation, Wollersheim has feuded not only with Scientology but with fellow members of FACTNet's board of directors, which is now down to two: Wollersheim and Lerma. He's also had a falling-out with Denver media lawyer Tom Kelley of Faegre & Benson, at one point the lead defense attorney in both the Colorado and Virginia suits. Kelley's firm, which ran up bills in excess of $1.4 million in nine months, withdrew from the fray last summer.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast