Danny Masterson Rape Hearing Is a Reckoning for Scientology
Tony Ortega, the journalist who broke the Masterson story, recounts the four days that determined that the ‘That ’70s Show’ actor Danny Masterson will stand trial for serial rape.
One of the moments when I realized that Danny Masterson was very likely going to face trial for allegedly raping three women came on day three of his preliminary hearing this week, when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo interrupted proceedings to make sure she understood a key Scientology concept: That to members of the organization, non-Scientologists are referred to as “wogs.”
She asked the woman testifying, who went by the name Christina B. in court, if she had seen the Harry Potter series. This seemed to throw Christina B., but I knew exactly where the judge was going.
So a wog is like a muggle? Judge Olmedo asked, and the court erupted in a fit of giggles.
Oh yeah, I thought, Masterson was toast.
Four years ago I first broke the news that Masterson, the That ’70s Show actor and a lifelong Scientologist, was being investigated by the LAPD. Three women had come forward to say that from 2001 to 2003, when they themselves had been Scientologists, they were violently raped by him at his Hollywood home. I’ve continued to report every step of the case, as prosecutors settled on seeking a potential life sentence, the three victims and two other plaintiffs filed suit against Masterson and the church for stalking them, and when Masterson was criminally charged in June 2020.
From the beginning, I was intrigued by how much Scientology was intertwined with this case. Not only because these three women had been Scientologists when they alleged they’d been raped, but as The Daily Beast reported, that they had not come forward sooner specifically because Scientology had overtly told them not to, or because they feared the consequences of doing so. (The Church of Scientology did not respond to requests for comment.)
Even fairly casual Scientology watchers understand that the church has a frightening reputation for retaliating against members who bring it unwanted bad publicity. Such members are “declared suppressive,” and as “suppressive persons” not only get thrown out of the organization but can lose everything—all contact with their other family members who stay in the church, their friends, their business contacts. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s words that someone deemed an enemy of the organization “may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed” ring in the ears of every Scientologist.
Last month, as the preliminary hearing neared—the first time live testimony from the victims would be heard—Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller explained in a court brief that Scientology is “inextricably connected” to the case after Masterson’s attorney, Tom Mesereau, had claimed that it was irrelevant and no mention of it should be made in court.
But I was still stunned at how much and how often Scientology bled into the proceedings this week, as the preliminary hearing stretched over four days in Judge Olmedo’s courtroom in Downtown Los Angeles.
During the testimony and cross-examination of each of the women—Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Christina B.—Scientology was named as the reason they had feared coming forward to police or had told police incomplete versions of what happened (in order to spare Scientology embarrassment, said Jane Doe 1), or had feared the power of Masterson’s celebrity inside the organization (she knew no one would believe a non-celebrity like her, said Jane Doe 2).
All of the women were terrified about Scientology retaliation, and still are. That’s why they’re suing the church in a separate civil lawsuit that alleges they’ve been the subject of surveillance and harassment since they came forward to the LAPD at the end of 2016.
And when they did come forward, all three of them hoped they would be able to remain anonymous. But after the news broke about the investigation on March 3, 2017, and news organizations looked for a reaction from Masterson, his publicist named the victim who had been in a six-year relationship with the actor. (The other two women had not been his girlfriends, despite his statements suggesting they were.)
After that unmasking, and because she believed she had no other choice, she chose to name herself publicly—and that’s why we’re using the name she went by in court, Christina B. The other two women were never identified and that’s why, as is the custom of most news organizations regarding victims of sexual assault, we continue to use the names they adopted for the case: Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2.
For some reason, news organizations have been referring to the partial actual names of Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 that were used in court this week in a shocking betrayal of their own policies. In one AP story, for example, the partial real name of Jane Doe 2 was used, and then just a few sentences later, was followed by this statement: “The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were victims of sexual abuse.” There was no explanation in the piece as to why the AP chose to use the name in this case.
The press did accurately report what these women testified to this week. That Jane Doe 1 had felt drugged at Masterson’s house and when she came to, she was on his bed and he was raping her. That Christina B. found him on her and had to pull at his hair to get him off. And that Jane Doe 2 said he flipped her over despite her protestations and began “pounding” her from behind in a violent attack.
