Wolves in Suits
When Peter Grilli escorted me into the mediation room—along with Ken Dandar and Luke Lirot—I saw that the defendants and their attorneys were already seated around the large conference table. The thought of inhabiting the same space as these Scientologists and their posse of lawyers filled me with dread.
We sat down along one side. Grilli, the mediator, was at the head of the table to my left. Directly across from me were the Scientology lawyers in their expensive suits: Wallace F. Pope, Robert Potter, and Lee Fugate. To their left sat their clients, the defendants in my wrongful-death lawsuit: Denise Miscavige—twin sister of Scientology leader, David Miscavige—her husband Gerald Gentile, and my ex-husband Tom Brennan. His lawyer, Rick Alverez, was directly opposite Grilli, but alongside Alverez—sitting straight and rigid, notebooks at the ready—sat two obvious, but unidentified, members of Scientology’s OSA (the Church’s Office of Special Affairs, a group that some have likened to the KGB).
Their presence made it obvious that the Church of Scientology wasn’t interested in mediating. Instead, it was hell-bent on harassment and intimidation.
There was nothing celebratory about my visits to Tampa, Florida, and attorney Ken Dandar knew this better than anyone. The past year’s-worth of events had been extremely jarring. During that period, Kyle’s case had gotten lost in a three-ring circus created by the Church of Scientology lawyers. They seemed intent on distracting the public, and it was working.
Federal judge Stephen D. Merryday had ordered us to go a round of “Alternative Dispute Resolution”—mediation—to see if we could resolve our differences without judicial intervention. It appeared by Ken’s demeanor that this court-appointed opportunity was not off to a good start.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said. His eyes sparked with frustration as he told me that the lawyers representing the Church had threatened to walk-out of tomorrow’s mediation.
“This is about an old vendetta from my Lisa McPherson days,” he said. “They’re saying I’ve no right to be there because of the agreement they’re claiming I signed following the McPherson case. What’s going on is they’re trying to get you alone without legal representation.
Lisa McPherson was a Scientologist who died in 1995 while under the care of the Church in Clearwater, Florida. Scientology was indicted on two felony charges—“abuse and/or neglect of a disabled adult” and “practicing medicine without a license”—but these were later dropped. Ken Dandar represented McPherson’s family when they brought a civil suit against the Church that was eventually settled in May 2004. The Scientology lawyers said that afterward, Dandar signed a document stating that he’d never again sue the Church and its members. Judge Robert Beach sided with the Scientology lawyers and demanded that Dandar remove himself from Kyle’s federal case. If he didn’t, Beach threatened to fine him one thousand dollars per day.
“They don’t play nice, Victoria,” Ken said. “You have every right to be upset with how it’s being used to distract from Kyle’s case.”
The dark feud between Ken and the Church of Scientology wasn’t going away anytime soon. Shining a light on the horrific circumstances surrounding McPherson’s death had turned Ken into a war hero amongst the critics of the controversial organization. For devout Scientologists, this made him an enemy of the Church—an enemy of exalted stature. In the intervening years, the dispute between Ken Dandar and the Scientology lawyers had become an all-out, name-calling, rock-throwing war.
It was going to be extremely difficult being in the same room with the Scientologists we were suing. And doing it alone without Ken by my side was simply unimaginable. I told him that we needed to call attorney Luke Lirot. He’d also worked on the McPherson case—he understood exactly what we were up against. I was certain that if he was available, he’d be willing to help.
I’d hired Luke a few months after Kyle died when it became apparent that the Clearwater Police Department wasn’t following basic police procedures in its investigation of Kyle’s death. He’d helped me with the police back then, and now—three years later, after we’d spent countless hours on the phone—I’d finally meet Luke in person.
When Ken’s Hummer pulled into mediator Peter Grilli’s shrubbery-edged parking lot, there he was, casually leaning against his vehicle. He was exactly how I’d imagined: laid back, unpretentious, and confidant. This morning he was wearing the required uniform, white shirt and tie, and a well-tailored navy-blue suit. I suspected his wardrobe of choice would’ve been a bit more casual when I spied a trio of leather bracelets encircling both wrists, perhaps the last vestige of his hippie days before studying law at the University of San Francisco.
Mediations are rigidly organized. The entering and exiting of conference rooms are strategically timed to make certain that defendants and plaintiffs never accidentally cross paths.
There was no doubt that the morning would be unpleasant, but it was necessary for the case, and on a deeper level, for me. Mediation would bring us one step closer to discovery. And I was hoping to get a read on the defendants by observing their behavior.
We walked inside. The slam of the door behind us sounded an alarm, alerting a bespectacled Peter Grilli, our mediator, who appeared from a back room. After a few minutes of hurried conversation, he escorted us down a short corridor leading to an undecorated room containing a small table surrounded by chairs.
As I eased myself into a chair, I was overcome by a wave of nausea. Ken, sensing my discomfort, leaned in next to me with reassuring words: “You’re dealing with this better than most people would, Victoria. You’re a lot stronger than you realize.”
At that moment Luke hastily opened his computer. “Let’s see what’s going on out there with Scientology,” he whispered as he tapped the keyboard.
