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Helped to Death: the Story of Lisa McPherson

 I. The Accident

The front page of the May 15, 1955 Arizona Republic had this story:

“A $9,000 damage suit was brought yesterday in superior court here against L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology, and others.
Mrs. Estrid Anderson Humphrey, formerly of Paradise Valley and now of Abilene, Tex. brought the suit through her attorney, George Botsford of Scottsdale. The suit contends that Mrs. Humphrey's Paradise Valley house was extensively damaged by 'persons' the suit charged 'with seriously deranged minds' who were placed there for care and treatment. It charges these deranged persons broke windows, tore out entire window casements, pulled loose electrical fixtures, tore and broke great holes in the walls and ceilings, tore and broke off doors, screen doors, and cabinets, and did other serious damage. “

The case was settled out of court.

Scientology documents known as Board Technical Bulletins cover experiments in 1970 on Scientologists who had psychological problems.  These parishioners were placed in isolation and were subjected to experimental processing to see if their psychological problems could be cured.  The auditors state that the unknowing lab rats wanted to leave, but were not allowed.  They were asked questions such as "Have you been implanted to harm us?" These involuntary experiments, which lasted days, were then used by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology and instigator of the experiments, to build future church policies toward psychotics.

In 1974 L. Ron Hubbard,  in a Scientology policy letter wrote that he had discovered a procedure to cure psychotic people that would lead to the eradication of psychiatry. The process, called the Introspection Rundown, involved placing the psychotic person (known as PTS Type III in Scientologese) into complete isolation with as little stimulation as possible. No one was to speak to the person except the “case supervisor” who would communicate in writing only. Once the person figured out why they went crazy, the supervisor would allow the person to be let out of isolation. If the person requested to be freed prematurely, the supervisor was to write "Dear Joe. I'm sorry but it is no go on coming out of isolation yet." Isolation continued until the supervisor was persuaded that the person had intuited why they had gone crazy and were back in mental clarity.

In 1977 18 year old Lisa McPherson joined the Church of Scientology in her home town of Dallas, Texas. Half her life was already over, but the story of the second half will forever remain a stain on the cult that killed her through hubris and incompetence.


Lisa, a vibrant friendly person, was dedicated to her new church. It helped her get out of an abusive relationship, helped her social life, and her contacts there got her a good paying job. In 1993 her then employer, a company run by fellow Scientologists, moved their business to Clearwater, Florida, where Scientology's spiritual headquarters are. Lisa moved too.

Also in 1993, a September 28th Scientology HCO Ethics Order reviewed a botched Introspection Rundown at St. Hill in the UK.  The person's husband had brought her from Germany to be cared for.  She was put on isolation watch.  At first the Introspection Rundown was not given "because of the Dir. Review having been crammed while at Flag after an earlier similar incident."  Alain Kartuzinski from Clearwater gave this order. Ray Mithoff, Kartuzinski's senior, countermanded this.  The whole thing was botched though.  "There were no trained personnel on the watch" which "resulted in a VERY extended watch."  The watch "was not fully muzzled" which went against the purpose of the Introspection Rundown for quiet and no stimulation.  Also "many outpoints came up" and "the pc was ready for the R/D [rundown] many weeks before it was finally started..."


Lisa worked hard on her job in her new town. She worked hard on "going up the bridge" in Scientology, which means working toward spiritual perfection in a step-by-step process. She worked hard at helping church projects. She worked on a relationship with her boyfriend. But gradually the pressures began to drag on her. She told friend Michael Pattinson "I'd much rather go back to Dallas and just pursue my own life and my own career, and just be myself." [p. 199]


In June, 1995, Lisa sought help from her church for her emotional trauma and thoughts of suicide. She told her friend Susan Schnurrenberger "I think I'm going crazy." By late summer after intense Scientology processes, including the Introspection Rundown, she felt she was coming out of her depression. Meanwhile she had still been actively taking regular course work. According to multiple sources, Scientology's leader David Miscavige had personally begun managing Lisa's "auditing" which is the process used by Scientologists to move up the spiritual bridge. On September 7, 1995 Miscavige declared Lisa a "clear" which means the main mental blocks in Lisa's life were permanently gone. She declared this "is more exciting than anything I've ever experienced." [p. 201]

DM decalres Lisa McPherson clear
despite being allegedly untrained for the task, Miscavige declares Lisa a Clear


By October, however, the glow began to wear off. She sought more help from the church, which put her through confessionals that required her to write up her personal issues and errors. It didn't seem to help, as Lisa called an old-time friend in Dallas, Kellie Davis, and implied she was leaving Scientology and would be back in Texas soon. She called her mother days later and said she was having trouble at work. "Mother, I've let my group down," she said.


