LARGO — A plea deal with Pinellas prosecutors has ended an awkward chapter for the Church of Scientology and its long crusade against drugs, allowing the twin sister of the church's worldwide leader to avoid a marijuana conviction.
St. Petersburg police arrested Denise Gentile in January on charges of DUI, possession of marijuana and failure to yield. But, after negotiations between her attorney and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, she pleaded guilty Monday to a reduced charge of reckless driving. She did not appear in court, and a formal finding of guilt will be withheld.
Gentile, 53, of Clearwater, will be required to attend DUI school and pay $800 in court costs. Assistant State Attorney Frank Piazza said she also must receive an alcohol evaluation and attend a "victim's panel" in which people discuss firsthand experience of the danger of drinking and driving.
Gentile was the subject of a recent Tampa Bay Times story that detailed her Jan. 22 arrest as well as the chronic drug activity that took place at a St. Petersburg rental property owned by her husband, Gerald Gentile.
The circumstances were at odds with the teachings of Scientology, which has spent millions vigorously campaigning against psychiatric and street drugs. Having reached one of the highest levels of "spiritual awareness" in the church, Denise Gentile would be expected to take an equally strong stand in her daily life.
Her defense attorney, Jo Ann Palchak, could not be reached late Monday. Gentile's twin brother, David Miscavige, has been Scientology's leader since 1986. The church does not discuss Miscavige's family.
During a 2010 deposition in an unrelated lawsuit, Gentile indicated it was a Scientologist's duty to "disconnect" from anyone pushing drugs.
However, the officer who pulled her over in St. Petersburg reported seeing her leave "a known drug house" minutes earlier. The property at 620 15th St. N was where she routinely collected the rent.
The officer also searched Gentile's car and found nine cigars or "blunts" containing marijuana under the passenger seat.
The Times interviewed former tenants at the property who described heavy drug activity there. One said Gentile often accepted blunts as payment for water bills or used rent money to buy them.
Records show police raided the property in 2011 and 2012, finding marijuana, crack and handguns. In a letter, the city warned Gerald Gentile about the drug activity. Denise Gentile called and left the city a message about the letter, records indicate, but didn't follow up.
Palchak has said that Denise Gentile never received the letter, had no knowledge of drug activity at the property and denies receiving "contraband" from anyone.
On Monday, Piazza said a defense argument about the traffic stop figured significantly in how the case unfolded.
Gentile was stopped after she turned out of an alley onto 16th Street, allegedly turning too close to an ambulance. This became the probable cause that gave the officer the right to pull her over.
But authorities obtained surveillance video showing Gentile's car wasn't that close to the ambulance after all, Piazza said.
That was a problem for the prosecution because removing the legal reason for stopping a car generally nullifies any evidence found as a result.
In this case, the evidence included the nine blunts in her car and breath tests that put Gentile's blood alcohol above the level at which Florida law presumes someone is too intoxicated to drive.
A defense motion on these points could have led a judge to throw out the evidence, destroying the prosecution's case.
Though the DUI and marijuana possession charges no longer stand, the plea deal comes with consequences, Piazza said, citing her guilty plea and her required attendance at DUI school.
"This way we were able to address her issues," he said.