Scientology deserves all the bad PR By MIKE WILSON

St. Petersburg Times

August 16, 1997

Imagine that you run a resort hotel in a warm, sunny American city. People come to this destination seeking rest, relaxation and, especially, self-improvement. They pay a steep price and expect value for their money.

One day a healthy 36-year-old woman checks in. And a couple of weeks later she checks out.

For good.

How do you explain her death to prospective guests?

This is the problem facing the Church of Scientology, which has a spiritual retreat at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. On Dec. 5, 1995, after spending 17 days at the hotel, longtime Scientologist Lisa McPherson was pronounced dead at a New Port Richey hospital. The cause, according to the medical examiner: a blood clot in her lung that was caused by bed rest and severe dehydration.

McPherson, in good physical health when she arrived at the Fort Harrison, was gaunt and covered with bruises when she was carried out, according to the medical examiner.

Her death has caused all kinds of legal problems for Scientology. McPherson's family has sued the church, saying it is responsible. And prosecutors and police are investigating whether anyone should be charged criminally.

For the church, the death of Lisa McPherson is much more than a legal problem. It's a PR problem. Scientologists may regard themselves as worshipers, but they are also customers. And as the church surely knows, it's bad for business when a customer turns up dead.

Scientology -- which suddenly and inexplicably received an IRS tax exemption a few years back -- makes money by charging members thousands of dollars for "auditing," a peculiar form of counseling that is supposed to rid people of "engrams," or lingering psychic injuries. Some church members eventually "go clear"; others just go broke.

"Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money," Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard once wrote. "However you get them in or why, just do it."

McPherson -- a good customer who spent tens of thousands of dollars each year on Scientology services -- lived her last days under strange and sad circumstances. After a minor traffic accident, she apparently became mentally unstable and took off her clothes. She was taken to a hospital but left with fellow Scientologists who promised they would take care of her.

She didn't get any psychiatric help because Scientologists are opposed to psychiatry. The church says psychiatry harms people through electroshock therapy and psychotropic drugs. It is also a fact that Scientology competes directly with psychiatry for customers.

McPherson checked into the Fort Harrison "to rest and think and get her strength back," said Elliot Abelson, an attorney for the church.

She apparently didn't do any of those things. Two days into her stay, a Scientology staffer made this note: "She has difficulty even to swallow a bit of water."

McPherson began suffering psychotic episodes. (Or maybe she just wasn't "clear.") She soiled herself, broke a glass in the bathroom, punched and scratched people, and jumped off the bed and hit her head, according to staff notes. Her weight, which a paramedic estimated at 155 pounds before she checked in, slipped to 108 at her death.

The Scientologists who looked after the desperately ill woman included staff librarians, a file clerk, a secretary and a director of personnel. Finally, on Day 17, the staffers decided to take her to a hospital. But by then she was so sick that even the finest librarians and file clerks couldn't have saved her.

McPherson's helpers -- actually, her pallbearers -- drove past closer hospitals to take her to one where a Scientologist was on staff.

"On the way to the hospital, Lisa's breathing became labored and then got fainter and fainter just before they arrived," according to staff member Paul Greenwood.

Lisa McPherson was DOA.

Yes, it's quite a hotel, the Fort Harrison. Librarians are on call and other staffers are always eager to serve you (as they served McPherson) by jamming herbs and mashed bananas into your mouth and pinching your nostrils shut until you swallow.

And should the Scientologists figure out that you need medical help, they will carry your limp body to a van and take you to a doctor who knows a corpse when he sees one.

There's no word on whether this sickening story has affected bookings from other customers at the Fort Harrison, but this much is clear: The Church of Scientology won't be getting any more money from Lisa McPherson.

-- Mike Wilson can be reached at 892-2924 by phone or at by e-mail.