For Some Scientologists, Pilgrimage Has Been Fatal
Date: December 7, 1997
From around the world, they come to Clearwater, looking for answers.
Week after week, they are drawn to the Church of Scientology, seeking to improve or rebuild their lives.
But for a few of these pilgrims, the search has ended in death.
Since 1980, at least eight members of the Church of Scientology have died in Clearwater under circumstances that leave their friends, families and in some cases law enforcement authorities looking for their own answers.
"We are getting old," said Mary Frei, the mother of a young man from Switzerland who died while staying at the church to receive counseling. "We'd like to have the truth about what happened. But I don't know. Maybe we'll never get it."
The most prominent of these cases is Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old woman who died Dec. 5, 1995. After 17 days at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, she was finally taken to a hospital by church staff where she was pronounced dead soon after her arrival. Police and prosecutors are wrapping up an investigation that could result in criminal charges.
In four of those deaths, like McPherson's, relatives or law enforcement officials suspect that the church's health regimen or its opposition to psychiatric care precluded appropriate medical care. The deaths examined by the Times include:
Margarit Winkelmann, 51, who walked fully clothed into Clearwater Bay and drowned herself in January 1980 after she quit taking Lithium and started taking vitamins and minerals recommended by the church.
Josephus A. Havenith, 45, who died in February 1980 at the Fort Harrison Hotel in a bathtub filled with water so hot it burned his skin off.
Andreas Ostertag, 38, head of the Scientology mission in Stuttgart, Germany, who apparently drowned while swimming to a sailboat anchored off of Fort Desoto Park in 1985. Reports published in Germany earlier this year raised questions about the death.
Peter E. Frei, 37, who was found floating in a Dunedin waterway in June 1988 several days before the Church of Scientology reported him missing from his room at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Heribert Pfaff, 31, who died of an apparent seizure in the Fort Harrison Hotel in August 1988 after he quit taking medication that controlled his seizures and was placed instead on a program of vitamins and minerals.
Carrie Slaughterbeck, 23, who was found dead in her Clearwater apartment in March 1997 after receiving nutritional counseling from a prominent Scientologist who sells Super Blue Green Algae, a dietary supplement.
Scientology officials say these deaths are isolated cases. Statistically, they say, the death rate among the many thousands of visitors to their Clearwater headquarters is no higher than the death rates among Catholics, Lutherans or members of other religious denominations.
But even in apparently routine deaths, the Scientologists act in such controlling ways that they raise the hackles and suspicions of the police.
Consider the 1996 death of Arthur Orwat, a 69-year-old lung cancer patient whose death was expected.
Clearwater police reports say Scientology caregiver Judy Goldberr-Weber told officers that she did not immediately call 911 when Orwat appeared to be dying because she was supposed to first notify church elders.
Almost two hours elapsed before Scientology officials Brian Anderson and Judy Fontana arrived at Orwat's Hacienda Gardens apartment and called 911. Clearwater police say they routinely encounter church officials at the scene of any incident involving Scientologists.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw vehemently insists that church officials never alter circumstances or otherwise interfere in scenes of members' deaths. But Shaw and Anderson could not explain why two Clearwater church officials were summoned to the scene of a cancer patient's death before police were called.
"I got a call that Arthur Orwat died and I went to the Hacienda," Anderson said.
Lawyer Lee Fugate of Clearwater, who represents the church, blames the controversy surrounding McPherson's death on the German government, which has been in a heated battle with Scientology's German chapters in recent years.
German television reporters, Fugate says, a year ago raised questions about whether Ostertag's drowning in 1985 was actually a homicide. Fugate believes the questions caused local authorities to pursue the McPherson investigation. Pinellas County officials had ruled the Ostertag death a drowning.
But some Pinellas County officials say all the Scientology deaths would have gotten more scrutiny if they had occurred today because of what officials have learned through McPherson's death, years of dealing with the Church of Scientology and better investigative technology.
"We would handle things differently today," said Paul Maser, deputy police chief in Clearwater. "We'd be more cautious and we'd talk to more people and look at the scene in more depth."
Before the McPherson case, Maser said, many officers in his department considered Scientology overly secretive and aggressive, but posing no physical danger to its members. Now, they take a harder look.
