A Clearwater man isn’t about to let a dubious past stop him from spreading his views about the church.
The video shakes. Some blurry feet. Now part of a face.
Rain spatters the lens. But the man behind the camera, Shawn Lonsdale, is undeterred. The image stays fixed on a red carpet leading to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where the Church of Scientology is hosting an event.
Three Scientologists in raincoats are making their way across the street under umbrellas, toward their church’s chief antagonist in downtown Clearwater.
The image wobbles in that amateur, Blair Witch Project kind of way. But Lonsdale greets them in a tone that suggests he is glad they have stopped by.
He never stops filming them.
* * *
Shawn Lonsdale, 38, has become a downtown fixture. Most often, he can be found standing next to a sandwich board that reads:
– Ch. 96 –
Lonsdale said he is making a “pseudo documentary” about Scientology and its effect on downtown Clearwater for a local cable access show.
He stands there for eight, sometimes 10 hours a day in the full heat of the summer. His only equipment: a still camera, a videocamera, a bottle of water and a can of mace in case things get hairy.
A Scientologist was charged recently with assaulting him though the charges were later dropped. Lonsdale shrugs. More good footage for the documentary.
In Lonsdale, the Church of Scientology has encountered a confusing and difficult nemesis. Unlike most ardent Scientology critics, Lonsdale was never a member. And unlike other critics, Lonsdale has proved difficult to squash.
The key: He has very little to lose.
Lonsdale, who is unemployed, rents a small home in Clearwater where he chain-smokes Basic cigarettes and watches his own video in a living room adorned with stuffed alien dolls.
In the next room he logs onto anti-Scientology Web sites to chronicle his daily encounters with church members. On these sites, Lonsdale is regaled as a hero.
“This is the biggest thing I could’ve ever touched in Clearwater,” Lonsdale explains. “How could I not touch this?”
Here, he could make a mark.
“If I could stamp my name on this, great,” Lonsdale said, “especially when you’re really a fly on a horse’s a–.”
What do his friends make of his single-minded focus on Scientology?
“I do not have friends,” he said.
Originally from New Hampshire, Lonsdale said he joined the Navy but was kicked out after he took a drunken swing at a lieutenant commander.
He moved to Dunedin with a girlfriend. He worked as a file clerk at an insurance company and later at a title company in Clearwater. He got into competitive running and triathlons and dabbled in photography.
A couple of years ago, he had a vague idea about making a coffee table book about homeless people in downtown Clearwater. At least that’s what brought Lonsdale to a City Council meeting, where he ended up in a fight with a Scientologist over redevelopment issues.
The Scientologist followed his car home, he said, and a van parked in front of his house for two hours the next day. He looked into Scientology at the library and on the Internet, where he found plenty of anti-Scientology Web sites.
Into a directionless life, a passion was born.
* * *
Lonsdale began to pedal his bicycle downtown at night. Onto the doorsteps of downtown businesses, he’d drop a pile of anti-Scientology fliers printed off xenu.net, perhaps the biggest anti-Scientology site.
Lonsdale’s phone began to ring at odd hours.
We know what you do.
We know who you are.
Why are you doing this?
People don’t live too long doing this kind of thing in Clearwater.
The attention only motivated Lonsdale. On lunch breaks from his job at Tampa Bay Title, Lonsdale began a daily routine. He’d pop a few coins into a meter on Cleveland Street across from the Clearwater Bank Building, which serves as Scientology’s cafeteria.
Taped to the side of his white 1991 Oldsmobile was a message on a large piece of cardboard: “OT I-VIII for free at xenu.net.”
To the hundreds of Scientologists who filed past each day, that message was blasphemous.
People come from all over the world to Clearwater to study the highest levels of Scientology, called OT levels, or Operating Thetan levels. Members pay tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars to have those levels revealed. Scientology levels build upon one another, and reading ahead to higher levels is strictly forbidden.
Scientology has a history of aggressively taking on critics, in the courts and on the streets. When Lonsdale came along, the church hired a private investigator, as usual, to check out its latest troublemaker.
Tailing Lonsdale was a matter of protecting staffers’ safety, said Ben Shaw, a spokesman for Scientology in Clearwater. “He is crazy,” Shaw said. “He is utterly crazy.”
The tactic also conforms with Scientology doctrine laid out by founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“We do not find critics of Scientology who do not have criminal pasts,” Hubbard once wrote. “We are slowly and carefully teaching the unholy a lesson. . . . If you oppose Scientology we promptly look and will find and expose your crimes. If you leave us alone we will leave you alone.”
The investigators hit pay dirt. Lonsdale was twice convicted on misdemeanor charges of lewd and lascivious conduct, in 1999 and 2000.
Lonsdale said training for triathlons was expensive and money was tight. So he took a side job working for an Internet adult chat site for men. To make more money, he said, he sometimes met with men from the chat rooms.
