A 'psychotic' decline

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
ęSt. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 1997

CLEARWATER -- Lisa McPherson became "psychotic" and "extremely disturbed" during her 17-day stay at a Church of Scientology retreat and often needed help walking, bathing, dressing, grooming and eating.

McPherson, 36, also soiled herself and on "a few occasions" had to be held by church staffers to curb her violent behavior.

These and other details have emerged in a variety of court records made public recently in a lawsuit filed by McPherson's family, alleging the church was responsible for McPherson's death.

Together, they provide the most vivid portrayal yet of McPherson's time at the Fort Harrison Hotel, where she was taken to recuperate from an emotional upheaval.

In their initial accounts, church officials described her stay as a time of "rest and relaxation" amid four-star accommodations at the Fort Harrison.

Laura Vaughan, an attorney for the church, said Tuesday that the problems McPherson experienced were a result of her mental condition. Because Scientologists oppose psychiatry, they chose to care for McPherson themselves, she said.

"You can't make these people take someone to a psychiatrist," Vaughan said. "I think it would violate the First Amendment to do that."

Before going to the Fort Harrison, McPherson was taken by paramedics to Morton Plant Hospital after a minor traffic accident. But her fellow Scientologists intervened, telling the hospital staff that psychiatric treatment was against McPherson's religion and that they would care for her.

Although physically healthy when she entered the Fort Harrison, McPherson was dead 17 days later of a blood clot. According to the medical examiner, her 108-pound body appeared gaunt and had bruises and abrasions.

Among two documents released Tuesday was a list of Scientology staff members who, according to the church, were recruited as volunteers to stay with McPherson at various times in Room 174 of the Fort Harrison.

The list includes two staff librarians, a payroll officer, four members of the church's medical liaison office, a file clerk, a secretary, two security guards, a dental assistant, a staff chaplain, a director of personnel and various other church officials.

One Scientology staff member was there acting as an accountant, the documents state. Like many parishioners, McPherson had a running account with the church. She paid tens of thousands of dollars a year for services, her personal records indicate.

The documents also state that Clearwater doctor David Minkoff was consulted during McPherson's stay and prescribed "some mild sedatives" for her so she could sleep. Minkoff, a Scientologist, pronounced McPherson dead on Dec. 5, 1995, at a New Port Richey hospital where he is on staff. McPherson was driven the 24 miles to the hospital in a church van.

In addition, the documents refer to the church's staff dentist, who saw McPherson twice and was asked to administer medication.

They also contain the church's contention that McPherson was not locked in her room or forced to stay there and that she was held in isolation but not "as that term is commonly used and understood."

Also, the documents state that McPherson was given a variety of vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies.

The church staffers who stayed with McPherson were instructed to care for her in ways consistent with church writings, including the bulletin Handling the Psychotic, written in 1950 by L. Ron Hubbard. At the time, Hubbard had just published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which provided the basis for Scientology teachings. He would launch the Church of Scientology four years later.

In Handling the Psychotic, Hubbard says psychosis should not be feared and it can be dealt with successfully. He urges those who care for psychotic people to "never be a taskmaster" and "never punish."

It is better to use "gentle persuasion," Hubbard wrote.

Persistence is a key too. "Keep your courage no matter how violent" the person is, he wrote. And "never give up. Something can be done."

In giving McPherson sedatives, those who cared for her may not have followed Hubbard's instruction against using depressants. "Dianetics wakes people up," he wrote. "It does not put them to sleep."

In addition to the records released Tuesday, recent sworn statements in the wrongful death lawsuit also help provide a more complete picture of McPherson's stay at the Fort Harrison.

For example, the doctor who performed the autopsy on McPherson testified in May that McPherson's face showed signs of significant dehydration.

Dr. Robert D. Davis acknowledged that the bony rims around her eyes were "prominent," as were her cheekbones and jawbones. He also testified her cheeks and eyes were sunken, and her skin was tight.

At another point in the testimony, church attorney Sandy Weinberg said he expected evidence to show McPherson was "severely mentally disturbed and was scratching herself, biting herself, punching objects, kicking, hitting walls and generally flailing about."

Overall, he described her as "psychotic."

In the course of asking Davis questions, Weinberg also suggested that McPherson was on a diet of "protein shakes and water and stuff like that." In an interview later, Weinberg declined to elaborate.

While investigators know McPherson weighed 108 pounds at the time of her autopsy, it has not been revealed how much she weighed when she entered the Fort Harrison.

One clue comes from Bonita Portolano, the paramedic who took McPherson to Morton Plant Hospital after McPherson took off her clothes at the scene of the auto accident.

Portolano, now a nurse at Bayfront Medical Center, said in a recent sworn statement that McPherson appeared to weigh 155 pounds.

When pressed by a church attorney, she said 155 was a guess. But she also said she spent 30 minutes with a fully naked McPherson and described her as a tall, "voluptuous" and "well-formed" woman who "carried some weight with her."

An aunt who collected McPherson's belongings says she found a wardrobe of size 11 and 12 clothes, with the exception of one size 10 dress. The aunt also said McPherson's shoes were size 10 and that her underwear was size 7.

McPherson was 5 feet 9 inches tall.

Church of Scientology lawyers argue that the term "average nutritional status" was used in the autopsy report to describe McPherson's body. They also say pictures of McPherson shortly before she entered the Fort Harrison indicate she did not weigh as much as her clothing sizes would indicate.

Said Weinberg: "She was thinner than that."

Copyright 1997
St. Petersburg Times
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