St. Petersburg Times: Scientology Had Woman in Isolation

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: February 21, 1997

By Thomas C. Tobin

CLEARWATER - In the days leading up to her unexplained death, a 36-year-old member of the Church of Scientology was being kept in isolation at the church's Clearwater headquarters and had started banging her fists against the wall, a Scientology lawyer now says.

Lisa McPherson was kept "from the secular world" by her own choice after an emotional breakdown left her wandering naked near downtown Clearwater, said Elliot Abelson, a Scientology lawyer based in Los Angeles.

During her isolation, he said, McPherson entered "kind of a self-destructive mode."

Abelson and other Scientology representatives insist McPherson was well-cared for at the Fort Harrison Hotel. They say the church's attention was supportive and benign.

For 17 days, Abelson said, McPherson stayed in a "very nice hotel room," without a television but with access to room service and the freedom to come and go.

But as authorities press their investigation into how McPherson died and who was responsible, McPherson's family and some critics of Scientology are alleging that McPherson probably was not free to leave.

They are pointing to a treatment that the late church founder, L. Ron Hubbard, prescribed for those who suffered a "psychotic break." The treatment involves isolating people, against their will if necessary. Scientology calls it the "Introspection Rundown."

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, McPherson's estate accused the church of allowing McPherson to languish in a coma without nutrition and liquids while she was in isolation as part of an Introspection Rundown. Separately, some church critics, including former Scientology staffers who say they witnessed forced isolation while with the church, suggest that a poorly performed Introspection Rundown could have contributed to McPherson's death.

According to Abelson, McPherson did not receive an Introspection Rundown during her period of isolation.

When Hubbard unveiled the Introspection Rundown in 1974, he said it would enable Scientology "to take over mental therapy in full." It was one more volley in Scientology's long-standing war against conventional psychiatry.

"If society wants insanity handled as a social problem," Hubbard wrote in 1969, "don't go to the boys who have increased the insanity statistics for a century and who have only tangled terms to show for it.

"Go get the people who know what they are doing - the Scientologists."

"I need help. I need to talk to someone," McPherson told paramedics after taking off her clothes at the scene of a minor traffic accident on Nov. 18, 1995. Her comments were recorded in an Emergency Medical Services report obtained recently by the Times.

The paramedics also remembered her saying she was "having a difficult time" and had been "doing bad things in her mind and doing wrong things that she didn't know were wrong."

They took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital.

Within an hour of her arrival, fellow members of the Church of Scientology, including a church liaison, were at her bedside. A Scientologist friend told the staff it was against McPherson's religion to be admitted for psychiatric treatment.

An hour later, a doctor relented and discharged her into their hands "for follow-up care."

The Scientologists, according to hospital records, told the doctor they would care for McPherson and watch her 24 hours a day. Therecords also note that McPherson, with Scientologists still at her bedside, said: "I want to go home with my friends from the congregation. I won't do anything to harm myself."

McPherson was a parishioner who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on Scientology counseling over the years. She was not among the hundreds of Clearwater staff members who serve the church.

Asked why church representatives took such an interest in a parishioner's hospitalization, Abelson said: "The church would immediately go to help because that's the kind of church it is."

Emotionally frazzled but physically healthy, McPherson entered the centerpiece of Scientology's world spiritual headquarters in Clearwater: the Fort Harrison Hotel.

Seventeen days later, on a Tuesday, McPherson suddenly fell ill, according to church officials. That night, they say, she was placed in the back seat of a Scientology van and taken to Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, which is 24 miles from the hotel's front door.

Why not go to a closer hospital?

Church officials say no one realized it was an emergency. They say McPherson distrusted doctors and was reluctant to get help. They say they finally convinced her to see Dr. David I. Minkoff, a Scientologist who is on staff at the New Port Richey hospital.

Abelson confirmed that one of McPherson's two companions in the van was Scientology medical liaison Janis Johnson, a medical doctor who is not licensed in Florida.

When the van arrived at the hospital shortly after 9 p.m., McPherson was dead. Minkoff, who pronounced her dead after 21 minutes of resuscitation efforts, did not respond to an interview request.

An autopsy conducted the next morning by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office concluded the cause of death was blood clotting brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration."

Last month, Medical Examiner Joan Wood said publicly that test results showed McPherson had no liquids for five to 10 days and was unconscious for one or two days before her death. She also said McPherson had suffered insect bites, apparently from cockroaches. Through her lawyer, Wood said she spoke out because she felt the church was lying about the circumstances surrounding McPherson's death. The church disputes Wood's findings and is suing her office for access to records in the case, including samples of tissue and blood from McPherson's body. Abelson, the Scientology lawyer, hotly disputed Wood's conclusions, calling her a "hateful liar."

McPherson's relatives and friends in her native Dallas, where she joined the church as an 18-year-old, have said they suspect she was detained after voicing intentions to leave Scientology.

