Family Questions Details Of '95 Death

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 20, 1996

The family and friends of a Clearwater woman who died last year in the care of friends from the Church of Scientology are calling for more answers.

The woman, Lisa McPherson, was pronounced dead Dec. 5, 1995, at a New Port Richey hospital after several fellow Scientologists drove her there from the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.

McPherson had spent 17 days in the Scientology-owned hotel, resting and recuperating from unexplained anxiety, according to church officials.

They also said McPherson, 36, "suddenly took ill" at the hotel but distrusted doctors. They said she initially declined to be treated until Scientologist friends agreed to take her to a Scientologist doctor in New Port Richey, more than 20 miles away.

Her family and friends in Dallas don't believe that account.

"The Lisa I know would never, ever let herself sit there and die without getting help," said Kellie Davis, a longtime friend of McPherson's who said McPherson called her several weeks before she died and told her she was coming home to Dallas "to stay."

"I feel she was held against her will," Davis said.

Dell Liebriech, an aunt of McPherson's, said Thursday that she also believes her niece "was held against her will."

"She wanted out, and they wanted to be rid of her," Liebriech said.

She said the family knew nothing about McPherson distrusting doctors and that McPherson had gone to dentists and chiropractors for years.

Officials from the Church of Scientology have said McPherson's death was natural and unfortunate, probably the result of a staph infection. They claim Clearwater police have kept the case file open only to harass the church.

Elliot Abelson, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Scientology, said McPherson's family is commenting without knowing all the facts about her death. He added that police have not filed charges against anyone in the case.

"I'm just really outraged here," Abelson said after hearing Liebriech's comments.

He said, "We've got scores of people who will say she was happy with the church and had no intentions of leaving."

The statements from McPherson's friends and family came during an unusual impromptu gathering in the home where McPherson grew up.

Present were reporters from the Tampa Bay area and a crew from television show Inside Edition. Her mother, Fannie McPherson, was ill and could not participate.

The family leveled their criticism, more than a year after McPherson's death, after hearing recently that Clearwater police were still investigating the case.

Liebriech also offered a rare glimpse into the personal finances of a Scientologist. The organization, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, has been criticized for years by those who say it is a money-making cult.

Liebriech released a number of McPherson's IRS records and church invoices addressed to McPherson that show she earned $136,721 as a sales representative for a Clearwater publishing company in 1994 and donated more than $75,000 to Scientology's Flag Service Organization.

The publishing company, called AMC, is owned and operated by Scientologists.

FLAG, as it is known to Scientologists, administers the church's counseling and other services to parishioners around the world.

Records from 1995 show that McPherson earned $85,000 from the publishing company and gave more than $30,000 to Flag.

Abelson said he had not seen the financial documents but he commented: "So what? She voluntarily decided to get a lot of services from the church."

The family's records also indicate that the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is involved in the investigation. A letter signed in March by State Attorney Bernie McCabe informs the family that the office is seeking medical records from Columbia New Port Richey Hospital.

An autopsy by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office concluded that the cause of death was blood clotting brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration."

The autopsy also showed "evidence of injury" and cited bruises, lesions, abrasions and marks resembling insect or animal bites on McPherson's body.

Abelson, the Scientology attorney, said the church welcomed the state attorney's investigation because the records will remove the "hysteria" surrounding the case and show that the church "did everything right."