On November 15, she went to a trade show in Orlando with her fellow employees. Her behavior there was so strange, however, that she was taken back to Clearwater by co-worker Brenda Hubert. There, Lisa did some volunteer work at a Christmas display, but she was still unstable.


On Saturday, November 18, Lisa drove her Jeep Cherokee toward downtown Clearwater. Traffic ahead of her was slowing down for a motorcycle accident.  Lisa was distracted and ran into the motor of a boat being towed ahead of her. The boat owner remembered the hit as feeling like just a bump, but it did hurt the grill on Lisa's Jeep. The paramedic attending the motorcycle accident noticed Lisa's accident, and went over to check on her. “Are you ok?” “I'm fine,” replied Lisa. After some more probing questions, the paramedic had Lisa sign a release, and she and her partner walked back to the ambulance.


As they were preparing to leave, the ambulance driver looked back toward Lisa's car. “Bonnie, she's taking her clothes off.” Lisa walked down the street past the ambulance completely naked. The paramedic jumped out and guided Lisa into the back of the ambulance and gave her a blanket. What was she doing, the paramedic asked. “I wanted people to think I was crazy because I need help,” Lisa replied. “I just need someone to talk to.” [p. 205]

Lisa McPherson walks down the street naked 
Lisa walks down the street naked.  "I just need someone to talk to."


Morton Plant Hospital was nearby, so the paramedics took Lisa there to get checked out. Orderlies at the hospital described Lisa as robotic and distant. She was apparently not hurt physcially, but they decided she should be admitted for observation. Out of the blue, fellow Scientologists began showing up in the emergency room. They had been alerted by Bennetta Slaughter, Lisa's boss. She had seen Lisa's car at the accident scene after the ambulance had left, and asked a policeman where the owner was. He directed her to Morton Plant. She in turn called on other Scientologists to check on Lisa because “I was covered in paint from head to foot because I'd been working...on the props for this particular charity drive I was doing. And...you know...I mean, I looked awful. I had paint all over me and frankly hospitals are not my thing.” In the end, Scientologists Alain Kartuzinski, Judy Goldsberry-Weber, Mary DeMoss, Annie Mora, Humberto Fontana, Dr. Jeanne DuCuypere, Emma Shamehorn, and David Slaughter responded to the call to check on Lisa.


At the hospital, the Scientologists stayed by Lisa, afraid that she would wind up in the hands of psychiatry, which L. Ron Hubbard taught were essentially demons in human form.  After Lisa's physical checkup, Joe Price was called to evaluate Lisa's mental state. He was a clinical nurse specialist with a psychiatric background, on duty at the time.  "When I went into the cubicle where Lisa was laying in bed, there were at least three members of the church there... they thought I was a psychologist or a psychiatrist." [p. 3]


Price managed to have a private chat with Lisa, but she indicated she was not being coerced by her fellow Scientologists.  In the end, a subdued Lisa stated that she wanted to leave with her fellow parishioners, and Dr. Lovett, unable to find enough to keep Lisa under Florida's Baker Act, reluctantly allowed her to sign herself out. As she was leaving, Nurse Price thought to himself, "My God, this lady's a prisoner." [p. 9]

Lisa McPherson taken from hospital by "friends" 
Lisa's "friends" remove her from the hospital

Alain Kartuzinski drove Lisa to Scientology's Ft. Harrison Hotel, about 5 minutes away. Lisa was booked into Room 174, a cabana on the ground floor in the back of the hotel. Kartuzinski decided Lisa was a "type III" in Scientology speak, meaning she had gone crazy. The solution was the Introspection Rundown.


