Mystery surrounds Scientologist's death By CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune

CLEARWATER - After spending half her life as a member of the Church of Scientology, Lisa McPherson told friends she was ready to get out.

At 36, she yearned to reunite with her mom and old friends and start a new life in Dallas.

She hoped to visit them at Thanksgiving and vowed to be home for good by last Christmas.

``She said she couldn't get into it over the phone but she said she had a lot to talk about,'' said Kelly Davis, her friend since childhood. ``She said she would explain when she got here.''

To Davis, her friend sounded ``like the old Lisa,'' not the distant stranger she had been for a decade. The women laughed and talked as they had before McPherson joined Scientology after her high school graduation 18 years earlier.

``She had made the decision to get out and come back here and she seemed happy,'' Davis said.

But on Thanksgiving a couple of weeks later, McPherson was not at home. Instead, she was at the Fort Harrison Hotel, Scientology's world spiritual headquarters.

She was taken there Nov. 18 by Scientologists for ``rest and relaxation.''

Seventeen days later, she was dead.

An autopsy by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office showed McPherson's 5-foot-9, 108-pound body was severely dehydrated, her arms and legs were bruised, her skin was cracked and scaling. Her left pulmonary artery was blocked by a fatal blood clot brought on by dehydration and ``bed rest.''

``The Clearwater Police Department doesn't think she died of natural causes,'' said spokesman Wayne Shelor.

People who attended the wake in Dallas say Scientologists told them McPherson died of ``spinal meningitis.''

Tampa attorney Robert Johnson who represents Scientology said church members initially suspected meningitis and only later learned that was not the case.

``No one knew what had happened to her,'' Johnson said. He said they now believe McPherson had a strep infection. Authorities have no indication of that.

Police have questions about McPherson's death. Detectives wanted to talk with Scientology employees Suzanne Schnuremberger, Ildiko Cannovas and Laura Arrunada, but were told by the church that all three had left the country. They are still being sought for questioning.

Johnson said those people no longer work for the church and Scientology doesn't know how to locate them.

Clearwater Police Detective Sgt. Wayne Andrews said he thinks Schnuremberger is in Switzerland or Germany, Cannovas is probably in Hungary and Arrunada may be working in the medical field in Mexico. He recently asked for help locating them by posting a request for information on the Internet.

The three former employees ``worked in an office that would have had control over her'' during her stay, Andrews said.

Church of Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson said that is false. He said the three have no connection to McPherson's death and the investigation is nothing more than a harassment campaign against the church by police.

He also disputed that McPherson wanted to leave Scientology. ``She wasn't thinking of leaving the church,'' he said.

On the evening of Nov. 18, 1995, McPherson was driving her Jeep Cherokee on South Fort Harrison Avenue. A motorcycle accident had stopped traffic and McPherson smacked into a boat trailer being towed by a Ford pickup.

``It was a minor accident, but paramedics at the scene said she was wild-eyed,'' Detective Andrews said. ``She was walking down the street and removed all of her clothes. The paramedics put her in an ambulance, and although she had no physical injuries, took her to the Morton Plant [Hospital] emergency room.''

A psychiatric nurse was called, Andrews said. He said church members showed up at the hospital, said they didn't believe in psychiatry and insisted on witnessing the interview.

``There was nothing physical wrong with her, but the doctor wanted to keep her there,'' Andrews said. ``She signed out against medical advice and left with several church members.''

``She goes to 210 South Fort Harrison for rest and relaxation and the next time there's any indication of what's happening to her is that on Dec. 5, 1995, she shows up at HCA Hospital in New Port Richey and she's dead on arrival,'' Andrews said.

Scientologists took her to New Port Richey to be treated by Scientologist physician David Minkoff, Andrews said.

Scientology spokesman Anderson disputes the detective's account of the events. He said church members were not present for the interview at the hospital and that McPherson did not sign out against medical advice, but was released.

He said if she had been mentally unfit, hospital officials could have had her committed under the Baker Act, but they did not.

Anderson said she was taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel because she asked to go there, and there was no indication McPherson was ill until the day of her death.

``Lisa at first didn't want to see a doctor but we talked her into seeing a doctor,'' Anderson said. ``She knew Dr. Minkoff and he is an expert in infectious diseases so that's why she was taken there.''

Minkoff said the medical examiner's report is incomplete.

``There are major findings as to the probable cause of death that explain a lot about what happened,'' Minkoff said.

He declined to say what those findings are because medical records are confidential. He said the records are available to officials through the hospital.

If the Medical Examiner's Office looks at them, he said, its doctors will see what caused McPherson's death.

Anderson and Johnson said Minkoff's examination determined McPherson had a strep infection. Anderson said such infections can come on quickly, cause skin discoloration that looks like bruising and can dehydrate a victim. Johnson said Minkoff found the infection through a blood test.

Larry Bedore of the Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner's Office, which conducted the autopsy, said he was not aware of any blood tests being done, or even of McPherson's blood being drawn at the hospital.

He was not aware of any strep infection.

News of McPherson's death stunned her mother, Fannie McPherson. ``It's just been awful,'' she said. ``She was the last of my family.''

All she knew was her daughter had been under pressure in her work as a salesperson for AMC Publishing in Clearwater. Andrews said the company is owned by Scientologists and has Scientology as one of its customers.

``She called me three weeks before she died and she was crying,'' Fannie McPherson said. ``She said she was having trouble with her sales. She said, `Mother, I've let my group down.' ''

No one with AMC returned telephone calls for comment.

After her daughter's death, Fannie McPherson came to Clearwater, where she learned of the traffic accident and the odd behavior.

She said her daughter's Scientology friends told her that, upon arrival at the Fort Harrison on Nov. 18, Lisa McPherson was put in ``baby watch,'' which an ex-church member says is Scientology terminology for solitary confinement.

Ex-church members say such confinement is used when a member has a ``psychotic break'' or is threatening to flee the church.

``They are put in a room with no one and nothing,'' said Dennis Erlich, a former Scientologist who now is an activist against the church.

Police say they cannot confirm or deny the ``baby watch'' allegations.

Anderson said there is no such thing as ``baby watch,'' and that McPherson was never held in such a fashion. ``That's completely false and there is liability if you print that,'' Anderson said. ``It's not true.''

Johnson and Anderson say Erlich is not reliable. Johnson said Erlich ``has a big ax to grind.'' Anderson said Erlich was thrown out of the church.

McPherson's body was returned to Dallas. At the visitation, Scientologists ``hovered'' around, said friend Kelly Davis.

``Ms. Mac couldn't breathe without them on top of her,'' Davis said. ``They came to the funeral home in Dallas and they were checking us out and hovering and listening.''

Davis said Scientologists asked to stay with Fannie McPherson at her home, but she refused. They also insisted that Lisa McPherson wished to be cremated.

``I never heard her say that's what she wanted, and I never would have done it, but they convinced me that's what she wanted,'' Fannie McPherson said.

Anderson said those claims are false.

``I was there,'' Anderson said. ``Church members were not hovering around. I was concerned about Lisa. She had a lot of friends and we wanted to go and pay our respects.''

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