The Reporter Who Broke the Danny Masterson Story on What It Means for Scientology

Danny Masterson
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“That ’70s Show” star Danny Masterson was booked on three counts of rape on Wednesday, the culmination of an investigation that lasted more than three years.

No one has covered the story more closely than Tony Ortega, the former editor of the Village Voice who has been writing about Scientology since 1995. Since 2012, Ortega has been posting about the church on his blog The Underground Bunker.

In an interview with Variety on Thursday morning, Ortega talked about how the case unfolded, the role of Scientology, and what a trial would mean for the church. Masterson has denied the allegations, and the church issued a response which is posted below.

You broke this story in the first place.

March 3, 2017. I broke the story that these initial three women were talking to the LAPD. They had actually come forward the previous fall. It had been going on for a while before I found out about it, and the incidents themselves are between 2001 and 2003. I call them Victim A, Victim B and Victim C. Victim A is Chrissie Carnell. Victim B, whose incident was April 2003, she did go to the LAPD against the wishes of the Church of Scientology in 2004. (Ed. note: This claim is lodged in a lawsuit filed last year.) Yashar Ali at the Huffington Post did a great story about how Scientology just swarmed that investigation and convinced LAPD to drop it. Part of the reason why, Victim B was told, was because they didn’t know about any other victims. That’s because Chrissie and Victim B didn’t know each other back then or didn’t know they were both victims at that time. It wasn’t until many years later when Chrissie, in 2016 — and the #MeToo movement was starting up — that she started hearing from other people that she wasn’t the only person who had allegations against Danny Masterson. And it’s when she realized that and finally got to meet both Victim B and Victim C, that they then decided, “We have to do something.” And that’s when they approached the LAPD. And when the LAPD reopened Victim B’s case from 2004, all the reports were missing. I mean, it’s just a bizarre set of circumstances.

They must have had to overcome a fear of Scientology being powerful enough to get an investigation killed, and a reluctance to come forward based on that, in order to do that.

The first problem they had was that some of them had moved out of the area. So like Chrissie for example, she was in Texas at the time, and had contacted her local police in Texas. They had then been put in touch with the LAPD, and the LAPD said to her, “We’ll handle it downtown. Do not go to the Hollywood Division” where the incident occurred. The LAPD itself was telling her, “You have to come downtown for this to be treated seriously.” Even then, initially the LAPD was really handling it badly, and in my first story in March 2017, I was actually able to quote from a letter that Chrissie had written to Chief (Charlie) Beck, who was the chief at the time, complaining about the initial detective not handling the case very well. They replaced her with Det. Vargas. He has really done I think a superb job since then and worked very hard to put all this together. It was a very complex case. The fact that it lasted so long, I don’t think we know yet why it took so long, but I know part of it is, it is a very complex case with a lot of different people they had to talk to.

On the D.A. side of things, were you surprised yesterday when the charges were filed?

I know it’s been torture for these women, because they would hear every few months, “OK, we’re gonna bring it to (District Attorney) Jackie Lacey and she’s going to make a decision this month. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.” And then it would always get pushed back. No, it was not a surprise to me because I had been hearing recently they were going to have these meetings and they were going to make a decision, and they felt that it was going to happen. But again, it got moved back because of COVID. It got moved back because of the protests. And so the timing was a surprise. I did not realize that this was going to happen yesterday. But I can tell you that for some time we were hearing that there was going to be a decision of some sort soon.

Were you concerned throughout they were dragging their feet or they were not taking it seriously?

It was really hard to understand what was going on. It was very clear that the managers in the office below Jackie Lacey were all for not only charging Masterson, but charging him with the most severe penalties. I reported in February 2018, more than two years ago, that the managers in the office had signed off on charging him under this California one-strike law that would carry a 25-to-life sentence. Nobody else picked up that story. I think most people thought “Ortega must be exaggerating” or something. Now Jackie Lacey comes out and says she’s going for 45-to-life — even stronger than I had heard. It’s hard to know for sure. I had always been hearing for the last two years that the office itself was very strongly behind the idea of charging Masterson and charging him with very serious allegations and serious penalties, and it was just a matter of “When is Jackie Lacey going to make a decision?” That was just always a mystery. Now people will bring up the fact that she’s been under a lot of protest lately. Did that have something to do with it? I don’t know. Like I said, the people who work for her have been working towards this day for a long time.

When Lee Baca was sheriff there was a relationship there with the Church of Scientology and his affection for their rehabilitation programs. Do you think this is an indication that they don’t have that kind of sway or clout anymore?

