Scientology perspective on tragedy rarely seen
Tampa Tribune April 2, 2000
It's a story familiar to many, but in the eyes of Scientologists, it never gets told right.
Lisa McPherson wasn't an easy charge. She kicked people, stood in a toilet and claimed to have created time. Fellow Scientologists called her psychotic but shuddered to think how a psychiatrist might treat her.
So, for 17 days, until Dec. 5, 1995, McPherson lived in a poolside room at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, where staff tried to keep her nourished and sedated, hoping the worst would pass.
``I got her to eat a tuna sandwich,'' a caregiver wrote in a report.
``She swallowed and fell asleep in the middle of a sentence,'' noted a staff medical officer after dispensing a mild sedative.
On the 17th day, McPherson died. Her body, not her troubled mind, had betrayed her, seizing her breath with a blood clot that lodged in her lungs.
Had the church staff done something wrong? Police and prosecutors thought so, and for four years, Medical Examiner Joan Wood would provide ammunition. Her autopsy report blamed the deadly clot on ``bed rest and severe dehydration,'' raising doubts about the quality of McPherson's care.
By the time Wood softened, prosecutors had filed criminal charges - abuse of a disabled adult and practicing unlicensed medicine - and the court of public opinion had adjourned.
Around the world, an echo sounded: ``Scientology Kills.''
Church attorneys likened the prosecution to a witch hunt.
Newspapers and television stations beat the drum. Critics galvanized, ready to hurl hostility at a religion they couldn't fathom. Strangers spit at Scientology staff, clients boycotted Scientologist-owned businesses, and Scientologists' children were mocked at school.
``This is America. This is supposed to be the land of religious freedom,'' protests McPherson's former friend and employer, Bennetta Slaughter, who sent a daughter away to boarding school to get her out of the frenzy.
In Boston, a Scientology church took a bullet and two rocks. In Los Angeles, someone hanged a Scientologist in effigy.
Then, in February, four years after McPherson's death, the state's case turned sour.
Wood backed away from her findings.
She signed an amended death certificate and left for a convention without explaining. When she returned, she declined to answer questions.
In the new report, Wood called the death an accident. She concluded, as she had earlier, that McPherson died of a blood clot in the lung. But she deleted ``bed rest and severe dehydration'' as causes, removing a link to McPherson's caregivers.
Instead, she wrote about the bruise on McPherson's left leg.
And she brought up the car crash.
SEVENTEEN DAYS before McPherson's death, she slammed her Jeep Cherokee into a boat trailer. Though seemingly uninjured, she took off her clothes and was found wandering in traffic.
Paramedics noticed the strange behavior and drove her to Morton Plant Hospital. She signed herself out against a doctor's advice and went with church friends to the Fort Harrison Hotel.
The crash drew little attention until a cadre of experts challenged Wood. The church's defense team had hired pathologists to review the case. They disputed Wood's dehydration diagnosis. So did Wood's former associate, who conducted the actual autopsy.
Crash reconstructionists demonstrated that the bruise on McPherson's leg matched up to the armrest on the Jeep's door, suggesting the possibility she had carried the fatal blood clot for 17 days.
``If that death certificate, as it exists now, had been issued originally, there wouldn't even have been an investigation, let alone charges,'' says Mike Rinder, a board member for Church of Scientology International, Scientology's mother church.
``Nobody investigates a pulmonary embolism that comes about as a result of an accident.''
Pulmonary embolisms strike an estimated 500,000 Americans a year and kill about 50,000.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas suffered one in February, 16 days after a car crash, the Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported. Thomas died in a hospital, and the chief neurosurgeon expressed shock.
Scientology leaders cite the case to support their position that McPherson's death also came as a shock.
``Not a single person thought she was in grave medical danger,'' says Marty Rathbun, a senior church official.
Meanwhile, prosecutors, reeling from an evidentiary earthquake, debate what to do with the charges.
THEY DON'T EXPECT to announce a decision until after Wednesday, when Pinellas- Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer gets a crack at the church's motion for dismissal.
Long before Wood's turnabout, church attorneys had asked for dismissal on grounds of religious freedom. The amended autopsy report added fuel.
``The entire basis for the state's prosecution of this case has now collapsed,'' church attorneys wrote in a recent brief.
Prosecutors allege that Scientology staff held McPherson down while force-feeding her food, vitamins, minerals, herbs and medicines, from simple aspirin to a sedative prescribed by a doctor who didn't see her until she was dead.
The penalty for conviction: fines of up to $15,000.
The church has spent more than that defending itself. Leaders hesitate to give a dollar amount. They say staff and attorneys have logged tens of thousands of hours, not solely to mount a defense but to determine what actually happened to McPherson.
``It has cost a very considerable amount of money, and obviously the issue here isn't a $15,000 fine. The issue is this attempt to stigmatize the church,'' Rinder says.
