“I believe there are angels among us,” wrote Helen Keller, the famous deaf and blind author. “They come to you and me in our darkest hours ….” And, as I’ve discovered, they come in all shapes and sizes … and as members of seemingly unlikely professions.
After Kyle died, my first contact with the Clearwater Police Department had been disappointing. The investigating detective, Stephen Bohling, had few answers, but he did promise to stay in touch. Weeks passed with no follow-up call, however, leaving our family in a perpetual state of limbo. With frustration and anxiety building, the solution became painfully obvious—I needed a lawyer to monitor the on-going investigation of my son’s death. And, because the Church of Scientology was involved with the tragedy, I needed an attorney familiar with that secretive faith.
How could I find someone like that?
Then I remembered I’d already spoken to someone knowledgeable about Scientology. When I called and explained my plight, his first response was fairly pessimistic: “Finding an attorney to look into a case connected to the Church of Scientology isn’t going to be easy,” he said.
“For now, this isn’t about Scientology,” I exclaimed. “It’s about the police department; it’s about their investigation.”
“That’s not how they’re going to see it,” he warned. “Your son’s case is connected to the Church and they have a lot of power and control down there. They’ve got a lot of money, and they’re extremely vindictive. Lawyers don’t want to square off against them. In the world of Scientology, it’s called ‘Fair Game.’ You need to do some research so that you understand what you’re going up against.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I was thankful that I’d connected with one of Scientology’s most educated and articulate antagonists. In my quest for assistance, a Dominican priest had been my first tutor. Now David S. Touretzky, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department, became my second. I was reasonably certain that counseling a grieving mother while educating her about Scientology’s unethical and medically unsound practices wasn’t a part of his everyday curriculum.
Highly regarded among those opposed to Scientology, Professor Touretzky has been targeted numerous times by the Church. In what founder L. Ron Hubbard called “dead agent” campaigns—an attack-the-attacker method of countering negative accusations—the Church of Scientology has accused Touretzky of racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, supporting terrorism, and collusion with the pharmaceutical industry. (Naturally, because of Scientology’s rabid hatred of psychiatry and psychotropic drugs, the Church would claim that he’s in bed with big pharma.)
After a brief pause, the professor said he knew a lawyer who might be willing to help.
“I can’t make any promises,” said Touretzky. “He’s from Clearwater and has had dealings with the Church before. His name is Luke Lirot. Let me make a call, and I’ll get back to you.”
This is how Luke Lirot—a criminal defense and First Amendment lawyer—came into my life.
Articulate, quick-witted, and fearless, Lirot was one of the only Tampa Bay-area lawyers who was not intimidated by the Church or their coven of high-priced attorneys. And he had extensive experience when it came to the workings of Scientology. For seven years, he’d assisted in the fiercely contested and highly publicized Lisa McPherson lawsuit. A practicing Scientologist, McPherson died in December 1995 after seventeen days in the care of Church members in Clearwater, Florida. Her relatives filed their wrongful-death lawsuit against Scientology just over a year later. It never went to trial—an out-of-court settlement was reached in May of 2004—but typical of Scientology-funded lawyers, they inundated Lirot and co-attorney Kennan Dandar with countermotions, filings, and their related paperwork. Dandar later claimed that by the end of the grueling undertaking, the McPherson case files could be stacked as high as a two-story building.
After retaining Lirot, I quickly learned that his legal expertise extended far afield from Scientology. He also had extensive experience in the controversial world of adult entertainment.
The First Amendment-related tale begins, quite innocently, when he was attending third grade at a Catholic school. Given a homework assignment to paste together a collage out of clippings, Lirot artfully compiled his of scantily clad models cut from his mother’s fashion magazines. It was graphic, and it got him into a lot of trouble. As he later expressed, it was his “first run-in with censorship.”
A popular high-schooler, Lirot studied criminology at Florida State then attended law school at the University of San Francisco. He moved back to Clearwater in 1986 when his mother was dying from cancer. At first it was tough finding work as a public defender. To stay afloat, he even worked a brief factory stint silk-screening Anheuser-Busch’s iconic bull terrier, Spuds MacKenzie, onto various small objects. But then a friend helped him land a legal position with a Clearwater bankruptcy and real estate attorney.
