Dispute over Scientologist's death


St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 1997

CLEARWATER - Laboratory tests indicate that a 36-year-old member of the Church of Scientology went without fluids for five to 10 days and was unconscious for up to two days before her unexplained death in 1995.

Those conclusions by Joan Wood, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner, are at odds with the Church of Scientology's version of how Lisa McPherson died after spending 17 days in the organization's downtown Clearwater retreat.

Scientology officials say McPherson, who had no medical problems when she entered the Fort Harrison Hotel, "suddenly took ill" and was taken in a church van to a New Port Richey hospital more than 20 miles away so she could see a Scientologist doctor.

They say she was given food and liquids and participated in discussions about where she should be taken for treatment. They say she was conscious when she was carried to the van and could have walked if necessary. They believe a severe staph infection was a major contributor to the blood clot that caused her death.

However, Wood said Wednesday that McPherson's health declined slowly over several days and was far from sudden. She said it's "impossible" that a staph infection led to McPherson's death.

The lab results "are consistent with a chronic process and are consistent with an event such as a bloodstream infection that occurred within a period of hours," Wood said. "She wasn't fine one day and dead the next."

Wood also concluded that McPherson had been bitten by ants or roaches.

Her disclosures to the Times and to the television news magazine Inside Edition infuriated Elliot J. Abelson, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Scientology. The church has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.

In a phone interview Wednesday from Los Angeles, Abelson said of Wood: "Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Hateful liar. That's what she is."

Abelson called Wood's statements "totally extreme" and questioned why they weren't made in the autopsy report on McPherson.

Asked why Wood would lie about the case, Abelson said: "I wish I knew why, but I can speculate somebody has got to her, or she is hateful toward the Church of Scientology."

He said he believed Wood has been influenced by the Clearwater Police Department. Church officials have strongly criticized the department, saying it has orchestrated a longstanding hate campaign against Scientology.

Wood responded to the attorney's remarks, saying: "Mr. Abelson's entitled to his opinion."

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are helping Clearwater police with the investigation into McPherson's death.

Church officials, meanwhile, are conducting their own investigation. They have assembled a team of medical experts and have acquired the personnel records of Robert D. Davis, the associate medical examiner who conducted the autopsy but has since left Wood's office.

According to Wood, a private investigator for Scientology showed up recently at Davis' Volusia County home wanting to question him.

She said Davis left her department under circumstances that had nothing to do with his abilities or the McPherson case.

McPherson's relatives in Dallas, where she joined Scientology as an 18-year-old, believe she was planning to leave the church in 1995 and was detained when church members found out.

McPherson was living in a Belleair apartment in 1995 and working at a Clearwater publishing company owned by Scientologists. On Nov. 18, 1995, she began taking her clothes off after a minor auto accident and was taken by paramedics to Morton Plant Hospital for observation.

According to hospital records, several fellow Scientologists intervened at the hospital and took her to the Fort Harrison, where church officials said she signed herself in for "rest and relaxation." She was pronounced dead 17 days later.

Dell Liebreich, McPherson's aunt in Dallas, praised Wood's remarks.

"She wouldn't get up there and say that if it wasn't true," Mrs. Liebreich said of Wood. "I believe her and not (Abelson). She has no reason to lie about that."

Abelson said the Fort Harrison Hotel is comparable to a four-star hotel, with one exception. The rooms don't have televisions so parishioners can concentrate on their studies. McPherson's room "was far from a roach-infested room," he said. "It was cleaned daily."

He also said roaches do not bite humans. But Wood said there are documented cases in which they have bitten humans who are dead or unconscious.

Wood said she reached her conclusions about McPherson after seeing test results on McPherson's eye fluids, which can accurately reflect a body's condition before death.

The readings on one test are "so high she had to be unconscious" for 24 to 48 hours, Wood said.

And, in terms of eye fluid results, it is "the worst case of dehydration I have ever seen," said Wood, who has been Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner for nearly 15 years.

Test results notwithstanding, Abelson said McPherson was conscious and well cared for in her final hours.

He said her symptoms "became much more obvious that last day" when she was taken to the hospital. He said McPherson approved being taken to see the Scientologist doctor in New Port Richey.

And "we know that there were liquids," he said, "because we provided them to her and she took them."

Abelson questioned Wood's conclusions about McPherson not having fluids for five to 10 days.

That finding was not mentioned in the autopsy report, he said. But Wood noted the report states she was dehydrated.

Abelson cited language in the report stating McPherson was of "average nutritional status." But Wood said that only means she "wasn't abnormally thin."

Abelson cited a passage stating there were 15 cubic centimeters of urine in her bladder. But Wood said that's only three teaspoons and that a person in the throes of dehydration can still produce urine.

Abelson said that McPherson's intestines were said to be normal in the autopsy report and that they would have been "constricted" if she was dehydrated. Wood said she did not know if constricted bowels were an indication of dehydration.

Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Hateful liar. That's what she is

- ELLIOT J. ABELSON A Los Angeles lawyer who represents Scientology speaking about the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner

Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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