The man who owns an apartment building evacuated by officials for safety violations also holds Scientology’s highest status.
ST. PETERSBURG — In the world of Scientology, Scott W. Snow is a winner.
He has achieved the religion’s highest level of training, higher even than megastar Tom Cruise, a distinction that brings with it lofty ethical standards.
But in St. Petersburg, city leaders call him slumlord.
Snow, 51, is the owner of the Chinook Apartments in Midtown, which the city shut down May 2 after finding multiple fire code violations.
Now two dozen Chinook tenants have hired a lawyer and are preparing a lawsuit. And the city is investigating 39 separate code violation complaints at Snow’s other three St. Petersburg apartment buildings.
This is not Snow’s first brush with trouble, according to documents and interviews. In 2002 he filed for bankruptcy, saying he owed more than $700,000 and had only $22 in his pocket.
But a month before settling the bankruptcy lawsuit, he purchased three Midtown apartment buildings for $1.25-million, helped by a loan from a fellow Scientologist. A year later, he bought the Chinook Apartments for $2.2-million.
Now, after the unprecedented evacuation of Chinook, city officials have stepped up their criticism. Council member Bill Foster this week referred to Snow as a “slumlord.” Foster called the apartment building “a cancer growing in our community” and declared “an open season on slumlords.”
Snow, who lives with his second wife, Gayle, and their children in Oldsmar, has declined repeated requests for an interview, citing pending litigation. He refused to comment about Chinook, saying he did not want to “try the case in the press.”
The property manager for his rental buildings, Sharon Johnson, described her boss as “a mystery.”
“But he’s a good mystery,” added Johnson, 35, who has taken a few courses offered by the Church of Scientology. “He’s not this bad person, he’s not this monster. He cares.”
Snow filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November 2002, with debts amounting to $718,970. At the time, he was a real estate broker and a small business owner.
He said that he had just $22 in the bank and was driving a 1984 Dodge Caravan valued at $250. The trustee in the bankruptcy case noted in a 2003 filing that she was “not able to verify the reason for the significant accumulation of debt.’’
In the several years leading up to the bankruptcy, Scientology publications note that Snow took a series of Scientology courses that former members say would have cost him tens of thousands of dollars.
One of the courses, taken in 1999 aboard Scientology’s cruise ship, the Freewinds, made him an “ethics specialist.’’ He also took courses in 2000 and 2001, but said in court filings that he made an income of $17,765 in 2000 and just $589 in 2001.
According to Scientology publications, in 1989 Snow reached the highest level currently available to Scientologists, OT VIII; actor Tom Cruise is an OT VII.
The upper levels of Scientology, which can cost several hundred thousand dollars to complete, offer the promise of becoming an “operating thetan” or “OT,” which, according to church materials, is someone who lives “with full awareness, memory and ability, independent of the physical universe.”
According to a church official, only a few thousand Scientologists in the world — among the millions of members the church claims — have reached the level OT VIII.
Ben Shaw, a spokesman for Scientology in Clearwater, declined to discuss Snow’s status with the church and said it was inappropriate to mention Snow’s religious affiliation in the media because he is not, and never has been, in a position of authority or leadership at the church.
But Shaw did note the church expects people in the advanced levels of Scientology “to have a higher level of ethics.’’
A Web site for Snow’s company, Snow International Corp., also boasts that it once received the “Model of Admin Know-How Award” from the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, a chamber of commerce of sorts for businesses that use Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s business concepts.
A 1999 international WISE directory lists Snow as a member. WISE members ascribe to a strict code of ethics that call for members to abide by “higher standards than are generally accepted in the business world,’’ said Bud Reichel, the former president of the Tampa Bay chapter.
Reichel, a Scientology parishioner, said Snow is not currently a member of WISE, and has not been active in the church for several years.
However, “any problems that he (Snow) may have, I can guarantee that he will make it right, unless he is no longer involved with our church in any way shape or form,’’ he said.
Snow bought his three Midtown apartment buildings in March 2004 under the name New St. Pete Apartments LLC for $1.25-million, in part with a $495,000 loan from Kendall Dorsett, a fellow Scientologist and OT VIII.
A year later, Snow bought Chinook Apartments under the name Pinellas Housing LLC for $2.2-million. The 60-unit, two-story complex was erected in 1959 for $175,000, according to city property records.
The Chinook tenants were forced to move out when inspectors, returning to check fire code violations reported earlier, found that the problems, including missing fire alarms and faulty wiring, had worsened.
The day after the forced evacuation, Julian Allen returned to Chinook holding a sign that read, “We demand decent housing.” At a news conference, he and other tenants blamed Snow and the city for leaving them homeless. “It’s just not right to treat people like this,” said Allen, 30.
Chinook will remain closed until all the fire code violations are resolved, said Lt. Rick Feinberg of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue.
A code enforcement hearing about the building’s numerous maintenance code violations is scheduled for May 24.
Meanwhile, displaced tenants like Carrie Joefield, 32, are continuing to remove their belongings from the building, and are searching for a new, affordable place to live.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do,” Joefield said.
Times staff writer Jeff Testerman and news researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.