Longform

STALKING THE NET

Lawrence Wollersheim's hands shake as he reads his notes, ticking off the damage done to his computers. Surrounding the 46-year-old Boulder resident is a cluster of reporters and, beyond that, a ring of glowering, dark-suited men (and one woman wearing a clerical collar), all packed into a hallway of the federal courthouse in downtown Denver. Drifting from the larger ring into the smaller one is the dapper, silver-haired Reverend Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International.

"It will take us months to repair the damage," Wollersheim says.
"Larry, don't lie like this," Jentzsch says, moving closer.
"The databases are so corrupted, we can't even defend ourselves," Wollersheim says.

"Totally false," Jentzsch snaps, now nose-to-nose with Wollersheim.
"Will you get out of my face?" Wollersheim bellows. "I'm talking here."
"You are the criminal who stole from us," Jentzsch thunders back. "A thief will scream very loudly."

Attorneys break up the confrontation before it can get any uglier. Call it a draw, this latest round between Wollersheim and the Church of Scientology, the far-flung religious empire founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

A practicing Scientologist for most of the Seventies, since 1980 Wollersheim has been locked in legal battles with the Church, which he claims used coercive tactics to keep him in the fold and then harassed him and destroyed his business. In 1986 a jury awarded him $30 million in damages against the Church's California branch for "infliction of emotional injury." The award was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal; he has yet to collect. The trial judge found that the California church transferred "virtually all of its assets" to other entities before the trial began; Wollersheim says his attorneys are still trying to "pierce the corporate veil" in the Golden State.

But these days Wollersheim has more to worry about than his uncollected judgment. "Imagine if someone was mad at you," he says, "and went to a judge and [accused you of] stealing something and went through all your personal belongings--your personal records, journals, all that stuff. And took it. The court didn't take it. Your worst enemy took it. And they're going to come after you with it. Well, that's what happened here."

Six weeks ago a team of Church representatives and computer experts, escorted by federal marshals, raided Wollersheim's apartment and the Niwot home of Robert Penny, another ex-Scientologist. The group seized several computers, hundreds of diskettes and thousands of pages of documents--effectively pulling the plug on the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet), a nonprofit computer archive and bulletin-board system Wollersheim and Penny launched three years ago to disseminate information on Scientology and other cult-like "new religions."

The raid, ordered by federal judge Lewis Babcock, had been triggered by Church complaints that FACTNet was violating copyright and trade-secret laws. At issue are the secret, upper-level scriptures of Scientology, which members of the Church pay dearly to see--anywhere from $20,000 to nearly $300,000 in training and counseling sessions, according to some ex-members. Church officials claim that Wollersheim and Penny obtained stolen copies of its "Advanced Technology" materials and conspired with other "lawless elements" in cyberspace to post excerpts of the documents on the Internet.

Wollersheim, who disputes the legitimacy of the Advanced Technology copyrights, insists he obtained the materials legally and never placed them on the Internet. The real reason for the raid, he says, was to rummage through confidential FACTNet files and to put his archive out of business.

"They want to drive us under," he says. "They know we're on the edge, and if they keep the equipment away from us for a few weeks, we can't get to our mailing lists to talk to our donors, and we can't pay our bills."

Three weeks after the raid, in a startling turnabout from Judge Babcock's earlier order, Judge John Kane ruled in favor of FACTNet, denying the Church's efforts to obtain a preliminary injunction against the operation and ordering all of Wollersheim's and Penny's equipment returned. The two men got their computers back last week, but they're hardly celebrating; two of the computer hard drives had been replaced with new ones that had all the disputed documents deleted.

FACTNet attorney Tom Kelley immediately filed a motion to have the Church found in contempt of Kane's order. Wollersheim says he's most concerned about the encrypted files on the hard drives that are still in the Church's possession--files having to do with Scientologists or ex-Scientologists who committed suicide, he says, as well as the identity and location of high-level "defectors" from the Church. "If they crack the encryption, we'll have to assess the damage and start contacting people," he sighs.

California-based Church attorney Helena Kobrin denies any Scientology effort to crack confidential files. "We went to great pains not to alter anything on the original drives so they could be maintained as evidence of what was seized," she says. Church officials argue that they shouldn't have to return the Advanced Technology documents, since to do so would violate a religious belief that the scriptures "cannot be surrendered to apostates."

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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