The Prosecutor's Duty

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: December 9, 1997

By their own admission, law enforcement authorities did not investigate the suspicious deaths of members of the Church of Scientology as thoroughly as they might have. They have an opportunity to correct that mistake as they wind up the investigation of the death of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old woman who died two years ago after spending 17 days at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.

As Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe ponders whether to file criminal charges in the case, he cannot allow his judgment to be impaired by Scientology's evolving defense or its rising level of intimidation.

A disturbing pattern now has been established of apparently healthy Scientologists who die suddenly after arriving in Clearwater for training or counseling. An investigation by the Times' Lucy Morgan found at least eight Scientology members, including McPherson, have died under circumstances that are not easily explained.

Scientology's attempt to dismiss the deaths and divert attention by citing the number of deaths of Times' staffers does not offer the answers a timely, complete law enforcement investigation could have provided.

Some of the Scientology deaths are more alarming than others. In 1980, 45-year-old Josephus A. Havenith was found dead in a bathtub filled with water so hot it had taken the skin off his body. An autopsy report lists his death as "probable drowning" but his head was above water.

In 1988, 37-year-old Peter E. Frei's body was found fully clothed floating off the Dunedin shore. His wallet and other valuables were missing from his room, and his apartment in Switzerland was burglarized and ransacked.

Those sorts of situations, had they not been tied to Scientology, probably would have received more scrutiny. But the Church of Scientology has a history of bullying anyone searching for the truth, and those aggressive tactics apparently had a chilling effect on law enforcement.

With decision time nearing on the McPherson investigation, Scientologists have once again decided the best defense is an aggressive offense. They have attacked Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood, who has raised serious questions about the circumstances surrounding McPherson's death. They have attacked Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein, who has repeatedly met with Scientologists to address their concerns. They also have recklessly accused Klein's department of racism and other sins. These are tactics designed to silence critics, not reveal the truth.

After complaining about a small group of Scientology opponents who planned to demonstrate outside the Fort Harrison, the Scientologists launched a much larger demonstration at Clearwater police headquarters Friday night after leading Klein to believe they would not. Of course Scientologists can exercise their constitutional rights of assembly and free speech, as they did again Monday in front of the Clearwater police headquarters and the Times' Clearwater bureau. But their diversionary techniques and failure to negotiate in good faith with the police chief undercut their claims that all they want is to be accepted by the community.

Now the spotlight shifts to McCabe, the state attorney who must decide whether to file charges in the McPherson case. He has taken the unusual step of meeting with Scientology attorneys and reviewing the conclusions of their experts before hearing from law enforcement investigators. McCabe argues he merely wants as much information as possible before making his decision. But he also should guard against creating even the impression that he is giving special treatment to the Church of Scientology, particularly when one of Scientology's attorneys once worked with McCabe in the state attorney's office.

McCabe is the prosecutor, not the judge or the jury. He has a duty to follow the evidence collected by law enforcement and to decide whether criminal charges are warranted, not whether anyone is guilty. He should not be swayed by public demonstrations or verbal attacks on other public officials by Scientologists. If his concern is the cost of pursuing criminal charges, McCabe can seek help from the state.

In hindsight, the deaths of Scientologists were not as aggressively investigated as they should have been. There should be no such second thoughts about the investigation of the death of Lisa McPherson. This community cannot shrug its shoulders and accept Scientology's unchallenged explanations every time a Scientologist turns up dead.