Death of a Disciple Puts Scientology in the Dock

Source: Sunday Times
Date: January 18, 1998

Nobody was hurt when Lisa McPherson drove into the back of a boat being towed through the Florida city of Clearwater. Yet 17 days later McPherson was dead and the minor traffic accident had become the focus of a police investigation that is causing embarrassment for one of the world's most controversial churches.

McPherson was a Scientologist. Her death after an apparent nervous breakdown has become a cause celebre for campaigners against new religions. This week a Florida prosecutor is considering whether to bring charges against Scientology officials who were looking after McPherson when she died.

The case has shocked residents of Clearwater, a retirement town that has been transformed during the past two decades into one of the world's leading centres of the Church of Scientology.

After years of reassuring locals that there was nothing sinister about its multi-million-dollar property-buying sprees, the church may be forced to defend its claims to religious respectability in both the criminal and civil courts. "This is the worst case they've ever faced," said Ken Dandar, the lawyer for McPherson's estate.

Moments after her traffic collision in November 1995, McPherson, 36, inexplicably stripped and wandered naked down the street. She told an ambulance man: "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

She was taken to hospital for psychiatric examination, but less than half an hour later church colleagues turned up demanding her release. They told doctors that their religion opposed psychiatric treatment, and McPherson asked to leave. A doctor noted that her "friends at Scientology will watch her 24 hours a day and be sure that she gets the care that...the patient wants to have".

McPherson was taken to the Fort Harrison hotel, owned by the Scientologists. Exactly what happened to her there under church supervision is in dispute. According to her autopsy report, she died of a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and "bed rest". Her body was badly bruised and scarred with what one pathologist described as cockroach bites. John Wood, the local coroner, estimated that she had not had food or liquids for at least the last five days of her life.

The church has challenged Wood's findings and rejects allegations that McPherson might have been saved had she received conventional care sooner. "None of our people suspected that the woman was going to die," said Kurt Weiland, a church spokesman. "It was unpreventable, unpredictable and accidental."

The church claims it did all it could to help a severely disturbed woman who rejected food, banged her head on the walls, suffered hallucinations and suddenly died of an undetected clot that travelled from her leg to her lung.

The results of the police investigation have been sent to Bernie McCabe, the local state prosecutor, who must decide whether criminal charges are justified. He is also considering a hefty file of submissions by the church, which has consulted its own medical experts in an attempt to prove that McPherson's embolism would have killed her wherever she was. She died as her Scientology minders were driving her to hospital.

Whatever the outcome, the case has already raised questions about the psychological techniques employed by Scientologists, supposedly to advance their members to a more enlightened spiritual state. In a separate civil case alleging wrongful death, McPherson's estate accuses the church of failing to monitor her condition as she was subjected to a therapy called "introspection rundown". Court documents allege that Scientologists allowed her to slip into a coma and failed to provide her with adequate nutrition.

Devised by L Ron Hubbard, the former science fiction writer who founded Scientology in 1954, "introspection" therapy for people who have suffered a "psychotic break" seeks to help by encouraging them to confront their problems in isolation.

Lisa McPherson Memorial Page is one of the best Scientology resources on the net.">Jeff Jacobsen, an expert on new religions who is based in Arizona, believes officials trying to help McPherson may have fatally misjudged her condition. "I think they were following Hubbard's directions on how to deal with a psychotic person," he said. "These people were waiting for Lisa to figure herself out."

Other documents in the case offer a glimpse of Scientology's much- debated finances. Between 1991 and 1995, McPherson spent $175,000 on Scientology courses required for advancement in the church, which has attracted a following among American celebrities. Members include John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the Hollywood actors, and Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, who has bought a large house in Clearwater.

McPherson worked for a Scientologist-owned publishing company that paid her a six-figure salary and also advanced her cash loans to pay for courses with names such as "Power Plus" and "Sunshine Rundown". At one point she was spending up to 40% of her income on Scientology.

Church officials retort that McPherson was an adult who could spend her money as she liked. For them, criticism over the McPherson case is another example of the uninformed hostility that has dogged Scientology since it first started accepting money from members. But the church has won few friends with its attacks on critics of its conduct in the case.

When Jacobsen attended a protest outside church offices on the second anniversary of McPherson's death, Scientologists in Arizona picketed his home and publicly called him a "bigot".

Church officials have accused police of harassment and discrimination. Investigating journalists have been threatened with lawsuits. McPherson's lawyer was denounced by one church spokesman as a "gold-digging ambulance-chaser".

The affair has renewed public suspicion of the well-groomed young Scientologists who stroll around Clearwater. "They were getting so close to being accepted," said Ed Hooper, a councillor. "Now we're back to square one. This doesn't make you want to hold hands and sing hymns."