Church of Scientology charged in member's death

[SP Times 13 November 1998]

Associated Press

Church of Scientology charged in member's death

CLEARWATER (AP) A prosecutor charged the Church of Scientology on Friday with two felonies in the death of a member whose family claims she became severely dehydrated after being held against her will for 17 days.

Lisa McPherson, 36, died in December 1995. She had been under the 24-hour care of church members at the Fort Harrison Hotel, Scientology's international retreat in downtown Clearwater.

Her family has claimed she was held against her will after trying to leave the church. The church has said she was taken there to recover from a mental breakdown, became violent and refused food or fluids.

Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pinellas-Pasco County, charged the church with abuse or neglect of a disabled adult, a second-degree felony, and unauthorized practice of medicine, a third-degree felony.

"The family wants justice," said Ken Dandar, a lawyer for the McPherson family which filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the church last year.

"They're happy that criminal charges have been filed because, finally now, they believe criminal justice can take place and show this was a preventable death," Dandar said.

A spokesman for the Church of Scientology noted the church was not charged specifically with her death, and called it a "corporate negligence charge."

"The state has not charged any individual or the church with Lisa's death," spokesman Brian Anderson said. "There are no allegations that anyone intentionally harmed Lisa McPherson. This has been a difficult investigation and the state has operated under immense political pressure and they ultimately decided to bring a corporate negligence charge."

Anderson read from a prepared statement and refused to answer any questions.

An autopsy showed Ms. McPherson died of an embolism or blood vessel blockage in her left lung caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration."

Pinellas County Medical Examiner Joan Wood said Ms. McPherson went without fluids for at least five to 10 days and possibly her entire stay at the hotel.

Church officials have disputed that, saying she was well cared for by church members but became violent and incoherent, had trouble sleeping and frequently resisted efforts to give her food, liquids and medications.

Church officials said she grew weak, lost weight and suddenly fell ill on Dec. 5, 1995. Church staffers said they drove her in a van to a hospital 45 minutes away in Pasco County so she could see an emergency room doctor who is a Scientologist. She was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.

A "prosecution summary" delivered to McCabe by Clearwater police and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers last December recommended charges in the death.

Ms. McPherson's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Church officials have said that the investigation into the death is part of a 15-year effort by Clearwater city officials to discredit Scientology.

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