Once, in the woods by the Gandy Bridge, he mistook an undercover cop for the man he had arranged to meet, he said. Another time he was found having oral sex in public with a man in Hillsborough County. Both charges drew fines.
“This is my background,” he said flatly.
Numerous times, the Church of Scientology filed complaints with the police against him for stalking, but police never charged Lonsdale. He has the right to take photos or video in public places, police said.
* * *
Lonsdale’s handheld camera wheels around, trying to catch the faces of Scientologists firing questions at him.
“What’s your deal?” one asks.
“Why are you doing this?” chimes in another.
In tones of mock politeness, Lonsdale and the three Scientologists banter about church policy.
Lonsdale taunts one about an alleged extramarital affair. The man counters with a crack about Lonsdale’s bad teeth.
Another Scientologist, Ian Shillington, approaches, and Lonsdale extends his hand. Shillington refuses to shake it.
Lonsdale tells him he is making a video to be shown on cable TV.
“You are very important, aren’t you?” Shillington sneers.
Ron Savelo, who regularly hosts a local cable show on Scientology, asks why Lonsdale lost his job.
Perhaps, he declares, it had something to do with sex acts in the woods.
* * *
More than once, Lonsdale admits, he became bored or discouraged enough that he considered stopping his campaign.
But then the church would do something to give him a “shot of adrenaline.”
Like when someone claiming to be an investigator called his landlord, Joseph Critchley.
Did you know that your tenant, Shawn Lonsdale, is a criminal? Critchley remembers the caller saying. The man wouldn’t give his name, so Critchley hung up.
A man claiming to be an investigator also walked into the coffee shop that Lonsdale frequented. He told the cashier Lonsdale was being investigated by law enforcement and said, “It is wise not to be associated with this guy.”
And then one night, Lonsdale’s boss at Tampa Bay Title, Brian Harte, got a call at home from Pat Harney, a Scientology spokeswoman. Harte agreed to have lunch with her at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
“She brought up that at the church people were scared of him,” Harte said. “They thought we’d want to know these issues so we’d be scared of his actions too.”
Lonsdale was let go this year, along with another employee, due to downsizing. Harte said it had nothing to do with Scientology, that Lonsdale was a model employee and he’d hire him back if business improves.
Now out of work, Lonsdale could focus on Scientology full time.
Several months ago, Lonsdale took two courses at Access Pinellas, the county’s public cable access channel, so he could show his documentary on Channel 96.
Every night, he came home from filming downtown and continued his work on anti-Scientology Web sites. He recently created his own site, scienotimes.com.
Shaw instructed his uniformed staff members to leave Lonsdale alone. For a time, church staffers walked a block out of the way to the cafeteria to avoid confrontations.
“He has no redeeming value to anyone anywhere,” Shaw said.
As Lonsdale made his way downtown one afternoon last month, he saw his picture staring back at him. Storefront after storefront along Cleveland Street displayed posters with the word “Warning” above Lonsdale’s mug shot. The poster says Lonsdale has been harassing people and that he has been arrested for sex crimes.
The flier was the work of the Cleveland Street Safety League. The man behind the committee and the signs is Richard Hirst, a longtime Scientologist known for confronting critics.
Hirst created a Web site documenting Lonsdale’s arrest record. He posted comments Lonsdale made on a swinger site years ago seeking partners for group sex. He called Lonsdale’s family in New England and told them Lonsdale needed mental help.
Last month, Scientology lawyers subpoenaed Lonsdale for a deposition. The church contends Lonsdale is an agent of an old anti-Scientology group that was legally barred from protesting in certain places. So he must abide by that order, the lawyers say.
Attorney Luke Lirot, who has famously battled Scientology in the past, has come to Lonsdale’s aid. The church’s arguments are ridiculous, Lirot said, and were attempted as “the quickest way to get him out of there.”
“They think because I’m a nobody and I’ve got nothing that I’m easy to stomp,” Lonsdale said.
“It’s getting big.”
* * *
As the camera pans a sidewalk, Lonsdale’s shadow fills the bottom of the frame.
The first installment of his documentary, Cult Watch: A Clearwater Perspective, begins at a Scientology-sponsored Easter egg hunt. It is now showing on Channel 96 and can be viewed on Lonsdale’s Web site. It is the first of at least six installments, Lonsdale promises.
We see actor Kirstie Alley silently walking around, placing plastic eggs into a basket adorned with blue and purple balloons.
Lonsdale stops his camera on a church security guard videotaping him. Lonsdale zeroes in. He calls out.
“Hey brother, how are you doing?”
For several absurd minutes, they hold each other in their lenses, neither moving.
Lonsdale finally breaks the standoff.
“Hey buddy, what’s so interesting over here?”
The security guard says nothing.
“You can see it on our Web site soon,” Lonsdale says.
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