Thirty-Six Hours in Scientology Central

Clearwater, Florida

It was the close of a sweltering June day, and the tiny lobby of the Clearwater Beach Hotel was rapidly filling with weary tourists clad in dripping-wet bathing suits and cheap sandals. Many of the adults had obviously had enough of the shore. One couple’s brood of children—sun-tired and complaining—were dragging their Disney-themed beach towels into the tight space, leaving behind copious trails of the area’s famous white sand. “Who’d willingly book a Florida vacation in June?!” I thought to myself.

My stay in Clearwater, Florida, had just begun, yet I was already thinking of heading back home.

“I can’t stay in that room,” I exclaimed to my German friends, Markus Thoess and Kirsten Kofal. “It’s not safe.” Markus is an independent documentary filmmaker: Kirsten is his camerawoman. Both had arrived two days earlier from Berlin. Markus had contacted me a few months earlier, asking if I’d be willing to share Kyle’s story in his newest Scientology-related documentary. He’d already produced five documentaries about the controversial religion for German television, none of which cast the Church in a positive light. For this, his sixth and final such film, he was focusing on the suspicious deaths associated with the faith. Of that list of unfortunates, my son, Kyle, was the only non-Scientologist.

Markus had already filled me in on the happenings in Clearwater since his plane touched down. He’d wasted no time in upsetting the Scientology powers that be. Not approving of his investigative procedures, the organization had already reported him three times to the Clearwater Police Department. Each was for a frivolous reason. In one instance, Markus and Kirsten—camera at the ready—merely walked into one of the many Scientology-owned buildings to request an interview. Their reception? A full-scale emotional meltdown quickly followed by an angry call to the cops. (Scientologists preach tolerance and respect for others but consistently react with outrage if a person questions their religion, methods, or behavior. As I’d experienced during the investigation of Kyle’s death and throughout the litigation that followed, they’ll push the boundaries of moral decency—obstruct justice, lie under oath, or during a police investigation, etc.—to protect their self-interest.)  

When Markus described his Clearwater experiences, there was little doubt in my mind that the local cops and, of course, OSA—Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs, their secret police—knew exactly where we were staying.

“It’s not safe,” I repeated, shaking my head. “It’s on the first floor and opens to the parking lot. It’s not good—there are no security cameras on that corner of the building. First-floor hotel rooms are more vulnerable to break-ins.” (Additionally, Markus hadn’t followed my protocol when booking a room in Scientology territory. Never use your real name!)  

From behind the front desk, a tall, slender young man—obviously, a college kid working a summer job—shrugged his shoulders in my direction as if to ask, “What do you want to do, lady? Are you taking this room or not?”  

“Don’t you have another room?” I asked him. “One with a security camera just outside, no adjoining room, and, please, something on any floor but the first?” (Always ask for a place a few floors up. An organization like Scientology—infamous for having burglarized a U.S. government building—would have no qualms about breaking into a hotel room.)

Raising his eyebrows, the young clerk stared directly at me, annoyed.

“Can’t you help me out?” I pleaded. “We’re here to film a documentary about the Church of Scientology.” Suddenly, his eyes widened with understanding. Markus and Kirsten, burdened down as they were with their heavy camera equipment, were proof of what I’d just revealed.

“You should have mentioned that, to begin with,” he exclaimed, nodding his head and tapping his computer keyboard. Now, it’s as if he’s eagerly joined our secret alliance.

“I’ve got the perfect room,” he whispered across the counter.

Upstairs, I propped open the door with my luggage while I quickly checked out the room. Satisfied, I hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the doorknob, shut the door, and turned the deadbolt. The room’s modest furnishings—including a tiny microwave sitting alongside a plastic coffee maker—screamed: “low-budget.” But there were advantages, too. I was now away from the main road and the traffic noise, and it overlooked picturesque Clearwater harbor. Palm trees and gently bobbing boats made for a serene setting. 

The plan was to meet early and grab some breakfast. We’d spend the morning filming my segment, then meet and share a late lunch with Joe Childs, a journalist who’d written multiple stories about the Church of Scientology for the Tampa Bay Times. Markus had asked me to introduce him to the writer. Highly regarded for his reporting, Childs was also not easily intimidated. It took courage to write about the Church while living within a stone’s throw of its Mecca.

Not far from the hotel, we began the day gathered around a small utilitarian metal table. Marcus sat across from me.

“Do you want to go downtown?” he asked hesitatingly.

