Scientology opponent faces battery charge
By DAVID SOMMER
CLEARWATER - An outspoken critic of the Church of Scientology was formally charged with misdemeanor battery late Friday.
New Hampshire millionaire Robert S. Minton Jr. faces a maximum penalty of one year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of striking Scientologist Richard W. Howd Jr. during a protest Oct. 31 outside the church's spiritual headquarters in downtown Clearwater.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe had the option of not prosecuting the case, and Minton had been waiting since his arrest the night of the incident for a determination. Neither could be reached for comment late Friday.
McCabe's decision to go forward comes six weeks after Minton admitted under oath to striking Howd with a cardboard and foam placard. Minton's testimony came during a civil court hearing that prompted a judge to conclude that both sides needed to be restrained in an ongoing dispute between the church and a group of anti- Scientology activists.
Minton is financing a civil lawsuit against the church on behalf of the estate of Lisa McPherson, who died in December 1995 after 17 days in the care of church staffers at their Clearwater headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel, 210 S. Fort Harrison Ave.
Recently, Minton purchased property at 33 N. Fort Harrison Ave. in downtown Clearwater to serve as headquarters of his anti-Scientology organization, the Lisa McPherson Trust. The trust's mission statement indicates it was formed to expose church ``abuses'' and help the ``victims'' thereof.
The church's Flag Service Organization is the defendant in a criminal case in which McCabe contends its staffers practiced medicine without a license and abused a disabled adult while caring for McPherson.
In the battery incident, Minton was carrying a protest sign up and down the sidewalk outside the Fort Harrison Hotel on Halloween night while Howd filmed him at close range with a video camera. Minton testified that he struck Howd with his placard when Howd would not back away as Minton left the area.
That testimony came during a daylong hearing on Howd's request for court protection from Minton.
Circuit Judge Thomas Penick Jr. concluded that ``both parties must be mutually restrained'' and ordered Howd to stay at least 20 feet away from Minton.
Minton, meanwhile, must stay at least 10 feet away from 17 church- owned properties in downtown Clearwater.