Each was cross-examined by Masterson’s famed defense attorney Tom Mesereau, who called up previous statements they had given between 2003 and 2017, highlighting what he said were inconsistencies in their accounts. Mueller then questioned them on redirect to explain those changes, citing Scientology often. Mesereau’s approach, to question their credibility and motivation for accusing Masterson, seemed pretty typical for a rape case. But the involvement of Scientology, which had tried to prevent these women from coming forward at all, made it especially unusual.
On Thursday, during the morning break, a rather grungy-looking guy in a trucker hat came and served me some papers. It was a subpoena from Mesereau, asking for me to turn over my documents gathered in my reporting of the Masterson case. Attorneys have assured me that it’s a ridiculous attempt to intimidate or silence me and won’t hold up in court—especially in California, that has a good shield law for reporters. We’ve asked for and received from a court a hearing date in August to have the subpoena quashed.
It was difficult at times to sit and listen to Scientology being talked about by the attorneys and the judge, who sometimes were unclear about the arcane L. Ron Hubbard concepts that permeated the case. Take “wog,” for example. Judge Olmedo’s observation that it was the Scientology equivalent of “muggle” was a lighthearted moment, but no one took the time to explain to her that Hubbard, an Anglophile, had adopted a word that had an obscure beginning and long-racist history. British military men overseas referred to “wogs” the way American whites used the N-word. Even today it’s a word that British publications avoid using.
But at other times, it was clear that Judge Olmedo had a very strong grasp of Scientology’s concepts of “suppressive acts,” and she learned things like “out-exchange” and “2D Sec Checks” along the way.
Mesereau is a celebrity in his own right, of course, and his shock of white hair is his trademark. Through much of his cross-examination, I could see why he commands top dollar. He was methodical and effective, and calm and unflappable when the women he was questioning pushed back. He was impressive. But every time he waded into Scientology, he appeared to be out of his depth.
And yet it was Mesereau who brought the Introduction to Scientology Ethics book into the hearing and used it to try and trip up Christina B. She said that Scientologists would not risk being declared suppressive by reporting a rape to the police, but in the chapter “Suppressive Acts,” there was nothing about not reporting to police, was there? He asked her to review the chapter, and then asked her to admit that she couldn’t find it.
I was having a hard time sitting still in my seat. Even though I have never been a Scientologist, I knew that the book and other policies by Hubbard explicitly talked about Scientologists being prevented from providing testimony against other Scientologists. I wondered if Mueller knew that.
The next day, when he had a chance for redirect on Christina B., Mueller stood up and came over to Mesereau and asked if he could borrow his copy of Introduction to Scientology Ethics.
It was the most television-ready moment all week.
Mueller then turned to a different chapter, and asked Christina B. to confirm that it did, in fact, contain admonitions against Scientologists to go to law enforcement, which Hubbard very explicitly referred to as corrupt.
After demonstrating that Mesereau was wrong, and that he’d (perhaps purposely) pointed to the wrong part of the book, Mueller walked back and, with exquisite politeness, handed him the volume and said, “Thank you. It’s been very helpful.”
On Friday, Sharon Appelbaum delivered the defense argument that Masterson had reason to believe that the women had given him their consent, and that they were motivated by jealousy and greed to wrongly accuse him of rape. Mueller calmly reviewed the testimony when it was his turn, explaining that in each case there was solid evidence that Masterson knew he didn’t have consent when he’d forced himself on each of the women, regardless of why the women were there, what they said afterward, or what they had worn.
The judge, in her ruling, found that not only did she think all three women were credible, but that Scientology’s policies specifically helped explain why these women had been afraid to come forward earlier.
There will be a trial, presided over by Judge Olmedo, and because of her ruling Scientology will play a significant part in it.
It was hard to read Masterson’s expression behind the face masks he wore. He watched the testimony closely, took notes, and passed them to his lawyers. When Judge Olmedo announced her ruling, his demeanor didn’t change. And when she later asked him if June 7 worked for him as the date for his next arraignment, he answered with a hearty, “Yes, your honor.”