The Underground Bunker has obtained court documents which describe a stunning attempt by a Milwaukee attorney to secure secret government-held documents that are potentially crippling to the Church of Scientology.
That attempt came very close to being successful.
In June of last year, the attorney, Jeremy P. Levinson, arrived at the West Allis, Wisconsin Police Department, demanding to see the department’s then chief, Charles Padgett. Levinson had with him a court order instructing the police department to turn over to him a trove of information that had been collected as evidence in a criminal investigation from a couple of laptop computers. Levinson said he wasn’t going to leave without the entire collection of evidence.
When he was told that it would take time for so much material to be gathered, he said he would be back the next morning.
But by then, the West Allis Police Department figured out what was going on, and told Levinson he was getting nothing.
What almost happened, we’re told, would have led to the possible destruction of damaging information about the way the Church of Scientology carries out elaborate and sophisticated spying operations — information that has not been seen in public, and may never be.
And the people we talked to for this story tell us that the audacious operation to get that information out of the government’s hands could only have been masterminded by one outfit — and that’s the Church of Scientology itself.
Tonight, a new episode of A&E’s hit series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath will focus on the rise of David Miscavige, who took the reins of Scientology after the death of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, in 1986.
And to help explain David Miscavige’s rise, Leah will talk to David’s father, Ron Miscavige, who escaped from Scientology in 2012 and earlier this year published a memoir titled Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me.
One of things that motivated Ron to write his book was the shocking realization in 2013 that he was being stalked by private investigators hired by his own son.
On July 30, 2013, two Florida men, Dwayne Powell (41 at the time), and his son, Daniel, 21, were stopped by West Allis police officers after they had been reported acting suspiciously in a residential neighborhood. When police searched their car, they found a small arsenal of rifles, handguns, and ammunition, as well as a collection of phones, computers, and other electronic devices. Most importantly, among Dwayne’s possessions there was an item made out of a 25-inch length of PVC tubing that he said he used with a rifle during target shooting. It was a homemade silencer — the possession of which was a serious violation of federal law.
With Dwayne facing ten years in prison, he and his son proved willing to give lengthy interviews to the police, which were recorded and later released to the media. (The full police report of the arrest was also made public.) The Powells told detectives that they were private investigators who had been hired by the Church of Scientology, and were being paid $10,000 a week to follow Ron Miscavige, who was now living in West Allis. For more than a year, they said, they had been tailing Ron, following his movements by attaching a tracking device to his car, for example. They said that they were instructed to recruit people to befriend Ron and his wife, Becky Bigelow, to get information from them. And above all, they were to stalk Ron and Becky without giving away their presence.
At one point, when the Powells were watching from a distance as Ron walked across a parking lot, Ron, who was 77 at the time, clutched at his chest and seemed to stumble. Ron was actually fumbling with a smartphone in his shirt pocket, but the Powells thought they were seeing an older man have a heart attack. They called their handler, a private investigator in Florida, but they were soon patched through to David Miscavige himself. When they asked whether they should blow their cover and provide aid to Ron, David said, “If he dies, he dies,” and he told them to stay back.
Those statements, made to police in recorded interviews, were released to Ron Miscavige himself by the West Allis detectives, and eventually, the public got to hear them as well. But the vast majority of the evidence seized from the Powells was never released to anyone, including Ron Miscavige.
“The police told me that Dwayne Powell had two laptops,” Ron tells us. “One of them was tracking me and Becky. On the screen, it showed our location. And that laptop, they said, would hold all the historic data of the tracking that they’d been doing of us.
“The second computer, though. That’s the one that really matters. On that one, Powell said to the cops that he kept the reports he was making to Scientology about what Becky and I were doing. Those documents spell out the day by day spying operations like nothing else.”
We asked former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder how significant the information on Dwayne Powell’s laptop would be if it were made public.
“Nobody gets documents like that. The last time documents like that got out was after the 1977 FBI raid. I mean, they’re that significant,” Rinder says, referring to what was the largest raid in FBI history up to that point, resulting in the seizure of more than 100,000 documents and the prosecution and sentencing to prison of 11 top Scientology officials.
“I think that they could be as damaging as what was found in the FBI raid, seriously. Nobody has seen that kind of documentation since then,” Rinder says.
And then something really interesting happened to that evidence.
West Allis police told Ron Miscavige that at first, the Powells were very cooperative. Perhaps because of the seriousness of the charge that Dwayne faced, they gave police their consent to have their equipment thoroughly searched.
