ALTADENA — Residents have expressed fear and outrage over what they describe as harassment and intimidation by supporters of the Church of Scientology's plans to buy a 198-acre former hospital complex in the foothills here.
At an emotional Altadena Town Council meeting Tuesday, residents complained of late night phone calls and mass mailings of pamphlets about the church, all aimed at winning community support for a conditional-use permit needed by the church to complete the sale.
Council Member Beverly Hurt said she has received nearly a dozen phone calls in the past two weeks, most of them from Scientologists asking her to recommend approval of the conditional use permit. Hurt said the aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign contradicts public assurances by the group that it wants to be a good neighbor in this unincorporated community.
"I've had phone calls from Denver, Florida, three places in Texas and several places in California," said Hurt, who said she was forced to disconnect her phone. "I've gotten calls as late as 1 a.m. I don't think anyone deserves that kind of harassment for any reason."
Hurt said the callers were polite but extremely persistent. "It's an almost Nazi-like persistence," she said. "These people are scary."
While acknowledging that church representatives may have been overzealous in making some phone calls, Church of Scientology officials said dissident former members have been trying to undermine the church by carrying out a harassment campaign in the church's name.
"There have been anonymous mailings, posters not put up by us and phone calls not made by us," said Shirley Young, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology. "We will be filing a police complaint in hopes of stopping all this."
The Church of Spiritual Technology, an affiliate of the Church of Scientology, has entered escrow to buy the property from Huntington Memorial Hospital of Pasadena. The complex was occupied until last year by La Vina Hospital, which merged with Huntington Memorial.
Completion of the sale depends on the church's ability to obtain a conditional-use permit from the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission. The commission will weigh the recommendations of the Altadena Town Council, an advisory body, when making its final decision.
Tuesday's meeting was recessed without the Town Council voting on the conditional use permit. Frank Bridal, council chairman, said residents would have another chance to voice their opinions at a meeting later this month.
"This issue is too controversial for us to make any decision without everyone getting a chance to express their viewpoint," Bridal said in an interview. "There are too many questions that still need to be answered."
Bridal said that after reading an article in The Times last week which quoted from incorporation papers filed by the Church of Spiritual Technology in 1982, he began to think the group was not being forthright. The incorporation papers, he said, seemed to contradict public assurances by church officials that their planned training center here would not be used as a base to espouse the tenets of Scientology.
Church of Scientology officials have told residents that the Church of Spiritual Technology was formed only to train ministers and safeguard the writings and taped lectures of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But the incorporation papers state the church's purpose was to "espouse and promulgate" Hubbard's teachings worldwide.
Bridal made copies of the newspaper article available as the meeting recessed. But only a few copies were left for residents. Several people who had earlier identified themselves as Church of Scientology members rushed to the front and grabbed dozens of copies, stuffing them into purses and back pockets. Copies of the article were later found discarded.
"To be honest with you, I think that's appalling," said Young when told of the incident. "I don't agree with it."
Concerns raised by residents at Tuesday's meeting also focused on the controversial practices of Scientology and the suspicion that the Church of Spiritual Technology, which is tax-exempt in California, was set up because a federal court has ruled that the Church of Scientology is not a church and thus not tax-exempt.
Last September, the U.S. Tax Court in Washington ruled that the California branch of the Church of Scientology, which is the mother church, had to pay $1.4 million in back taxes and penalties because it "has made a business of selling religion." The ruling stated that the group had conspired to impede the Internal Revenue Service from collecting taxes by maintaining large cash reserves in what the court called a bogus trust controlled by Hubbard and other high church officials.
Eight ranking church officials, including Hubbard's wife, were convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruct a criminal investigation. The charges grew out of a burglary of IRS offices in Washington and plans by the group to infiltrate IRS offices in Los Angeles and London to steal government files on Scientology and Hubbard. The church officials were imprisoned for more than a year and then released.
"If you read anything about these people, how they sue and how they harass, then you realize why people here are frightened," one longtime Altadena resident stated at the meeting.
"They claim they are a church but they do not teach the Bible," another resident said. "I fear this is a cult like Jim Jones'."
Several Scientologists, many of whom are Altadena residents, said they found it appalling that the main topic of discussion was their religious beliefs and not the proposed land use for the property.
Times staff writer Victor Valle contributed to this article.