A phone call to that office changed his life. It was from Joe Redner, a Tampa, Florida, adult entertainment entrepreneur. Tampa is known for many things, including Cuban sandwiches and Gasparilla, an alcohol-fueled festival featuring pirates, parades, and pyrotechnics. It’s also called the nation’s “strip-club capital,” and Redner—known locally as the father of the lap dance—had just opened a venue featuring totally nude dancers. His “entertainers” were getting hauled off on lewdness charges, and he needed a local attorney to represent them. Soon, Luke Lirot became Redner’s in-house defense lawyer.
Strict and unbending religious tenets often encourage the opposite results. (For example, when the Catholic Church condemns a movie as blasphemous or morally offensive, it usually results in selling more tickets.) Now the third-grader who’d been chastised for his provocative montage of lingerie models was defending young dancers who were usually wearing less. This would have certainly curled a Mother Superior’s heavily starched wimple.
Luke Lirot opened his own law firm in 1990. It specializes in First Amendment and criminal defense cases. Over the following decade, as Redner’s adult-entertainment enterprise grew, the area’s governing bodies passed ordinances governing bodies, banning strip clubs and their titillating practices such as nude lap dancing. Redner, with Lirot’s legal assistance, countersued, eventually winning over a million dollars. Lirot says that he’s never been a big adult entertainment customer. But, as he told journalist Amy Martinez, he’s proud “to be one of the few guys who would walk out of the clubs with more money than [he] had going in,” (referring, of course, to his legal fees).
During the same period, Redner and Lirot—who believes that government shouldn’t dictate what people can “see, hear, or read”—hosted a weekly civil liberties-related TV talk show. And, according to Martinez, he defended the free speech rights “of political candidates, activists, bookstores, cops, priests, and cartoonists.”
Work kept him busy, so it wasn’t easy getting him on the phone. We’d often catch up with one another while he was driving back from a meeting with one of his clients. (They’d probably been discussing something that had gone down in a Tampa-area adult club.)
“I think it’s safe to say, Victoria,” he once told me, “that I’ve more than a few clients you’d never invite to dinner.”
His was a world I didn’t understand, one I didn’t have a frame of reference for. The best visuals I could come up with were scenes from the HBO drama series The Sopranos. No matter how much I tried to stretch my imagination, when Luke was describing his work, I’d always end up at the same seedy establishment located somewhere off a tired section of New Jersey highway—the Bada Bing! strip club. Tony Soprano and his lowlife associates would be at the bar, drinking, arguing, and planning another heist. Except that in the state of Florida, it wasn’t Italian gangsters running the strip shows from the dark corners—it was Russian mobsters.
Perhaps it was Luke’s experience with Eastern European toughs that made him fearless. He never flinched when it came to helping me with the Clearwater Police Department, or the Church of Scientology. In the early days after losing Kyle, it would have been a lonely road to travel if not for Luke Lirot. He knew what I was going through. He understood the life-altering heartache of losing a child.
But then, in working with Lirot, I was confronted with a vexatious moral dilemma. I wouldn’t want my sons to frequent strip clubs. And I certainly wouldn’t want a daughter of mine to “work” in one. In our legal system, however, everyone deserves competent representation. Should nude dancing be protected by the First Amendment as an art form? How should we define “art”? It’s certainly open to interpretation.
There could never be a truly happy ending for Kyle’s story. For me, of course, the perfect ending would’ve been Kyle’s miraculous return, his smiling face within easy reach of my now-empty grasp. The end-game Luke sought—Kyle’s true legacy—was lasting change, something that would reduce the chance of a similar misfortune befalling others. Perhaps we can get there: perhaps the world can be a better and safer place because of it.
It’s when we’re at our lowest points in life that friends, family, and even strangers reveal their innermost selves. Bullies come out from the shadows: the uncaring make themselves known. If we are open to it, however, we can also experience the very best of humanity. Luke Lirot was an ally—one of those angels who stepped forward during my darkest hours.