Death in the Sunshine State

Source: Guardian
Date: November 23, 1998

Three years ago, a minor car crash left Lisa McPherson dead. Now Scientology is in the dock.

Clearwater is smack in the middle of the 28-mile strip of sun, sand and Scientology that is the Pinellas Peninsula on Florida's Gulf Coast. Just down the road is the retirees' favourite, St Petersburg, graced with the Salvador Dali Museum and lumbered with its image as "Heaven's waiting room".

Many of the inhabitants of Clearwater, teeming with Scientologists in the uniforms of the church's seven divisions, think they have entered paradise already, driven by the creed of L Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer.

Lisa McPherson was one of them - until she had a car crash that was to prove fatal. With all due respect, she was a good-looking blonde but not one of Scientology's beautiful people. Certainly, she had put in her time with the church, 18 of her 36 years. But she was just another of the eight million members it claims, an ordinary sales rep in a publishing company.

If Hollywood stars such as John Travolta - JT to the hierarchy - and Tom Cruise are Scientology's pin-ups, McPherson and her like are the stick-ups - they put the posters on their walls.

But life was still good to McPherson. An unsigned tax return for 1994 showed her income as almost $137,000, though she appears to have donated $75,275 of that "to qualified religious services". She kept a diary in which she detailed routine concerns about relationships, her health, her kitten and her mother. She loved dancing and would take a twirl with anyone who could keep up with her at the Old New York New York nightclub in Clearwater, the church's world headquarters.

It was certainly a transformation from the 18-year-old Dallas girl who went looking for help after her brother Steve shot himself and her marriage went bad. She found Scientology.

McPherson's refuge was, as determined by Hubbard (LRH), a set of beliefs in which people are spiritual beings, temporary transports for immortal souls or Thetans. These souls become Operating Thetans by probing painful memories and dealing with them through "auditing", assisted by a machine called an emeter.

There was no particular reason to predict what would happen when she was in a minor car crash on November 18 three years ago. There was no evidence that McPherson was hurt, and she got out of the vehicle and walked down the road wild-eyed, tearing off her clothes. She was thought to have had a breakdown and was recommended to a mental insitution by the local hospital.

But Scientologists share at least one strongly-held belief with mainstream sceptics: they will have no truck with psychiatry. So McPherson was taken instead to the Fort Harrison hotel, owned by the organistion. Seventeen days later, she was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at HCA hospital, New Port Richey.

Her family blames Scientology for her death, for her dehydration, the bruises on her arms and legs, the abrasions and lesions, the apparent bug or animal bites. A medical examiner said she had died of a blood clot complicated by dehydration. She also had an infection, which the church blames for all her symptoms.

The church's lawyer, Elliot Abelson, dismisses speculation about her death as gossip. "We care more about Lisa than they do," he says. Be that as it may, the church must now appear in court to answer charges of abuse or neglect of a disabled adult and the unauthorised practice of medicine. If found responsible, it faces a $5,000 fine on each count, although the court can impose additional penalties, including seizure of property.

An affidavit by AL Strope, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent, tells the story of her final days. McPherson was hyperactive, suffering delusions and hallucinations during her stay at the Fort Harrison, tried to harm herself and others and was restrained and prevented from leaving her room.

She urinated and defecated on herself, talked to people who were not there, crawled around the floor and took showers while fully dressed, Strope said. Scientology staff members gave her magnesium chloride injections to try to make her sleep, along with vitamins, herbal sleep remedies and prescription drugs.

One of those who treated McPherson was Janice Johnson, who was then an anaesthesiologist but has let her licence lapse. On McPherson's final day, a Scientologist doctor was contacted and said she should be taken to the nearest hospital if she was very ill. Instead, she was driven to his hospital, 45 minutes away.

The church is not charged with killing McPherson and the only way in which it can really be damaged is in terms of how it is perceived. But that matters to Scientology. David Miscavige, the Scientologists' 38-year-old leader, knows how crucial it is to make his peace with Clearwater's mayor and police and, on a broader front, to extend his church's tax-exempt status across Europe by the end of next year. "If I make an effort to resolve something, I have every intention of doing so," he said last month in what is claimed to be his first and only newspaper interview, with the St Petersburg Times. And he acknowledges that the McPherson case might have been handled differently.

"Do I think that we should work with the community or the police or the medical people to work out what to do if there's another Scientologist who needs care and we want to avoid psychiatric treatment? Yes, I do. No matter what the circumstance, anybody would want to do something to avoid someone dying." None of this convinces Bob Minton, a 51-year-old former investment banker who retired early after making his pile and paid for a law suit filed on behalf of McPherson. Nearly three years ago the multimillionaire was browsing the Internet when he found stories about people being harassed by Scientology. Since then, he has become known as the church's number one opponent and given more than $1.7 million to its harshest critics.

"The more I got involved in the church of Scientology, the more frightening the organisation as a whole became to me," he says. He has been arrested after a scuffle with Scientologists, displeased police after firing a shotgun when his New Hampshire estate was being picketed, and claims he has been invited to join the church. Scientologists say he has an "emotional problem".

McPherson's ashes were scattered over the graves of her brother and father, who also died by his own hand. Every so often her mother, Fannie, walks by a Dianetics (forerunner to Scientology) office in Dallas, Texas. "When I see those poor things going into that place I want to go in there and scream: 'Get out. You don't know what you're getting into'."