Scientology charged in death

[Tampa Tribune 14 November 1998]

CLEARWATER - Three years after a Scientologist's death, the church faces criminal charges stemming from the care it gave her.

The Church of Scientology abused and neglected one of its members and illegally practiced medicine on her in the weeks leading up to her death, according to criminal charges filed Friday.

Almost three years to the day after the death of church member Lisa McPherson, and two years after the criminal investigation was revealed in The Tampa Tribune, two felony counts were filed against the church.

No individuals were charged and the maximum fine under state law totals $15,000 for both counts.

The man who brought the charges, Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe, would not say whether more charges are possible.

Also, McCabe would not discuss criminal immunity granted to a number of Scientology members and allegations of destruction of records contained in an investigator's affidavit. The affidavit was filed Friday in support of the charges: abuse and neglect of a disabled adult, and unauthorized practice of medicine.

The charges do not allege the church or its members were responsible for McPherson's death, and that is significant, said Scientology attorney Laura Vaughan.

``There is no charge of manslaughter, no charge relating to the death of Lisa McPherson,'' said Vaughan. ``All along we've been saying her death was an accident.''

The statute of limitations on filing a manslaughter charge runs out Dec. 5, the third anniversary of McPherson's death, Vaughan said.

McPherson's aunt, who is suing the church and three members in Hillsborough Circuit Court, expressed mixed emotions at the latest development.

``I'm very pleased that the charges have been brought. I'm hoping for a swift trial to get this closed,'' said Dell Liebreich, who lives in eastern Texas. ``I think justice is finally being done after such a long time.

``I would have hoped for manslaughter or murder,'' Liebreich said. ``It was such a terrible, devastating thing that happened to her. What they did was criminal.''

A longtime church member who moved here from Texas in 1993, McPherson, 36, died after a 17-day stay at the church's Clearwater headquarters building, the Fort Harrison Hotel.

She had been involved in a minor traffic accident near the hotel on Nov. 18, 1995. As police investigated, McPherson disrobed and began walking naked down the street.

Officers took her to nearby Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Church officials soon arrived and McPherson checked herself out.

Prosecutors contend McPherson then was held against her will at the Fort Harrison Hotel as she slowly lost weight and became dehydrated.

Scientology employees did not seek treatment for her until it was too late to prevent McPherson's death from an embolism, according to the investigator's report.

When help was sought, it was from a Scientologist doctor at Columbia HCA New Port Richey Hospital, approximately 20 miles and 45 minutes away from the hotel and nearby Morton Plant Hospital, the investigator wrote.

Church employees who witnessed McPherson's stay at the hotel had to be granted immunity from prosecution in order to get their sworn testimony, the investigator wrote. He said documentation of the stay also was difficult to obtain.

``A number of reports made by caretakers, including any and all records relating to Lisa's condition which were created during the last 53 hours of her life, have been lost or destroyed by the church,'' wrote Special Agent A.L. Strope of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

During her stay at the hotel, McPherson was forcibly restrained and given prescription drugs without proper consultation from a licensed physician, Strope wrote. He said she exhibited signs of being ``severely psychotic'' from the second day on.

Several of McPherson's caretakers had medical training. One, Janice Johnson, was once a licensed physician in Arizona who ``ran into disciplinary trouble in the early 1990s,'' the agent reported.

Vaughan, the church attorney, said there are no allegations that anyone intentionally harmed McPherson or were ``culpably negligent'' for her death.

``The people who were there were trying to help her in accordance with her religious beliefs,'' Vaughan said.

The charges come five years after federal officials declared the organization was a church for tax purposes, and just eight days before scheduled groundbreaking on a multimillion dollar, 300,000- square-foot training and counseling center to be built across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel.

Ken Dandar, a Tampa attorney representing McPherson's estate in the civil lawsuit against the church, said the charges bear out the contentions of the civil lawsuit.

``I firmly believe and my medical consultants believe this was an absolutely preventable death,'' Dandar said. ``They simply sat there and watched her die. The truth of the matter is that their founder, L. Ron Hubbard, states in writing that sometimes you cannot keep a psychotic alive, and they must be left to die.''

Dandar said he had hoped first- or second-degree murder charges would be filed.

But, he said, the filing of the abuse and unauthorized practice of medicine charges means he now can obtain medical evidence that has been withheld while the investigation was ongoing.

And Dandar said he doesn't mind that the organization, and not individual members, was named in the charges.

``The prosecution against the corporation means the only punishment would be a monetary one,'' the attorney said. ``That is more severe to the Church of Scientology than sending some of their members to prison for several years. They exist for only one purpose, and that is to make money. Taking money away from them aggravates them more.''

David Sommer and Rob Shaw cover Pinellas County. They can be reached at (727) 799-7413.

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