The black Dodge Durango was parked next to the house that had been such a problem for St. Petersburg police. Street cop Terrence Nemeth was watching. Shortly before 7 p.m., the Durango went out the back way. It turned into an alley and then drove into the street, nearly hitting an ambulance.
Nemeth stopped it. A middle-aged woman was at the wheel. The officer told her he had seen the car at "a known drug house.''
Could he search it?
She said yes.
Under the driver's seat Nemeth found a black vinyl bag with nine cigars, or "blunts," containing marijuana.
The woman said she didn't know how it got there. But she slurred her words, belched, smelled of alcohol, and had bloodshot, watery eyes, Nemeth reported. Breath tests showed readings of 0.119 and 0.124, above the 0.08 at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle.
Police charged the driver with misdemeanor marijuana possession, DUI and failure to yield. Nemeth took her to jail.
It probably seemed a routine arrest. But the woman was Denise Gentile, and in her world, this was anything but routine.
Gentile, of Clearwater, is a well-known Scientologist and the twin sister of the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige.
Her marijuana arrest is messy for the church because Scientologists have zero tolerance for mind-altering substances. They believe street drugs and psychiatric medicines make spiritual growth impossible.
"The single most destructive element present in our current culture," church founder L. Ron Hubbard wrote, "is drugs."
The church treatise What Is Scientology? flatly states: "Scientologists are … drug-free (none at all use illegal street drugs)."
Gentile's pot bust has remained a secret. But it is just the beginning of the story.
Miscavige's sister has been involved with drug users and drug sellers for years, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times reveals.
Her husband, Gerald Gentile, owned the "drug house'' his wife was seen leaving on Jan. 22. Denise Gentile collected rents from tenants in the four rental units. They called her "Miss Denise.''
She knew some residents used and sold drugs, but did nothing to stop it, former tenants said.
Drug sales at the Gentile property got so bad police raided it twice in 14 months, busting up a marijuana den and what police called a cocaine sales operation.
The city contacted the Gentiles after the first raid, insisting they curb the drug activity. But the sales continued, according to police and former residents.
Miss Denise kept coming by, demanding money. And former tenants said she left with more than cash.
• • •
Denise Gentile, 53, has pleaded not guilty. She is fighting the marijuana and DUI charges with the help of Tampa criminal defense attorney Jo Ann Palchak. Palchak is an associate at Zuckerman Spaeder, a firm the church has hired to represent it in court. She would not say who is paying for Gentile's defense.
Gentile's pretrial hearing is July 25. Neither she nor her husband has a criminal record in Florida.
Both declined to be interviewed. But Palchak said Denise "summarily denies any allegation that she received contraband from anyone." The lawyer said Denise had no knowledge of drug activity at the property.
A summary of the Times' findings sent to the Gentiles "contains numerous inaccuracies which are shocking, hurtful and defamatory," Palchak said.
The church and David Miscavige declined to comment. "The church does not discuss Mr. Miscavige's family as it would be inappropriate to do so," spokeswoman Karin Pouw said.
• • •
The house at 620 15th St. N and its three detached apartments at 620 ½ were painted bedroom-blue. They stood out in the frayed neighborhood west of St. Anthony's Hospital.
Gerald Gentile, an electrical engineer, bought them in 2005, when property values were soaring. He financed the purchase with a $157,250 mortgage. Monthly payments were $917.
Rents easily surpassed that.
Tenants in the house paid $675 a month. The ground floor apartment in the duplex rented for $500. The slightly larger unit upstairs fetched $625.
Roreco Currie — everybody calls him Rico — paid $500 to live in the cottage by the alley.
Miss Denise stopped by nearly every month to collect rents. She asked tenants for a separate payment for the water, sewer and trash bills, which usually were less than $100 per unit.
"She was very nice,'' Currie said. He knew she lived in Clearwater but didn't know she was a Scientologist, let alone a member of its first family.
For a while, he covered the rent with disability payments he got for sickle cell disease. When that money ran out, he tried selling T-shirts, socks and snacks on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. But the city chased away street vendors. He fell behind.
"I was about to get kicked out,'' said Currie, 36. "What I did, I just started selling some marijuana back in that apartment.'' Dealing allowed him to stay.
The upstairs apartment in the duplex came open in 2010. Currie moved in, but kept the cottage. Total rent: $1,000.
He now was on-site property manager. He cut the grass and trimmed the bushes. Tenants went to him about leaky faucets and broken appliances.
