Documents detail woman's final days

TAMPA - In the last weeks of her life, Lisa McPherson changed.

The agitated, combative woman housed at the old Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater became weak and pale. She had difficulty getting out of bed and often refused to eat.

The 36-year-old woman, who died in December 1995, was watched round the clock by fellow Scientologists during the last 17 days of her life, according to documents released Wednesday after a judge ruled they were not confidential.

The documents include handwritten notes, some giving an hour-by-hour account of McPherson's time there, plus a synopsis of observations from 12 caregivers, put together shortly after her death. Her last two days are mentioned only in the church's synopsis of interviews. No handwritten notes of those last hours have been found, said Morris ``Sandy'' Weinberg, a lawyer who represents the church.

McPherson's family, which filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the church last February, contends that because she wanted to leave the church, she was held in isolation against her will those last two weeks.

The family says the Scientologists ignored her medical needs and allowed her to die. An autopsy found she died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.''

But the church disputes those contentions and says the records released Wednesday show a woman well-tended by people who loved her and cared for her according to the tenets of their faith.

``What the documents demonstrate are very caring women who went to extraordinary lengths to care for a person who was deeply mentally ill,'' said Weinberg.

``They knew they could not take her to a psychiatrist because of their religious beliefs. ... People weren't trying to hurt her; they were trying to help her.

Although Scientologists believe in conventional medicine, they consider psychiatry and psychology evil and refuse to use mind-altering drugs.

The documents, which include handwritten notes tracking McPherson's treatment in the days leading up to her death and a synopsis of those events, describe a disturbed woman.

She threatened to attack them, was often incoherent and chattered incessantly, the records show.

One night she spent a lot of time in the bathroom, ``turning the water on and off and banging the shower hose around.''

But McPherson's family believes she was trying to escape a virtual imprisonment.

McPherson attacked one woman, Joan Stevens, with a potted plant. ``She then started to hit at things in the room and broke a lamp hanging from the ceiling. There was then glass all over the floor. She then became more and more violent and broke more glass in the bathroom. She then went and got back on her bed and then jumped off, landed on the wet floor and then hit her head on the floor.''

On the day she died, ``her skin color changed to ivory color.''

Throughout those weeks, the documents show, she was given food. Her caretakers also gave her mineral injections and chloral hydrate, a sedative.

The night she died, Dec. 5, 1995, Janis Johnson, a doctor not licensed in Florida, took her to an emergency room in New Port Richey, where another Scientologist worked as an emergency room physician.

By the time David Minkoff, the emergency-room doctor, saw McPherson, she was already dead. Both doctors suspected at the time that she died of an infection, perhaps meningitis.

The Pinellas medical examiner, however, has said McPherson slipped into a coma days before being taken to the hospital and died from a blood clot.

The release of the documents followed an early- morning hearing in which Circuit Judge James Moody refused to force Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood to turn over documents, slides and other materials behind the autopsy report.

Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors asked the judge to give them 90 days to try to conclude their criminal investigation.

Moody also delayed depositions of anyone connected to the church, including the physicians, Johnson and Minkoff, until after Sept. 1.

And the judge warned the lawyers not to try the case in the press.

Immediately after the hearing, the lawyer for the McPherson family, Kennan Dandar, said there had been other deaths resulting from Scientology practices.

Other deaths at the Scientologist-owned Fort Harrison Hotel since 1980 include several suicides and a man found dead in a bathtub.

Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said local authorities are not investigating the deaths of any other Scientologist.

``Do we go back and look at them? We looked at them closely to begin with,'' Shelor said. ``We're not looking at any other death other than Lisa McPherson's.''

Meanwhile, Shelor confirmed that investigators have questioned one of three people whom police turned to the Internet in hopes of locating. He declined to say what Laura Arrunada of Mexico told detectives.

Shelor said the church assisted police in finding Arrunada and ``had some hand'' in flying her in for questioning.

Police have not been able to discuss the case at length with the other two, Suzanne Schnuremberger and Ildiko Cannovas, Shelor said. Investigators have been able to speak only with their lawyers, he said.

Assistant State Attorney Mark McGarry, the prosecutor working with police on the investigation, would not comment.

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