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'Tom Cruise' missile jokester arrested

Keith Henson, a fugitive since being convicted of interfering with Scientology, faces extradition to California from Arizona.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
A Silicon Valley figure who fled the country after being convicted in part because of a Usenet joke about Tom Cruise and Scientology has been arrested in Arizona.

Keith Henson, an engineer, writer and futurist, was arrested Friday in Prescott, Ariz., where he has been living for the past few years, and now faces extradition to California. Henson originally fled to Canada after the 2001 conviction.

Keith Henson
Keith Henson

The misdemeanor conviction in California stems from a post that Henson made in the alt.religion.scientology Usenet newsgroup that joked about aiming a nuclear "Tom Cruise" missile at Scientologists, and Henson's picketing of the group's Golden Era Productions in Riverside, Calif.

Michael Kielsky, Henson's defense attorney, said Monday that his client will likely be released on Monday evening and is required to appear in court for a March 5 hearing.

Kielsky said that Henson was mistreated by police and jailers--including being told during the arrest that he had no right to an attorney and being held in solitary confinement in a poorly heated cell without adequate bedding. "My best information is that it's very political," he said. "They gave him an extra blanket but then an hour later they took it away--(this is) a 66-year-old man with a heart problem."

A message left with Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney, was not returned on Monday.

A brief flap that ensued over the amount of Henson's bond delayed the process. A judge initially set the amount at $7,500, but then increased it to $500,000 at the request of prosecutors, according to the Yavapai County Detention Center. After a telephone conference with the judge and attorneys on Monday afternoon, the bond was lowered to $5,000.

Henson's frequent encounters with Scientology, coupled with his lengthy resume of programming, electrical engineering and futurist accomplishments, have made him something of a legal cause celebre in technology circles.

Supporters have created a "Free Keith Henson" blog, posted a note from his wife, Arel Lucas, and are asking for donations to a legal defense fund. The fund was set up by members of the Extropy Institute, a nonprofit group that has been a gathering point for futurists and technologists since 1991.

Convicted of making threat to interfere with religion
Henson was convicted in 2001 under a California law (Sec. 422.6) that criminalizes any threat to interfere with someone else's "free exercise" of religion. One Usenet post that was introduced at his trial included jokes about sending a "Tom Cruise" missile against a Scientology compound (the actor is a prominent Scientologist). Picketing Scientology buildings and other "odd behavior" were also part of the charges, Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz said at the time.

Jeanne Roy, a deputy district attorney in Riverside County, Calif., said that the next step for her office is to see whether Henson shows up for his March 5 court date. If he does not, an Arizona warrant would be issued for his arrest. If he does, Roy said, another court date would be set to deal with extradition through a process known as a governor's warrant.

"That won't happen by March 5," Roy said. "It's usually a 30- to 90-day process, depending on the state, for that paperwork." If extradited to California, she said, Henson faces a year in jail or six months in jail and 3 years of probation.

When asked whether it's common for California to try to extradite someone on a misdemeanor conviction, Roy said: "It's not common, but it's not unusual either. We do it in some cases."

Henson's family is concerned about what might happen to him in jail. "The Scientologists have made death threats to my father," his daughter Amber Henson said in an e-mail message to CNET News.com. "My mom and I are going to do everything possible to make sure that they are not able to silently do away with him." (The Church of Scientology could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.)

Before his misdemeanor conviction, Henson had become embroiled in a civil lawsuit that Scientology filed against him.

It arose out of supposedly secret scriptures written by L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction author and founder of Scientology, which describe a galactic overlord named Xenu who is allegedly the source of all human evil. Since the early 1990s, Scientology has made a concerted effort to remove those documents from the Internet--including suing Henson--but they finally found a permanent legal home in the Netherlands.

Scientology's tactics, which critics say include cult-like retention practices and intimidation, have drawn fire in the past. A Time magazine cover story, for instance, concluded that "Scientology poses as a religion but really is a ruthless global scam." Xenu and Cruise were also satirized in a November 2005 episode of South Park.