Miss Denise knew he was smoking and selling marijuana, Currie said.
"Every time she would come, people would be coming and knock,'' Currie said. "I was trying to keep everything discreet. But she kind of figured it out. She asked me what I was selling. I told her.''
The enterprising tenant turned the cottage into a party house. Strippers danced after midnight. People paid $10 to get in — and more after that.
"To see one of the girls in the back house, on a pole or whatever, they had to come by and buy some liquor,'' Currie said. Guests paid the dancers by throwing money on the floor.
Currie did business by appointment only.
"You're not just going to walk up and knock and purchase something. That's just not happening.''
• • •
Small cigars called blunts are cheap, sold everywhere and easily converted into marijuana joints.
Currie was smoking one on the steps of his upstairs apartment when his landlord walked up.
"She asked me, did I have any more?"
"I told her, 'Yeah.' "
That night, Denise phoned him, Currie said, asking what he had been smoking. He told her.
"She was like, 'Well, can you hook me up?' "
Denise paid for blunts with rent money Currie handed her in an envelope, he said.
"She would sit in her car, count it. But then she'd say, 'You got any cigs?' " She would give him $30 or $40 for a few blunts, he said.
He soon proposed a new arrangement. He'd pay the water bills with blunts instead of cash. A blunt was worth $10, he told her, so he'd give her 15 for a $150 water bill. He paid his bill with marijuana for months, he said.
Denise often called or texted to alert him she was coming by.
"I'd ask, how did she want it? Half money and half cigs?'
"She'd say, 'Can I have it all in cigs?' "
A couple of times, she bought hydroponic blunts. They were $20. Currie sold her just two or three at a time. He paid the rest of his water bill with regular pot.
Currie said he gave Denise 10 to 20 marijuana blunts nearly every month from summer 2011 until he was arrested and jailed in October 2012.
"It was a monthly thing,'' he said. Weed for the water bill.
He said he never smoked marijuana with Miss Denise, but she once mentioned a previous batch hadn't tasted good, he said.
"Denise is not a bad person,'' he said. "She just came around to collect our rent. I don't fault her. She helped me out.''
• • •
Denise Miscavige's bloodlines afford her near-nobility status in Scientology circles.
Her father, Ronald Miscavige Sr., a trumpet player and salesman in the Philadelphia area, first tried Scientology "auditing'' in the early 1970s. The one-on-one counseling sessions are said to help Scientologists purge from their "reactive mind'' negative images believed to be causing emotional or physical pain.
The elder Miscavige saw such benefit he and his wife moved their four children to England for several months to study and train at a Scientology facility outside London. Twins Denise and David, in their early teens, became auditors before the family returned to Philadelphia.
On his 16th birthday, David dropped out of high school and left home to work full time for the church. He told the Times in a 1998 interview he did it, in part, because he was "appalled'' at the drug use among his classmates.
Denise finished high school and later married Scientologist Robert Covington. They settled in New Hampshire and had two daughters.
David Miscavige quickly ascended in Scientology, working alongside Hubbard. When the founder died in 1986, Miscavige, just 25, took over the church. Now, anyone named Miscavige had prestige.
Denise's clout was evident in the mid 1990s when she and her second husband, Scientologist Sam Licciardi, moved from New Hampshire to Clearwater to work for a Scientologist.
Brian Zwan had started the technology company, Digital Lightwave, a maker of fiber optic testing equipment whose stock price soared during the dot-com boom. He elevated Denise, who hadn't attended college, to vice president of administration and gave her a $123,000 salary three months after hiring her.
Two years later, Denise got caught up in a scandal. Partially filled boxes and unassembled equipment had been shipped to give the impression a $9 million order had been filled. Digital Lightwave executives pressured Zwan to fire her. He refused, noting "whose sister she is," the Times reported in 2002, quoting a former Digital executive.
She negotiated her severance package: One year's salary, three cellphones, a laptop and forgiveness of a $71,000 company loan.
In 2000, Denise married Jerry Gentile, whom she had met at Digital Lightwave when both were married to other people. They moved to Maryland for two years, had a daughter, then returned to Clearwater, where the Flag Land Base, Scientology's spiritual headquarters, dominates the downtown skyline.
Jerry joined the church. He commuted weekly to a technology job in Maryland. Denise worked at a small Scientology mission in Belleair. An "ethics officer," she coached church members making amends for inappropriate behavior.
