By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 1997
CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology is again criticizing medical examiner Joan Wood, accusing her of lying and reaching conclusions "off the top of her head."
The accusations came Friday after the court-ordered release of some of Wood's files in the case of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after a 17-day stay in the church's downtown Clearwater retreat.
The files include photos of what Wood says are likely cockroach bites on McPherson's right wrist and hand.
Scientology lawyer Elliot Abelson said Friday the marks couldn't be cockroach bites because, he asserted, cockroaches don't bite live humans. He said Wood's recent comments about the bites were "only said to paint a false image of the conditions (McPherson) was staying under."
McPherson was staying in the Fort Harrison Hotel, the church's main building in Clearwater, which Abelson has likened to a four-star hotel.
Wood has said there are documented cases of cockroaches biting live humans, and the University of Florida's resident cockroach expert agrees.
"It happens quite frequently," said professor Philip G. Koehler, an entomologist at the university.
The records were released as part of lawsuit filed against Wood by the Church of Scientology. The church argued that Wood's recent comments to news reporters about McPherson's death made all her files in the case open to public inspection.
In addition to her remarks about cockroaches, Wood told reporters that McPherson had gone without fluids for five to 10 days and that she was unconscious for 24 to 48 hours before her death.
The church, which says McPherson was well-cared for and conscious throughout her stay at the Fort Harrison, wanted the files to aid in its own investigation of the case. Scientology lawyers also wanted Wood to reveal the basis for her statements.
In a ruling Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bob Barker released only records that Wood had referred to in interviews with reporters.
The documents comprise six photographs of what Wood says are insect bites on McPherson's right wrist and hand, and 14 pages of other documents, including lab reports.
"To me, it's shocking that there's so little," Abelson said. "To me, it should be considered a bombshell because there's nothing to back up the accusations she made."
It also "shows what a deceitful liar she is," Abelson said. "Now it makes her statements even more outrageous."
Wood's lawyer, Patricia Anderson, responded, saying, "If calling Dr. Wood names is his idea of a search for the truth, then I guess he doesn't know what the truth is. . . . I'd like to know where Elliot Abelson got his medical degree and how much experience he has as a forensic pathologist."
Anderson said Wood drew her conclusions based on her examination of McPherson's body, physical evidence, lab reports, consultation with other experts and more than 20 years of experience as a medical examiner.
"The fact that her opinions are offensive to the Church of Scientology does not make them invalid opinions," she said.
Abelson said the photos of McPherson's right hand and wrist are irrelevant because she did not die of cockroach bites. Based on what the church's medical experts have told him and his own reading, Abelson said, he has determined that cockroaches "don't bite human beings when they're alive."
He added, "Well, they may in a case or two."
But Koehler, the University of Florida entomologist, said it often happens when people - especially children - are asleep.
He said there have been cases of children being put to bed with milk or food around their mouths. In the process of consuming the food, cockroaches have been known to remove the child's skin as well, he said.
Also, he said, cockroaches starved for moisture might get fluid from a sleeping person's eyes and nose. They also are attracted to salty residue on human hands and feet, he said.
He described the cockroach bite as a red, scabby mark. The photos of McPherson's wrist and hand show several small red marks along the knuckles and a large red, scabbed area on the wrist.