Attorneys say suit aims to derail inquiry

[Tampa Tribune 11 February 1997]

3/30/97 -- 2:19 PM

02/11 Attorneys say suit aims to derail inquiry CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune

Published in The Tampa Tribune Feb. 11, 1997

CLEARWATER - Attorneys for Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood say a lawsuit filed by the Church of Scientology is an attempt to squelch an investigation into the mysterious death of a Scientologist.

In a motion, Wood's attorneys said the lawsuit is ``a blatant attempt on the part of the Church of Scientology to abort a legitimate criminal investigation into the circumstances of Lisa McPherson's death while under the Church's `care' in the final days of her life. Dr. Wood is under no obligation to cooperate with such an attempt by the so-called `Church' ...''

Wood's office performed an autopsy of McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in December 1995 of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.''

McPherson spent the last 17 days of her life at the Fort Harrison hotel, Scientology's world spiritual headquarters.

Among Wood's findings were that McPherson had nothing to drink for at least five to 10 days, had bruises on her arms and legs, and was comatose for 24 to 48 hours before her death. Wood also said bites on McPherson's body were likely made by cockroaches.

Church officials have disputed those findings.

They have said McPherson suddenly fell ill on the day of her death, that a staph infection may have contributed to her symptoms and death, and she was not comatose during her last hours. They have said she was not bitten by roaches, and that she was provided with food, water and vitamins during her stay at the headquarters.

After Wood discussed her findings in response to inquiries from reporters, Scientology sought access to the medical examiner's records and specimens for McPherson under Florida's public records law.

Wood denied the request because records that are part of an active criminal investigation are exempt under the law. McPherson's death is being investigated by the Clearwater police, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

In their lawsuit, Scientology attorneys argued that because Wood had discussed the evidence with reporters she had ``waived'' her obligation to keep the records closed until the investigations conclude.

In the motion, Wood's attorneys - Patricia Fields Anderson and George Rahdert - asked the court to rule in Wood's favor and award her fees and costs ``for this frivolous lawsuit.''

Scientology attorney Morris Weinberg declined to comment Monday.

In court documents, Wood's attorneys acknowledged her public statements about McPherson's ``severe and ultimately fatal dehydration while under the watchful eye of the Church ...'' and said that does not change Wood's obligation to keep the records private until the investigations conclude.

They also said the church has ``failed to allege any ultimate facts, as opposed to `press release' allegations, showing a clear legal right to the documents in question.''

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