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City attorney to Clearwater police: Protests on sidewalk in front of Scientology building are legal

A city official says police won’t respond to protests outside of the downtown Flag Building unless it’s a criminal matter.
Published Dec. 3, 2015

CLEARWATER — Police have been directed to ignore any requests from the Church of Scientology asking officers respond to peaceful protesters "exercising their First Amendment rights" on public sidewalks near the church's downtown Flag Building.

The advisory, sent in a department email recently by Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette, was prompted by multiple calls dispatchers have fielded from church members about Alex Hageli, who has picketed in front of the building several times this year.

Hageli, 40, a lawyer who lives in Illinois and owns a home in Belleair, said in a recent interview that he has never been a member of Scientology but has made it his mission every time he visits to stand outside the church's headquarters and urge members to seek help in escaping the religion.

Surette said Scientology officials have told police Hageli should be prohibited from protesting because he is considered part of a 2001 injunction that banned nine individuals and their associates from trespassing on church property.

Surette, in his email, said only one of the individuals named in the injunction, Mark Bunker, currently lives in Clearwater, and there is no evidence Hageli is collaborating with him.

"Clearwater police officers will not respond to reports of any other persons who are exercising their First Amendment rights on publicly owned sidewalks near Church of Scientology property unless there is an allegation that a crime is being committed or the person is specifically named in the injunction," according to Surette's email.

Scientology officials, however, maintain Hageli is associated with Bunker and should be subject to the injunction, according to a church statement emailed to the Times.

"It is vital to the safety of our staff and parishioners that a watchful eye be maintained on anyone obsessed with the church," according the statement. "Mr. Hageli, a resident of Chicago with no rational reason, has frequently traveled to Clearwater with the sole purpose of harassing Church members. Our staff and parishioners seek to ignore him, but security maintains a watchful eye."

Hageli, who began researching Scientology about 16 years ago when he first visited his grandmother in Clearwater, said he primarily tries to reach Sea Org members who live and work in church buildings.

He typically holds up books written by defectors and gently talks to members as they walk by "to let them know there's people that will help them out," he said.

Hageli said he has been picketing since 2013, during the handful of visits he makes to Clearwater each year. But on March 8, he was arrested on a trespassing charge, an arrest later deemed unlawful in a Clearwater Police Department internal investigation.

"Good afternoon, Sea Org," he told members that day as they stepped off church buses on S Fort Harrison Avenue and walked into the Flag Building.

While recording video on his cellphone, Hageli said: "Did you happen to catch Jenna Miscavige's book? The secret's out. The abuses have to stop. David Miscavige is not your friend. He hurts people. Read Jenna's book to find out."

David Miscavige is the leader of Scientology and uncle of Jenna Miscavige Hill, who published a book in 2013 detailing her upbringing in the religion and her escape at age 21.

According to the CPD investigation report, two church members stood nearby shooting video of Hageli's actions, and one man followed Hageli with a portable radio playing loud music.

"Initially, one security member in a suit intentionally stood within a foot of Hageli, but Hageli did not react," the report states.

Officer Raniel Heredia responded to a call from the church and detained Hageli after finding he had trespass warnings from 2014.

After handcuffing Hageli, Heredia met with Sarah Heller, head of Scientology's legal department, and reviewed the diagrams included in the 2001 injunction, according to the internal investigation.

Because Heredia mistakenly thought the sidewalk was church property, he arrested Hageli for "trespass after warning," according to the investigation report.

Hageli said the charge was dropped the next day and that he is satisfied with Surette's email to the department clarifying his right to protest.

Heredia also was given a written reprimand and remedial training.

On Sept. 25, Hageli filed a motion in Pinellas County court asking a judge to dissolve the 2001 injunction. He said the injunction makes it difficult for members of the public to protest the church because church officials can use the diagrams to confuse police about who is prohibited from picketing.

For example, when Heredia was reviewing the injunction with Heller before Hageli's arrest, she never corrected the officer when he assumed the public sidewalk was church property, according to the internal investigation report.

On Oct. 22, Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff denied the motion.

"I just don't want to get arrested again," Hageli said. "I would just want to get rid of the injunction so they can't do their games of confusing officers."

In their statement, church officials said with the roughly 12,000 Scientologists who visit annually from over 60 countries, their priority is to promote safety.

"When we feel that our staff, parishioners or visitors are threatened or harassed by Mr. Hageli, we will exercise our rights as law-abiding, productive citizens of Clearwater and will not hesitate to call upon law enforcement for assistance in maintaining peace," the statement said.

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

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