• • •
Denise had progressed far up Scientology's spiritual ladder. She was an "Operating Thetan VI,'' two levels from the top of Hubbard's Bridge to Total Freedom. She would have been well versed in Scientology teachings, including the dangers of drugs.
Hubbard once wrote: "The planet has hit a barrier which prevents any widespread social progress — drugs and other biochemical substances. These can put people into a condition which not only prohibits and destroys physical health but which can prevent any stable advancement in mental or spiritual well-being.''
His words have inspired Scientologists to back a drug education campaign the church says is one of the largest in the world.
Scientologists donate money and volunteer to distribute millions of free, nonreligious booklets and DVDs warning of the perils of drug use, including marijuana. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World spent more than $2 million in the last five years, according to IRS records.
The church says "The Truth About Drugs'' materials — translated into 17 languages — are now in more than 180 countries.
"We are the authorities," Tom Cruise declared, "on getting people off drugs.''
• • •
Denise worked at the Belleair mission less than a year, but continued to enjoy special status in the church. As a member of the Miscavige family, she was on Flag's "President's List.'' Scientology celebrities, such as actors Cruise and John Travolta, are on it, as are the church's biggest financial donors. President's List visitors receive you-want-it-you-get-it attention.
In 2006, Denise started taking classes at Flag to become an auditor again. One of the people she audited during training was Scientologist Tom Brennan, a handyman who worked at her rentals.
In February 2007, Brennan told Denise he was concerned about his son, Kyle, 20, who was visiting from Virginia. Kyle didn't look good and had been seeing a psychiatrist, he told Denise. Scientologists believe psychiatry and psychotropic drugs are evil — like street drugs.
Denise thought Kyle may have gotten hooked on street drugs. Brennan and Denise phoned Kyle's mother and urged her to send him to Narconon, the drug treatment program affiliated with the church. Kyle's mother refused. (All of this was later recounted in sworn testimony from Denise and Brennan.)
Thomas Brennan locked Kyle's antidepressant medication, Lexapro, in his car trunk. Brennan later found Kyle dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment.
The first person Brennan called was Denise Gentile. Then he called 911.
Clearwater police ruled the death a suicide. Kyle's mother, who is not a Scientologist, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Gentiles, Brennan and Scientology's Flag Service Organization. She alleged the Gentiles persuaded Brennan to take away Kyle's medication, contributing to his death.
The suit was dismissed in 2011, in part because Brennan said his son voluntarily turned over his medicine.
• • •
Denise and Jerry Gentile began investing heavily in real estate in the boom years of the mid 2000s.
They bought a rental house in Clearwater in 2003 and four more in the Clearwater-Largo area in 2004. In 2005, they bought five more rental properties in Pinellas, including the house, duplex and cottage on 15th Street N in St. Petersburg. Denise managed the properties.
In 2008, the U.S. housing market collapsed, and suddenly the Gentiles' properties were worth far less than their mortgaged amounts. The couple defaulted on five properties from 2009 to 2011. All went into foreclosure.
"The Gentiles find themselves in the same housing market as other people in this country," said Palchak, Denise's lawyer.
By 2011, the St. Petersburg rentals were in rough shape. Code inspectors found decayed wood inside and outside the units. Floor tiles were missing. Refrigerators were broken. Electrical outlets were missing. Walls were cracked or damaged by water. Doors needed knobs.
The city sent Jerry Gentile a violation notice in August, giving him three weeks to make repairs. That month, he stopped making mortgage payments.
Rico Currie was still around. He and his new girlfriend, Shauton Hines, had moved into the house fronting 15th Street. They had a young son.
"Miss Denise would come in and pick my son up, hold him and squeeze him and squeeze his cheeks,'' Currie said.
"She would come by and give him toys and clothes.''
Currie asked Denise to be the child's godmother.
His marijuana buyers still came to the cottage. Buyers also were knocking on the door of the lower unit of the duplex. Currie's friend, Demetrius Jackson — nickname: Meat — had moved in there.
Meat paid his $500 rent directly to Miss Denise. He did not pay with pot, Currie said.
But an informant told police large amounts of marijuana were being sold in the apartment.
Undercover detectives saw "heavy foot and vehicle traffic coming to and from the residence,'' a detective wrote in a lengthy affidavit.
Police sent in an undercover buyer on two occasions. He reported seeing large amounts of marijuana on a table.
