Scientologist's Diaries Reveal Little

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 21, 1996

Lisa McPherson wrote in her diaries of relationships with men; of exercising and diets; of working hard and paying off debts; of backaches and headaches; of dinners and holidays.

From time to time, she also wrote using the unique vernacular of a Scientologist. A personal triumph might be called "a win." She looked forward to being "clear." Someone once had "run control" on her.

But nowhere in her papers is there a sense that she wanted out of the church she had belonged to since she was 18. Nor were there signs of resentment at having to spend tens of thousands of dollars on church services.

Her records from 1994 and 1995 show she spent about half her salary as a sales representative for a Clearwater publishing company on donations to the church. They also show she died at age 36 with less than $20 in her savings account, a few pieces of furniture and clothing and a 2-year-old Jeep Cherokee.

In the Dallas federal courthouse is a record that she filed for bankruptcy in 1989 and succeeded in getting a judge to discharge her debts in 1990.

Records also show she was married to a fellow Scientologist from 1984 to 1989, and that they lived briefly in Los Angeles before she returned to Dallas and filed for divorce.

Though family members spoke of only one marriage, McPherson ruminates in one diary entry about whether to tell a potential love interest about her past, "and the fact that I'd been married twice."

But McPherson's personal papers shed little, if any, light on why she died so young and so suddenly in the company of fellow Scientologists who, the church says, were trying to help her.

Clearwater police still are investigating the death. They and Church of Scientology officials agree on several facts:

On Dec. 5, 1995, McPherson was dead on arrival at Columbia New Port Richey Hospital.

She had been taken there in a van by a handful of fellow Scientologists.

She had spent the previous 17 days in a room in the Fort Harrison Hotel, which is the church's signature building in downtown Clearwater.

She entered the hotel after a bizarre incident in which she drove her car into the rear of a vehicle pulling a trailered boat, got out of her car and asked repeatedly: "Where are the people?" She began to disrobe and was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where she spoke with a psychiatric nurse and signed herself out against medical advice. She left with several Scientologist friends.

After that, there is disagreement, mixed with suspicion.

An autopsy shows McPherson died of blood clots brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration." It also points to "evidence of injury," including bruises, abrasions, lesions and marks that appeared to be insect or animal bites.

Scientologists, however, point to a medical report from the New Port Richey hospital, which has yet to be released. They say it shows McPherson died from a severe staph infection.

McPherson's family and friends in Dallas say she sounded healthy when she called before Thanksgiving 1995 and said she would be home for Christmas to stay. They think she was planning to leave the church, and church members sought to stop her.

On Friday, McPherson's relatives produced the notes they took during phone conversations with Clearwater Scientologists in the days after the death.

Her mother, Fannie McPherson, wrote a list of questions:

Why hadn't her daughter been taken to a closer hospital?

Why wasn't an ambulance used?

Why didn't she get a call until the day after her daughter's death?

Why had no one mentioned the accident until the funeral?

Scientology officials have responded in part, saying they tried to talk McPherson into getting medical help, but she distrusted doctors. When she "suddenly took ill," they said, no one thought it was an emergency. They say she finally agreed to go to a Scientology doctor, who was at a hospital 20 miles away.

McPherson's diaries indicate she dated a doctor in 1993, while still living in her native Dallas. They also suggest she was attentive to her health.

She exercised and got massages and dieted, paying close attention to what she ate. In many entries, she listed what she had eaten that day. And she was well-acquainted with medical procedures after numerous treatments for a bad back.

During a particularly bad back episode in 1993, she complained in a diary entry: "This has been the longest two months of my life. I am forced to slow down and I don't like it . . . In a way I may be fortunate to have gone through this. I know what not having my health is like and I appreciate mine a lot more."

Two years later, Kellie Davis, a childhood friend of McPherson's, was one of the people McPherson called before Thanksgiving.

"Lisa didn't just get sick overnight," Davis said. "Lisa sounded too healthy and too happy over the phone when she called me. The next phone call I got it was her mother telling me she had died."

Dell Liebriech, an aunt of McPherson's, complained that the family couldn't get a straight answer from Scientologists who called after the death.

The first report was she died of meningitis, she said. Then came word of a staph infection. Then someone said the blood clot was caused by her bumping into a desk. The family also was told that bruises on McPherson's shoulders were caused by the shoulder straps she wore during her traffic accident in Clearwater.

"We're just trying to find the truth, and so far we don't feel like we have it," Liebriech said. The police "are suspicious and that makes me suspicious too."

She and family friends also complained that several Scientologists came to McPherson's funeral and hovered around family members, constantly stayed within earshot of private family conversations and accompanied them to restrooms.

One Scientologist stood in front of McPherson's poplar coffin for the entire viewing, said Brenda Motley, a friend who once was McPherson's neighbor and babysitter.

"I felt very intimated," Motley said.

Scientology officials dismiss those charges as nonsense and resent the aura of suspicion that has surrounded the case.

Elliot Abelson, a church attorney, denies that church members were hovering over the family and said McPherson was not trying to leave the church.

Indeed, she wrote at least two letters to the Times and Tampa Tribune in the months before her death, taking writers to task and speaking in favor of Scientology.

The family's records indicate that McPherson was asked to write the Tribune letter by an associate from Valko & Associates, a Clearwater company that Abelson said is owned by a Scientologist. The records consist of a memo to McPherson dictating what the letter should say.

Abelson said McPherson was highly active in Winter Wonderland, a 4-year-old Christmas fund-raising event across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel that depicts a giant snow-laden village.

He said McPherson will be fondly remembered by local Scientologists for her involvement in that event, which she helped start.

"She had this closeness to the church," Abelson said. After her death, "Lisa would have absolutely wanted only good things said about the church."

Motley, McPherson's former babysitter, said she knows why McPherson became involved in Scientology.

"Lisa was always seeking attention and seeking love and wanted to feel a part of something," Motley said. "It made her feel secure I guess."

Indeed, McPherson's diaries and letters reveal an insecurity about her looks and, by her own estimation, a propensity to fall in love too easily.

In her check registers, there are payments to Target, Circuit City, Godiva Chocolates, Florida Power, the cleaners and many other living expenses. There also are donations small and large to the Church of Scientology and its related organizations.

McPherson's family provided IRS records which show she spent more than $75,000 of her $136,721 income in 1994 on church services. They also show she earned $85,000 in 1995 and incurred debts of more than $30,000 to the church.

"That's a little ridiculous," Liebriech said. "It sounds fishy."

The family's records also indicate that McPherson paid for $240 worth of church tapes entitled Expansion of Havingness on Nov. 30, 1995, during her lengthy stay in the Fort Harrison a few days before her death.

In addition, there are church bills that kept arriving after her death.

A question in the church's media guide poses a commonly asked question: "Does it cost a lot to be a member of the church and take services?"

The answer: "No." The guide compares the donations to the cost of a college education and says it's a fairer system than other religions, "which tithe the incomes of all parishioners, regardless of how much they participate in religious activities."

Said Abelson: "One thing we know is that (McPherson) voluntarily gave it and she was happy with what she got."

He said the money goes to "religious services that support humanitarian activities. And the church is involved in lots of humanitarian activities."

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