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Update: Scientology cancels planned mock FBI raid on downtown building

CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology planned to film a mock FBI raid on a downtown building Monday afternoon, but the actors and cameras never showed up to the location disclosed to the city.

Church officials first notified the Clearwater Police Department on Friday that unarmed actors would be wearing FBI T-shirts and carrying boxes from one of two possible locations for a "film project."

Lt. Michael Walek confirmed in an email to officers on Monday the mock raid would take place at 3 p.m. at 305 N Fort Harrison Ave. The site, a privately owned, one-story building, is a couple of blocks to the east and north of The Sandcastle, a Scientology retreat on the downtown waterfront.

A handful of people in plain clothes filed in and out of the vacant building Monday afternoon, but no apparent filming took place and no actors in FBI shirts were present.

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Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said late Monday in a statement: "You didn't see the filming because, as it turned out, the video team found a better location for their production."

A Clearwater police officer arrived at 3 p.m. and watched the Fort Harrison Avenue building for about 30 minutes before leaving. Public Communications Director Joelle Castelli said the city was not updated Monday about the film relocating from the original venue.

Shaw said the filming was part of a short documentary "that focuses on what Scientologists do around the world to help better society, including assisting law enforcement and the justice system crack down on crime."

Shaw said Monday's shoot related to a 2016 FBI raid on a Florida doctor convicted for Medicaid fraud, although he did not provide the name of the doctor.

Beyond its documentary, the church has a history when it comes to both filming and the FBI.

Last year in Hollywood, Calif., it turned a local television station on Sunset Boulevard into a motion picture and television studio. Scientology leader David Miscavige called the facility a vehicle for getting "our uncorrupted communication line to the billions."

The church also has a large film studio at its compound in the mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles. It produces film and video for its promotions and training, as well as providing content for numerous websites used to attack critics of Scientology.

It's background with the FBI is more tangled, and dates back decades.

On July 8, 1977, FBI agents stormed Scientology's Los Angeles and Washington offices, confiscating 48,149 documents.

Among the findings, the FBI uncovered copies of confidential IRS documents, one-foot thick, that a Scientology operative had stolen after being hired in 1975 as a clerk-typist in the IRS headquarters in Washington.

Eleven Scientologists were convicted on charges of conspiring to steal government documents or obstructing justice, including Mary Sue Hubbard, the wife of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Following the raid, L. Ron Hubbard, named an unindicted co-conspirator, went into seclusion at his ranch near La Quinta, Calif.

In 2009 and 2010, the FBI conducted a human trafficking investigation that focused on the church's low-paid, military-style work force known as the Sea Org. The inquiry never resulted in criminal charges.

Scientology officials said they didn't know about the investigation and raised doubts that it ever took place. But documents — posted in May by the entertainment and gossip website Radaronline.com — buttressed a 2013 report by the Tampa Bay Times detailing a methodical FBI investigation of the church, with agents traveling to several states, questioning dozens of former Scientologists, obtaining surveillance video of the church's remote headquarters in the mountains east of Los Angeles and even contemplating a raid of that facility.

According to one document, former Sea Org members told agents that the church "tricks" people into the organization with promises of good living conditions, but later houses and holds them "at secure locations where they work 15 hour days in various positions for Scientology based companies … given no days off and are permitted only limited and monitored contact with anyone outside of the camps where they live and work."

The documents do not indicate why the FBI investigation was dropped.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

Update: Scientology cancels planned mock FBI raid on downtown building 06/26/17 [Last modified: Monday, June 26, 2017 6:59pm]
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