Church officials say McPherson was active in church affairs and had no intention of leaving. "Lisa loved the Church of Scientology and the church loved her," they said in a statement this week.

They also say her fellow Scientologists did everything they could for her after she suffered a sudden and severe staph infection the day of her death. The infection is noted on hospital reports.

"This is not a "Who Done It?' It's not a mystery," Abelson said recently. "It's all done. Case closed."

Among the 60- million words Hubbard reportedly published arehis step-by-step instructions for handling someone who suffers a severe emotional upheaval or "psychotic break."

Hubbard unveiled his Introspection Rundown in January 1974, saying it "possibly ranks with the major discoveries of the Twentieth Century. . . . This means the last reason to have psychiatry around is gone."

The first step in the Introspection Rundown is to "isolate the person wholly" Hubbard wrote.

A month later, he wrote another document that explained the isolation of subjects was necessary to "destimulate and protect them and others from possible damage."

Between sessions where the subject receives Scientology counseling called "auditing," Hubbard instructed: "No one speaks to the person or in his hearing."

He wrote that the purpose of the Introspection Rundown "is to locate and correct those things which cause a person to fixate his attention inwardly." He said the process "extroverts a person so that he can see his environment and therefore handle and control it."

A supervisor would decide whether the isolation should continue, and could communicate with the isolated person only in writing, Hubbard wrote. When a supervisor decides the person still is not cured, the isolation continues.

"This will elicit a protest from the person," Hubbard predicted.

Part of the Introspection Rundown involves a Scientology concept known as "havingness." Since her death, McPherson's relatives have released copies of her "parishioner statement" from the Church of Scientology, which shows a $240 charge for tapes entitled "Expansion of Havingness." The charge was dated Nov. 30 1995, which was five days before McPherson's death while she was at the Fort Harrison.

Abelson said the invoice doesn't prove she received the Introspection Rundown. Rather, he said, "it's evidence that she got billed for something."

Abelson insisted McPherson did not receive the Introspection Rundown or any other church services. Nevertheless, the treatment is getting big play on the Internet, where Scientology critics were among the first to suggest its possible implications in the McPherson case.

The Introspection Rundown also is advertised on the church's Internet site as one of several Scientology procedures for which church counselors can get training.

Stacy Young, a former Scientologist living in Seattle, said in an interview with the Times that she acted as a guard during an Introspection Rundown in 1988.

The subject, a fellow Scientologist, was a woman who thought she was a butterfly and a dog, Young said. She was kept for two months in a shack with a bare mattress and dirt floors in a Scientology compound east of Los Angeles, Young said.

"She was basically a prisoner," Young said. "We never said a word. We just sat there with her and watched her chirp and bark and be crazy. . . . She was very much at our mercy."

The woman eventually was released to her parents, said Young, whose husband, Vaughn Young, was a top church spokesman when the FBI raided Scientology's Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., offices in 1977.

Vaughn Young said Scientology procedures such as the Introspection Rundown can take days, weeks or months and amount to "practicing medicine without a license," a comment that was echoed in the lawsuit by McPherson's estate.

The Youngs say they now earn a living as writers and as witnesses against Scientology in court.

Abelson responded to the couple's comments, saying: "That's all they do and they will say anything or make up anything in order to, one: further their nothing careers; and, two: because of their hate for the church . . . anything the Youngs say to the church and to me are meaningless and worthless."

Abelson said the couple was kicked out of Scientology. The Youngs say they managed to escape and now endure harassment from the church's private investigators.

Monica Pignotti, another former Scientologist who was an early member of the church's Clearwater staff in the mid-1970s, said it was "a common practice" to isolate people against their will.

Abelson responded, saying: "We've never said that we were not isolating (McPherson). She was isolated." But he added she wanted to be isolated "from the secular world" so she could rest.

He said church staffers interviewed by Clearwater police could not recall McPherson saying she wanted to leave.

For the founder of Scientology, it was no sin to hold people against their will if they had too many negative emotions - or more pre-cisely, if they fell below a certain point on the "tone scale."

In Scientology, the tone scale is a chart that assigns a number to various emotional states, ranging from minus-40 for "total failure" to 40 for "serenity of beingness."

In between are apathy (.05), despair (.98), anxiety (1.02), pain (1.8), exhilaration (8.0) and many more. In Scientology, the tone scale enables someone to predict how another person will behave.

In his book Science of Survival, Hubbard wrote: "Any person from 2.0 down on the tone scale should not have, in any thinking society, any civil rights of any kind." He reasoned that such a person cannot tell right from wrong.

That applied even to people who have temporarily dipped below a 2.0 reading, he added. By Hubbard's standard, then, a person who slips into despair or anger or anxiety, could be detained until that condition subsided.

Where would Lisa McPherson have been on the tone scale?

The paramedics who took her to Morton Plant said she had a fixed stare and was speaking in a monotone. She couldn't stay focused on one topic and kept asking paramedics to repeat their questions. She said she needed help and wanted to rest.