II. Room 174

Ft. Harrison Hotel, room 174


Kartuzinski, as Lisa's case supervisor, began organizing a crew to take care of Lisa, headed by Janis Johnson. Johnson had a medical degree, but her license had been revoked in Arizona and she never applied for one in Florida. A few other assistants had varying degrees of medical training, but most who took turns with Lisa had no such training. Judy Goldsberry-Weber, who was a nurse and actually wanted to help as a friend of Lisa's, was pushed out by Johnson. Kartuzinski ordered the watchers to write a report at the end of their shifts. Lisa would be watched, but not spoken to, 24 hours per day. A security person was outside her door. Now they would wait and watch for Alain to decide that Lisa had snapped out of her mental instability. But Lisa never would.


Lisa would not make this easy. She hit people, broke things, yelled, acted crazy, and at times tried to get away. She soiled herself, took off all her clothes, spit out food they tried to feed her, and basically refused to cooperate with her incarceration. But as they waited for Lisa to snap out of her psychosis, they were her caretakers, responsible for her safety and health. This would mean concern for her food and drink, her sleep, and her hygeine. At some point in November, Lisa was taken to her apartment by 2 other women, perhaps to get clothing and personal items. Fannie, Lisa's mother, recalled that the manager at Lisa's apartment "said that two women brought her to the apartment holding onto her and he didn't know why they was bringing her.  ... her hair was all messed up and she wasn't able to walk too well."  [p. 17]


On November 22, one of Lisa's caretakers wrote:


“I went on this watch as I had no senior to consult with at 2 am. I went into the room & she was total Type III [Scientology's term for psychotic]. Blabbering, incoherent nonstop. Shaking, no warm clothes on -- a old top & shorts & shoes -- no socks. She fell asleep for 4 hours & got up. I finally chased her around the place 50 times & got on slacks, tee shirt, jacket, socks & shoes -- she was like an ice cube. She talked incoherently hour after hour. She refused to eat & spit out everything she took. Her breathe was foul. She looked ill like measles or chicken pox on her face. Had a fever to my touch. After 1 pm she went violent & hit me a few times telling me she was to kill me #s of times. I called in the "guard" outside -- the fellow an HCO staff member -- new one a Mexican gentleman. He stayed with me during the rage -- but she still smacked me around. (I did cover & guard myself but she was out of control). I finally got her to drink a protein shake but she wouldn't eat or sleep any further. This lasted til 4 pm. There was no post coverage for my library & it was very busy per Qual 1H In fact no one was R-factored til later per the Qual 1H. I had no food, drink or sleep the whole time. Now I'm not in uniform -- can't get back to my room; starving -- have no $ to get food, no key to my room & out of sorts from the whole ordeal.

On the 5th day (November 23), Johnson came by to check on Lisa. She noticed a bruise on Lisa's arm; "It kind of looked like a one- or two-day old bruise is what I remember seeing. You know how it looks kind of purplish first and then it goes to a brownish color, and you kind of tell how long it’s been by looking at it." [p. 33]  This probably came from one of Lisa's physical outbursts, where she would hit something, like a wall or furniture.


Early in the morning of the 24th, Lisa managed to actually talk to a fellow human being. From Janet Reitman's book:

Sam Ghiora, a Flag security staffer, was seated on a small bench outside of Lisa’s room when he heard a doorknob rattle. Slowly, the door to room 174 opened, and Lisa stood at the threshold, fully dressed.
“Hey, she said calmly, walking a few steps toward him. “You’re not CMO.”
“You’re right,” Ghiora said. He was not a member of the Commodore’s Messenger Organization but a new Flag security trainee.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Lisa said.
“You’re right,” Ghiora said again. He knew that he’d broken protocol by speaking to her, but he was momentarily shocked: How had she just walked out of the room? Where were her minders? Ghiora gently put his hand on Lisa’s shoulder and steered her back toward her room. She stopped at the threshold. “I just don’t know what’s happening,” she said.
Ghiora said nothing.
“Could you help me?”
Nothing.
“I need help," she said, and slowly entering the room, shut the door. [pp. 218-219]

Later that day, Security head Paul Kellerhals was called to Room 174. Lisa was acting violent. As he walked in the room, Lisa was hitting Joan, one of the caretakers.


