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Battles continue in Scientology suit

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 1999


TAMPA -- More than two years have passed since the family of Lisa McPherson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, but both sides are still launching new and increasingly vigorous legal attacks.

The ongoing tempest continued Monday when lawyers for the church said they have uncovered evidence that an aunt of McPherson's was fraudulently named to represent McPherson's estate. The estate and the aunt, Dell Liebreich of Texas, are the only plaintiffs in the case.

If the allegation were proved, the church would ask Hillsborough Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. to remove both plaintiffs and dismiss the case.

The lawsuit, filed in February 1997, alleges that the church is responsible for the 1995 death of McPherson, a parishioner who spent 17 days in the care of Scientology staffers in downtown Clearwater while suffering a severe mental breakdown.

McPherson, 36, was said to have died in a van while church staffers took her to a Scientologist doctor in Pasco County.

Also Monday, the Tampa lawyer who represents McPherson's family sought to expand the lawsuit for the fifth time, this time asking that the church's top ecclesiastical leader, David Miscavige, be added as a defendant.

Ken Dandar asserted in a motion that Miscavige, based in Los Angeles, had final authority over McPherson's care in Clearwater and thus contributed to her death. Dandar says the motion is supported by an affidavit from Jesse Prince, once a top Scientology official and now a critic of the church.

Outraged at Prince's involvement, Scientology's lawyers sought to ban him from participating in the case. They played for the judge a 15-second video showing Prince using a profane reference to Miscavige while Prince picketed Scientology's headquarters in Clearwater last year.

Church lawyer Sandy Weinberg said Prince's presence during sworn depositions would be so "incendiary" that no Scientologist could sit in the same room "without some incident."

Moody declined to exclude Prince from the case. But he placed all documents regarding Prince's affidavit under seal until a Sept. 24 hearing.

On that date, Moody will rule on the proposed changes to the lawsuit and on the issue of alleged fraud regarding McPherson's estate, which was filed in Pinellas County.

Weinberg said court documents and handwriting samples help prove Liebreich was improperly appointed to represent McPherson's estate. McPherson's mother, Fanny McPherson, died in Dallas just days before the lawsuit was filed.

A trial has been set for June 2000 but could be delayed if more issues arise. Another issue -- whether counseling records from McPherson's 13 years in Scientology can be released to the public -- is awaiting action by Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Also pending is a Pinellas criminal case in which Scientology's Clearwater operation is charged with abusing McPherson and practicing medicine without a license. The criminal trial has been set for March 6.

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