Clearwater police are suspicious about the number of 911 calls that come from rooms at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Police respond to each call only to be told most of the time by Scientology security guards that the call was a mistake. Police are not allowed to check individual rooms where the calls originated.
In the past 11 months, 161 calls to 911 were made from rooms in the hotel, but each time Scientology security guards said there was no emergency.
Scientology officials say most of the calls are mistakes that occur when foreign visitors try to dial the international access code, 011, after dialing a 9 to get an outside line. They are working with police to resolve the problem, Fugate said.
"With no money, frightened and intimidated and knowing that others have committed suicide, have died in accidents or perhaps been murdered, they cannot leave," wrote Lawrence Lee Sr., in a 1989 affidavit prepared for a lawsuit against Scientology. "Without contact with the outside world, they have no one to turn to for help or protection."
Scientology has long denounced the practice of psychiatry, blaming it for various problems. Scientologists are not allowed to take psychiatric drugs or seek treatment from psychiatrists or psychologists.
Scientology does not interfere when the member's own doctor has recommended a course of treatment, Shaw insists.
But at least two of the deaths examined by the Times occurred when a member quit taking a prescription drug and began a Scientology course designed to rid the body of drugs and other toxins.
"You just don't want to take people who have been medically treated off of drugs without contact with the doctor who put them on the drugs and monitoring," said Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and a former professor at the University of California Berkeley. "It's a very dangerous thing."
Singer is an expert on cults who has often been critical of Scientology.
Dr. Joan Wood, medical examiner in Pinellas County, also questions taking patients off some medications without adequate support.
After reviewing autopsy reports of the seven deaths at the request of the Times, Wood said the cause of death may never be known for some of them. In some cases Wood was not sure what caused the deaths, but could rule out foul play. With others, Wood thinks more investigation is needed.
Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he was unaware of any Scientology deaths other than McPherson's until the Times asked him about them. Margarit Winkelmann, 51
From her ninth-floor apartment, Mrs. Borden saw Margarit Winkelmann, a 51-year-old visitor from Zurich, walk fully clothed into the water, struggle back to the shore and then throw herself face down into the water.
By the time police arrived, Mrs. Winkelmann was floating dead in the water, still clutching a Scientology pamphlet in her hand. Her husband, Ernst Winkelmann, and other Scientologists told police she had been receiving psychiatric treatment for years but had come to Clearwater seeking a Scientology prescribed cure that did not include drugs or psychiatry.
At the time she died, Mrs. Winkelmann was taking vitamins and minerals prescribed by Scientology and apparently was on a program designed to clear her body of toxins.
She seemed to be "progressing," Ernst Winkelmann told police. But earlier in the week she told him she had felt better when she was taking the Lithium prescribed by her psychiatrist in Europe. An autopsy found no Lithium in her bloodstream and determined her death to be a suicide by drowning.
Wood said she believes it would be unwise to take a patient off Lithium without careful supervision. Josephus A. Havenith, 45
Josephus A. Havenith was a Dutch citizen living in Munich, Germany, where he taught music. On Feb. 25, 1980, Havenith had been at the Fort Harrison Hotel for two months taking counseling and following a regimen of vitamins and minerals prescribed by Scientology.
A maid said Havenith left a note on his door - Room 771. It read "sleeping," so he was not disturbed until later in the day when other guests discovered that the carpet outside his room was soaked. Inside, the hot water was still running in the tub. Scientology officials say rumors spread by enemies in Germany caused people to raise questions about Ostertag's death.
At the time, church officials and police told reporters that Havenith was in his "50s or 60s" and was found dead in bed. In truth, Havenith was found by the maid lying dead in the bathtub. The water was so hot it had taken the skin off of his body.
No one is certain when he died.
An autopsy report lists his death as "probable drowning" but notes that his head was not under water. In 1980 when Havenith died, Florida officials had little knowledge of the vitamin and mineral programs used by Scientology.
"Is it possible that given whatever was going on in his body, getting into hot water did something?" asks medical examiner Wood in reviewing the case. "Perhaps."
With no evidence of a struggle in his room or other foul play, Wood said she had to presume that some sudden event occurred involving his heart or his diet.
"We'll never know what happened, the questions remain unanswered," she said.
Andreas Ostertag, 38, was a longtime Scientologist and head of the church's mission in Stuttgart, Germany, when it was founded in the early 1970s. His brother and sister also were prominent Scientologists.