"And Lisa was standing in the middle of the floor with the robe on. And, Mmm, see, I'd seen this girl several times before that and I never saw her do anything violent. I didn't particularly expect anything violent. But before I could -- before I could even say anything, I was going to ask her to sit on the bed so we could sweep the glass off the floor, she had no shoes on, right, and clean the room up, right, she hit me with her fist. I don't know if it was her fist or her hand, but it hit me like this (indicating), she stepped forward and whacked me one. I had a tie on. She wrapped her left hand in my tie and started pulling the tie. And I had a pen in this pocket (indicating), this happened kind of suddenly, and the pen came out, and while I was down like this, Joan was standing to my right, and she said, "She has got your pen." And I looked up and I saw the pen here (indicating), she was over there, the pen was like this (indicating) and it was coming. And I -- that is when my attention went to the pen, right. And at the same time I was struggling to get the pen away, Joan was trying to unwrap my tie. And then she wound up on the bed, going backward across the room in the struggle, she wound up on the bed and flipped over on her stomach. And I got -- finally got the pen out of her hand, right. And I said, "Clean the room." She was on the bed. I had my hands on her shoulders. And, I said, "Clean the room." And I said, "Get the glass off the floor." [pp 23-24]

On November 25th, the seventh day of Lisa's stay, Kartuzinski decided it was time to try to sedate Lisa as she was not sleeping much and was physically violent. David Houghton was at the Ft. Harrison studying Scientology courses when he was asked to help with Lisa. He crushed up aspirin and Benadryl, mixed it in with orange juice, and used a baster to inject the concoction into the back of Lisa's throat. Lisa seemed to like the taste, so it was not much of a fight. About an hour later, Lisa laid down to sleep. [pp. 15-17]

Lisa being force-fed pills 
Lisa force-fed aspirin and Benadryl

Houghton was back on the 27th to perform his specialty on Lisa, force feeding her drugs. She had still been talking incessently, not sleeping, hitting things and people. Around this time Rita Boykin managed to clip Lisa's deadly fingernails that she used to scratch herself and others:

"I felt I had wanted to do it for days, because, I mean, it was a hazard to her and us, but she wouldn't let me. You know, I couldn't manage it, and I planned it out. Just one day I just washed her hands really well when she was asleep. I kind of soaked them, because she would get feces and stuff like that under her nails, and when they were real soft, I clipped them." [p. 42]

November 28 Houghton returned with his turkey baster and injected liquid, Benadryl, and aspirin into Lisa's mouth.  The caretakers reported that Lisa was calming down. The assumption was she was getting weaker.


November 29 Janis Johnson gave Lisa a shot of magnesium.  The caretakers continued with their attempts to get Lisa to eat protein shakes, valerian root pills, Cal Mag and water.  And to be clear, no actual doctor ever saw Lisa at the Ft. Harrison Hotel. The caretakers were basically flying blind as far as her health was concerned.


November 30, the 12th day, the caretakers reported Lisa was calmer, quieter, had lost weight, and was regressing.


December 1 Rita Boykin reported her attempt to force feed Lisa; "My idea of closing her nose so she has to swallow so she can breathe through her mouth is only marginally successful. She either swallows and breathes or she lets everything in her mouth come out.” Lisa's violent outbursts caused caretaker Sylvia DeLavega to curl up in a corner crying. Janis Johnson visited and noticed Lisa was much thinner. Heather Petzold was becoming exasperated and wrote uplines that things needed to change;

"I wrote she's continuing to scream, you know, just things over and over. She's defecating on the bed. She's -- she doesn't walk around as much. She is sleeping less. She -- we tried to give her protein drinks, we tried to give her like eggs, whatever we could give her, and I haven't been able to succeed. And that we need to change something, she's not getting better so we need to change something." [p. 34-5]

Sylvia cowers in corner as Lisa is violent
Sylvia is overwhelmed from Lisa's violence

December 2 Lisa was noticably weaker, but still struck out at her captors. Someone (Johnson?) gave her a "magnesium shot." Rita Boykin noted "She has scratches and abrasions all over her body, and on her elbows and knees she has pressure sores."


December 3, the 15th day, Lisa was too weak to stand at this point. She slept more. She was incontinent. Still, her bumbling caretakers went blindly forward, following the Ivory Tower advices from Kartuzinski and the infrequent visits from Johnson.