I think Scientology’s influence in general has been waning, particularly in Hollywood. Hollywood was terrified of Scientology, and more recently it seems like every other show has put some kind of a Scientology joke in their scripts in the last few years. Partly it’s to say “You’re not the big scary bully anymore.” However I think there is still plenty of fear in Los Angeles in terms of Scientology. But they have lost influence I think.

In terms of looking forward to a trial, is to some degree the church going to be part of it or on trial in some way? Or does it represent a moment where people have to wake up and pay attention to them more than they have been?

That’s the subject of my story this morning, and I talked to (prominent ex-Scientologist) Mike Rinder about this yesterday and he had a really smart response about that. Scientology is really intertwined with Masterson in this case. There were some news organizations that reported the story yesterday and somehow managed not to use the word “Scientology.” I’m kind of amazed at that. Because not only is Danny Masterson a lifelong Scientologist — not only is he a faithful soldier for Scientology, and would show up at events and make strong statements in the press about Scientology — but all three of his victims, the ones that the charges are stemming from, were Scientologists at the time. And at least two out of the three I know of went to the church, who discouraged them from going to the authorities.

So Scientology is very much involved in this story. My question for Rinder, was I’ve seen some things online, people were speculating that if Masterson was charged, Scientology would distance itself. But as Mike says, they’re so involved, it will be difficult for them just to drop him. Because he thinks Danny could cause them a lot of trouble. And I think he’s right. I think there are people that were helping him prevent this from being prosecuted earlier. That’s what I’m looking forward to finding out — is just how much of a liability Scientology has in all this, and how much that will be part of this case.

Now as far as the immediate legal concerns are concerned, no, he’s not being defended by a Scientology attorney. He’s being defended by Tom Mesereau, who he hired as his defense attorney. His other longtime attorney is Marty Singer, an entertainment attorney. It’s not like Scientology is actively — in fact, they’re both being sued. That’s another thing that is interesting about this. These women were tired of waiting for Jackie Lacey to do something, so they filed a lawsuit against Scientology, (church leader David) Miscavige and Masterson. In that case, if you look at the filings, Scientology is responding with their attorneys to the parts that apply to them. Masterson is responding to the things that pertain to him. So people have asked me, “Why is Scientology defending Danny in this suit?” and I have to point out to them, technically they aren’t. Scientology’s attorneys are representing Scientology in the lawsuit. Masterson’s attorneys are representing Masterson in the suit. They’ve been keeping things fairly separate at that level.

You think they will more likely lay low than overtly cut him loose?

Right, I think they’ll be very careful about it. They’ll probably put out some general, neutral statements, about “Let justice take its course,” that kind of thing. But it would be hard for them to abandon him at this point.

Where does this fit into the history of Scientology and the courts?

Wow, that’s a big question. This is definitely one of the biggest legal milestones in Scientology history, there’s no question. As far as criminal cases, the biggest criminal case that Scientology has had to face was the Snow White prosecution in 1979, that ended up involving 11 top Scientologists who were convicted and went to prison. Since then there have been a couple of other Scientologists that were very notably prosecuted criminally. One was Rex Fowler, who was a Scientologist who killed his business partner and went to prison for it. Then there was Reed Slatkin, who was one of the largest Ponzi schemers until Bernie Madoff came along and made everyone look like pikers…

This one is just sort of hard to gauge, because I’m not sure where it’s going. It’s a combination of really awful allegations. You combine that with celebrity. I know Danny Masterson is not the biggest celebrity in the world, but a lot of young people really remember him from “That ’70s Show.” You combine that with Scientology’s reputation for bullying and legal chicanery, and boy, what a mix. I think people are going to be really interested in how this turns out.

For you personally, obviously you’ve made this a life’s work. How does it feel to come to this point, and what do you feel like we still don’t know about Scientology that we need to know?

Whether it was a smart idea or not, I decided to give myself the job of beat reporter on Scientology some years ago. I enjoy it because the reason anyone enjoys being a beat reporter — you get a front row seat and you don’t know how things are going to turn out. This is the kind of story I’m fascinated by, and I feel for these women that have been through so much over recent years. They say they’ve been harassed and they’ve been intimidated. And they just want their day in court. So I am happy for them that they are getting a prosecution. But y’know, Danny deserves his day in court too. Danny deserves to bring witnesses. And I think as a beat reporter, I’m just fascinated to find out what happens. From my perspective, I hope it motivates more people to learn about Scientology and its legal history, and some of the things they’ve put people through who just dared to talk about what they really do behind closed doors, and the bullying they do. I think this will interest more people in that.