It didn’t surprise me that he’d want to film where Kyle passed away—an apartment building on Cleveland Street called “The Colony.” I’d thought long and hard about how I’d respond to the question. Markus had shown himself to be a considerate host who took the subject of Scientology seriously. I was confident he’d present Kyle’s story in a dignified manner.  

The summer before Kyle died, he’d gotten locked out of that apartment building. Not knowing that the street-level outer door was locked every evening at 10 p.m., he’d stayed out late at the Starbucks next door. Not having a key, he called his father’s cell. No answer. Unless one of the other tenants came home late or downstairs, Kyle was stranded on the street until morning. While there, a homeless man approached, asking for money.

“Yeah, I’ve got something I can give you,” Kyle said.

“Hey,” scoffed the man, “you’re not one of those fucking Scientologists, are you?”

“No,” quipped Kyle. “If I was, I couldn’t afford to give you this $5 bill.”  

The door stayed locked, so the two newly minted friends sat outside together on the sidewalk. The homeless man, a down-on-his-luck Army veteran, spent the entire evening regaling Kyle with his war stories from the jungles of Vietnam. At one point, patrolling Clearwater police officers, spotting the unlikely duo—the ragged, unkempt storyteller and the preppy, Lacoste-wearing youngster—stopped and asked if Kyle needed any help. Back home in Virginia, Kyle spoke with compassion about the luckless old soldier.  

Compassion would be in short supply in any neighborhood populated by Scientologists. Showing compassion for the less fortunate, or “downstats” as the Church calls them, isn’t something the followers of L. Ron Hubbard do. According to Scientology scripture, everyone is responsible for their own condition. Thus, helping out the disadvantaged—whether homeless, disabled or have fallen on hard times—is a waste because their misfortune is their own fault. Sadly, too, Scientologists believe that helping them produces more of their ilk.  

For a while, I’d been asking acquaintances living in the Clearwater area if they’d go downtown to The Colony after 10 p.m. to check if the outside door was indeed locked. No one volunteered.

Finally, after all these years, I felt strong enough to walk the area where my son spent his last days. I wanted to see that apartment building. I told Markus that I was willing to be filmed in that part of Clearwater. As we continued our discussion, Markus said he wanted to focus on the police investigation, an essential part of the story lost in the uproar surrounding the wrongful-death lawsuit. Luckily, I’d brought the related documents with me—never leave such sensitive items in a hotel room—and I spread them out between us, covering the table.

Then Markus’s phone rang.

“I need to take this call,” he said in his thick German accent. “This is a person I want to interview.” He answered calmly, but the voice from the other end—a woman’s—boomed out across the table. I could hear every word, as could everyone else nearby.

I heard her mention Evgeny Zharkin, a 43-year-old Russian national and a Scientologist, who’d died in Clearwater on January 28th of that year—mere hours after his arrival in the United States. In graphic detail, the caller, a witness to the tragedy, described Zharkin falling eight stories onto the concrete pavement on Cleveland Street. She claimed he was still alive when she rushed over to him. The police ruled it a suicide.

Death hadn’t come easy for poor Evgeny Zharkin, and it made me think of something my friend Ray Emmons, a former Clearwater police sergeant, told me. “Scientologists come here from all over the world to train and study,” he said. “They’re told they don’t need their medicine, and sometimes they die on account of that. We’d just put them in a body bag and send them back home. No one ever asked any questions.” 

It was still early morning, but when we stepped outside the café, we were greeted with a blast of humidity. As we walked back to our hotel, Markus and I decided that the filming that day would take place at the suburban Clearwater home of an ex-Scientologist. She’d picked me up at the airport and generously offered her home as a backdrop.

Back in my room, I hurriedly gathered the clothing I’d wear for the interview. Knowing I’d be gone all day and still concerned about the hotel’s security, I grabbed everything of importance, then turned on the television before closing the door. As I made my way down the stairs, my phone buzzed. It was Joe Childs from the Tampa Bay Times.

“I just spoke with Markus,” he said with a concerned tone, “and he mentioned where you were planning on filming your interview. You have to find another place. I’m certain this person is OSA or working for them.”

“Are you sure,” I asked, “because she picked me up at the airport yesterday.”

“Did you ask her to pick you up?”

“No, she volunteered,” I replied, realizing my mistake.   

