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Scientology charged in member's death

The church faces two felony charges in its treatment of Lisa McPherson.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 1998


The Church of Scientology in Clearwater has been charged with criminal neglect and practicing medicine without a license in the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, the mentally disturbed Scientologist who turned to outsiders for help before church officials intervened and placed her under their care.

The unusually long investigation began the day after McPherson died, Dec. 5, 1995.
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Unlicensed Scientology staffers "medicated her without her consent," isolated her and took other measures to treat her physical and mental condition at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, according to an affidavit filed Friday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

In addition, Scientology is accused of an "inexcusable delay" in getting McPherson to a hospital after her health was in obvious decline. Church staffers took 41/2 hours to get her to a hospital after noticing she was seriously ill, the affidavit states.

It is the first time a Scientology corporation has been charged with a criminal offense in the United States since the church was founded in 1954. The charges, both felonies, were filed by State Attorney Bernie McCabe. They ended a three-year investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Clearwater Police Department. Because the church was charged corporately, no individual was arrested.

Also included in the affidavit are statements by Scientology's own members, who questioned the treatment McPherson, 36, received at the downtown Clearwater hotel. One of them, Dr. David I. Minkoff, described the condition of her body as "horrific."


The Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater is the church's retreat. [Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]

In another significant passage, two Scientologists involved in McPherson's care are said to have misled police when interviewed for the first time.

Scientology's reaction late Friday was subdued, a stark contrast to its angry response two years ago, when the investigation into her death first was reported.

Mike Rinder, a top church official, acknowledged it was a departure from church policy for someone in McPherson's condition to stay at the Fort Harrison. He said it will never happen again.

He also said church officials will meet with their attorneys and "work out what would be the best approach to resolving this. . . . It was three years ago that this happened. We'd like to see how to move forward and put this unfortunate incident behind us."

Rinder noted the affidavit does not pointedly accuse the church or its members of causing McPherson's death. It does say the church "deprived Lisa of her only opportunity for survival" by not getting her to a hospital on time.

Rinder called that a vindication of sorts.

"There isn't anything in the affidavit about anybody trying to intentionally harm Lisa McPherson, which is really what we've said all along," he said. "What this actually says is the church blew it -- that she died and someone should have taken some other action. Well, that's something we can address and deal with. We can talk about how to approach that in the future."

McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebreich, her closest surviving relative, said she was disappointed there was no manslaughter charge. "But I am glad that they did press charges," she added. "I hope to see a swift trial and get it over with. I want them punished so that they stop what they're doing to people. I believe they murdered Lisa."

Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein declined to comment, referring questions to McCabe, who also declined to comment.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth said his office will assist McCabe "any way we can." Butterworth said McCabe "probably thought he might not be able to win a manslaughter case. That was his decision to make."

The unusually long investigation began the day after McPherson died, Dec. 5, 1995. Investigators conducted interviews with dozens of Scientologists. McCabe's decision to prosecute came as the three-year statute of limitations was set to expire on the anniversary of McPherson's death.

Florida law establishes a maximum fine of $5,000 for a conviction of abuse or neglect of a person or practicing medicine without a license. But courts also are allowed to impose additional penalties, including forfeiture of property.

McPherson was physically healthy when she entered the downtown Clearwater hotel for what Scientology officials first described as rest and relaxation. She was pronounced dead 17 days later after Scientologists drove her to a Pasco County emergency room 45 minutes away.

By some estimates, McPherson lost 30 to 40 pounds during her stay. Her body was gaunt, bruised and marked with sores. She had dried blood around her mouth, according to an emergency room nurse, who described her appearance, saying: "She was thin, she was unkempt, dirty. Just not taken care of."

McPherson was being cared for at Scientology's spiritual hub in Clearwater, where the "technology" devised by founder L. Ron Hubbard is said to be practiced with the highest quality and precision.

On Nov. 18, 1995, church staffers took McPherson to Room 174 at the back of the hotel, turned the lights low and began to keep a "watch." They were following Hubbard's directives for dealing with psychotic people. They did not speak to McPherson or within her hearing. Their "watch" was a Scientology method intended to quiet McPherson and relieve the mental instability that became evident earlier that Nov. 18, when she disrobed at the scene of a minor accident and told a paramedic, "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

McPherson was taken by ambulance to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But Scientologists are taught that psychiatry is harmful and strongly oppose psychiatric medicines.

Within an hour of McPherson's arrival at Morton Plant, at least eight Scientologists arrived and told a doctor it was against her religion to have a psychiatric exam. They promised to care for her 24 hours a day and signed as witnesses on the release form that allowed McPherson to leave against the doctor's advice.

She was driven to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where, instead of growing quiet, she worsened. Her experience was described in vivid detail in daily logs written by Scientologists who watched her.

