By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 1997
CLEARWATER -- Was it an honest mistake, a slip of the tongue? Or was it the naked truth, carelessly uttered on camera
A top official for the Church of Scientology told a German television crew recently that church member Lisa McPherson died in a room at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.
On its face, the statement marks a major change in Scientology's version of events surrounding McPherson's unexplained death at age 36. It came in the presence of one of the church's top lawyers, who agreed with it on camera.
The new Scientology statement would mean McPherson was already dead when other Scientologists put her in a van and took her to a distant hospital -- a profound departure from what church officials have said previously about the case.
Mike Rinder, the Scientology official who made the remark, said this week it is being misconstrued. He added that the church's account has not changed.
But Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer representing McPherson's family, believes otherwise: "I think he accidentally told the truth."
Dandar, who has viewed the tape, is alleging in a Hillsborough County lawsuit that the Church of Scientology is responsible for McPherson's death.
In addition to the lawsuit, local and state law enforcement authorities are nearing the end of a major investigation that began Dec. 6, 1995, the day after McPherson died. Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said investigators have viewed a tape of the interview, but he declined to discuss it further.
Medical examiner Joan Wood has said McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by bed rest and severe dehydration. She also contends McPherson was unconscious for up to two days before her death and had not had fluids in five to 10 days.
Previously, church officials have insisted McPherson died after she left the hotel. They have said she suddenly fell ill at the Fort Harrison, a Scientology retreat where she spent 17 days after suffering a psychological breakdown.
The church also has said McPherson was speaking to her caretakers and was capable of walking when she was placed in a Scientology van at the Fort Harrison and driven 24 miles to a New Port Richey emergency room, where a Scientologist doctor was awaiting her arrival.
According to hospital records, the Scientologists who drove her there told the medical staff that McPherson stopped breathing "just as they arrived" at the hospital.
When asked why treatment was not sought sooner and why she was not taken to a closer hospital, church officials have said no one on staff knew it was an emergency.
The television interview with Rinder was conducted by German broadcast journalists Mona Botros and Egmont Koch.
During a segment concerning the McPherson case, Rinder said: "The entire subject has become a sordid, sensationalistic media event which is capitalizing on the tragedy of the death of a woman who died in a hotel room."
Realizing the statement's implications, Botros asked for a clarification: "In a hotel room?"
Elliot Abelson, the church's general counsel, responded: "Uhm hum," indicating the statement was correct.
Rinder heads Scientology's Office of Special Affairs, which is responsible for public relations and legal affairs.
"If you combine his statement with the records at the New Port Richey hospital, it leads to the inescapable conclusion that they were trying to cover up her death at the hotel," said Dandar, the attorney for McPherson's family.
In a written statement to the Times this week, Rinder sought to clarify the remark. "The point being made for a German audience completely unfamiliar with this issue was that the only connection between the church and Lisa McPherson was that she had been staying in a hotel room at the church and that, had this occurred in any other hotel or with someone from another religion, it would not have been a media event. There is no change in the facts concerning the circumstances of Ms. McPherson's death."
Koch, reached Thursday in Germany, said the church made no attempt to deny Rinder's comment after the interview. "From our side," Koch said, "we were pretty sure they meant what they said."
In Florida, it is illegal to "knowingly" fail or refuse to report a death to the medical examiner. It also is illegal to disturb or move a body "or any article upon or near the body, with the intent to alter the evidence or circumstances surrounding the death." To do so is a first degree misdemeanor.
Scientology is a worldwide organization that has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. Though the church has been controversial since it was founded in the early 1950s, it has faced sanctions and particularly harsh criticism in Germany in recent years.
During the recent television interview, Abelson, the Scientology lawyer, accused the reporters of being agents of the German government.
The television report was broadcast in Germany on April 7; the Times obtained a copy this week. The interview with Rinder and Abelson took place in Los Angeles at Scientology's Celebrity Centre, which offers upscale accommodations and church services to actors and other artists.
Besides McPherson's death, the German reporters dealt with several other issues in what was billed as a report about the "dark side" of Scientology. The piece contains scenes in which representatives of the Church of Scientology follow the television crew in cars and vans, and stake out their hotel room at night.
In his statement, Rinder said the church was taking legal action over "falsehoods contained in their story."
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