A couple of weeks later, Powell had hired an attorney out of Chicago, and the police were notified that Powell had changed his mind about that consent. By then, however, the data from his laptops had been downloaded. The police had access to all of his information, they told Ron, but they couldn’t do anything with it.
Then, on June 24, 2014, Dwayne Powell cut a very favorable deal with his prosecutors. His attorney, Mark Rotert, had worked out an agreement with Assistant US Attorney Lisa Wesley that would defer prosecution. In the agreement (which we obtained, and we’ve posted below), Powell admitted that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but Wesley would dismiss the charges against him without prejudice — meaning that the charges could be refiled if he broke any law over the next five years.
In other words, if Powell kept his nose clean over the next five years, the matter would be dropped.
But there was an additional wrinkle, spelled out in the last of the 16 points covered in the agreement:
16. The parties acknowledge, stipulate, and agree that the United States, and particularly ATF and the West Allis Police Department, shall keep and maintain all the evidence seized and secured from the defendant on July 30, 2013, for future use as evidence in the event of a violation and breach of this agreement. If there is no violation of the agreement, the defendant is entitled to have the property returned at the end of the approximately 5 year period.
So for the next five years, the West Allis Police Department would hold — but not be allowed to look through — documents from Dwayne Powell’s laptop that were potentially explosive. After those five years, the laptops and their data would be returned to Powell.
But then, Dwayne Powell did something that seems incredible for a man who had managed to escape a ten-year prison sentence scot-free.
Powell somehow decided to risk jeopardizing that agreement, and putting himself in prison, because he couldn’t wait five years for his laptops and their evidence.
In April 2015, the story of the Powells’ arrest and the secrets they had spilled about being Scientology spies went public with an exclusive story in the Los Angeles Times, as well as items at TMZ and on NBC in what appeared to be a coordinated effort.
And later, we learned that that’s exactly what it was. It turns out that Ron Miscavige has a close relationship with Lisa Marie Presley, who had made her own journey out of the Church of Scientology and was also interested in exposing the secrets of David Miscavige. It was Lisa Marie who told Ron that the information about the Powells and their arrest shouldn’t come out for the first time in his book but instead should first come out in the press. So she hired an attorney who fed the story to the L.A. Times and TMZ.
It was a brilliant media strategy, and resulted in a wave of negative press for Miscavige and his church.
Two months later, on June 9, 2015, a hearing was held in a Wisconsin state circuit court in Milwaukee. A local attorney named Jeremy Levinson had filed a petition on behalf of his client, Dwayne Powell, asking Judge M. Joseph Donald for a court order that would instruct the West Allis Police Department to turn over Dwayne’s evidence to him. (The court’s docket indicates that Dwayne Powell himself did not attend the hearing.)
Specifically, Levinson was asking for…
(1) all electronically stored data (including the downloaded contents of Mr. Powell’s iPhones, camera, and possibly other devices); (2) data storage devices taken from Mr. Powell; and (3) documents (including photographs) taken from Mr. Powell
Was Levinson unaware that his client, Dwayne Powell, was at the time under a federal criminal deferment, and did he also not realize that he was asking a state court judge for an order to seize evidence in direct violation of a federal agreement with the US Attorney’s office?
We reached Levinson by phone Monday, and explained quickly what we were asking about, that his petition pitted a state judge against a federal agreement, and that the state judge had apparently not realized what was going on.
“I barely recall it,” Levinson said, but then he seemed to remember something about it. “I recall generally the situation. But I couldn’t possibly comment on a client matter,” he said.
We then told Levinson that several legal experts we’d consulted told us that what Levinson had done could have serious consequences. One appeals attorney who has handled federal cases told us that if Levinson had known about Powell’s federal agreement when he filed the petition in state court, it could even result in disbarment.
“Is that a question?” he asked.
We told him that we were just wondering if he’d heard about potential trouble over the incident from either the court or the state bar association.
“My license is in good standing,” he replied, and added “I’m going to hang up now” before we got a chance to ask him if the Church of Scientology had been involved in his hiring or the filing of the petition.
Meanwhile, why didn’t Judge Donald realize that he was being asked to issue a court order that would violate a federal prosecution deferment agreement?
Ron Miscavige supplied a possible answer. He said that the West Allis police explained to him that because Dwayne Powell had been charged under federal law, his records wouldn’t be accessible by the state court computers used by Judge Donald.
