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McPherson relatives lead protest

Protesters gather in a somber ceremony outside the Fort Harrison Hotel, where Lisa McPherson spent her final days.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 1998


CLEARWATER -- Relatives of Lisa McPherson made a tear-filled trip Saturday night to the Scientology hotel where she spent her final days under guard and in the grips of a mental breakdown.

Her aunt and uncle, Dell and Art Liebreich, and her cousin Kim Krenek led a group of about 60 anti-Scientology protesters who held candles and laid a wreath outside a privacy wall at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. A few feet away, just beyond the wall, was Room 174, where McPherson is said to have spent 17 days under the care of fellow Scientologists.

She died at 36 on Dec. 5, 1995, and the Church of Scientology was criminally charged last month with abuse and practicing medicine without a license.

As Dell Liebreich and Krenek wept, a Scientology staffer wrote down license plate numbers of protesters who had parked nearby. And church spokesman Brian Anderson released a written statement saying in part: "These protesters did not and do not care about Lisa McPherson. The proof is this: They are showing no love or kindness for any of the thousands of church members who live in and are continuing to serve this community as Lisa once did."

McPherson's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit that contends Scientology's procedures regarding mentally disturbed parishioners are what killed her.

The church contends Dell Liebreich was a disengaged relative who was not interested in McPherson when she was alive and who engineered the lawsuit to cash in on her death.

Dell Liebreich and Krenek are among McPherson's closest surviving relatives. Her mother, Fannie McPherson of Dallas, died shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 1997.

Told of the church's statement Saturday, Liebreich said, "The protesters care a lot more about her than they (Scientologists) did. . . . They did nothing but torture her."

McPherson was guarded, kept from licensed medical care, held down and forced to swallow food and medicine, according to documents in the civil and criminal cases against Scientology.

Saturday marked the first time McPherson's family had been to the Fort Harrison. They traveled from Texas for the ceremony, which also was attended by many of Scientology's most determined critics.

Liebreich thanked them and others around the world who have expressed support for the family. Krenek wore a locket with McPherson's picture. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace. The family held close to a private security team.

The evening vigil followed a day of picketing by the critics in downtown Clearwater as hundreds of Scientologists stayed off the streets.

Visiting parishioners and church staffers were ferried between Scientology's buildings in rented vans with dark tinted windows and holiday decorations. When protesters came near, staffers ran into church buildings, which were fortified in several ways.

A 5-foot-high masonry wall surrounding much of the Fort Harrison Hotel was made three feet higher with temporary lattice and cardboard. A row of Christmas trees blocked views at another Scientology hotel. Many entrances were blocked from view.

"The church and its members have made an active effort during this week to avoid any sort of confrontation with protesters, despite having been taunted and baited continuously," Scientology said in a statement.

About two dozen police officers monitored the protest, which was held without incident.

The church's defensive posture contrasted with its history of counterattack. At a similar protest early last year, Scientologists surrounded the pickets, taunted them, blocked their signs and blew out their candles. In response to another picket last December, about 3,000 Scientologists surrounded the Clearwater Police Department in an angry march that irritated city officials.

Their only offensive this year was verbal. In its statement, Scientology called the protesters a small group of "biased and slanted" critics who "don't represent the views of this community."

The only obvious presence of Scientologists on Saturday was on the roof of the Fort Harrison, where about 20 church staffers installed giant red letters atop the old hotel's graceful facade. The words read: "Happy Holidays!"

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