December 4 Johnson came by but saw Lisa sleeping so she left. Lisa was visibly weaker and refusing to eat. Heather Hoff made note of Lisa's bruises all over, and Rita Boykin wrote that Lisa had a swollen jaw.


By December 5 some 20 people had helped with Lisa's watch [p. 11].  That afternoon Laura Arrunada and Heather Hoff were bathing Lisa when her sphincter relaxed. Laura's medical training told her this could be a sign that Lisa needed medical care right now. She contacted Johnson about her fears. About 2 hours later, Johnson came by to check. Johnson considered that Lisa was severely dehydrated and might be septic. She went to call Dr. Minkoff, a fellow Scientologist who had previously prescribed drugs for Lisa without seeing her. Minkoff was on duty at New Port Richey hospital, about 45 minutes away. Morton Plant hospital was 5 minutes away. Minkoff listened to Johnson's severely insufficient description of Lisa and told her to bring Lisa to him.


Johnson went to get her car, while Paul Greenwood, a security staff, came to the room to help. Greenwood held Lisa under her arms as Laura lifted her by her feet. They put Lisa in the middle of the back seat and got in themselves. Janis Johnson drove, passing three other emergency rooms before arriving at New Port Richey. As they got closer to the hospital, Lisa's breathing and pulse became weaker and weaker.

Lisa rushed out to car for hospital trip 
Janis returns with the car as Lisa is carried out of Room 174


At the hospital, some nurses came out with a wheelchair to help. Nurse Rick Pemberton recalled:

 "they needed help getting this person out of the car. And immediately looking at her, I suspected that things weren't so good because she was very pale. Her eyes had this really hazy look to them and she wasn't breathing. So we immediately rushed her back to Room 2, which is our CPR room. And we then initiated CPR at that time... There's no question in my mind now that she was definitely [dead] before she ever got here." [p. 4]


Dr. Minkoff arrived and put an IV in her leg. Another doctor arrived and intubated her. Nothing worked, and Dr. Minkoff pronounced Lisa McPherson dead.


A nurse who saw Lisa contacted the police over the unusual circumstances and the appearance of Lisa's body. Clearwater police began an investigation the next day.


III. Search for the Truth


Scientologists immediately started work on a "shore story" to cover what actually happened to Lisa. Her room was cleaned and the beds replaced with a single king-sized bed. Staff involved were kept in one location, as a precaution to the initial theory that Lisa might have had a severe contagious disease. Marty Rathbun, a high church official at the time, was tasked with handling the debacle. He gathered any paperwork about Lisa, including her auditing folders, and sent most to headquarters in Los Angeles, where David Miscavige was. The reports from Lisa's last 3 days, however, he handled differently. "I said, 'Lose 'em,' and walked out of the room."   They have never been found.


Three Scientologists involved with Lisa's care quickly left the country; Susanne Schnurrenberger, Laura Arrunada, and Ildiko Cannovas.


Scientology's shore story was to be that Lisa came voluntarily to the Ft. Harrison Hotel for "rest and relaxation" after becoming stressed out. At the hotel, people would occasionally check in to make sure Lisa was doing ok. On the last day Lisa suddenly fell ill of fast acting meningitis. Lisa was taken to see Dr. Minkoff by her request as she knew he was a Scientologist. And if not for the following police and newspaper investigations, this is the story we would know today.


On December 6 police came to the Fort Harrison Hotel to investigate and found a completely cleaned and re-furbished Room 174. It had one king-size bed instead of the 2 queen beds when Lisa was held captive there. The interviews with witnesses, including Alain Kartuzinski, followed the shore story to the letter. But police had a 36-year-old's body that clearly showed something very peculiar had been going on. Autopsy photos show bruises and scars all over Lisa's body. The paramedics in her November 18 car accident guessed she weighed about 140 pounds, yet Lisa's body on December 5 was 108 pounds. Lisa's caretakers had not called an ambulance, but instead drove themselves past 4 other emergency rooms to get to New Port Richey hospital, by which time Lisa was already apparently dead. There was too much strangeness to just accept Scientology's side of the story. So while Scientology worked feverishly to push their version of Lisa's demise, the police began to search for what really happened.


