In December 2015, 31-year-old Erin McMurtry pulled up in her car across the street from the Church of Scientology of Austin, Texas, and waited. After a good 10 minutes, she suddenly gunned her vehicle toward the Church and smashed through the glass front into reception, narrowly missing two staff members. The weaponized car sent glass and furniture flying and crashed into the nursery.
Fortunately, no one was injured. Police arrested McMurtry and booked her into the county jail with bail set at $6,000. The crime shocked observers. But blogger Tony Ortega’s response was to make a joke out of the act of sheer hate and violence. The headline on his blog read: “Car turns Austin Scientology org into a drive-in.”
McMurtry’s social media revealed she had been inspired to commit her crime after seeing content featuring Ortega and his anti-Scientology partner Leah Remini.
McMurtry had posted: “Thank you for speaking up journalist Tony Ortega!!”
Ortega admitted, “[W]e did notice that last week she [McMurtry] used her Facebook account to share video of Leah Remini’s 20/20 interview, and, a few minutes later, shared video of our appearance on Allison Hope Weiner’s Media Mayhem program.”
This was not the first time Ortega trivialized threats against the Church of Scientology, while acting as an apologist for hatemongers and criminals.
In January 2008, the cyber-terrorist group Anonymous declared its intention to destroy the Church of Scientology for “their own enjoyment.” Immediately afterward, Churches of Scientology and Scientologists began receiving death threats, bomb threats and hundreds of daily harassing faxes and phone calls.
Ortega, then at The Village Voice, recast Anonymous as “drunken teenagers” and their criminal acts as teenage pranks.
“[A]t first, [Anonymous] approached Scientology the same way, like reckless hackers and pinheads,” he wrote. “But…Anonymous quickly grew up and started taking a more Gandhi-inspired approach….”
By 2009, Anonymous hate crimes against the Church of Scientology included 41 death threats; 56 bomb and arson threats, including one to simultaneously detonate bombs in every church in the United States; envelopes with a powder resembling anthrax mailed to 19 Southern California Churches; 103 threats of other violence; 40 incidents of vandalism; 3.6 million harassing emails; and 141 million malicious hits against Church websites to bring down those sites.
Instigators of attacks on the Church were identified, convicted and sent to prison.
In April 2016, a young man named Brandon Reisdorf hurled a hammer into the front plate-glass entrance of the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles. Hours before his attack, he sent an e-mail threatening anyone who might approach him. “…I will be legally packing heat (gun on waist),” he wrote. “[A]nd will defend my life by shooting anyone that attacks my properties, my family members, from you trespassing. All per the law.”
Two hours after committing his hate crime, Reisdorf demanded payment of $70,000 and threatened to harm the leader of the religion. Reisdorf was detained and placed under psychiatric observation for over two weeks, during which he again threatened the life of the religion’s leader, triggering an official warning from authorities. After his evaluation, Reisdorf was arrested and convicted.
Ortega excised facts and was quick to rush to Reisdorf’s defense out of his own bigoted view that a “legitimate religious organization” would “probably be happy to be made whole with enough money to cover the damages.”
In Ortega’s world, psychotic criminals wreaking havoc and threatening lives warrant only a slap on the wrist, if Scientologists are the target.
But when the threat generated by antireligious hatred rebounds to become personal, it is an altogether different story.
The scenario on a day in February 2017 would chill any parent to the core. A New York Jewish Community Center (JCC) nursery had received a bomb threat. The children, among them Ortega’s two children, had to be evacuated to a nearby ambulance facility.
“My wife and I have watched with increased nervousness as JCCs have received bomb threats around the country,” Ortega posted to his social media accounts. “One month in. Trump’s America is affecting my family personally in a way I did not anticipate.”
Replying to comments from other posters, he wrote: “A couple of Orange County Republicans lecturing me about Trump's pro-Israel stance and how any antisemitism sweeping the country right now is fake news. Meanwhile, I have to think about taking my kids back to the JCC tomorrow. What a comfort you fucking knuckledraggers are.”
Ortega’s wife wrote, “[T]he authorities stubbornly refer to these cases as a ‘hoax’, rather than a systematic attempt to intimidate the entire Jewish community of USA.”
One could ask Ortega how the antisemitic hate that threatens his children is any different than the anti-Scientologist hate that threatens their children.
Bigotry begets hate. Hate begets violence. Tragedy too easily follows in the wake of both.
That is a lesson Tony Ortega, blinded by his hate and bigotry, won’t admit. Even when the consequences get personal.