Family sues Scientology in '95 death of woman


St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1997

CLEARWATER - A lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that the Church of Scientology is responsible for the death of Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 while in the care of church members.

The lawsuit claims McPherson received Scientology treatments that "were carried out by medically untrained and unlicensed personnel.''

The lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court by Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, an attorney representing McPherson's estate. It promises to seek "substantial" punitive and compensatory damages against the church.

Scientology lawyer Elliot Abelson said Wednesday: "This type of lawsuit, based on no facts, is an extortion attempt. It's only about money."

He said McPherson "would be outraged" by the action. "Lisa McPherson loved the church and the church loved Lisa," Abelson said.

On Nov. 18, 1995, McPherson took off her clothes and asked for help after being involved in a minor traffic accident.

Although she was unharmed, paramedics took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater where, the lawsuit says, "she received emergency medical and psychological treatment which she sought."

But fellow Scientologists came to the hospital and told the hospital staff that psychiatry was against McPherson's religion. According to hospital records, a doctor released McPherson into the care of her fellow Scientologists after they promised to watch her around the clock.

They took her to the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's retreat in downtown Clearwater.

Seventeen days later, McPherson was taken in a church van to Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, 24 miles from the hotel's front door. She was dead when the van arrived.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office concluded she died of blood clotting brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration." Later, medical examiner Joan Wood said McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days, was unconscious for up to two days before her death and probably was bitten by cockroaches.

Scientology officials dispute those findings and are suing Wood in a separate court battle for access to Wood's files, including tissue, organ and blood samples.

They say that McPherson was well cared for and that a sudden and severe staph infection led to her death.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that McPherson was in a coma and was systematically subjected to a "series of techniques," including a Scientology treatment known as the "Introspection Rundown."

The treatment calls for isolation, against a person's will if necessary, and mandates that those watching the person stay silent during the treatment.

Abelson insisted McPherson did not receive the treatment.

He acknowledged that "it's part of church services" and added: "I'm not making any excuses for it."

He also alleged that McPherson's relatives, who live in Dallas, were persuaded by the Clearwater Police Department to file the lawsuit.

Church officials have said that the investigation into McPherson's death is part of a 15-year effort by city officials to discredit Scientology.

Police spokesman Wayne Shelor said, "I can assure you that the Clearwater Police Department never encouraged the family to file this lawsuit and can't imagine why Mr. Abelson would say the Clearwater Police Department would have anything to do with it."