Bennetta Slaughter, Lisa's employer, called Fannie, Lisa's mom. "Benetta called me around 2:00 the next day to tell me that she had died. And I asked her what in the world happened. And she said well, she started getting sick about noon and just kept getting sicker and sicker. And they took her on to the doctor ... the hospital." [p. 5] There was no mention of the accident, or the Introspection Rundown, or the guards at the hotel door, or the 24/7 caretakers. Further questioning produced no more information, so on December 16 Fannie and her two sisters flew to Clearwater to get answers and collect Lisa's things. When they arrived outside Lisa's apartment, her roommate and others were hauling things out. Fannie went in to collect what she could, but Lisa's furniture, clothing, jewelry, and most everything was already gone. The police and Lisa's friends were not helpful in relieving Fannie's suspicions.

Fannie McPherson arrives at Lisa's apartment 
Fannie and her sisters arrive at Lisa's apartment


Coincidentally, some anti-Scientology activists were planning a protest in Clearwater for March 1996. As they had been talking to the police to make sure their plans would be compliant with city ordinances and such, a detective mentioned something on the police department's web site. This was a page named "homicide.html" that listed information about active death investigations. Lisa McPherson's case was shown there, with her "last known address" as 210 S. Fort Harrison in Clearwater, being the Ft. Harrison Hotel. So while no protester knew who Lisa was, many knew that address as the very location they planned to protest at. The protest organizer gave Cheryl Waldrip, a reporter at the Tampa Tribune, information about their coming protest and included a link to the police department's web site about Lisa McPherson, indicating the address's connection to Scientology.


Waldrip at first did not think much of this death investigation until she noticed there had been no obituary for Lisa in the local papers. She contacted Lisa's family. On December 15, 1996 the front page of the Tampa Tribune carried the headline "Mystery Surrounds Scientologist's Death." Scientology's shore story was quickly unraveling.


In February, 1997 Lisa's family sued the Church of Scientology for wrongful death. Attorney Ken Dandar got a court order in July 1997 ordering the church to turn over all caretaker logs.


On November 13, 1998 the State of Florida charged Scientology's Flag Services Organization with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license. These weak charges came after a full-court press by Scientology's lawyers and propagandists to stifle any criminal charges against any Scientologist or entity.


After they learned of Lisa's story, protesters switched their annual Clearwater protest date from around Hubbard's birthday in March to around December 5, the day Lisa McPherson died. They held candle light vigils for Lisa near the Ft. Harrison Hotel. At one of these vigils, hundreds of Scientologists came out to harass the mourners, even blowing out their candles. Critics set up memorial web sites for Lisa and began archiving any information about her.

Scientologists blow out mourners' candles 
Scientologists blew out mourners' candles


In 1999 the Lisa McPherson Trust opened just blocks away from the Ft. Harrison Hotel. The mission statement of the Trust was to "expose the abusive and deceptive practices of the Church of Scientology and to help those who have been victimized by it. These were the final wishes of Lisa McPherson's mother, Fannie, who died before the Church of Scientology was held to account for Lisa's death."

In 2001 Dr. David I. Minkoff's medical license was suspended for a year for prescribing medicine to Lisa without even having seen her.


All of this appeared to be a huge body blow to the cult, as it should have been. But in the end, Lisa's family settled out of court, the state dropped its charges  (after Scientology allegedly spent $30 million on the case), annual protests stopped after 2000, and the Trust disbanded in 2001. But the truth about Lisa's death has been exposed. The heinous actions of the cult showed the dark side of Scientology that so much wants only to display power and infallibility.


Unfortunately, Scientology has not changed. There have been accusations since Lisa's death that Scientology has held others against their will.  Scientology now makes prospective members sign what critics call the Lisa Clause, which absolves the cult of any responsibility should they decide a parishioner needs the Introspection Rundown.  Lynn Farny was interviewed by state attorney investigators. Lynn is Legal Affairs Director for the Church of Scientology International. He was asked if any church policies changed after Lisa's death:

Q. What's the new Church policy on handling of violent PTS-IIIs?
A. The policy hasn't changed.
Q. So you're still going to handle somebody like Lisa, who's violent and breaking things and crashing, and you're going to still do destimulation?
A. The technology is always been to get them -- get them to sleep, get them quiet, get an immediate physical examination. And once they're -- once they're rested and come out of it, get them audited. That policy hasn't changed. [p. 81]


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