The Tampa Tribune

December 1, 1998, Tuesday, FINAL EDITION FLORIDA/METRO, Pg. 1

Church fights abuse charge

DAVID SOMMER of The Tampa Tribune

CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology pleaded not guilty Monday to criminal charges that it abused one of its members and illegally

practiced medicine in the weeks leading up to her death.

The church requested a jury trial.

Because the plea was submitted in writing before a scheduled arraignment hearing, no church officials or attorneys were in court Monday.

Instead, a small band of anti-church activists led by a millionaire investment banker picketed in front of the courthouse. A man the activists said was a Scientologist videotaped the scene.

Bob Minton, a New Hampshire resident who said he has spent more than $ 2 million fighting what he considers to be a cult, is here in advance of a candlelight vigil outside a church headquarters building. The vigil is scheduled for Saturday, the third anniversary of church member Lisa McPherson's death.

Minton said he is funding a civil lawsuit filed against the church on behalf of McPherson's estate.

A longtime church member who moved here from Texas in 1993, McPherson, 36, died after a 17-day stay at the church's Clearwater headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel.

She had been involved in a minor traffic accident near the hotel on Nov. 18, 1995. Officers took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Church officials soon arrived and McPherson checked herself out.

Prosecutors say she was held against her will as she lost weight and became dehydrated.

Scientology employees did not seek treatment for her until it was too late to prevent McPherson's death from an embolism, according to the investigator's report.

The two felony charges against the church were filed last month after an almost three-year investigation. The maximum fine totals $ 15,000 for both counts.