By THOMAS C. TOBIN
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 1997
The Church of Scientology's original portrayal of how a 36-year-old woman died under its care bears little resemblance to the sobering tale unfolding this summer with the release of the church's own internal records.
The records are a collection of detailed, handwritten logs kept by the low- and mid-level Scientology staffers who cared for Lisa McPherson at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in November and December 1995.
Their contents -- page after page of frank and vivid daily reports -- contrast starkly with the official version of McPherson's death put out last December by the church and its Los Angeles lawyer Elliot Abelson.
When the media began to report on McPherson's death in December 1996, Abelson arrived in Clearwater to, in his words, "settle things down."
Eight months later, as authorities continue a criminal investigation into McPherson's death, Abelson's initial story seems sanitized, incomplete and, in parts, implausible and inaccurate.
Was Scientology trying to mask what really happened to Lisa McPherson?
No, say the church's lawyers.
If the story sounds different today, it's because the church itself has been learning more about the case as the investigation progresses, said Tampa lawyer Laura Vaughan, who is part of the local legal team recruited to represent the church in the McPherson case.
"There was no evil motive or intent" to hide anything, Vaughan said. "We know a lot more about what went on."
When the case became public in December, Abelson described McPherson's 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison as a vacation-like experience amid four-star accommodations.
He said that she checked herself in to rest and relax and that she was visited by friends. He said she could order from room service and was free to come and go.
He said that she suddenly became fatally ill on the final day of her stay and that she received no medical care before that. There was no need for it, he said at the time. "She just wanted to rest and think and get her strength back."
Indeed, the church's four-page, 1,200-word news release devoted a scant 41 words to explaining what happened to McPherson. It said: "Lisa McPherson had been staying at the Fort Harrison Hotel after a traumatic car accident. During her stay, she suddenly took ill. After her initial reluctance was overcome, she was driven to see a physician of her choice, but died en route."
Absent were the many details contained in Scientology's internal notes. They tell the far different story of a young woman so mentally unstable she acted like a robot and thought she was L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder. She fought with her caregivers and often spit out her food or refused to eat. She cried and babbled and broke things. She soiled herself, lost substantial weight and eventually grew too weak to stand.
And, contrary to Abelson's statement that McPherson received no medical care at the Fort Harrison, the records say Scientology staffers with medical training monitored her condition, gave her a prescription sedative and administered injections of magnesium.
On her 17th day at the hotel, McPherson died while being driven in a van to a hospital 24 miles away so she could be seen by an emergency room doctor who also is a Scientologist.
Although Abelson was saying several months ago he had "taken a hard look" at the case, he now says he didn't know then that the staff notes existed. He also says he knew almost nothing about McPherson's death until it appeared in a newspaper story on Dec. 16, 1996.
"There were lots of details in the (staff) records that I had no idea about," Abelson said. "What I knew was what our people told us happened."
Though armed with only partial information, Abelson accused Clearwater police of unfairly targeting Scientology, he blasted the media for its reporting of McPherson's death, and he publicly called Medical Examiner Joan Wood a "hateful liar" for making statements about the case.
Such actions are consistent with the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard who instructed his church to fight back, hit hard and regain the advantage when it believes it is under attack.
"I knew their facts were wrong," Abelson said, referring to the police and medical examiner. "Did I have the empirical data that I have now? No. Did anyone? No."
Asked why church officials didn't come forth earlier with the care records, Abelson said the records were scattered in various church offices from Clearwater to Los Angeles.
Abelson and Vaughan, whom church officials designated to comment for this story, said they believe many of the details that have emerged in the records support, rather than contradict, the church's original account.
For example, they cite the church's contention that McPherson received fluids at the Fort Harrison and was conscious during her final hours. Wood, the medical examiner, had told reporters that she concluded from the autopsy that McPherson had been unconscious for up to 48 hours before her death and had been without fluids for five to 10 days.
The church's records conflict with those finding.
"I think the truth is not as awful as what was reported initially," Vaughan said. "It's amazing what a little bit of knowledge can do."
Indeed, what's known today about McPherson's stay at the Fort Harrison goes well beyond the spare description church officials initially gave the public. A review of the church's early statements shows many key areas where the original version fell short:
Abelson said in an interview on Dec. 16, 1996, that McPherson received no medication or professional medical help at the hotel. "There was no need for it," he said
But the church's own records show that McPherson received doses of chloral hydrate, a prescription sedative, and that she was given injections of magnesium. In addition, they say a staff dentist "got . . . aspirin down her throat."
