Church member's death now called accident
The medical examiner's switch, after mounds of information from
Scientology, could affect the McPherson case against the church.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times
February 23, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Medical examiner Joan Wood now is calling the 1995 death of
Scientologist Lisa McPherson an "accident," a change that is causing
prosecutors to rethink their case against the Church of Scientology.
Wood's original ruling called the manner of death "undetermined."
Scientology's top executives, clearly pleased Tuesday, called the switch
"extremely significant and a huge development that dramatically affects
the state's case."
They said it supports their view that McPherson's death while in the care
of Scientology staffers in Clearwater was sudden, unpredictable,
"undiagnosable" and not the church's fault.
Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow, the lead prosecutor in the case,
called the change "something of major significance we need to review." He
declined to discuss how the case might be affected, adding: "We really
need to evaluate that, and we'll take some time to do that."
The church is charged with two felony counts -- abuse of a disabled adult
and practicing medicine without a license. McPherson, 36, had become
psychotic as church staffers tried for 17 days to quiet her during an
unusual Scientology "isolation watch."
Wood's decision came after church officials and their lawyers spent months
plying the veteran medical examiner with expert information that revealed
the lengths to which Scientology has gone to defend itself. There were
scientific studies on a body substance known as ketone, an elaborate
accident reconstruction, even a report by an "anthropometric" specialist
who studied McPherson's physical stature.
Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the dollar amount spent on
the case so far is "enormous," but said the church felt it was necessary
so Wood and prosecutors would have "the correct information."
The civil case against Scientology, filed in Hillsborough County, is a
different matter. Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents McPherson's
family, said his wrongful-death case against the church is not diminished
by Wood's change, though he added she needs to explain it.
"We don't know what she means by "accident,' " Dandar said.
Wood and her top assistant, Larry Bedore, were at a medical examiners
conference in Reno, Nev., Tuesday and did not return phone calls to their
In her original ruling in 1996, Wood traced McPherson's death to a blood
clot in McPherson's left lung that originated in a clot behind her left
knee. Wood blamed it on "bed rest and severe dehydration."
She also took the unusual step of elaborating for reporters, publicly
stating that lab results on McPherson's eye fluid showed she died slowly.
Wood said she wanted to correct church lawyers, who were saying
McPherson's death was sudden and unpredictable. She concluded McPherson
went several days without fluids, was comatose and suffered roach bites
while in Scientology's care.
The church was outraged, calling her a liar.
Then, late last year, Wood agreed to review her controversial opinions at
the request of the church, which provided her with mounds of new
As part of the review, McPherson's eye fluid was retested two more times.
The review is mandated in Wood's policy manual, which says the medical
examiner will "readdress key issues" in a case if "credible new evidence
is presented, regardless of its source."
The result: a revised report and the finding that McPherson's death was
Gone from the new report is the original reference to the bed rest and
dehydration. Wood still traces the death to a blood clot behind
McPherson's knee. But she lists McPherson's psychosis and a minor auto
accident as major factors.
The latter reference is significant because it suggests support for the
church's view that the cause of the blood clot that killed McPherson was a
bruise she suffered in a minor auto accident just before church staffers
began to care for her at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel.
In a discussion with the Times on Tuesday, Church officials disclosed much
of the information they gave Wood last year for her review.
Research on a substance known as ketone, which people produce when they
are dehydrated, starving or even fasting, according to Rinder and Marty
Rathbun, another church official. Tests of McPherson's bodily fluids
showed no ketone, they said.
Information from church-hired experts, who conclude that a bruise on
McPherson's lower left thigh caused the blood clot and was in turn caused
by her auto accident. To make the case, the church tracked down
McPherson's old car, a candy red 1993 Jeep Cherokee which had been sold by
McPherson's mother. They also reconstructed the accident, concluding the
bruise was in the shape of the driver's side door handle.
Findings from a body measurement expert hired by the church. The expert
compared autopsy photos of McPherson with those taken in happier times,
just before she became psychotic and entered the Fort Harrison. The expert
concluded there was "no appreciable weight loss," which counters the
prosecution's view that McPherson lost 20 to 40 pounds while in
Literature that, according to Rathbun, shows that dehydration does not
cause blood clots.
Rathbun added that new tests of McPherson's eye fluid were "all over the
lot," proving Wood had invalid information when she concluded that
McPherson was severely dehydrated.
Dandar, whose experts were present for the re-tests, disputed Rathbun's
statements on the eye fluid, the dehydration and the source of the blood
If anything, Dandar said, the new eye fluid tests show McPherson was more
dehydrated than Wood originally thought.
He said his experts say that dehydration causes blood clots, despite what
He also disputes the church's theory that a bruise from McPherson's auto
accident caused her fatal blood clot. His experts say there is no way a
clot could have remained behind her knee for 17 days without causing some
In addition, a blood clot in one lung would not have been enough to cause
death in a healthy adult such as McPherson, Dandar said.
The medical evidence "destroys everything they say," Dandar said. "They
can't get around that."
But Rinder said Dandar was inventing evidence.
"It's as ludicrous as the allegations he makes every day," Rinder said.
"His case is a sham. It has been since Day One."
Neither the church nor Dandar has had a chance to speak with Wood, whose
new conclusions have so far only intensified the debate over McPherson's