McPherson babbled and banged on walls and walked like a robot. She vomited and defecated on herself. She slapped and poked and kicked Scientology staffers. She screamed at them, and tried to leave.

For days, as Scientology security guards took shifts outside McPherson's door, staffers fetched sandwiches and bananas for her. They made protein drinks. They gave her vitamins, herbal remedies, aspirin, Benadryl and doses of the prescription sedative, Chloral Hydrate. They held her down and administered these substances with a large syringe placed in McPherson's mouth, the affidavit states, "even though she was never seen by and had no patient/doctor relationship with the prescribing physician."

They got her to drink glasses of "Cal-Mag," a mixture of calcium gluconate, magnesium carbonate, cider vinegar and water that Scientologists believe is healthful.

Later, as McPherson weakened, they bathed her and helped her dress.

McPherson, a Dallas native, had moved to Clearwater in 1994 to be near Scientology's spiritual hub. She was a "public," which is Scientology parlance for a parishioner who pays for and receives counseling.

McPherson worked for AMC Publishing, which produces insurance industry publications in a small office park near downtown. She was a top advertising salesperson, though her production was down sharply in the months before death.

Twice divorced, she shared an apartment with a fellow Scientologist in Belleair.

During her crisis, no one at the Fort Harrison or in McPherson's circle of Scientologist friends notified her mother in Dallas, who has since died.

On Dec. 5, 1995 -- the 17th day of McPherson's stay at the Fort Harrison -- her caregivers said she appeared ill and they called Dr. Minkoff, a another "public" Scientologist in Clearwater who was nearing the end of his shift that evening in a New Port Richey emergency room, 24 miles away.

Minkoff, according to the affidavit, told the Scientology staff to get her to the closest hospital if she was seriously ill. Morton Plant was two minutes away.

But a Scientology supervisor feared McPherson would "end up in psych hands" there, according to a church record. The affidavit states Minkoff was told McPherson wasn't sick enough to be rushed to Morton Plant.

Minkoff agreed to see her.

McPherson was breathing heavily when a staffer carried her to a van, records say. After the 45-minute drive from downtown Clearwater, she was dead on arrival from what later was determined to be a blood clot in her left lung.

Her body was marked with bruises and abrasions. She had been diagnosed as physically healthy at Morton Plant 17 days earlier. McPherson's body weighed 108 pounds, down from estimates she normally weighed 140 to 155 pounds.

McPherson's care was supervised by Janis Johnson, a former medical doctor who was Scientology's "medical liaison officer" in Clearwater, and Alain Kartuzinski, a Scientology "case supervisor."

The others recruited to help with McPherson's care were a collection of Scientology staff with varying backgrounds, including two librarians, a dentist, a chaplain and a secretary.

There also was a dental assistant who tried to hold McPherson's nose so she would be forced to swallow food; an accountant who broke down in tears and had to be taken from McPherson's room; and a 16-year-old girl assigned to watch McPherson as she became weaker during her final three days.

Johnson, the "medical liaison officer," was one of three Scientologists in the van that went to Pasco County. She has never held a medical license in Florida and was reassigned after McPherson's death.

Johnson practiced for seven years in Arizona as an anesthesiologist, but let her license expire after the state medical board investigated her personal use of painkillers while on duty at two Tucson hospitals.

Although a Scientology entity has never been criminally charged in the United States, there is precedent elsewhere.

The Church of Scientology of Toronto was convicted on charges of breach of trust and several individual Scientologists were convicted on charges relating to efforts to infiltrate Ontario's Provincial Police and the Attorney General of Ontario. Canada's highest court upheld the convictions last year.

In Greece, a Church of Scientology mission was ordered to shut down in 1996 after its courts determined that Scientology methods are dangerous and conducted by unskilled people. The court's verdict characterized the mission as a profit-making venture.

Scientology's initial story about what happened to McPherson differs sharply from what is contained in records made public over the past two years, including Friday's affidavit.

The church first said she was free to come and go from the hotel. Records later showed she was under guard.

The church initially painted a benign portrait of McPherson's stay, saying she was there for rest and relaxation and that "nothing unusual" happened. Johnson, the "medical officer," first told investigators McPherson was "just upset but was "with it,' " the affidavit states. Missing were the grim details of her psychosis.

The church has consistently said she was not dehydrated. But the affidavit says Minkoff, the Scientologist doctor, found her "severely dehydrated" and was "shocked" at her appearance.

Another skeptical Scientologist was Judy Goldsberry-Weber, the staffer who promised Morton Plant doctors McPherson would be cared for. At some point, according to affidavit, Goldsberry-Weber was cut out of the loop. When she heard about McPherson being "force medicated," the affidavit states, she questioned Johnson and was told to "butt out."
-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

 

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