Organizers thank police for vigil help

[Tampa Tribune 12 March 1997]

3/30/97 -- 1:28 PM

Organizers thank police for vigil help By CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune

Published in The Tampa Tribune March 12, 1997

CLEARWATER - The organizer of a vigil whose participants were ``bumped, taunted [and] ridiculed'' Saturday as they memorialized a Church of Scientology member who died sent an open letter thanking the Clearwater Police for keeping everyone safe.

In a letter dated Monday, vigil organizer Jeff Jacobsen expressed gratitude for the assistance of officers, whom he says prevented participants from being physically assaulted by church supporters during the candlelight vigil. More than half a dozen officers were on the scene.

The vigil was for 36-year-old Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after spending just over two weeks at the church's world spiritual headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel.

An autopsy determined that a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration'' and bed rest caused McPherson's death. Scientology officials dispute the autopsy findings.

McPherson's death is under investigation by authorities. Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the church. Jacobsen and about 20 others who participated in the vigil are critics of the church.

``As we attempted to silently walk ... with our candles [which represented Lisa's life that would also burn out too quickly] we were individually surrounded by the crowd and bumped, taunted, ridiculed and, more symbolically, people would blow out our candles,'' Jacobsen wrote in the letter to police.

``If the police had not been present, we are convinced that we would also have been physically assaulted,'' Jacobsen wrote. ``This callous abuse by the Church of Scientology against a peaceful commemoration of one of their own members is another indication of the cruelty and lack of decency found in the Church of Scientology. Our heartfelt thanks goes to the Clearwater Police for their diligence in protecting concerned citizens.''

Asked to comment on the letter, Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson provided a statement that he said came from McPherson's personal friends. The statement, which criticizes as ``hypocritical'' those who held the vigil, does not identify the friends.

``We knew Lisa intimately and know that she would be appalled by the way her death is being exploited by people who never had any contact with her, and were not her friends,'' the statement said. ``Their supposed `concern' for her - only after she has passed away - is worse than hypocritical. They are merely exploiting her death to attack her chosen religion.''

The statement said those who held the vigil ``would not have tolerated her while she was alive because she was a Scientologist. They desecrate her memory by speaking about her when they did not know her, and they offend those of us who really loved her.''

Prior to the vigil, many of its participants protested against the church. They were confronted by as many as 300 Scientologists who protested against them.

They returned at night for an hour-long event in which they carried candles as they walked on the sidewalk across the street from the Fort Harrison. They did so despite opposition from several hundred Scientology supporters. Each person holding a candle was surrounded by several Scientology supporters, some of whom taunted them, demanded answers to questions or blocked the pathway.

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