Karin Pouw, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, responds:

As I advised you yesterday in response to your initial inquiry, the Church does not believe it is appropriate to comment on a pending criminal matter. Likewise, it is not appropriate for you to ask the Church to defend against a criminal complaint in which there is no mention of Scientology. The same individuals bringing the criminal complaint, however, have filed a civil lawsuit against the Church, and I can and will comment on the scandalous allegations raised in that sham civil complaint. We know those allegations are false, flat-out untrue, that the Church will be vindicated, and that the plaintiffs will be shown to have no credibility when they are required to provide evidence to support their claims in court.

That said, it is outrageous that you ask me to comment on your “interview” with an anti-Scientology blogger. Tony Ortega was never a Scientologist; he is not an ex-Scientologist; he has never had any first-hand contact with the Church; he certainly is not a journalist nor a “beat” reporter as you claim. He is a blogger, paid to maintain his blog by another notorious anti-Scientologist, Karen de la Carriere, and Ortega’s source, Mike Rinder, is a paid consultant in this very civil litigation. Thus, your “interview” is little more than a crew of anti-Scientologists promoting each other. Tony Ortega has no independent knowledge regarding the plaintiffs’ claims, makes no original statement and simply regurgitates the allegations in the complaint.

How can anything Tony Ortega has to say be pertinent to this civil litigation? Surely you are aware that Tony Ortega was dismissed in disgrace by the Village Voice eight years ago and is unemployable because of his history of false stories. You must also be aware that Ortega championed backpage.com, the largest online sex trafficking site in the world, before its seizure by the FBI in 2018. Backpage.com is notorious for its sex trafficking of minors; two of its principals are facing criminal charges. Your source for the allegations of sexual assault and cover-up is a promoter of sex trafficking of minors? How unprofessional is that?

Variety’s malice and bigotry is on display in your use of Tony Ortega as a source. How despicable for you to interview an anti-Scientologist regarding allegations against a Scientologist and his religion. Would you interview a white supremacist to comment on allegations against an African American? An anti-Semite to comment on allegations against a member of the Jewish faith? Apparently, Variety thinks it is acceptable to display this contemptible view of Scientology; it is not.

As to the pending Bixler civil action, you refer to a statement from Ortega that the plaintiffs suing the Church claim that the Church worked to ensure that no charges were filed against Masterson and that Chrissie Carnell was told in 2016 to take her case to the LAPD downtown, and not to the Hollywood Division, because that division was “coopted” by Scientology. That allegation is a complete fabrication invented by Leah Remini. It was Leah Remini who hired an off-duty LAPD detective and then attempted to have him, improperly, use his official position to forward her campaign of harassment of the Church. You also repeat the falsehood that the Church discouraged two of the three victims from reporting to the police. We have said before and say again, these allegations, and others in the Bixler complaint, are categorically untrue. Plaintiffs’ counsel has not provided us with a single scrap of paper or any other evidence supporting the claims of harassment presented in the lawsuit. The complaint was filed last August, and motions to dismiss will be heard this coming September. As throughout this process, the Church remains steadfast that the allegations against it are completely and utterly false. The Church will prevail against these slanderous charges, as it already has in the two other cases brought by the same unscrupulous lawyers.

While you are relying on Tony Ortega as your source, be sure you also include his earlier comments about this civil litigation and Plaintiffs’ legal team: “Two of them are dead already.”; “Will we see any additional lawsuits from this team which has already gotten its ass kicked twice?”; “What a shit show.” Or did he not provide you with those comments during the interview you are asking us to comment on?

Unlike Tony Ortega, the Church is local, it is right down the street from you. We have been part of building our shared community for decades. Yet Variety only chooses to run an article on the Church when prompted by a religious bigot thousands of miles away. Variety should examine its own biases and prejudices in considering how it came to this low point.

Ortega replies:

The usual sliming.

The donations policy for my website is listed at my About page. Like so many other online journalists I take donations from readers, but I take the extra step of having my attorney, Scott Pilutik, handle all donations so that the identities of my donors is not passed on to me. So no, I am not on the payroll of any particular donor.

This assures the independence of the Underground Bunker, which is the thing that really causes the Church of Scientology such heartburn.

Update: Karen de la Carriere adds her response to the church’s claim that she funds Ortega’s blog.

I don’t finance Tony Ortega’s blog and never have. The matter at hand is the extremely serious felony rape charges against Danny Masterson and Scientology’s role in attempting to cover up these charges over the years by using its influence at the LAPD.