Charges Urged in Scientologist Death

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 16, 1997

After a two-year investigation, local and state police are recommending criminal charges be filed in the 1995 death of Church of Scientology member Lisa McPherson.

Investigators on Monday delivered their findings to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe in the form of a "prosecution summary." Clearwater Deputy Police Chief Paul Maser said the document recommends charges, but he refused to discuss specifics or who might be charged.

McCabe is expected to study the summary and decide whether charges are warranted. He could not be reached Monday for comment.

Kurt Weiland, a top church official in Los Angeles, said Clearwater police have "no evidence" and were repeating a pattern of discrimination against the church that began in the 1970s.

"It's an absolutely disgusting state of affairs," Weiland said.

The investigation into McPherson's death was conducted by Clearwater police detectives, officers for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and members of McCabe's office.

Maser said the prosecution summary was approved by a panel of FDLE executives and lawyers in Tallahassee before it went to McCabe.

McPherson, 36, died Dec. 5, 1995, after a 17-day stay at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, a downtown retreat where she had been under the 24-hour care of fellow church members.

She was taken there to recover from a mental breakdown but records indicate she was in good physical condition.

According to church records of her stay, McPherson became violent and incoherent; had trouble sleeping; and frequently resisted efforts to give her food, liquids and medications. She also grew weak and lost weight, the records say.

Church staffers say she suddenly fell ill on the last day of her stay, and that they drove her in a van to a hospital 45 minutes away in Pasco County so she could see an emergency room doctor who is a Scientologist. McPherson was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.

According to an autopsy by the office of Medical Examiner Joan Wood, McPherson died of an embolism or blood vessel blockage in her left lung caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration."

The church vigorously disputes Wood's conclusions and has called her a liar. In recent days, the church also has accused her of withholding key evidence: Two tissue samples from the autopsy that, the church says, prove McPherson's death was accidental.

Church officials say they showed the slides to three state medical examiners who independently concluded McPherson did not die as a result of dehydration or bed rest.

In a recent statement, church officials said she "died instantaneously of a sudden, unpredictable pulmonary embolism caused by a blood clot in her leg." They said it probably was caused by a blood clot in her leg from an injury in a minor car accident just before she entered the Fort Harrison.

"Had she been in a hospital the entire time," the statement said, "the result would likely have been the same."

Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the church on behalf of McPherson's estate, told a news conference recently that his medical experts laughed at the conclusions of Scientology's experts.

Church lawyers met with McCabe earlier this month to outline their theory of the case.

Maser, deputy chief in Clearwater, said the investigation into McPherson's death was "the most extensive we've ever done." More than 100 witnesses were interviewed, 80 percent of whom were Scientologists, he said.

Maser also rejected the charge by church officials that Clearwater police conducted such an extensive investigation because they are bigoted against Scientology. "That's not true," he said.

He said the investigation took two years because there were so many witnesses and because individual Scientologists were represented by so many lawyers.

There were "extraordinary hoops we had to jump through," Maser said.

Local lawyers Lee Fugate and Laura Vaughan, who represent the church, were angered by Maser's comments.

They said they and other lawyers working for Scientology and its members went out of their way to help investigators.

That included working to help find witnesses who had moved to other countries, Vaughan said. "We actually sped things up."

Fugate called Maser's statements "preposterous and outrageous" and said he doubted Maser's estimates on the number of witnesses interviewed.

"If the report they're submitting is as accurate as the comments of Maser," he said, "heaven help everybody."