In late 1985 Ostertag was in Clearwater for meetings at Scientology's spiritual headquarters. On Halloween day Ostertag and Joachim Bender, a German friend, tried to swim from Fort Desoto Park to the St. Christopher, a 148-foot schooner aground on a sandbar about a half mile off shore.
Bender, also a Scientologist, told police Ostertag disappeared while swimming in rough water. Ostertag's body was recovered several days later.
Reports published in Germany earlier this year questioned the death, saying Ostertag had been summoned to Clearwater by Scientology bosses to answer questions about financial problems at the Stuttgart mission.
Scientology officials in Clearwater say rumors spread by enemies in Germany caused people to raise unfounded questions about Ostertag's death. Records in Clearwater do not include any disciplinary action taken against Ostertag or explain why he was in Clearwater at the time he drowned, Scientology officials said. Peter E. Frei, 37
An off-duty Dunedin police officer was mullet fishing near Victoria Drive in Dunedin when he noticed a body floating face down near the shoreline on June 30, 1988.
For days, police tried to identify the dead man without success. Then on July 4, the Church of Scientology reported that Peter Ernst Frei had been missing since June 29. The Swiss citizen had been in Clearwater taking courses at the church and was supposed to have returned to Switzerland on the day his body was found.
Church officials had already cleaned out Frei's room and packed up his possessions by the time police arrived, but friends told police a valise with his wallet and other valuables was missing.
Frei's parents say he left home with 20,000 Swiss francs, about $13,000, and had already paid the church more than 40,000 francs for counseling sessions before he left home.
While Florida authorities were trying to identify him, Frei's apartment in Switzerland was burglarized and ransacked, adding to suspicions surrounding his death. Wood, the medical examiner, went to the scene when Frei was found. She remains troubled about his death. She attributed it to drowning, but now says many questions remain. Frei had scrapes on his arm and cuts on his head and enough fluid in his chest to have drowned. He was wearing shoes and socks and shorts.
"What's a fully clothed man doing dead in the water?" Wood asked. "Clearly this death should be reinvestigated. We still don't know what happened."
Frei's parents say he could not swim and would not have gone near the water.
"We have no clue what happened," Scientology spokesman Shaw said. "Most of the drownings in the U.S. occur in Florida." Heribert Pfaff, 31
The decision to join, his family members now believe, was a fateful one.
For a decade after surviving a major car accident, Heribert Pfaff had suffered severe seizures that often came in the middle of the night. In 1988 Pfaff traveled from his home in Munich to Clearwater to take courses at the Church of Scientology.
The son of a wealthy German builder, Pfaff checked into Room 758 at the Fort Harrison Hotel. He had brought about $100,000 to finance his visit, family members say. His wife, Anita, told police she was staying with friends so she wouldn't be awakened by the seizures her husband had been having since he quit taking his medicine.
On Aug. 28, 1988, Pfaff's nude body was found upside down hanging out of his bed. An autopsy determined that a seizure probably caused his death. No anti-convulsant drugs were found in his bloodstream.
The $100,000 disappeared, says Georg Pfaff, his brother.
The family had stopped an attempt by Heribert Pfaff to wire transfer another $150,000 from a family bank account that was requested a few days before his death.
Georg Pfaff said he discovered after the death that his brother had paid $26,330 for one Scientology course and $52,000 for another.
The church was only interested in his money, says Georg Pfaff.
Scientology officials say Pfaff's treatment was not recommended by the church.
"If someone had epilepsy, they should see a medical doctor," Shaw said. "It was his choice to receive drugs or not."
Another of Pfaff's brothers, Joannes, remains a Scientologist. Roger Nind, 49
Roger Nind's family says he tried several times to leave the Church of Scientology and get a refund on the $70,000 he paid for books and courses.
"He attempted to get out, but their clutches were too good for drawing him back," says his brother William Nind, a contractor in Perth, Australia. "Each time he went to try and get his money back, they'd offer the next session free and recharge him with their crazy beliefs."
Nind arrived in Clearwater on Oct. 15, 1992. A day later he lay dying in Cleveland Street after he ran from between two buildings into the side of a car.
"What was going on in his mind?" asks Dr. Emile Brand, the retired Clearwater physician who hit Nind. "It was such a strange case. It is engraved in my mind. I wondered if he was suicidal. I could understand a man might want to hurt himself or was under peculiar stress and would act that way."