Later, at the Fort Harrison, McPherson was in a major spiritual hub for Scientologists, with many of Hubbard's approaches and techniques at hand. Abelson said she was ineligible to receive Scientology counseling there because she was having trouble sleeping. Counseling cannot be done on a person who has not had six to eight hours sleep, he said.

A person also must be stable to receive counseling, he said. Toward the midpoint of her stay, Lisa McPherson began to pound on the walls of her room, Abelson said. "It was kind of a self-destructive mode she was in."

Abelson said the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by McPherson's estate is not based on facts and is being pushed by relatives who weren't close to McPherson. Dell Liebreich, an aunt of McPherson's, is the estate's personal representative. McPherson's mother, Fannie, died earlier this month after a battle with cancer.

Abelson also accused Clearwater police of encouraging the lawsuit and starting rumors about the Introspection Rundown on the Internet. Instead of cyberspace, he said, a more apt name would be "hyperspace."

"I have really taken a hard look at what happened," he said. "What you're getting on the Internet is opinion on what might have happened. It was not done." He did, however, acknowledge that the Introspection Rundown remains "part of church services."

Asked whether the Introspection Rundown is an element of the investigation, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe would not comment but volunteered another remark: "I have heard the term before."

Next month, some Scientology critics are planning a march in Clearwater to protest Scientology's policies, including the Introspection Rundown. They also plan a candlelight vigil in McPherson's memory.

Lisa McPherson's final days

LISA McPHERSON had been a Church of Scientology member for 18 years when she died Dec. 5, 1995, after a 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. She was 36. She joined the Church of Scientology in her native Dallas, lived in Los Angeles for a time, returned to Dallas and came to Clearwater in 1994 to work for AMC Publishing Inc., a business owned by Scientologists. Two months before she died, McPherson achieved the state of "clear," where a Scientologist no longer is influenced by undesireable forces in the subconscious or "reactive mind." Following is a chronology of events that preceded and followed her death. It was collected from hospital records, public documents and interviews with McPherson's relatives and Scientology officials,


About 10 days before Thanksgiving, Lisa McPherson calls a childhood friend to say she is coming home to Dallas for good. McPherson confides that she has much to say, but not over the phone. She wants to know if the friend is angry with her for not keeping in touch more since she joined Scientology. In a separate conversation with her mother, she says she is under heavy pressure at work and "letting people down."

NOV. 18:

5:55 p.m.

McPherson snaps after becoming involved in a minor auto accident on S Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater. She disrobes and tells paramedics: "I need help. I need to talk to someone." She says she has been doing "wrong things she didn't know were wrong." She identifies herself as a Scientologist.

6:38 p.m.

She arrives in an EMS unit at Morton Plant Hospital.

6:50 p.m.

A Scientologist friend arrives and tells doctors it is against McPherson's religion for her to see a psychiatrist. But Dr. Flynn Lovett insists that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation before he can make a decision on her status.

7:30 p.m.

Another Scientologist, a liaison from the Church of Scientology, is present at McPherson's bed.

8:15 p.m.

Lisa McPherson tells Joseph Price, a psychiatric nurse, that she took off her clothes "for attention. I didn't want to be arrested." He notes that McPherson wants to go home with her "friends from the congregation," who are at her bedside. She has a fixed stare, speaks in a monotone and is teary-eyed. She insists she doesn't want to hurt herself.

8:20 p.m.

Dr. Lovett decides to release McPherson to the church liaison "for follow-up care." She signs herself out against the advice of Lovett, who says McPherson is suffering from "behavioral dysfunction" but he can find "no evidence of acute medical problem or injury." He concludes she can make a rational decision. Lovett writes that McPherson's "friends at Scientology will watch her 24 hours a day and be sure that she gets the care that they want her to have and the patient wants to have."

8:40 p.m.

McPherson is discharged from Morton Plant. Church officials say she checked into the Fort Harrison Hotel for rest and relaxation, and stayed for 17 days.

9:30 p.m.

McPherson arrives at Columbia New Port Richey Hospital, which is 24 miles from the Fort Harrison Hotel - about a 35 minute drive. She is in the back seat of a Scientology van, accompanied by two people, including Janis Johnson, Scientology's medical liaison officer. Johnson is a medical doctor but is not licensed to practice in Florida. McPherson has no pulse and is not breathing. A nurse later tells police "she was dead" when she arrived. Emergency room personnel begin CPR.

9:51 p.m.

Dr. David Minkoff, a Scientologist on staff at the hospital, pronounces McPherson dead. A follow-up report states her Scientologist escorts said she "stopped breathing just as they arrived"" at the emergency room. They said they took her to the hospital after she became lethargic "some time today and tonight."

DEC. 6

Clearwater police begin an investigation, which is later joined by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

DEC. 8

8:08 a.m.

An analysis is completed of blood taken from McPherson's body while at the New Port Richey hospital. It points to the presence of a staph infection. Scientology officials later insist that the staph infection led to the blood clotting that caused McPherson's death.

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