Death of a local Scientologist remains an open investigation
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 1998
LEARWATER -- It's been six months since police concluded a crime was committed in the unexplained death of local Scientologist Lisa McPherson, but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue charges.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said last week he and his staff continue to investigate the case, but he could not say how close they are to finishing.
McPherson, a longtime member of the Church of Scientology, died of a blood clot in her left lung on Dec. 5, 1995, while under the care of church staffers. She was confined for 17 days to a room at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's landmark retreat in downtown Clearwater. McPherson was 36.
Clearwater police investigated McPherson's death for two years, aided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and McCabe's office. The case did not become public until December 1996, a full year into the investigation.
In December 1997, investigators gave a summary of their findings to McCabe and recommended he file criminal charges. The specific charges recommended were not made public. Shortly before that, McCabe met with Scientology's attorneys to hear their side of the case.
McCabe said his office is taking "longer than normal" to decide whether to prosecute, but added the McPherson case is "unique." He declined to elaborate, saying, "I don't like to characterize things."
The case centers on two difficult questions: What caused McPherson's blood clot? And were church staffers criminally negligent in caring for her?
The church says it has hired a team of high-powered medical experts who will testify the clot occurred suddenly and was not the result of any care she received at the Fort Harrison.
The medical examiner's autopsy report suggests otherwise, concluding McPherson died of "bed rest and severe dehydration."
Police and prosecutors have interviewed more than two dozen Scientologists who came in contact with McPherson in the days before her death. McCabe said some witnesses are being interviewed a second time, which is not uncommon because additional questions often arise as a case progresses. Prosecutors also are interviewing expert witnesses, McCabe said.
He would not say who was being interviewed again or how many interviews remain.
He also would not discuss the potential criminal charges in the case, but said the statute of limitations expires after three years for the kind of charge or charges being contemplated. That means McCabe has until Dec. 5 to decide whether to prosecute.
"We'll have it done before the statute of limitations runs," said McCabe, who insists the case is a high priority with his office.
"There's no question I'd like to get it done," he said. "I'd like to have this behind us."
In the past, the church has expressed frustration with the slow pace of the investigation. Last week, however, attorneys for the church declined to comment.
"The good news is (McCabe) does have his best prosecutor on it," said Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer representing McPherson's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the church.
Dandar was referring to Executive Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow. As McCabe's top assistant, Crow has prosecuted some of the most notorious criminals in Pinellas County, including triple murderer Oba Chandler and serial killer James Randall.
"It is a criminal case that borders on homicide, and they have to be very careful about what they're doing," Dandar said of the McPherson case. "I understand why they're being so meticulous, but it has been very frustrating for the family."
The family's lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court also is progressing slowly. At a mediation conference in late May, attorneys for both sides failed to reach a settlement.
Church attorneys Laura Vaughan and Lee Fugate blamed the slow pace on Dandar, who keeps trying to expand the number of claims in his lawsuit, they said.
According to Dandar, some key evidence won't be available in the civil case until McCabe's office makes a decision. For example, Dandar said he has yet to see autopsy photos of McPherson's body, which, according to records, was bruised, gaunt and dehydrated after her stay at the Fort Harrison.
According to records, McPherson suffered episodes of severe psychological distress in the months before her death and had spent nearly $60,000 on Scientology counseling.
On Nov. 18, 1995, she rear-ended another vehicle on S Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. Though the accident was minor, paramedics took her to Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation because she took off all her clothes at the scene.
Several Scientologists came to the hospital and told doctors that Scientology is opposed to psychiatric treatment. They promised to care for McPherson and watch her 24 hours a day.
McPherson was taken to the Fort Harrison, where church staffers and guards tried to feed her, give her liquids, get her to sleep and control her psychotic outbursts.
They gave her medications and tried to force-feed her, according to the church's records.
When McPherson fell ill 17 days later, church staffers said they took her to a hospital 45 minutes away in Pasco County, where a Scientologist was the doctor on staff. McPherson was dead on arrival.