“Ah … there she is,” he said, as a photo of Lisa McPherson filled the screen. His tone sounded like that of a loving father, not an attorney. “Now, let’s see what they’re saying about Kyle,” he continued, his eyes trained on the screen.
Then, with a flurry of activity, we were summoned into the conference room where the mediation was to take place. We sat down, and then Grilli formally introduced everyone.
There were no fake smiles or forced politeness. Kyle’s father avoided eye contact with me. Instead, he stared at his lap. When not writing on their legal pads, the two OSA operatives focused on Brennan with laser-beam precision. He looked terrified. On the other hand, Denise Miscavige and her husband didn’t seem to be taking the situation all that seriously. She seemed almost animated as she whispered in her husband’s ear.
Taking the lead, Wallace F. Pope slowly rose from his chair. Peering down at me momentarily, within seconds his face flushed from a soft pink to a deep crimson. (That can’t be healthy, I thought to myself.)
“Let me tell you about your lawyer!” he raged, as he began spewing a stream of contemptuous insults across the table. (Ken had warned that there would be a fair amount of yelling, but I’d naively hoped they’d conduct themselves in a somewhat civilized manner.)
There was no doubting Wallace F. Pope hated Ken Dandar.
Then the insults spread to my son Kyle. Pope was using information he’d gleaned from the lie-laced Clearwater Police report, but some of it must have come from Kyle’s father. (I wondered if these Scientology lawyers had thought to question the character of a man who’d besmirch the memory of his dead child.)
Glancing over my shoulder toward Luke and Ken, I noticed that they remained calm. If Wallace Pope was looking for a reaction, he wasn’t getting it.
When he’d thrown enough hand grenades in our direction, it was Robert Potter’s turn. He looked uncomfortable and passed, however, so Lee Fugate took the stage. He was another screamer, but he delivered a performance that famous drama coach Lee Strasberg would have applauded. (Fortunately, I never heard the verbiage spilling from his mouth. I only saw his lips moving, at times twisting into a snarl. I’d erected an emotional brick wall that all of this bellowing couldn’t penetrate. As he ranted, I wondered if he’d practiced his routine in front of a mirror. Obviously, he hadn’t, as I’d like to think he’d have felt some level of shame and developed a different one. When he finished, I almost expected him to take a bow.)
Brennan’s lawyer, Rick Alverez—hired soon after Kyle’s death—was next in line. He was the new lawyer on the block, newly recruited to replace well-known Scientology litigator Paul B. Johnson, who’d recently retired due to health problems. (Which was a shame as I was curious and wanted to get a look at Johnson. Twenty-seven years had passed since famed attorney F. Lee Bailey had presumably gotten him off the hook for bribing Hillsborough County, Florida, commissioners to favor his client, Hubbard Construction, a business owned, of course, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I say “presumably” as I could never uncover the final outcome of the case.)
Alverez simply added the mediation’s closing statement (from the Scientology side of the argument). And he wrapped up with the cringe-worthy experience’s only flicker of empathy: “Kyle was a good kid. Let’s try not to forget this.”
The worst was over. We waited back in the undecorated room for phase two of the mediation. Looking over at Ken, I marveled at his ability to stay calm after enduring such a verbal assault. Meanwhile, Peter Grilli was shuttling between us and the defendants, asking questions and delivering answers. Suddenly he was sitting close by with a list of questions they wanted me to answer. As I carefully repeated facts I’d committed to memory, he methodically jotted them down, filling his lined legal pad.
As he flipped his notepad to a clean sheet, his pen poised to record more of my answers, loud laughter exploded through the thin walls from the adjacent room, the defendants’ room. They sounded like raucous party-goers. It was uncouth and disrespectful. I wondered if it was intentional. Grilli was a real professional: If he heard it, he didn’t let on.
“Have you thought about this, Victoria?” he asked, looking up from his writing. “Have you thought that sometimes the bad guys win?”
Then we were done. The defendants and their attorneys left; we are the last to leave Grilli’s. Just inside the front door, Luke and Ken filled Grilli in on all the case’s sordid details, the information left out of the mediation.
“You’re not going to believe this one,” said Ken at one point. “The poor kid is found dead, no fingerprints found, and the bullet that killed him is missing with no gunshot residue test…”
After a momentary pause, Grilli changed the subject: “Hey, do you remember the stunt Scientology tried to pull on Judge Krentzman?” he asked. They obviously did as all three erupted into laughter. “Can you imagine that old curmudgeon being set up like that? Attempting to lure him out on that yacht, with prostitutes, lines of coke, and cameras set up ready to capture it all.”
But old Ben Krentzman—a no-nonsense old-timer judge who’d gotten in Scientology’s crosshairs—caught on.
The three were greatly amused at this legendary Middle District Court story. And the tawdry details were still remembered despite the passage of time.
Walking away from Peter Grilli’s office, Ken reminded me that suing Scientology means dealing with their high-dollar lawyers. For them, it’s all about billable hours.
This mediation was a reprehensible and unforgivable game of ruin, to them nothing more than a deliberate tactic to break us while impugning the integrity of the deceased, my son.
Judge Ben Krentzman, Attorney Paul Johnson; Information
Attorney Ken Dandar
Copyright © 2021 by Victoria L. Britton