CLEARWATER — Gertrude Zullinger woke up on Monday morning to about 10 calls from concerned neighbors.
Somebody had entered the three buildings of the 55-and-older Imperial Pines complex — where Zullinger is president of the condo association — and hung copies of the Church of Scientology’s Freedom Magazine on all 168 doorknobs.
“We have gates. Each building has a lobby that’s locked,” Zullinger said. “They felt violated. They were very upset about it.”
One day after the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation showing companies tied to Scientology had bought much of the property in the center of downtown Clearwater, the church responded by spreading its own story across the city.
It canvassed neighborhoods and visited government offices to deliver a glossy 112-page edition of its Freedom Magazine criticizing the Times and touting the church’s contributions to Clearwater’s culture.
Someone also purchased digital advertisements that meant anyone who entered into Google “tampabay.com” — the Times’ website — first saw an ad for “Tampa Bay | Latest News” that linked to Freedom Magazine.
Ads promoting the magazine were blasted across social media. Internet ads appeared with the text “Tampa Bay news and why won’t the Tampa Bay Times print it?”
The magazine did not acknowledge the Sunday investigation, which detailed that companies tied to Scientology spent $103 million, mostly in cash, buying nearly 100 downtown properties since 2017. But it was delivered the next day.
The church had been aware of the article since late July, when the Times first asked for an interview with Scientology leader David Miscavige.
The church has declined or ignored multiple such requests before and after the Times’ investigation published.
Asked directly whether Scientology orchestrated or paid for any of the sales, the church did not answer.
The incident illustrated the often-tense relationship between the church and other residents of the city.
The magazine’s cover proclaimed “I am a citizen of Clearwater. I am a Scientologist.” Inside, it featured more than 60 pages of profiles of doctors, entrepreneurs, artists and others who are Scientologists in the community.
But its delivery, carried out in the dead of night, caught residents off guard. Dozens of them complained about the drop-offs to the city government, on social media or in calls to the Times.
“Scientologists showed up dropping off magazines at 4 a.m.,” one resident wrote alongside a screenshot from their home surveillance footage. “Is this legal to solicit at this time of the morning?”
Others called the Clearwater Police Department.
“Some deliveries occurred at 1 a.m., setting off motion sensing doorbells/cameras that alarmed residents,” Police Chief Dan Slaughter wrote Wednesday in an email to City Manager Bill Horne. “Some residents had ‘no solicitation’ signs, and under (city ordinance), solicitors are not to enter onto the property to disseminate material, even if it is political or religious.”
Slaughter contacted Sarah Heller, the church’s legal director, about the complaints. Heller apologized and told him Scientology hired a company to disseminate the magazines, according to the email.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment about the complaints.
Two young men from the church went to the Pinellas County Justice Center on Monday and tried to drop off boxes of Freedom magazine to all the departments, according to spokesman Stephen Thompson. The men left without delivering them. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to facilitate the delivery of a publication affiliated with a tax-exempt religious organization,” Thomson said.
Copies were hand-delivered to more than a dozen Pinellas County government offices, from Clearwater public utilities and City Hall to county code enforcement.
The church also delivered copies of the magazines to the Times’ newsroom in St. Petersburg with each staffer’s name and job title, as well as to the headquarters of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Times.
Helen Lehman said she was mowing her lawn at home in Countryside on Monday when she saw a maroon car trailing the mailman. Minutes after the postal worker filled her mailbox, Lehman said a woman got out of the passenger side of the car and put the magazine inside as well.
The magazines were marked with a U.S. Postal service permit, but postal spokesperson Enola Rice said “no mail bearing a permit imprint … may be dropped in a USPS collection box.”
“I was irate because my feeling is everybody needs to play by the rules,” Lehman said.
The magazine included a 10-page article criticizing the Times’ 2017 coverage of a retail plan that Miscavige developed but never implemented. The article’s headline asked “Who is the real block to downtown revitalization?”
The church’s answer was below: “More interested in their own agenda than the future of Clearwater, the Tampa Bay Times has worked to sabotage the recommendation of the Urban Land Institute.” The institute published recommendations in 2014 on how to revitalize downtown. One said the church and city needed to work together.
In March 2017, the Times reported that Miscavige had presented two city administrators with his plan to bring high-end retail to empty storefronts, renovate buildings on Cleveland Street and build an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise.
After the Times story, Miscavige detailed the plan in private meetings with City Council members. He told them his offer depended on the city stepping aside and allowing the church to buy a 1.4 acre vacant lot that had been bid on by both the church and the city government.
He also held an invitation-only presentation for select business and property owners to show the plans. But Miscavige declined to share the renderings or provide any other information to the general public or the media.
When the City Council voted in April 2017 to buy the lot from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Miscavige cut off communication.
The Times’ Sunday investigation revealed what happened next: Over the next three years, companies run by church members spent $103 million, nearly all in cash, to buy vacant lots, offices and storefronts around the center of downtown.
The magazine also revealed for the first time the renderings Miscavige showed in 2017. It depicted a movie theater, dining, a game center, bowling and parking at Cleveland Street and Myrtle Avenue.
The article did not explain why Miscavige hinged his redevelopment offer on his ability to buy the vacant lot.
It described the renderings as what “could have been.”