West Allis, Wis., police had a bit of a surprise when they responded to a call about a mysterious man in the neighborhood near Milwaukee in July 2013 and found Dwayne S. Powell, a private detective, with two laptop computers, binoculars, a GPS tracking device, a stun gun, two rifles, four handguns, 2,000 rounds of ammunition and a homemade silencer in a rented SUV. While first resisting to give his name, Powell reportedly admitted that he was hired to keep continual watch on the father of David Miscavige, the leader of the Church of Scientology, who had separated from the church. Powell further stated that, after seeing what he believed was a possible heart attack, he contacted David Miscavige, who allegedly told him to let his father Ronald Miscavige Sr. die and not intervene or call help. The case has not led to litigation but it could.
The story is getting even greater attention with the release of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief — the 2013 non-fiction book about Scientology written by Lawrence Wright detailing abuses and potential crimes by the Church, including its history of harassing and following former members. The Church reportedly prohibits members from reading or seeing such anti-Church information. Indeed, it appears successful with some of its most famous members. Recently, John Travolta told the media that he would not watch the movie because “I haven’t experienced anything that the hearsay has (claimed), so why would I communicate something that wasn’t true for me?” Notably, all of the books by defectors from the church talk about how celebrities are given special sites and treatment like royalty within the church. Thus, it is not too surprising that it was not “true for” Travolta but one would think that he might be interested in what non-celebrities are saying as to their abuse behind the gilded celebrities centers. His choice of words was telling for many who say that they are survivors of the Church: “So, why would I even approach a negative perspective? That would be a crime to me, personally, to do that.”
The Church is considered a criminal organization in some countries and has been accused of criminal conduct by some in this country.
Powell says that he was paid $10,000 a week to trail Ronald Miscavige. Police say that, in this case, private detectives tracked Ronald Miscavige, engaged in eavesdropping, spied on his emails and even planted a GPS unit on his car.
Powell, 43, eventually admitted that he was following the elder Miscavige. The Church (as it has in past such cases) totally denies any connection, “Please be advised that Mr. Miscavige does not know Mr. Powell, has never heard of Mr. Powell, has never met Mr. Powell, has never spoken to Mr. Powell, never hired Mr. Powell and never directed any investigations by Mr. Powell.”
That contradicts not just Powell’s statements but his most shocking story that he and his partner saw what they believed was the elder Miscavige having a heart attack. They called their Church intermediary to say that he was grasping his chest and needed medical help. He said that two minutes later a man who identified himself as David Miscavige called him back and told him that, if it was Ron’s time to die, to let him die and not intervene in any way.”
Powell said he and a second investigator searched the elder Miscavige’s garbage, photographed him wherever he went and tracked him with a GPS device attached to his car and linked to an iPad that read out his location, the documents state. Police found marks on the underside of the car that they concluded were made by the magnetic GPS device.
If the elder Miscavige wanted to sue, he could proceed with a tort actions alleging violation of privacy (inclusion upon seclusion). This could include even some public encounters. The allegations would raise some interesting issues of intrusion upon seclusion and a comparison to Nader v. General Motors Corp., where Ralph Nader was able to show that GM hired detectives to follow him closely. One such instance involved looking over his shoulder at banks to read his bank slips, which was found to be an intrusion upon seclusion even though it was a public place.
There is also trespass on the vehicle with the GPS device. Notably, the Supreme Court recently ruled that police cannot use such devices without a warrant.
Then there is the ever litigious Church of Scientology. The allegation of Powell would certainly constitute defamation, though there are privileges attached to speaking with the police. If these statements are made publicly, Miscavige could bring a defamation lawsuit. The Church has been known to bring an array of frivolous or vexatious actions. This would be a standard defamation case since Miscavige is being accused of personally telling an investigator not to intervene to save his father after the Church allegedly engaged in abusive surveillance. The problem is that “truth is a defense” and Powell could demand a full array of discovery from the highly secretive church.
What is interesting is that the success of the Church in the past in intimidating reporters since to be wading. I have spoken with reporters who have reported being followed and harassed in covering the Church. That has created a chilling effect that appears to be thawing. Even Saturday Night Live appears eager to get into the coverage: