Newsweek July 21, 1997 p. 77

lisanw1.jpg (22300 bytes)

"A Death in Clearwater"

A controversial lawsuit asks who is to blame for the death of a young and troubled Scientologist

By Kenneth L. Woodward and Peter Katel

At dusk on nov. 18, 1995, 36-year-old Lisa McPherson was spotted walking buck naked away from a minor traffic accident in downtown Clearwater, Fla. A paramedic took her by ambulance to the nearest hospital. On the way, the paramedic later reported, McPherson "said she wanted people to think she was crazy because she wanted people to help her." At the hospital a doctor concluded that his sometimes babbling, sometimes coherent patient had a "psychiatric problem." But McPherson was a member of the Church of Scientology, which is bitterly opposed to psychiatry. Less than an hour later--and against the doctor's advice--McPherson signed herself out to a group of Scientologists. That night she entered the church's eight-story "retreat center" in the old Ft. Harrison Hotel to begin a 24-hour surveillance program aimed at restoring her mental health. Seventeen days

later McPherson died, and Clearwater police have been investigating her death ever since.

Other people also want to know what happened inside the Scientology compound. In the autopsy report, state medical examiner Dr. Joan Wood concluded that McPherson died from a blood clot brought on by dehydration. Later, on the syndicated television program "Inside Edition," Wood said, "This is the most severe case of dehydration I have ever seen," estimating that McPherson may have been "deprived of food and water" for five to 10 days. McPherson's aunt and next of kin would like some answers, too: she has filed a civil suit against the Church of Scientology charging wrongful death. The church, in turn, has a suit against Wood charging bias and demanding all her records. Scientologists have reason to be upset: rarely is a church accused of complicity in the death of one of its own members. And in Clearwater--where the church is a major presence--the media have dogged the case for months.

Last week a window was opened into the last days of McPherson--and into the church itself. Over strong objections from the church's lawyers, circuit Judge James Moody Jr. released 33 pages of notes taken by the Scientologists who had attended McPherson in the weeks before she died. Just four days into her stay, the notes make clear, McPherson was "ashen-faced" and feverish. Attendants tried to force her to eat and drink, the notes say, but she strongly resisted. She was often violent, poking one attendant in the eye and attacking another with a potted plant. "She then started to hit things in the room and broke a lamp hanging from the ceiling," the notes go on. "She then went and got back on her bed and then jumped off, land[ing] on the wet floor and then hit her head..." Three days before she died, McPherson had great difficulty swallowing, vomited often and "had scratches and abrasions all over her body..." When McPherson was taken out of the retreat center, her attendants drove her to a doctor, also a Scientologist, who had been following her case. The trip to his hospital took 45 minutes; four other hospitals were closer. McPherson died shortly after arriving.

All this led McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebreich of Dallas, to charge that her niece was held "against her will"--and that Scientologists permitted her "to remain in a coma" that ultimately led to her death. In fact, Liebreich contends that her niece was desperately trying to leave the church. A divorcee, McPherson had been a Scientologist for 18 years, worked for a publishing company owned by Scientologists and roomed with another church member. Liebreich's attorney says McPherson had spent all but $3,000 of her $130,000 in earnings on Scientology courses in 1994, when her company relocated from Dallas to Clearwater.

Church officials flatly deny responsibility for McPherson's death. They point out that the pathologist who performed the actual autopsy, in Dr. Wood's presence, doesn't endorse his former superior's contention that McPherson was suffering from life-threatening dehydration. They also deny that McPherson was trying to leave the fold. On the contrary, they say she was a troubled woman who came to the church for help. "There were people there who were doing everything they possibly could to help her," says Mike Rinder, head of special affairs for the church. Was the cure worse than the sickness? That's for the courts to decide.

With Mark Miller

return to Lisa page