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Church member's death now called accident
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Medical examiner Joan Wood now is calling the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson an "accident," a change that is causing prosecutors to rethink their case against the Church of Scientology.
Wood's original ruling called the manner of death "undetermined."
Scientology's top executives, clearly pleased Tuesday, called the switch "extremely significant and a huge development that dramatically affects the state's case."
They said it supports their view that McPherson's death while in the care of Scientology staffers in Clearwater was sudden, unpredictable, "undiagnosable" and not the church's fault.
Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow, the lead prosecutor in the case, called the change "something of major significance we need to review." He declined to discuss how the case might be affected, adding: "We really need to evaluate that, and we'll take some time to do that."
The church is charged with two felony counts -- abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. McPherson, 36, had become psychotic as church staffers tried for 17 days to quiet her during an unusual Scientology "isolation watch."
Wood's decision came after church officials and their lawyers spent months plying the veteran medical examiner with expert information that revealed the lengths to which Scientology has gone to defend itself. There were scientific studies on a body substance known as ketone, an elaborate accident reconstruction, even a report by an "anthropometric" specialist who studied McPherson's physical stature.
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the dollar amount spent on the case so far is "enormous," but said the church felt it was necessary so Wood and prosecutors would have "the correct information."
The civil case against Scientology, filed in Hillsborough County, is a different matter. Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's family, said his wrongful-death case against the church is not diminished by Wood's change, though he added she needs to explain it.
"We don't know what she means by "accident,' " Dandar said.
Wood and her top assistant, Larry Bedore, were at a medical examiners conference in Reno, Nev., Tuesday and did not return phone calls to their hotel.
In her original ruling in 1996, Wood traced McPherson's death to a blood clot in McPherson's left lung that originated in a clot behind her left knee. Wood blamed it on "bed rest and severe dehydration."
She also took the unusual step of elaborating for reporters, publicly stating that lab results on McPherson's eye fluid showed she died slowly.
Wood said she wanted to correct church lawyers, who were saying McPherson's death was sudden and unpredictable. She concluded McPherson went several days without fluids, was comatose and suffered roach bites while in Scientology's care.
The church was outraged, calling her a liar.
Then, late last year, Wood agreed to review her controversial opinions at the request of the church, which provided her with mounds of new information.
As part of the review, McPherson's eye fluid was retested two more times.
The review is mandated in Wood's policy manual, which says the medical examiner will "readdress key issues" in a case if "credible new evidence is presented, regardless of its source."
The result: a revised report and the finding that McPherson's death was accidental.
Gone from the new report is the original reference to the bed rest and dehydration. Wood still traces the death to a blood clot behind McPherson's knee. But she lists McPherson's psychosis and a minor auto accident as major factors.
The latter reference is significant because it suggests support for the church's view that the cause of the blood clot that killed McPherson was a bruise she suffered in a minor auto accident just before church staffers began to care for her at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel.
In a discussion with the Times on Tuesday, Church officials disclosed much of the information they gave Wood last year for her review.
Research on a substance known as ketone, which people produce when they are dehydrated, starving or even fasting, according to Rinder and Marty Rathbun, another church official. Tests of McPherson's bodily fluids showed no ketone, they said.
Information from church-hired experts, who conclude that a bruise on McPherson's lower left thigh caused the blood clot and was in turn caused by her auto accident. To make the case, the church tracked down McPherson's old car, a candy red 1993 Jeep Cherokee which had been sold by McPherson's mother. They also reconstructed the accident, concluding the bruise was in the shape of the driver's side door handle.
Findings from a body measurement expert hired by the church. The expert compared autopsy photos of McPherson with those taken in happier times, just before she became psychotic and entered the Fort Harrison. The expert concluded there was "no appreciable weight loss," which counters the prosecution's view that McPherson lost 20 to 40 pounds while in Scientology's care.
Literature that, according to Rathbun, shows that dehydration does not cause blood clots.
Rathbun added that new tests of McPherson's eye fluid were "all over the lot," proving Wood had invalid information when she concluded that McPherson was severely dehydrated.
Dandar, whose experts were present for the re-tests, disputed Rathbun's statements on the eye fluid, the dehydration and the source of the blood clot.
If anything, Dandar said, the new eye fluid tests show McPherson was more dehydrated than Wood originally thought.
He said his experts say that dehydration causes blood clots, despite what Scientology says.
He also disputes the church's theory that a bruise from McPherson's auto accident caused her fatal blood clot. His experts say there is no way a clot could have remained behind her knee for 17 days without causing some effect sooner.
In addition, a blood clot in one lung would not have been enough to cause death in a healthy adult such as McPherson, Dandar said.
The medical evidence "destroys everything they say," Dandar said. "They can't get around that."
But Rinder said Dandar was inventing evidence.
"It's as ludicrous as the allegations he makes every day," Rinder said. "His case is a sham. It has been since Day One."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.