Cops raided the duplex on a Thursday afternoon in October 2011. They found packages of marijuana on a desk, crack cocaine on the kitchen counter and a .38-caliber revolver hidden in the cushions of a couch.
They arrested Jackson, then 35, and two other men who had small amounts of cocaine in their pants pockets. (Jackson did not respond to an interview request.)
When police left the rentals, Currie called Miss Denise.
"She just said: 'Wow. Is everybody all right?'
"I told her: 'Yeah, everybody is cool.' "
On Dec. 29, 2011, St. Petersburg police legal adviser Donald Gibson contacted Jerry Gentile by letter, saying police had served a search warrant and documented drug activity. Gibson told Gentile he "must … alleviate the issues arising from this property.''
Palchak said Denise never got that letter. But according to Lisa Ledbetter, a nuisance abatement coordinator, Denise called and left a message referencing the letter. Ledbetter still has a desk note documenting the call.
Ledbetter said she left a message in return, but the Gentiles didn't call back.
• • •
St. Petersburg police arrested Rico Currie in October 2012 on several charges, some dating back months. One count alleged he sold cocaine to a woman out of the house.
He pleaded guilty to fleeing and eluding, driving with a suspended license, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, possession of marijuana, tampering with evidence and possession and sale of cocaine. He is serving a 38-month sentence at the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. The Times interviewed him there this month.
When Currie went to jail, his girlfriend, Hines, stayed in the house. A married couple, Reginald and Lashawnria McRae, whom Currie had recruited to rent the raided unit, stayed on, too.
"We had a lot of people knocking at our door that we didn't even know,'' Reginald McRae said.
"At 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning,'' added his wife.
They were marijuana buyers, Currie said. But the McRaes didn't have what they wanted. The buyers simply saw the TV on and figured they could score.
"That's the only reason they were knocking on the door like that," Currie said. "For the weed.''
One day, McRae walked out his door, bound for the corner store. The upstairs tenant hollered down at him.
Get me 20 blunts.
McRae brought back Swisher Sweets. He stayed in the apartment long enough to watch his neighbor cut them open, stuff one blunt with marijuana, roll it and drop it in a clear plastic bag.
Miss Denise was parked beside the duplex. "She was waiting on that marijuana,'' McRae said.
"They came (downstairs) with a baggie with all this marijuana in it and just handed her the marijuana and whatever money they had,'' he said.
The McRaes — he is 46, she is 31 — moved out New Year's Eve.
They did not have hot water during the nine months they lived at the Gentiles' property.
• • •
Police raided the rentals a second time just before Christmas 2012. They charged a St. Petersburg man with operating a drug house and said they found crack, pot, oxycodone and a Glock handgun in the cottage.
Two raids in 14 months. Drug buyers knocking at all hours. Cops on stakeout. Guns hidden in furniture. Windows boarded up. Two tenants convicted of drug dealing. Another tenant accused of dealing.
After all that, and only three weeks before the Feb. 15 foreclosure sale, Denise Gentile paid another visit to the property. Then, flashing lights.
After Officer Nemeth searched the Durango, Denise told him she had stopped at a house she used to own and gone upstairs.
Someone must have put marijuana in her car, she told Nemeth. She never lent the car to anyone.
She said she had not smoked marijuana in 10 years, Nemeth reported.
• • •
The tenants interviewed by the Times knew nothing about the Gentiles' vaunted status in the church, and weren't aware of Scientology's hatred of drugs.
They said they never saw any antidrug literature. They never heard Denise or Jerry Gentile say drugs are bad.
They said they never heard the Gentiles say the word "Scientology."
That's not how Scientologists are taught to deal with drug users.
They are supposed to "handle'' them — persuade them to stop using — or cut off ties with them.
Denise said so in a sworn statement.
Her comments came during a deposition she gave in the Kyle Brennan wrongful death suit in July 2010. Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar asked for her understanding of the Scientology term "potential trouble source.''
"That is somebody who is connected to somebody else who is antagonistic to that person's well-being,'' Denise said.
Dandar pressed, and Denise explained that a Scientologist has two ways to deal with a trouble source: handle or disconnect.
"If a Scientologist in good standing … is connected to a'' —
"Drug pusher,'' Denise said, finishing his sentence.
"Drug pusher?" Dandar asked.
"Absolutely disconnect,'' she said.
Joe Childs can be reached at [email protected] Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.