A tale of two stories

By (editorial)

©St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 1997

The Church of Scientology's version of the circumstances surrounding the death of one of its members always raised more questions than it answered. Now Scientology's top officials cannot even keep their own stories straight, further undermining their credibility. That increases the pressure on Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to uncover the truth about Lisa McPherson's death.

Were Scientology officials right when they insisted McPherson was capable of walking when she was loaded into a van at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater and driven to a hospital? Or were they right when they recently complained to German broadcast journalists that the media are "capitalizing on the tragedy of the death of a woman who died in a hotel room''?

The first explanation is Scientology's often-repeated account of the events leading up to McPherson's death in December 1995. The second appears to be a spontaneous answer, and it was reaffirmed in response to a follow-up question. Scientology's attempt to clarify in a written statement to the Times that it is sticking with its original account and that the television interview did not inadvertently reveal the truth is unconvincing.

Some of Scientology's claims sound more plausible if McPherson died in the hotel. For example, if the 36-year-old woman already was dead, there was no sense of urgency when Scientologists drove her 24 miles to a Pasco County hospital to see a doctor who is a Scientologist and had never examined her before.

The Church of Scientology has a well-documented history of intimidating its critics and threatening anyone who questions its actions. Scientology officials hovered around McPherson's relatives at her funeral and insisted she wanted her body to be cremated. They have accused the Clearwater police of harassment and harshly criticized Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood's conclusions about McPherson's death. Responding to a question from one of the German journalists, Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder said: "If your accusation is that someone did something to kill her, then you put that on the TV and I will go after you until the end of time, because it's a total and utter lie."

Now McCabe must determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant criminal charges. This would not be an easy decision under any circumstances. The body has been cremated, and no witness has publicly stepped forward. Dealing with the Church of Scientology makes it even tougher.

But McCabe has a duty to make his decision based on the evidence produced by a long investigation that involves the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He should not be influenced by the Church of Scientology's intimidating tactics. There should be no special treatment, and McCabe should use the same standards for deciding whether to file criminal charges that he uses in any other cases involving someone's death.

Lisa McPherson deserves that much.

Copyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.