When I climbed into the backseat of Markus’s rented vehicle, we addressed the problem immediately. I wanted to get the interview over with—the sooner, the better—and we didn’t have much time. But where to film? After a brief discussion, we decided to conduct part of the interview in a hotel restaurant that overlooked the water. It was just prior to lunchtime, however, and the waitstaff was noisily bustling around us, so we headed outside onto the restaurant’s well-appointed, sun-bleached wooden deck. There, amidst scattered tables—with a line of tethered boats filling the background—we sat in the harsh sunlight and engaged in casual conversation about the faulty police investigation. All the while, Kirsten filmed the discussion, occasionally adjusting our seating for the best angles.

Afterward, she decided not to join us for our lunch with Joe Childs. I was grateful we had a meet-up—I needed a respite—and was genuinely pleased to see Joe again. He was respectful, decent, and possessed a razor-sharp intellect.    

Markus and Joe wasted little time. Childs was interested not only in Markus’s documentary, but also in information about the death of Evgeny Zharkin. Markus told him about his trip to Russia, where he’d interviewed Zharkin’s grief-stricken mother and brother. While they debated why the Russian would spend money on a plane ticket only to commit suicide within hours of his arrival, I wondered about the evidence that led to the police’s suicide determination. A detective needs to know both forensics and physics. Did they find the victim face-up or face-down? How far from the building had Zharkin landed? A jumper will land some distance away because they project themselves outward. Conversely, accidental-fall victims—despite their panicking and flailing—usually land close by.

What traumatic life crisis had impelled Evgeny Zharkin to take his own life? Having been a Scientologist for some years and understanding that the Church denies the existence of depression and other mental health issues, he would have known better than to divulge his suicidal thoughts. In Scientology, if you’re undergoing a crisis, you’re told it’s your own fault. Imagine the isolation and shame this creates for the adherents who are struggling. Unfortunately, Scientology doesn’t lend a hand when you’re teetering on the ledge; it often pushes you off.

(As a longtime Scientologist, too, Zharkin knew full well that his fellow Hubbard worshipers were not going to mourn his passing. In Scientology doctrine, death—called “dropping the body”—is no big deal. Hubbard, believing the body to be a hindrance, taught that upon death, the spirit, or “thetan,” separates, allowing it to “pick up another body” and live again.)

With our time drawing to a close, Joe mentioned that when downtown, we should look for the camera on Cleveland Street aimed directly at the Starbucks on the corner of Cleveland and South Fort Harrison Ave. Kyle had talked about spending time in that coffee shop—probably typing away on his laptop—so I wanted to see it for myself.

Walking down Cleveland Street, as buses filled with devout Hubbard followers rolled past, I tried to place myself where Kyle might have been. The windows of the Scientology-owned buildings were painted over in white. And the cameras, of course, were everywhere, strategically positioned on the corners of buildings. You quickly realize that no one walking the streets of downtown Clearwater goes unobserved. We watched as Scientologists shuffled from buses directly into an awaiting facility. Dressed in their uniforms of black slacks and stiffly ironed white shirts—and thus resembling rigid waiters, not churchgoers—they marched in a straight file, robotic-like, making no eye contact with the world around them. By contrast, Kyle, sensitive and perceptive, would have quickly picked up on the neighborhood’s uncomfortable vibe: All are not welcome.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man watching us. Clutching a walkie-talkie, he appeared to be engaged in an intense conversation. We were being followed. They never approached us, they just watched, and whenever I caught a glimpse of their gaze, they’d retreat into the shadows of a doorway or quickly turn and face away, pretending to be occupied with the buttons of their device.

Markus and Kirsten kept a few paces ahead of me, calmly chatting in German while pointing out the carefully positioned street cameras. They didn’t seem to notice the Scientology sentries: perhaps they didn’t care. Focusing on the corner Starbucks, they walked right past The Colony. I immediately recognized its arcaded facade from a photo I’d found on the internet. Now, however, it was painted the color of cheap mustard. Quickly inspecting the exterior door handle, I noticed the lock, just as Kyle had described. Anyone arriving after 10 p.m. would’ve had to use a key to get in. On the night of Kyle’s death, his father would’ve had to come downstairs to let anyone else in.

This detail was extremely important. The wrongful-death lawsuit—naming Kyle’s father, Thomas Brennan, as one of the defendants—was filed in 2009. Numerous attempts were made to serve him, and it quickly became apparent that he was intentionally evading the process server. Months later, after he was eventually served, his attorney’s response stated that Kyle’s death had been either a suicide or a murder. At the time of his son’s passing, Brennan lied, providing various conflicting stories regarding his whereabouts. This was deeply troubling because we knew he was with Kyle that tragic evening. We feared his defense would claim Kyle’s death a random homicide. The exterior lock, as Kyle described, ruled this out, as only someone with a key could have gained entry that fateful night.

