Is Scientology breaking the law?

Allegations of practicing medicine without a license by Scientology

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The New York Times reports on Lisa McPherson's death

December 1, 1997

Scientology Faces Glare of Scrutiny After Florida Parishioner's Death In This Article

Although Scientologists do accept medical treatment, Ms. McPherson was following the church's conviction in rejecting psychiatric care. Church literature says psychiatrists were paid by the government to denounce Scientology as a hoax when Hubbard, a successful science fiction writer, began the church in 1954.

In 1969, the church created the Citizens Commission on Human rights, which was supposed to expose and eradicate "human rights abuses by psychiatry." In January 1974, Hubbard wrote a paper describing what he called the "Introspection Rundown" for treating people who suffer mental breakdowns. He said that the technique "possibly ranks with the major discoveries of the 20th century" and that it would do away with psychiatry.

The first step is to isolate the people who suffer breakdowns to protect them and others. No one is allowed to speak to the people or within their hearing, except to deliver lessons supposed to locate and correct the problems that led to the breakdown.

The Death: From A Hotel Room To An Emergency Room

Lisa McPherson spent her final days in isolation in Room 174 at the rear of the Fort Harrison Hotel. A church lawyer initially described her stay to a local reporter as restful, and he said she had received no medical treatment.

But 33 pages of handwritten logs tell a far bleaker tale. The logs were released this summer on orders from the judge hearing the McPherson estate's lawsuit.

Scientology staff members who monitored Ms. McPherson 24 hours a day kept them, and the notes depict a woman whose mental condition deteriorated rapidly and whose health began to fail well before she died.

Two days into her stay, the logs recount Ms. McPherson spitting out food and vomiting. The fourth day, she was ashen-faced and feverish. She was often described as violent, striking her attendants and banging on the walls.

She soiled herself and hallucinated that she was Hubbard. One of the logs indicated that she tried to leave the room, but church lawyers say that she was not restrained. Rather, Ms. Vaughan, one of the lawyers, said, she was incapable of caring for herself.

Among those who cared for her was Dr. Janis Johnson, a member of the church medical office. Dr. Johnson is a physician who is not licensed to practice in Florida and had agreed to restrictions on her medical license in Arizona in 1993 after two hospitals questioned her use of prescription drugs.

Has Dr. Johnson been charged with practicing medicine without a license?

On Dec. 1, 1995, Dr. Johnson administered a prescription sleep medication to Ms. McPherson, and left written instructions that Ms. McPherson be given two liters of liquid when she awoke. Kennan Dandar, the lawyer for the McPherson estate, said two liters was a substantial amount of liquid and that the instructions were an indication that Ms. McPherson was in need of immediate medical attention.

"They should have taken her to the hospital immediately," Dandar said. "Instead, they kept her there until she died."

Notes for Dec. 2 and 3 indicate that Ms. McPherson drank some liquids and was coherent at times. Scientology officials said they could not find the notes for the final two days of her life.

On the evening of Dec. 5, Ms. McPherson's condition had deteriorated to the point that Dr. Johnson sought outside help.

Records indicate that about 7 p.m. she telephoned a Scientologist who was working as an emergency room doctor at a hospital in New Port Richey, Fla., 45 minutes from Clearwater. Dr. Johnson and another church staff member took Ms. McPherson to the New Port Richey hospital, passing four other hospitals.

When they arrived, hospital records and court files show, Ms. McPherson had no pulse. She was pronounced dead after 20 minutes of resuscitation efforts.

"She was thin, she was unkempt, dirty, just not taken care of," said the emergency room nurse who helped to try to revive Ms. McPherson.

Because it was an unattended death, an autopsy was done, it found that Ms. McPherson, who was 5-foot-9, weighed 108 pounds and that she had scratches and bruises on her hands and arms. The cause of death was listed as a thromboembolism, or blood clot, in her left pulmonary artery.

Severe dehydration and bed rest caused the clot, the autopsy said. A police inquiry was started, as a matter of routine.

The Aftermath: An Investigation Expands, And A Lawsuit Follows

In January, Dr. Joan Wood, the county medical examiner, appeared on "Inside Edition," the syndicated television program. Saying that she was speaking out because of misinformation from the church, Wood said the autopsy indicated that Ms. McPherson had gone without water for at least 5 to 10 days, and possibly longer.

She said Ms. McPherson had been unconscious for the last 24 to 48 hours of her life and that the scratches on her arms were cockroach bites. "This is the most severe case of dehydration I've ever seen," she said.

The church hired its own medical experts. Its lead lawyers in the criminal case, Ms. Vaughan and Lee Fugate, said in an interview that those experts disagreed with Dr. Wood. By their account, the church's doctors determined that Ms. McPherson's death was unrelated to her stay at the retreat. The lawyers declined to identify the experts.

They also said that the county pathologist who performed the autopsy disagreed with some of Dr. Wood's findings and that the lawyers disputed the paramedic's estimate that Ms. McPherson weighed 155 pounds the day of the accident.

"A Scientologist can refuse psychiatric treatment and be treated in accordance with her own religious beliefs," Ms. Vaughan said. "And while that may not be easily understandable by someone who is not a Scientologist, it is part and parcel of their basic makeup, their religion and their belief. When the competent medical testimony comes forward, what you will have is a woman who died an accidental death from a pulmonary embolism." In February, the McPherson family sued the church on behalf of Lisa McPherson's estate. The suit claimed that Ms. McPherson was held against her will and died after slipping into a coma.

Note that Ms. Vaughan says that Lisa was being "treated".

About the same time, the Clearwater police expanded their investigation. Over the last 10 months, detectives have interviewed dozens of Scientologists and outside experts on the church. Police officials declined to discuss their findings, but the results are expected to be turned over to the prosecutors this month.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the chief prosecutor for the county, will decide whether criminal charges are warranted. Before making his decision, McCabe said in an interview, he will take the unusual step of allowing Scientology's lawyers to present the results of their investigation, including analyses by several forensic pathologists.

"Does it happen every day that the defense presents its evidence before charges are filed?" McCabe said. "No. But not to avail yourself of an opportunity to review the defense's evidence before making a decision would be foolish."

In Texas, Dell Liebreich waits impatiently for the decision.

She took over the suit after Ms. McPherson's mother died of cancer earlier this year. Her lawyer, Dandar, tells her that the outcome of the criminal inquiry will not affect the suit, but Mrs. Liebreich said she wanted people held accountable for the death of her niece. "They murdered her, and we don't want it to happen to someone else," she said.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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