Scientology records at center of probe

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
ęSt. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 1997

CLEARWATER -- Church of Scientology members took daily notes about a woman who died after 17 days at a church retreat, and those records are now in the hands of law enforcement officials who are deciding whether to prosecute church representatives. The decision whether to file criminal charges rests with Prosecuter Bernie McCabe.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Thursday that the records "will play a significant role" in the criminal investigation being conducted by his office, the Clearwater police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The church turned over some of the records weeks ago in response to a subpoena from McCabe's office, and detectives expect to see more records in coming days as the investigation winds toward a close. "We believe what we have is not complete," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

McCabe and Shelor declined to specify what was in the records, and copies were not available to the St. Petersburg Times.

Likewise, Scientology attorney Laura Vaughan declined to describe the contents of the records but said they do not contain any medical information about McPherson.

But the mere existence of the records casts some new light on Lisa McPherson's experience at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater. Church officials have described that 17-day period as little more than a normal hotel stay where McPherson sought "rest and relaxation." Indeed, a top church official suggested in recent days that her death could have occurred at any hotel.

The Fort Harrison is the centerpiece of Scientology's sprawling presence in downtown Clearwater, which serves as the organization's spiritual headquarters. Scientologists from around the world visit the Fort Harrison for counseling.

McPherson, 36, had been a Scientologist for 18 years when she died in December 1995 of a blood clot.

She entered the Fort Harrison after fellow Scientologists intervened at Morton Plant Hospital, where McPherson had been taken for observation after she was involved in a minor automobile accident and then took off her clothes. The Scientologists who came for McPherson told doctors they would care for her and watch her 24 hours a day.

Seventeen days later, church members took McPherson to an out-of-the-way hospital in Pasco County where a staff physician, who was also a Scientologist, pronounced her dead.

Medical Examiner Joan Wood has concluded McPherson's death was brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration." She has said McPherson went without fluids for several days and was unconscious for up to two days before her death.

Scientology officials strongly dispute most of Wood's conclusions, suggesting instead that an aggressive staph infection may have led to McPherson's death.

In previous statements about the case, church officials have said McPherson was well cared for at the Fort Harrison, which they described as a four-star hotel.

They have said that her room was cleaned daily and that friends came to see and help her. They have said that she received no professional medical care and that her death was an unfortunate event that happened to occur on Scientology property.

The initial characterization that her stay was largely benign and uneventful changed in February when a church lawyer revealed that McPherson had been isolated, had been pounding the walls of her room with her fists around the midpoint of her stay and had become "self-destructive."

The church's characterization seemed to change again in recent days. In two letters to the Times, Scientology official Mike Rinder wrote that McPherson "had merely been staying at the hotel" and that "had this occurred in any other hotel or with someone from another religion, it would not have been a media event."

Vaughan, the lawyer for Scientology, declined to comment about how the Fort Harrison records square with the church's previous accounts of McPherson's stay. "We think it's inappropriate to try this case in the press," she said.

But a Tampa lawyer who is representing McPherson's family in a civil lawsuit against the church says the records are "the star witness" in the case. The church gave him copies only after he reached an agreement to keep them confidential during the pre-trial phases, said Kennan Dandar.

In general terms, however, he described them this way: "They involve pseudo medical treatment of Lisa McPherson, and that treatment resulted in her death because it included the withholding of urgent, emergency licensed medical treatment that was so obvious that a first-grader would know enough to call 911."

Vaughan responded: "That's just absolutely false. They're not medical records of anybody's stay anywhere."

Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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