Church sues medical examiner


St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 1997

CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology alleged in a lawsuit Tuesday that Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has poisoned its reputation by speaking publicly about the unexplained death of a church member.

The lawsuit argues that when Wood recently spoke with reporters about the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson she waived any right to keep her records on the case closed.

The suit demands that Wood's files - including tissue, organ and blood samples from McPherson's body - be opened so Scientology's medical team can conduct an "independent analysis."

Three times in recent days, Wood has denied Scientology's requests for confidential records on McPherson's autopsy. She said she won't release them until completion of "an active criminal investigation" by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Clearwater Police Department.

McPherson, who had been a Scientology parishioner for 18 years, died in December 1995 after a 17-day stay in the church's downtown Clearwater retreat, the Fort Harrison Hotel. She had been healthy when she entered the hotel.

McPherson, 36, was taken more than 20 miles from the hotel to a New Port Richey hospital by fellow Scientologists. But she was not breathing and had no heartbeat when she arrived. She was pronounced dead 21 minutes later.

An autopsy by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office found she died of blood clotting brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration." McPherson, who was 5-feet-9, weighed 108 pounds when she died.

Later, Wood elaborated on the findings and interpreted medical terminology for reporters. She said tests from the autopsy showed McPherson had deteriorated slowly, going without fluids for five to 10 days. They also showed she had been unconscious for up to 48 hours before her death and probably had been bitten by cockroaches, Wood said.

Those findings were at odds with the account of Scientology officials, who say McPherson was well cared for at the Fort Harrison and suddenly fell ill. They say she was conscious when she was put in a church van for the trip to the hospital. They believe the clotting was caused by a severe staph infection that was detected in a hospital blood test but not mentioned in the autopsy report.

Wood has said her test results show there is no way McPherson could have died from a staph infection.

McPherson's relatives in her native Dallas say they believe she was preparing to sever ties with Scientology and was detained at the Fort Harrison when church members found out.

Tuesday, they disclosed that they have hired Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar to represent them in the case. Dell Liebreich, an aunt of McPherson's, said Dandar approached the family.

The Scientology lawsuit, filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, says Wood's comments to reporters contradict and "go well beyond" the autopsy report released earlier by her office. It says her statements help "create the false perception that the Church of Scientology was somehow responsible for the tragic death of one of its parishioners."

Church lawyer Sandy Weinberg of Tampa said Wood now should open all records on the case "so we can begin the process of defending ourselves."

But Wood's attorney, George Rahdert of St. Petersburg, argued that Florida law dictates the records should remain closed until the criminal investigation is over.

Rahdert's firm represents the St. Petersburg Times, often in cases seeking to open public records. He acknowledged that representing Wood to keep public records closed is a departure for the firm, but he added: "We recognize the boundaries of the law, in particular in a case where there is a serious criminal investigation."

Rahdert said Scientology's allegations against Wood were "astonishing."

"It's simply attacking the messenger for the message," he said. "It appears if they don't like what they're hearing about a medical/scientific investigation, it's automatically a smear job, and they couldn't be any more wrong than they are."

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