Former resident faces extradition over Scientology clash
Man fled Palo Alto for Canada seven years agoIn 1995, Palo Alto computer engineer Keith Henson became convinced that the Church of Scientology is evil.
His conviction grew into an obsession, triggering a 12-year odyssey that saw him clash constantly with the church, allegedly threaten to bomb its headquarters in Riverside, flee to Canada to escape death threats, and eventually get arrested in Arizona for eluding a jail sentence after a jury found him guilty of interfering with church activities.
The odyssey took another turn Friday, when a judge ruled that Henson, now 65, must be extradited to Riverside County to finally serve his sentence.
The Church of Scientology has not returned numerous phone calls for comment.
The conflict began when Henson started surfing the primitive version of today's Web. He developed an interest in a news chat group called "alt.religion.scientology," said his wife, Stanford alumna Arel Lucas.
As he read more and more documents posted on the site, his conviction grew that the church engages in "a pattern of fraud, family rending, really dangerous and frightening stuff," Lucas said, adding that her husband "came to the conclusion that someone had to stand up to these people."
Henson's daughter, Amber Henson, said her father was particularly disturbed by "allegations that (church members) murdered several people inside their organization."
Around 1998, he began to frequently picket outside the Palo Alto Church of Scientology. In turn, church members occasionally went to his home over the next two years to stage their own pickets in front, Amber Henson said. "When I had parties, my friends would have to walk past the picket lines to get to our house," said Henson, now 24 and a pre-school teacher in Los Angeles.
Lucas remembers those days, and how church members also picketed the Purple Yogi software company in Sunnyvale where she worked, and followed her and her daughter around. "They carried signs saying my husband was a bigot," she said.
In retrospect, Lucas said, her husband was naive. "He just wanted to expose these documents to public view," she said.
In 2000, Henson took his battle with the church to Golden Era Productions, a 500-acre film and sound studio compound in San Jacinto, Riverside County, that produces religious media for the Church of Scientology.
"My dad is the kind of guy that acts when he sees injustice," Amber Henson said.
Beginning May 26 that year, Henson picketed daily outside Golden Era until his arrest July 19, 2000, according to documents later submitted by Riverside County Assistant District Attorney William Mitchell when requesting Henson's extradition.
Henson would "disrupt the daily work of the employees of the church," Mitchell wrote in a summary of the case for extradition. Mitchell said the church was "aware of statements that Keith Henson had made to the effect that he would have them bombed and the buildings exploded. Keith Henson, by his own admission, has experience in explosives."
The church hired extra security to watch Henson and its members changed their routes in and out of the building, according to the summary.
Amber Henson strongly disputes any notion that her father would have bombed the church. Although he has experience with fireworks and has "taken part in fireworks shows, he absolutely never said he would bomb anybody and never made any threats," she said. "He was not interested in using violence in any way."
In July 2000, Keith Henson was charged with three misdemeanor counts - two for making death threats and one for "interfering with a religion." When his case went to court in April 2001, the jury deadlocked on the first two counts and convicted him on the interfering charge.
But Henson, who his family contends started receiving death threats through the news chat group around September 2000, fled to Canada before receiving his sentence. In his absence, Riverside Superior Court Judge Robert Wallerstein decided July 20, 2001, that for "using threats of force to interfere with another's exercise of civil rights," Henson must serve either 180 days in jail and three years of probation or one full year in jail with no probation.
Riverside Deputy District Attorney Jeanne Roy said her office asked Henson several times in the past two to three years to return from Canada so he could be formally sentenced.
"He basically told us to pound sand, that we would never locate him," she said. "Had he returned on his own, this would've all been over and done with long ago."
While in Canada, Henson applied for refugee status, which was denied in the fall of 2005, his daughter said. So he quietly returned to the United States, keeping a low profile by staying in several safe houses. In February, he was located and arrested by a plainclothes police officer in Prescott, Ariz., for an outstanding warrant for fleeing his Riverside court sentencing date. He had been living for a few months in the Yavapai County city.
At the request of Riverside County officials, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent an extradition request to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano on March 29 requesting Henson's return, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Mailey.
Henson's family has been concerned about his return to California, pointing to the threats he continues to receive. In one posted on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup May 13, an anonymous person wrote, "So, Keith. How's the food in jail? I hear you are being kept (alone) because you are considered to be a pedophile. Next stop for you is Riverside CA. See you there!"
In Prescott Justice Court, Henson's attorney, Michael Kielsky, fought the extradition.
At Henson's hearing Friday, Kielsky cited a Feb. 22, 2007 letter from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department to the Yavapai County Attorney that states the "subject has never been arrested by our agency."
But the sheriff's senior records and warrants associate, Yolanda Murillo, blamed her "mistype" for giving an erroneous impression. She said Henson was "arrested and site-released," never booked into jail.
Kielsky cited the letter to raise the question of "whether my client is actually the person California is seeking as a fugitive."
But Lucas said the judge considered the issue a technicality that did not obscure Henson's identity as the person sought in California.
However, she said the judge did grant Henson a stay until Monday so he could appeal the judge's decision should he wish to. If not, Henson will likely be extradited to California on Tuesday morning.
E-mail Kristina Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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