“Someone really thought this through,” Ron says the West Allis police later told him.
At the June 9, 2015 hearing, Judge Donald granted a court order, instructing the West Allis Police Department to hand over Dwayne Powell’s evidence to him. And the scope of the court order was somewhat stunning…
The City of West Allis shall forthwith return to Powell’s exclusive possession all property (including any and all copies) without disclosing or providing such property to any third-parties and without retaining any copies of same. In doing so, the City of West Allis shall confirm in writing that it and any third-parties or its agents who had been given access to The Property retain no copies of the above-described property.
Ron Miscavige says the police he talked to about it pointed out to him that the language of the order seems to indicate that it would be used not only to get the police department to turn over its evidence, but that the news organizations that had received copies of the police report and the audio recordings of the Powell interviews would be asked to return their copies as well.
After being handed the court order, Levinson moved quickly to have it fulfilled. Ron says police told him about the scene at the chief’s office, as Levinson seemed in a big hurry to get the evidence turned over to him, and wouldn’t leave until it was. But he was eventually told to come back the next day. And during that time, word got to officers in the department who actually knew what was going on with Powell and his deferment agreement.
Lisa Wesley, Powell’s prosecutor, was notified, and she sent out an email that Ron Miscavige received a copy of.
“Please see paragraph 16 of the executed [deferred prosecution agreement]…The parties agreed the government would maintain all seized property as evidence until such time as the [agreement] expires,” Wesley wrote. “Accordingly, the government is not turning over the requested materials per the court order. Thanks for your attention to this matter.”
Levinson didn’t get the documents. And to this day, that material from the Powell laptops is still safely being held by the West Allis Police Department.
Ron Miscavige tells us that police were livid over what they saw as a blatant attempt to back-door the federal agreement and fool a local judge into issuing an order that would allow for the release of potentially explosive information about the Church of Scientology.
“I must say it was rather cunning. They must have done their homework to find that back door,” Ron says.
But why would Dwayne Powell risk his deferred prosecution to have evidence turned over to him that he was entitled to receive a few years later?
“Powell gains nothing from this petition. And yet he risked everything. Why?” Ron asked us.
We tried to ask Powell himself. After his 2013 arrest, he returned to Florida but then moved to Tennessee, getting involved in a series of small restaurants in places like Waynesboro. We called several phone numbers associated with places he had lived and restaurants where he had worked, but got through to him on none of them. We’re going to keep trying, and we’ll add to this story if we succeed in talking to him.
Ron suspects — and he says the West Allis police agree with him — that Scientology was likely involved in convincing Powell to go along with the court petition.
We didn’t get a chance to ask Levinson about that in our phone call. And an email we sent to Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw was not answered.
Ron even believes the church still expected to get its hands on the evidence even after the June 2015 attempt failed.
A few weeks later, on July 1, 2015, the Hollywood Reporter wrote a piece after Ron’s forthcoming book had been announced. Asked for a comment about the “If he dies, he dies” remark attributed to David Miscavige, an unnamed church representative told the publication, “No such conversation with Mr. Miscavige ever took place and any claim that one did is provable bullshit.”
The phrase, “provable bullshit” was so odd, and out of character even for Scientology’s salty press statements, it made an impression.
“When they said ‘provable bullshit,’ I think what David was counting on was them getting hold of this evidence and destroying it,” Ron says.
Instead, it still sits in a Wisconsin evidence room.
Which brings us to our final point in this story, which is an appeal to our fellow journalists.
The Underground Bunker is one man in New York with very few resources. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we manage to make some trips when reporting calls for it. But we don’t have the backing to take on what this story calls for.
Editors in Milwaukee or Chicago or, hell, New York. There is an incredible treasure trove of crucial information that, the facts in this story suggest, someone with a lot of money is willing to go to some pretty impressive lengths to get their hands on. They wouldn’t do that if that information were not radioactive.
If you’ve ever wanted an opportunity to mount a legal challenge to get some records unsealed, this is a fat, juicy target. The prosecution of Dwayne Powell is deferred. It is not an open investigation — the West Allis police can’t even look through the evidence they have.
Perhaps there’s a smart and enterprising media lawyer out there who can convince a federal judge in the Milwaukee area that Dwayne Powell’s laptop contained information that the public has a legitimate interest in seeing.
It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
1. The deferred prosecution agreement, signed in June 2014…
2. Judge Donald’s court order of June 9, 2015…
Go here to start making your plans.
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield