Scientolgist's death: A family searches for answers
CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune
Published in The Tampa Tribune Dec. 22, 1996
DALLAS - All her life, Lisa McPherson loved to dance.
A man twice her age could catch her eye if only he knew how to move his feet.
On and off the dance floor, McPherson rarely stopped moving. A good sales
representative for a publishing company, she packed her days and nights with
work, friends from the Church of Scientology, exercise, girlish flirtations and
always, always, dancing.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 1995, she called an old friend and family
members and said she would be coming home for the holidays. For the first time
in four years, she talked with her childhood friend Kellie Davis and told her
she would be moving back to Dallas by Christmas.
She also told her she would be leaving the Church of Scientology, of which
she had been a member for half of her life.
``She couldn't wait to get here,'' Davis said.
Davis never heard from her friend again.
On Dec. 5, Scientologists took McPherson from the Fort Harrison Hotel to HCA
Hospital in New Port Richey. She was dead on arrival.
An autopsy of her gaunt, bruised body showed she died of a blood clot
brought on by days of ``bed rest'' and ``severe dehydration.''
``There's no way Lisa would let herself get that sick without calling her
mother,'' Davis said. ``The Lisa I know would never just lay there and die.''
Lisa McPherson's 1992, 1993 and 1994 diaries show she prized her health and
was a high-energy person who exercised frequently and went country-western
dancing as often as she could. She kept track of her headaches, sometimes
recorded her meals and visits to chiropractors and dentists.
She termed the time she ``slowed down'' to recover from a herniated disc the
longest two months of her life.
``In a way, I may be fortunate to have gone through this,'' she wrote on May
30, 1993. ``I know what not having my health is like and I appreciate mine a
McPherson's mother, Fannie, her aunt, Dell Liebriech, and her old friends
blame Scientology for her death.
They wonder what caused her dehydration, the bruises on her arms and legs
and the abrasions and lesions, and why her body had bug or animal bites on it.
McPherson also had a staph infection, which the church says explains all of
her symptoms, including the bruises.
Other relatives, who asked not to be named, also think Scientology had
something to do with her death. She had come home in late 1994 weighing about
140 pounds, one cousin said.
``She was this vibrant, beautiful woman and 11 months later we were shipped
this old, frail body,'' the cousin said.
McPherson, who was 5 foot 9, weighed 108 pounds at the time of her death at
age 36. Her diary entries end in April 1994, leaving no personal account of the
last year and a half of her life.
Church attorney Elliot Abelson said the speculation about her death is
``We care more about Lisa than they do,'' he said, adding she had great
friends in the church. Abelson said McPherson was very involved in the church's
annual Winter Wonderland display downtown.
Abelson said he could not believe an American newspaper would publicize her
family's claims to ``smear 8 million members of a religion.''
He contends McPherson was not planning to leave the church. He said she had
written letters to newspapers describing her happiness and success in
One letter was addressed to The Tampa Tribune on April 24, 1995.
``I work for a company that has been using this technology for years, and we
have continued to expand and do well as a result,'' McPherson wrote. ``My own
personal income has increased over the past five years without ever dropping,
and I just got promoted because of the application of all this information.''
She was asked to write that letter - and told how to write it - three days
``As before, this letter will need to be qualled back here at Valko, so when
you're done, please fax it over here,'' said Alycia Silver of Valko &
Associates. ``We'll either fax it back to you with an OK to send it on or we'll
fax it back with the needed corrections for you to correct and then send it
How McPherson died has not been determined by authorities. Clearwater Police
say her death is suspicious and they are investigating.
Police say they are still trying to locate three former church staff members
for questioning. All three have left the country.
Scientology officials say the police investigation is part of a 20-year
McPherson went to the Fort Harrison for ``rest and relaxation'' following a
minor car accident in Clearwater on the evening of Nov. 18, 1995.
She was not injured in the accident, but paramedics thought she was
``wild-eyed,'' police said. She got out of her car and, while walking down the
street, took off all her clothes.
She was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where a psychiatric nurse was called
to interview her. Police say Scientology members arrived at the hospital and
McPherson signed herself out against medical advice. The church says the
hospital released her.
Church spokesman Brian Anderson said she suddenly became ill on her 17th day
at the Fort Harrison.
At first, he said, she didn't want to go to a doctor, but church members
convinced her she should and took her to HCA Hospital in New Port Richey. He
said she asked to go there because she wanted to be treated by physician David
Minkhoff, who is a church member.
Liebriech, the aunt, says she can't understand why the church bypassed
nearby Morton Plant Hospital to travel miles away, given that McPherson was
gravely ill. She said she asked Anderson about that and was told that's what
Family members and friends also say they are suspicious because church
members explained the death differently at different times.
Fannie McPherson said that the day after her daughter died she was notified
by a telephone call from her daughter's boss, who is a church member.
Fannie McPherson said the woman first said Lisa had become sick about noon
the day of her death.
``She said she [Lisa] had fast-acting meningitis,'' McPherson said. ``I
called later and they said, no, she had a bruise on her leg and that's what
caused the blood clot that went to her lung.''
Anderson also has suggested the staph infection played a role in her death.
``So many stories were told it was unreal, unbelievable,'' Liebriech said.
Family and friends who attended McPherson's funeral say several
Scientologists were there.
``We couldn't even go to the restroom without two or three of them coming
with us,'' Liebriech said. ``They were like vultures.''
``From the beginning, we knew something was wrong,'' said Brenda Motley, who
was a neighbor and babysitter for the McPherson family when Lisa was growing up.
``When we went to the funeral the next day, it was the eeriest thing I ever
saw,'' Motley said.
``Those people were there and they were all staring at anybody who wasn't
one of them. I felt endangered there. It was just the way they looked at you.
They stared holes right through you.''
Liebriech said that since the circumstances of McPherson's death were first
reported by The Tampa Tribune a week ago, Anderson has called the McPherson
home as many as three times a day.
She considers the calls harassment. Abelson said Anderson has called the
family only once.
Family and old friends call Scientology a ``cult'' and say Lisa McPherson
``Her mother and father were both against it, but Lisa was searching for
something,'' Liebriech said.
When she joined the church in 1977, she had had more than her fair share of
Lisa's teenage brother, Steve, had shot himself four years earlier and she
was in a difficult marriage.
Her boss at the telephone company encouraged her to join Scientology.
The boss ``told her this would really help get her life straight,'' Fannie
``Mother, I've joined a church,'' her mother recalls Lisa saying excitedly.
``Wonderful!'' her mother said.
``When she told us it was the Church of Scientology, it went right over my
head,'' McPherson said.
She had never heard of it.
Her father, James, claimed it was a cult, an idea Lisa rejected.
``She didn't see it that way,'' Liebriech said. Nor does the church.
Lisa was eager for her mother to join and convinced her to come to a new
What her mother heard was ``cock and bull stories.''
But to Lisa, the words made sense.
``Lisa was always starved for attention and affection,'' said Motley, the
McPhersons' neighbor. ``I think that [Scientology] was a connection for her.''
McPherson's first marriage was brief, and she later married a Scientologist
in the early 1980s. That marriage also failed.
Motley and other friends and family say once McPherson joined the church,
she dropped out of touch and seemed distant.
``After she got involved with those people, she stayed away from her friends
and family,'' said Helen Morris, Motley's mother.
``She didn't talk a whole lot about it [Scientology],'' recalls her friend
Davis. ``For the first time, Lisa wouldn't talk about something.''
But her diaries reveal McPherson wanted people to like her.
Three years before she died, she wrote: ``The past several weeks, things
have been changing and I feel like I must get busy. For so long I have worried
over what others thought about who I am and what I am doing. ... I've realized
that it's more important what I think about me and what I am doing.''
People did like her.
``She had a lot of boyfriends,'' her friend Davis recalls.
Her diaries show she went with friends to movies such as ``The Fugitive''
and ``Demolition Man,'' ate dinner at Chili's and the Sandcastle with pals, and
danced with anybody who could keep up with her at Cowboys and a club in
Clearwater called Old New York New York.
The diaries reveal a generally upbeat woman, although there are references
to frustration in her work as a sales representative for AMC Publishing, which
is owned and run by Scientologists.
She also fretted about her mother's health and grieved for her cat, Casper,
who was run over by a car.
She got a new kitten, whose antics - including falling in the toilet -
disrupted life in her peaceful apartment at 901 N. Osceola Ave.
After she died, McPherson's relatives came to her apartment on Dec. 16 to
take care of business.
People were carting out Lisa's belongings, including her stereo, television
set, answering machine, telephone and clothes, Liebriech said.
``There was one box they didn't get to,'' Liebriech said. The box, tucked
away in a hall closet, contained the diaries and a variety of documents.
An unsigned 1994 tax return form lists McPherson's income at nearly $137,000.
Scientology documents the family has indicate McPherson paid as much as
$1,000 an hour for Scientology courses.
According to a Church of Scientology Parishioner Annual Statement for 1994,
she donated $75,275 ``to qualified religious services.''
The same document shows she made additional tax-deductible donations of
nearly $55,000 to the church.
In January 1995, she received a letter from the International Association of
Scientologists Members' Trust thanking her for her tax-deductible contribution
of $2,850 in 1994.
``Because of member support, the IAS has been able to fund major dis
semination actions, safeguard and protect the Scientology religion and provide
grants to projects which are salvaging our society,'' the letter said.
Documents also show that shortly before her death McPherson ordered a $240
set of taped lectures (with binder and glossary) by Scientology founder and
science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
The lecture series, called ``expansion of havingness,'' is promoted by a
flier proclaiming ``Billions of lifetimes can't be all bad, unless you're
living them all at the same time.''
``You burned them down to the last notch, buried them, forgot them, but you
still can't get rid of them,'' the flier says.
``And the blackened cinder of them come back to dictate your life. You want
to smile, they make you yell. You want to reach, they make you shy away. You
want to live ... they make you die.
``Here is the totally black, nightmarish morass that lurks in the depths of
your universe. Here lies the undead residue of a billion lifetimes, the
super-complex, inter-connected problems that will not vanish,'' the flier says.
Fannie McPherson and other relatives said that after Lisa's death, church
members said Lisa had wanted to be cremated. Although her mother had never
heard her express those wishes, she complied with the church's request.
``So she was cremated, much to our sorrow,'' Liebriech said.
Her ashes were scattered over the graves of her brother and father, who also
shot himself in 1983.
``It sure was a great loss to me,'' Fannie McPherson said of her daughter's
death. ``There was such a bond between us. We could talk on any level.''
From time to time, Lisa's mother passes by a Dianetics office in Dallas.
Dianetics is the forerunner of Scientology and also was created by Hubbard.
``When I see those poor little things going into that Dianetics place, I
want to go in there and scream `Get out! You don't know what you're getting