A quarter-century ago, Rinder sailed the seas with church founder L. Ron Hubbard and developed plans for the move to Clearwater. Now Rinder lives in Los Angeles but spends more time in the Tampa Bay area, tending to the charges and a related lawsuit by McPherson's family.
He questions why, if prosecutors suspected wrongdoing, they didn't simply charge the individual Scientologists who took care of McPherson, instead of going after a church, a move without precedent.
Prosecutors say they had to grant immunity to get people to talk.
Rinder doesn't buy that. He figures it's just an attempt to discredit Scientology.
RATHBUN SAYS prosecutors did not interview or offer immunity to a medical officer repeatedly mentioned in court documents, a woman alleged to have supervised McPherson's care.
Technically, the whole church isn't charged, only its Flag Services Organization, a center for advanced study and counseling. Scientologists from around the world come to the Clearwater retreat.
Around the world, people have heard about McPherson.
``To label a church a criminal is to taint the entire religion and its members, to burden its evangelical mission and to cast it into public disfavor,'' church attorneys wrote in their pleadings.
If so, it's not a tough sell.
Americans, who initially jumped to the incorrect conclusion that Muslims had blown up Oklahoma City's federal building, haven't always been tolerant of spiritual exploration.
Scientology doesn't act like a lot of religions. The church buys up real estate, three dozen properties in Clearwater alone. At mealtime, its 1,200 staff members, many in uniform, populate the pavement like scouts on a field trip.
Then there's the founder, Nebraska-born Hubbard, a philosopher, explorer and writer modern enough to have made The New York Times' best-seller list. He died while Ronald Reagan was president, and his e-meter - a device said to measure thought - was invented after the microwave oven.
The curious find answers, or at least more questions, on the church's Web page (www.scientology.org), which calls Scientology ``applied religious philosophy.''
SCIENTOLOGY CONSIDERS man to be an immortal spirit, bogged down by past experiences. It aims to help people find clarity. Much of that occurs through a counseling process called auditing.
Auditors - so named because they are supposed to listen - use e-meters to help church members explore areas of spiritual travail.
On a recent morning, Rathbun demonstrates the e-meter.
His subject holds two metal tubes, each connected by wires to the e-meter. He pinches her wrist. The meter's needle rises sharply, then drops. Rathbun instructs her to simply remember the pain of the pinch, then the needle spikes again.
Psychiatry isn't part of the picture.
It has been that way from the beginning. Hubbard acquired a distaste for psychiatry and passed it on to followers.
Rathbun characterizes the opposition: Scientology holds that man is a spirit and basically good. Psychiatry begins from a premise that man is an animal and must be restrained.
``Forcing a Scientologist to receive psychiatric services would be like forcing an Orthodox Jew to eat pork or forcing a devoted Catholic to have an abortion,'' Scientologists Kendrick Moxon and Helena Kobron wrote in a legal brief filed on behalf of church members.
``It is simply unacceptable and unthinkable to our religious faith and conscience.''
The issue comes up in court files to explain why McPherson did not voluntarily remain at Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Instead, she left with church friends, including case supervisor Alain Kartuzinski.
``My main idea was she cannot go into that psychiatric ward, she just cannot go there, that would be terrible,'' Kartuzinski told prosecutors.
He said McPherson seemed pale and withdrawn, not her usual bubbly self. The plan was to get her rested, relaxed, then begin auditing sessions, so he drove her to the Fort Harrison.
The 11-story hotel, the Flag Services Organization's crown jewel, is the cornerstone of a building project that will expand the church's presence in downtown Clearwater at a cost of at least $50 million.
Downstairs, off an elegant lobby of shiny marble and polished brass, engraved organizational charts line the walls. Hubbard's face beams from portraits and posters.
In a room upstairs, church members with beepers sit on upholstered settees, awaiting appointments with auditors. They disappear into rooms furnished with tables, chairs and e-meters.
McPherson was no stranger to the process.
For most of her adult life, she sought refuge in Scientology.
The year of her death, she spent tens of thousands of dollars on church courses and products.
Six weeks before she died, McPherson sent church staff a letter, thanking them for saving her life during an earlier episode of mental instability, according to defense exhibits.
``I WAS SURROUNDED by your incredible staff,'' the letter states. ``There are not adequate modifiers to describe the love, care, competence and encouragement I received while I was there.''
Now, critics of Scientology hold memorials and rally around her name.
That bothers church members.
``When Lisa McPherson was alive,'' says Rinder, the Scientology board member, ``they would have spit on her.''
Slaughter sees the irony.
She is co-owner of the publishing company where McPherson worked. She lost workers over the publicity and some quit on learning the company is owned by Scientologists.
``If Lisa had not died of a pulmonary embolism,'' Slaughter says, ``she would be a Scientologist today.''
Tribune staff writer David Sommer contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 259-7605 or firstname.lastname@example.org