I cracked open the door and gazed up the narrow staircase to the apartments above. It was in one of those apartments at the back of the building that my youngest son’s life ended. Sgt. Brian McAuley, who was on the scene that night and never wrote a police log, would state under oath that he’d spotted a group of suspicious people lurking close to an ally near the apartment. Looking at the relatively empty Cleveland Street, I questioned who would be lingering in this part of downtown Clearwater in the middle of the night. Hurrying to catch up with Kirsten and Markus, I glanced back at The Colony one last time. That image remains with me to this day.

(I later asked Marcus for a copy of the police report of the Evgeny Zharkin suicide. Comparing it to that of my son’s report would help me determine the competency of the Clearwater cops when investigating Scientology-related deaths.)    

I caught up with my German friends just as they opened Starbucks’s trademark green door. Inside, several smiling baristas welcomed us. An older man with his back turned—I assumed he was the manager—was busy inspecting a cappuccino machine. The coffee shop was empty except for a lone customer seated near a large window looking out onto South Fort Harrison Avenue. Perhaps Kyle had used that same chair.

“I want to speak with the manager,” said Markus, loud enough to alert the older gentleman tinkering with the cappuccino maker. Giving my companions a side glance and never responding to Marcus’s request, he made a hasty retreat through a door into a back room, presumably his office. 

“I want to talk with the manager,” Markus repeated. “Is he here?”

“I’ll go and check for you,” said a young barista as she headed toward the back. Moments later, she reappeared and asked, from the doorway to the manager’s office, “What do you want to talk to him about?”

Several new, rather chatty, coffee drinkers entered the café, breaking the moment’s uncomfortable awkwardness. The baristas seemed relieved that they had other customers to distract them. They took their orders from behind the glass shelves holding pastries, sandwiches, and cakes.

Markus did not let up.

“I want to ask how he feels about the Church of Scientology having a camera filming the inside of his business. Do your customers know the Church of Scientology is filming them?” 

A deathlike silence enveloped the coffee shop.

The baristas were immediately flustered, and the new customers—silenced by the revelation—began examining their surroundings with heightened interest. Compliments of Markus, their lattes and muffins were being served up with a side of unexpected intrigue. 

“The manager can’t speak to you at this time,” said the young female barista, holding a business card. “You can contact him with any questions via his email.” With that, she slid the card across the countertop.

Through one of the café’s wide windows, I scanned the building across South Fort Harrison. It was brick and had its shades tightly drawn. The cameras were easy to spot. Cleveland Street was being monitored 24-7, and I realized there must have been footage showing the outside of The Colony the night Kyle died. That would’ve been crucial evidence. And that’s precisely why the Church of Scientology never offered it up. 

The sky was now overcast at the close of the day. Markus and I walked along the nearly deserted Clearwater beach, the darkening sky having chased the sun worshippers into cramped hotel rooms, tiki lounge bars, and seafood joints. With the setting sun, salted sea air, and the ocean rolling up across the sand, I now understood why Kyle liked Clearwater. It had nothing to do, of course, with the Church of Scientology.   

My thirty-six-hour stay in Clearwater, Florida, was ending, and none too soon.

I didn’t expect Markus to be up and about at 7:30 in the morning to bid me farewell. But there he was, waiting at the bottom of the hotel stairwell, talking with Joe. Childs had volunteered to drive me to the airport to catch my morning flight back to Virginia. Before I reached the landing, Markus rushed up to me.

“Something happened in the hotel last night,” he said, “and it’s not good. The police are downstairs.”

Looking around, I spotted two Clearwater Police patrol cars parked outside a first-floor room—coincidently, the room I would have been staying in if I hadn’t asked for another. There was a lot of commotion: police officers were walking in and out of the room, and no one seemed to know what had happened.

Markus, Joe, and I stood to the side, quietly observing the scene. Two officers locked their eyes on journalist Joe as they made their way into the lobby. They recognized him. Then they glanced at Markus before their eyes landed on me.

“It’s time to get you to the airport,” said Joe, hurriedly taking hold of my suitcase. 

Joe was thoughtful and considerate, and conversation came easy.  

“Thanks for getting up at the crack of dawn to give me a ride to the airport,” I said.

“I wanted to make certain you’d be safe.”

“Can I give you some advice?” he added. “It’s unsafe for you to be down here—you shouldn’t return.”

Thus far, I’ve heeded his warning.

Copyright©2023 Victoria Britton