Clearwater Sun: Police Hold Scientologists' Guns
Date: September 23, 1976
By Stephen Advokat and Bill McCartha
All but four of the weapons, found "about 60 days ago" in the King Arthur Courts condominiums off State Road 580 just west of U.S. 19, are being held by Dunedin police. State and federal authorities are investigating.
The one weapon sent elsewhere was a short-barreled Mauser, which was turned over to the U.S. Treasury Department. Three others are apparently being held by U.S. Customs officials in West Palm Beach.
The Mauser, a German firearm introduced around the turn of the century and used extensively by German paratroopers during World War II, has been copied and widely used in other countries, including the United States. It is not illegal to own a Mauser, but federal regulations do prohibit "easily concealable" short-barreled Mausers, a Treasury spokesman said.
Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms completed its "Mauser investigation" about three weeks ago and turned its findings over to the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa, spokesman said.
Although sources said Treasury felt it had the evidence to support charges, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eleanor Hill, who received the Treasury's findings, said Wednesday she had decided not to prosecute. She declined to elaborate on her reasons.
Federal officials said the Mauser "in its present condition" was unacceptable for import under the National Firearms Act of 1934. Violation of the act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment or a $10,000 fine or both.
A Scientology spokesman acknowledged today that 17 firearms had been imported through Customs at West Palm Beach in mid-November. The spokesman, who termed the "Mauser pistol" an 80-year-old collector's item, said the weapons were taken through Customs by Scientologist John Danilovich and owned by various members of the cult.
She said the weapons were privately owned by individual Scientologists.
"There is no prohibition in the church doctrine against hunting or target practice," Mrs. Heard said.
It is not known how many weapons are being held by Dunedin police, but nine, including the Mauser, were flagged by Customs officials. Five of those were apparently cleared shortly afterward, but - by mistake - all nine were released to the Scientologists.
Customs officials readily admit that and other errors in handling the case and say these caused "great embarrassment to the Church of Scientology and John Danilovich."
"We have a simple case here that if you do a lot of things, you make mistakes," said one Customs official. "And I think we've paid dearly for this one.
"Customs is a big enough organization to admit that we make mistakes and apologize for them."
Customs sources said eight of the weapons were of U.S. origin and not subject to duties. Five were later cleared, but the last four, including the Mauser, have not been. The other three being held were described by Customs as an inoperational shotgun, a 36-inch .22-caliber rifle and an antique revolver.
It is not Customs' job to register weapons. Once there are licensed by the Treasury Department, it is the responsibility of local and state authorities to register them under local and state ordinances.
Dunedin police, who two weeks ago denied having found the weapons, have been advised by City Attorney John Hubbard not to release them unless requested to do so by a federal agency investigating the situation or - if a valid claim is filed - by the owner or owners.
The latter possibility seems unlikely in light of reports that representatives of the state attorney's office are reviewing whether ownership of the weapons, which are unregistered, violates state law.
Hubbard cited city ordinances against owning unregistered firearms, but said he was not instructing city officials to prosecute in deference to the state attorney's office.
Sources close to the situation said representatives of Southern Land Development and Leasing Corp., the Church of Scientology business firm that handled the cult's local property acquisitions last year, made a claim for the Mauser earlier.
The Scientologists also established temporary residence in King Arthur Courts, which had few other residents. There were widespread reports that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard called the Dunedin complex home at the time the Scientologists announced their presence in Clearwater.
Although Hubbard's whereabouts are unknown, there are indications local officials want to question him about the weapons.
Hubbard was purportedly an explorer and adventurer before he wrote the book that eventually became Scientology's bible. His official Scientology biography says he was a photographer of note, but makes no mention of an interest in hunting or weapons.
The weapons were found "on a shelf" at "about the same time the Scientologists left," according to one source.
The Scientologists' six-month lease at King Arthur Courts expired in June. Alterations to the cult's Clearwater holdings were apparently completed by then, and electronic equipment and cult members were moved from Dunedin to Clearwater. Mrs. Heard said the weapons were also crated for transport to Clearwater but were inadvertently left behind.
Clearwater Federal Savings and Loan Association later foreclosed on the Dunedin property, previously owned by William Dexter and now known as Dunmoor.
Local and federal authorities were reluctant to discuss the situation.
A spokesman for the state attorney's office played down the weapon find as a "common thing," something that "happens all the time."
The spokesman initially said the state attorney's office was not involved but was aware of the situation and the Treasury Department's interest in the Mauser.
But a Dunedin police spokesman said he could not discuss the case because the state attorney's office was handling it, and the state attorney's office later indicated some action might be taken within a matter of days.
Mrs. Heard said State Attorney James T. Russell's interest stemmed from his inability to uncover illegalities on the Scientologists' part despite an announcement that he was investigating the cult.
"Russell would investigate squirt guns in Pinellas County if he thought he could get publicity from it," she said.
Ms. Hill, the assistant U.S. attorney who received Treasury's findings, described her work as a "routine criminal investigation" into firearms possession. She said she was "not going to go into the reasons" for her decision not to prosecute, adding: "The reasons for not prosecuting had nothing to do with the Scientologists."
Representatives of Southern Land filed for a court order in Washington in an attempt to impede Treasury's investigation, but a U.S. district judge labeled the request "frivolous" and denied it.
Tobias C. Tolzmann, a Scientology attorney from Hawaii who represented Southern Land in Washington, sought to limit testing of the Mauser to determine whether it was an antique or contraband. He also attempted to secure guarantees from the government that the weapon did not violate federal regulations and that it would be returned to its owner.
But ascertaining who owned the Mauser and why the weapons had been brought into the country proved difficult for U.S. District Judge George Hart, according to transcripts of the testimony. Here is an excerpt:
Hart: "It would appear from the pleadings that this was an abandoned gun that was turned over by the owner of the building to the police, and so far as you have alleged, up to this point, unless you know who owns the gun, we don't know who the owner is.
"Furthermore, we do not know how the gun got into the country except on your allegations... Do you know who brought the gun into the country?"
Tolzmann: "Your honor, we know, yes, we know the identity of the individual who on behalf of some 17 others brought in a whole pack of them."
Hart: "Brought in what?"
Tolzmann: "I say, your honor, there were some 30 or 40 people traveling together. Their baggage was commingled. One particular gentleman undertook to take care of the matter of clearing things through customs, and he presented a number of weapons which belong to all sorts of people, and he was the one who passed them through customs.
"We know his identity, yes."
Hart: "What were they bringing all these weapons into the country for?"
Tolzmann: "Off-hand, your honor, I do not know."
Ms. Hill said she was aware of court action related to the situation, but said it neither hampered her investigation nor affected her decision not to prosecute.
She said the federal government had difficulty establishing ownership of the Mauser and establishing criminal intent regardings its ownership and use.