Police say Brand was going about 30 mph, accelerating from a stop sign at the time of the accident and did not see Nind as he stepped into the street. Brand was not charged and voluntarily took tests to prove he had not been drinking.
Clearwater police said Nind may have looked the wrong way as he crossed the street, but Nind's family still questions the accident.
"I was suspicious about the accident," said William Nind. "It seemed odd. He had been to America before. He was fairly bright. It's odd he would have stepped out in front of a car."
William Nind said he could never find out if his brother had been alone or with others when he was hit. His wallet, passport and about $1,000 in cash was never returned to the family, he said.
"They said they reached into his mind and he was happy with the way things were going," William Nind said.
Scientology officials say Nind, a Scientology staffer in Perth, had come to Clearwater to take courses that were not available in Australia and was the victim of an accident that was probably caused by his failure to look in the correct direction as he took a morning jog.
Nind was wearing a leather jacket, black and white striped pants, a brown belt, gray socks and high-top sneakers. His brother said he often took morning walks.
Scientology officials say they have no record of Nind asking for refunds, but did send $7,683.90 back to his relatives in Australia after receiving a letter asking for his personal effects. Carrie Slaughterbeck, 23
Carrie Slaughterbeck and Alan Green, her boyfriend, moved together from Indiana to Clearwater in June 1996 to work for Kim Bright Cassano, a prominent Scientologist who owns several Clearwater businesses.
Slaughterbeck's parents, Earl and Diane Slaughterbeck of Lafayette, Ind., say Cassano became Carrie's nutritional counselor, advising her to take lots of Super Blue Green Algae, a product Cassano distributes through a multilevel marketing program.
The algae is harvested from Upper Lake Klamath in Southern Oregon and is popular among Scientologists in Clearwater. Sales literature promotes it for everyone - pregnant women, newborn babies and the family pet. Detractors describe it as "pond scum."
Carrie Slaughterbeck took as many as 30 algae capsules at a time, says her twin sister, Sandy Slaughterbeck. She also took other vitamins recommended by Cassano and signed up for several Scientology courses.
Green now says Cassano was pressuring the couple to sign up for more expensive Scientology auditing courses and indicated that she encouraged them to move to Clearwater just so they would join the Church of Scientology.
As news accounts poured out about the lawsuit surrounding the death of Lisa McPherson, Green returned home from an overnight trip to Orlando and found Slaughterbeck dead in their Island Way apartment.
He summoned Cassano to the apartment while police investigated.
Shelor said Cassano angrily denied that Carrie was on the program. At the time authorities were questioning whether McPherson had been on a similar program.
Cassano did not return repeated telephone calls.
In an interview with the Times, Scientology officials initially said Carrie "never set foot into the church in Clearwater," until shown her certificates of attendance at courses she took in 1996. Ironically, the certificates were signed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, though he had died in 1986.
Shaw, the Scientology spokesman, said Slaughterbeck must have taken the courses at a Scientology mission, the smallest organization within Scientology. He said she asked to take auditing courses but was rejected because of her past bulimia until she could see a doctor.
Slaughterbeck was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 101 pounds when her body was found. Family members said she had liked being slim because she thought it would help her gain modeling jobs.
Medical Examiner Wood attributed Carrie's death to "sudden and unexpected death - possible mitral valve prolapse." Carrie did have a heart problem, identical to the one her twin sister has. The condition exists in about 5 percent of the population and sometimes causes an irregular heartbeat.
Wood said she was unaware that Carrie took blue green algae and doesn't know what effect it had on her health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has twice ordered blue green algae off the market because distributors made medical claims. State and federal officials continue to question the algae's safety amid complaints from consumers who say it has caused increased heart rates, breathing difficulties and other problems.
Officials say there is no evidence that the algae is a health benefit, but are unable to regulate it as long as it is sold as a food supplement and not as a drug. Lisa McPherson
Meanwhile the criminal investigation into Lisa McPherson's death is drawing to a close. Later this month agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Clearwater police expect to meet with McCabe, the prosecutor who must decide whether anyone faces criminal charges. Investigating officers believe some church officials who tended McPherson during her final days should face charges.
McCabe has also indicated he'll take the rather unusual step of hearing from Scientology lawyers as well before deciding whether to bring charges.