Inquiry in Scientologist's death nearing end


St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 1997

CLEARWATER - More than 50 people have been questioned in what police are calling an "expansive" investigation into the unexplained death of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist.

Although more interviews are planned, police say they expect their work on the case to end "soon'' but refuse to be more specific.

The investigation began more than 16 months ago, when McPherson died after spending 17 days at the Fort Harrison Hotel, a Church of Scientology retreat in downtown Clearwater. According to medical records, she entered the hotel after suffering an emotional breakdown but was physically fine.

McPherson was pronounced dead Dec. 5, 1995, at Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, 24 miles from the Fort Harrison in Clearwater. She was driven there in a church van by Scientologists. The emergency room doctor who handled her case also is a Scientologist.

Police say they have questioned more than two dozen church staffers, all of them accompanied by lawyers.

"Interviews are being conducted of witnesses who were responsible for Lisa's care during her stay," said deputy Clearwater police Chief Paul Maser.

Others interviewed by police include paramedics, doctors and hospital employees involved in McPherson's care before and after her stay at the Fort Harrison, police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

Many of the 50 people questioned gave statements under oath, while others talked to police in less formal interviews, Shelor said.

Church officials say McPherson suddenly fell ill at the hotel, and they suggest she suffered a severe staph infection. They insist there is nothing suspicious about her death.

However, medical examiner Joan Wood has said McPherson died a slow death from a blood clot brought on by severe dehydration and bed rest. Wood says McPherson went without fluids for several days and was unconscious for up to two days before her death.

Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson said the church has been cooperating with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's office, which joined the investigation in January. He said the church has made staffers available to investigators and plans to continue doing so.

But he added that Clearwater police "have willfully prolonged and fueled the issue based on their own animus, and the department has done this in spite of voluminous information provided by the church." He wasn't specific about the nature of the information.

The Church of Scientology has been at odds with Clearwater and its police department for years, beginning with the church's secretive arrival in the city in 1975.

Church officials contend investigators all but closed the McPherson case months ago, then reopened it late last year to harass the church and create a public spectacle.

Maser said police have never closed the case or put it on a back burner. He declined to elaborate on the progress of the case and would not say whether he expects criminal charges.

"In searching for the truth, if we find criminal charges, we're going to make them," Maser said.

He added: "The progress of this case has been unusually slow."

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe offered one reason for the length of the investigation. During questioning, he said, some witnesses have provided detectives with names of additional people involved in the case.

Asked for a timetable, McCabe only said that the investigation has passed the midpoint.

Making a criminal case will be difficult, said three veteran criminal defense lawyers. All, based in Clearwater, are familiar with local prosecutors, the city's police department and the Church of Scientology.

Attorney Denis DeVlaming said he thinks investigators could be considering a manslaughter charge in which a defendant would be accused of "culpable negligence."

He said such a case is tough to prove and pointed to the jury instruction for manslaughter, which says "culpable negligence is more than a failure to use ordinary care toward others . . . it must be gross and flagrant."

It also is defined as "consciously doing an act or following a course of conduct that the defendant must have known, or reasonably should have known, was likely to cause death or great bodily injury."

Church of Scientology members had promised doctors they would care for Lisa McPherson and watch her 24 hours a day. Did the church or one of its members commit culpable negligence as she fell ill at a church retreat and died?

To convince a jury, DeVlaming said, investigators would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody should have known how sick McPherson was. And for that, they need a "smoking gun," perhaps "somebody on the inside" making an incriminating statement, DeVlaming said.

Without that kind of direct evidence, investigators would have to make their case based on circumstantial evidence, said lawyer Patrick Doherty.

Doherty compared a circumstantial case to footprints in the snow: "You didn't see anybody walk there, but you know somebody walked there."

Under the law, Doherty said, "a well-connected chain of circumstance" is as weighty as direct evidence. But it is still tough to prove, he said.

"It's not enough to show in a criminal case that a person probably did something wrong or that the facts look bad," he said. "You have to exclude any reasonable hypothesis of innocence."

In other words, prosecutors would be in trouble if jurors heard a credible, believable explanation for McPherson's death.

DeVlaming said one building block of the case could be the fact that McPherson was released from Morton Plant Hospital against medical advice and into the hands of Scientologists who promised to take care of her.

That should have "put them on notice about the seriousness of her condition," he said.

Other options for prosecutors could include charges of abuse or false imprisonment, said lawyer Michael Cheek.

If authorities do bring a charge in the case, the lawyers agreed the more likely defendant would be an individual, not the church itself.

"It's tough" to charge an organization with a criminal offense, DeVlaming said, "because of the number of people at the top." In assessing blame, investigators often are confronted with lots of fingerpointing by members of an organization, he said.

Added Cheek: "It's pretty hard to get a confession out of an organization."

Cheek and DeVlaming also agreed that another problem for police will be state attorney McCabe, whose office, they said, will not prosecute without strong evidence.

McCabe's first duty is to establish whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed, said Cheek. After that, he must be convinced the case can be proved.

Some state attorneys will charge a defendant based on strong suspicions rather than proof, then hope they get lucky at trial, Cheek said.

Not McCabe's office, he said. "If you can't pass those two standards, my reading of this office is they will not file a charge."

The high-profile nature of the McPherson case is another big factor, DeVlaming said.

"Bernie's going to want a little more than what he might normally want" in the way of evidence, he said. "I think Bernie's making sure that every T is crossed here - not 99 percent of the T's. Every T."

To help in their investigation, Clearwater police enlisted the aid of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which dispatched one of its top agents, Lee Strope, to work on the case. Strope was a lead agent in the investigation of one of Florida's most notorious crimes, the mutilation murders of five Gainesville college students in 1990.

McPherson's death has resulted in one court action, a wrongful death lawsuit brought by her family against the church. The family contends the church was negligent, but the standard for proving that is different in a civil court.

McPherson had been a Scientologist for 18 years, but family and friends in her hometown of Dallas say they think she was preparing to leave Scientology.

On Nov. 18, 1995, she undressed in public at the scene of a minor auto accident where she told paramedics: "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

Paramedics took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital, and a short time later several Scientologists arrived and insisted she not see a psychiatrist. The church members assured doctors they would take care of her and watch her 24 hours a day.

They took her to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where, a Scientology lawyer has said, she was isolated in one of the hotel's rooms. At some point during her stay, McPherson pounded the walls of her room and became self-destructive, the lawyer said.

Among the questions that confront investigators:

How did a physically healthy woman deteriorate so dramatically in 17 days? The church has said she entered the hotel for "rest and relaxation."

Why wasn't McPherson taken to the hospital sooner? One Scientology staffer involved in her care has a medical degree and had practiced medicine for several years. Scientology officials have said her illness came on suddenly, and they acted quickly as they could.

Why wasn't McPherson taken to a closer hospital? The church has said McPherson distrusted doctors and wanted to be treated by the Scientologist at the New Port Richey hospital.

Copyright 1997

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