Five of the ranking leaders of the Church of Scientology, including the wife of the group's founder, were sentenced yesterday to prison terms of up to five years each for their roles in a massive criminal conspiracy to plant church spies in government agencies, steal government documents and bug at least one government meeting.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey imposed the sentences in a day-long proceeding at the U.S. Courthouse here in which the defendants admitted their wrongdoing, but attempted to justify their act by contending they overreacted in response to what they perceived as government harassment of their religion.
Four other defendants will be sentenced today.
Richey took the unusual step of ordering the defendants immediately to begin serving their terms while their appeals of their convictions are pending. He said he was taking that step because the defendents' planned appeal of their conviction was frivolous, becuase of the substantial evidence against them, because they are from California and had no ties to the Washington community, and because they posed a danger to the community.
Only Mary sue Hubbard, whose husband L. Ron Hubbard, founded the group approxiamtely three decades ago, remained free after sentencing yesterday.
She was given a conditional five-year term and a $10,000 fine and was ordered to undergo three-month study by the prison system before any final sentence is imposed. Richey said she could remain free for at least another 10 days because of unspecified health reasons.
"I publicly want to say I accept full responsibility for the charge of which I have been convicted," Hubbard said at one point in the proceedings. "I sincerely regret my wrongdoing. I have done everything within my power to see nothing like this ever occurs in the future."
Richey replied later to Hubbard that she had to live with her conscience, but that "you and I agree we have a precious system of government in the United States. For anyone to use the benefits of those laws or to seek under the guise of those laws to destroy the very foundation of the government is totally wrong and cannot be condoned by any responsible citizen."
He told her that "we do not have a perfect system," but "one must understand courts have a responsibility to consider the interests of society and the system of justice" in imposing sentences.
He compared the conspiracy of the high church officials to that of high government officials during the Watergate scandal, and gave her the same type of conditional maximum sentence that U.S.District Judge John J. Sirica gave the original Watergate burglary defendants.
The Scientologists have contended -- and continued to do so yesterday -- that the government had harassed the church since its founding by allegedly keeping false reports in government files, investigating the group, and refusing to grant it blanket religious tax-exempt status.
The severity of the sentences and the refusal of the judge to release the defendants on bond pending appeal provoked strong reactions from church spokesmen.
Spokesman Denis McKenna termed the sentences "vicious" and said they were "a mockery of justice . . . a perversio of the criminal justice system. The judge has ignored the broader issues and appears to have let vindictive and fanatical prosecutors do his thinking for him."
The church members sentenced yesterday had suggested through their attorneys that they be allowed to participate in community service programs rather than go to jail.
Richey, known in the past to be one of the federal judiciary's strongest and most outspoken proponents of that concept, said he specifically considered and rejected such sentences in this case because of the need for punishment and the hopes of deterring others from committing such crimes.
The highest official in the church's "guardian" office, Henning Heldt, said he "broke the law and will not do it again." But, he added, "most people aren't confronted with a government agency trying to destroy their religion and make a mockery of their religion."
Assistant U.S.Attorney Raymond Banoun, said Heldt's statement was an indication that the illegality of his acts had not sunk in. "They have learned nothing. They go after anyone critical of them.They're not concerned about anyone else but themselves. They weren't concerned about the rights of others and they never have been."
Richey said he was "not fully convinced" that Heldt was remorseful and felt a prison sentence was necessary to vindicate the judicial system. He sentenced Heldt to four years in prison and fined him $10,000.
Another church leader, Duke Snider, also said he believed the government was trying to destroy his religion. Banoun again disagreed, saying Snider had simply "violated the law and had to realize such actions will not be condoned."
Richey sentenced Snider to four years in prison and fined him $10,000.
The next church member sentenced, Gregory Willardson, said he realized a year ago that what he had done was "wrong, improper . . . illegal" and said it would not happen again. Richey called Willardson "one of the major architects of this heinous crime" and sentenced him to four years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The fifth Scientologist sentenced yesterday, Richard Weigand, told the judge that he recognized "the eror of my thinking." But Richey called Weigand "the central figure in the coverup conspiracy," and gave him the same four-year prison term and $10,000 fine that he had imposed on three other defendants.
The evidence used by the government against the church was gathered in FBI raids on church headquarters here and in Los Angeles on July 8, 1977. The church has vigorously litigated the legality of those raids -- said to be the largest ever conducted by the Fbi -- and will continue to press that issue on appeal.
In August 1978, 11 church leaders were indicted in the conspiracy.
Seven of the defendants were convicted of a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. One defendant was found guilty of conspiring to illegally obtain government documents and the ninth was convicted of a misdemeanor theft count.
Two other indicted church leaders live in England and are awaiting extradition proceedings.