The records also say McPherson was monitored by Janis Johnson, a medical doctor who is not licensed in Florida but worked in the church medical liaison office. Johnson visited McPherson, checked her body temperature, gauged her respiration, administered medication, diagnosed her as septic, determined she needed antibiotics and drove her to the hospital. Another medical officer monitored her respiration and pulse and suggested an intravenous tube, the notes reveal.
Church officials insist Johnson was not functioning as a doctor. But Scientology staffers referred to her in their notes as "doctor" Johnson.
In addition, the church held Johnson out as a doctor in a 1996 television infomercial advertising a set of Scientology books and tapes. Johnson gave a testimonial wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope. She stood in a doctor's office and talked about "my 12 years of medical practice." According to records in Arizona, where Johnson let her license lapse, the 12 years include her time as a church staffer.
In December and January, Abelson painted a benign picture of McPherson's stay in a "very nice hotel room" at the Fort Harrison
He told a national audience on the television show Inside Edition: "She rested, she slept a lot. Nothing unusual, really, until the end of her stay."
At the time, McPherson had been dead over a year and Abelson said he had "really taken a hard look at what happened."
Many details were missing from his account.
Abelson later revealed McPherson had turned violent and began banging on walls around the midpoint of her 17-day stay.
Now, it's known from records, that McPherson first became violent on the fourth day of her stay and that she was doing much more than banging walls.
Scientology lawyer Sandy Weinberg said this summer that McPherson was "severely mentally disturbed and was scratching herself, biting herself, punching objects, kicking, hitting walls and generally flailing about."
Abelson said several times that the decision to take McPherson to a remote hospital was based on her wishes. He said McPherson didn't trust doctors but was persuaded to see a Scientologist who is a doctor on staff at a New Port Richey hospital
But notes by church staffers raise questions about whether McPherson was mentally capable of participating in such a decision.
For more than two weeks, the notes say, McPherson was babbling and incoherent, scooting across the floor, jumping off her bed, breaking things, hitting people, banging walls, refusing food, vomiting and soiling herself.
Her caregivers gave her baths; helped her to the restroom; fed her, sometimes by force; and prevented her from leaving the room. They decided what she ate and drank, and what vitamins and medications she received.
If the church's account is true, McPherson's caregivers suddenly stopped making decisions for her, and she summoned the sanity on the night of her death to select "the physician of her choice."
Although the church made detailed notes about the events just before the hospital trip, none mention McPherson choosing her doctor.
The notes say two church staffers telephoned Dr. David Minkoff, a Scientologist on staff in the emergency room at Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, who agreed to see McPherson. They say McPherson was "told" they were taking her to Minkoff.
In December and January Abelson said on several occasions McPherson was "free to come and go" at the Fort Harrison. Later, he would say she was isolated but that it "was Lisa's wish.
But eight months later, church lawyer Laura Vaughan acknowledges there were times when McPherson was kept from leaving. In addition, the church says in court documents she was "occasionally held by fellow parishioners when she attempted to do harm to herself or others."
Also, one church staffer wrote that McPherson "tried to go out of the door" on her first day at the hotel, which suggests she was stopped. The records make references to "guards" being close at hand.
But Vaughan, a church lawyer, makes a distinction: "I would not characterize it as being held against her will. It's unfair to characterize it that way."
She said church staffers acted to prevent McPherson from hurting herself. "They were trying to help her," she said. "People weren't trying to hold her captive."
Last December, Abelson said McPherson suddenly fell ill on her last day at the hotel. He said church staffers got help as soon as they could but didn't consider it an emergency
But the staffers' notes indicate McPherson was suffering significant physical problems well before the ride to the hospital.
Three days before her death she was too weak to stand by herself, the notes say. And on the day she died, staffers wrote she was soiled in diarrhea, that her weight had dropped dramatically in 24 hours and that she "looked very sick and was breathing heavily."
Still, they went ahead with a plan to take her to a hospital in the next county. It took 45 minutes to drive McPherson there, the notes say.
Vaughan said while McPherson may have been weak, it "wasn't to the point where anyone thought she was in physical danger."
Another doctor, Dr. David Niles, now says he was sitting next to Minkoff, the Scientologist doctor, when a call came to the hospital about McPherson. He said he heard Minkoff say "he thought that person should go to the closest facility."
The church's own records say Minkoff immediately saw McPherson was dead and asked why she wasn't brought in sooner.
Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater is two minutes away from the Fort Harrison Hotel.