Dispute over Scientologist's death

ęSt. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 1997
CLEARWATER - Laboratory tests indicate that a 36-year-old member of the
Church of Scientology went without fluids for five to 10 days and was
unconscious for up to two days before her unexplained death in 1995.
Those conclusions by Joan Wood, the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner, are at
odds with the Church of Scientology's version of how Lisa McPherson died
after spending 17 days in the organization's downtown Clearwater retreat.
Scientology officials say McPherson, who had no medical problems when she
entered the Fort Harrison Hotel, "suddenly took ill" and was taken in a
church van to a New Port Richey hospital more than 20 miles away so she
could see a Scientologist doctor.
They say she was given food and liquids and participated in discussions
about where she should be taken for treatment. They say she was conscious
when she was carried to the van and could have walked if necessary. They
believe a severe staph infection was a major contributor to the blood clot
that caused her death.
However, Wood said Wednesday that McPherson's health declined slowly over
several days and was far from sudden. She said it's "impossible" that a
staph infection led to McPherson's death.
The lab results "are consistent with a chronic process and inconsistent
with an event such as a bloodstream infection that occurred within a period
of hours," Wood said. "She wasn't fine one day and dead the next."
Wood also concluded that McPherson had been bitten by ants or roaches.
Her disclosures to the Times and to the television news magazine Inside
Edition infuriated Elliot J. Abelson, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents
Scientology. The church has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.
In a phone interview Wednesday from Los Angeles, Abelson said of Wood:
"Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Hateful liar. That's what she is."
Abelson called Wood's statements "totally extreme" and questioned why they
weren't made in the autopsy report on McPherson.
Asked why Wood would lie about the case, Abelson said: "I wish I knew why,
but I can speculate somebody has got to her, or she is hateful toward the
Church of Scientology."
He said he believed Wood has been influenced by the Clearwater Police
Department. Church officials have strongly criticized the department,
saying it has orchestrated a longstanding hate campaign against
Wood responded to the attorney's remarks, saying: "Mr. Abelson's entitled
to his opinion."
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of
Law Enforcement are helping Clearwater police with the investigation into
McPherson's death.
Church officials, meanwhile, are conducting their own investigation. They
have assembled a team of medical experts and have acquired the personnel
records of Robert D. Davis, the associate medical examiner who conducted
the autopsy but has since left Wood's office.
According to Wood, a private investigator for Scientology showed up
recently at Davis' Volusia County home wanting to question him.
She said Davis left her department under circumstances that had nothing to
do with his abilities or the McPherson case.
McPherson's relatives in Dallas, where she joined Scientology as an
18-year-old, believe she was planning to leave the church in 1995 and was
detained when church members found out.
McPherson was living in a Belleair apartment in 1995 and working at a
Clearwater publishing company owned by Scientologists. On Nov. 18, 1995,
she began taking her clothes off after a minor auto accident and was taken
by paramedics to Morton Plant Hospital for observation.
According to hospital records, several fellow Scientologists intervened at
the hospital and took her to the Fort Harrison, where church officials said
she signed herself in for "rest and relaxation." She was pronounced dead 17
days later.
Dell Liebreich, McPherson's aunt in Dallas, praised Wood's remarks.
"She wouldn't get up there and say that if it wasn't true," Mrs. Liebreich
said of Wood. "I believe her and not (Abelson). She has no reason to lie
about that."
Abelson said the Fort Harrison Hotel is comparable to a four-star hotel,
with one exception. The rooms don't have televisions so parishioners can
concentrate on their studies. McPherson's room "was far from a
roach-infested room," he said. "It was cleaned daily."
He also said roaches do not bite humans. But Wood said there are documented
cases in which they have bitten humans who are dead or unconscious.
Wood said she reached her conclusions about McPherson after seeing test
results on McPherson's eye fluids, which can accurately reflect a body's
condition before death.
The readings on one test are "so high she had to be unconscious" for 24 to
48 hours, Wood said.
And, in terms of eye fluid results, it is "the worst case of dehydration I
have ever seen," said Wood, who has been Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner
for nearly 15 years.
Test results notwithstanding, Abelson said McPherson was conscious and well
cared for in her final hours.
He said her symptoms "became much more obvious that last day" when she was
taken to the hospital. He said McPherson approved being taken to see the
Scientologist doctor in New Port Richey.
And "we know that there were liquids," he said, "because we provided them
to her and she took them."
Abelson questioned Wood's conclusions about McPherson not having fluids for
five to 10 days.
That finding was not mentioned in the autopsy report, he said. But Wood
noted the report states she was dehydrated.
Abelson cited language in the report stating McPherson was of "average
nutritional status." But Wood said that only means she "wasn't abnormally
Abelson cited a passage stating there were 15 cubic centimeters of urine in
her bladder. But Wood said that's only three teaspoons and that a person in
the throes of dehydration can still produce urine.
Abelson said that McPherson's intestines were said to be normal in the
autopsy report and that they would have been "constricted" if she was
dehydrated. Wood said she did not know if constricted bowels were an
indication of dehydration. "Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Hateful liar.
That's what she is." - ELLIOT J. ABELSON A Los Angeles lawyer who
represents Scientology speaking about the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner
ęCopyright 1997 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
Doctor details Scientologist's death
By CHERYL WALDRIP of The Tampa Tribune
CLEARWATER - Medical tests indicate Lisa McPherson was without fluids for
at least five to 10 days of her stay at the Church of Scientology's world
spiritual headquarters.
Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood said it's possible McPherson, who
died in December 1995, had nothing to drink throughout her 17-day stay at
the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Wood said Wednesday the insect bites found on McPherson's body after her
death were most likely from cockroaches. In addition, Wood said McPherson
was comatose for the last 24 to 48 hours of her life.
Scientology attorney Elliot Abelson Wednesday said none of that is true and
called Wood a liar.
Church members brought McPherson, 36, to a New Port Richey hospital on Dec.
5, 1995, where she was dead on arrival. An autopsy by Wood's office showed
McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed
rest.'' She was 5-foot-9 and weighed 108 pounds. She had a staph infection
and her arms and legs were bruised.
``It's horrible,'' McPherson's aunt, Dell Liebriech, said Wednesday. ``Not
even an animal should be treated like that. It's very devastating. It makes
me sick to think about it.''
McPherson's family members blame the Church of Scientology for her death.
Clearwater police say McPherson's death is suspicious. As part of their
investigation, they are seeking three former Scientology staff members for
questioning. All three have left the country.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State
Attorney's Office are assisting in the investigation.
Abelson has said the Clearwater police investigation is a continuation of a
long campaign of harassment against the church. A church publication also
has said news media reports about the McPherson case have been
Abelson said Wood made up all of the medical evidence.
``Dr. Wood is a liar, she's a liar, she's a liar, she's a hateful liar,''
Abelson said.
Abelson said medical experts whom he refused to identify said roaches don't
bite humans. He could not offer an alternative explanation for the bites.
McPherson had been a Scientologist for 18 years. On Nov. 18, 1995, she had
a minor car accident. Paramedics found her walking down the street without
her clothes and took her to Morton Plant Hospital for an evaluation.
With Scientologists at her bedside, she spoke in a monotone through teary
eyes. Doctors said she was not injured, but had a psychological problem.
She signed herself out against medical advice and went with other
Scientologists to the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Scientology officials say she was taken there for ``rest and relaxation.''
McPherson was provided with water, food and vitamins every day of her stay,
Abelson said.
Asked why she became so dehydrated, Abelson said, ``I'm not sure she was
all that dehydrated. She probably wasn't drinking as much as she should
He said the staph infection could be responsible for some dehydration and
the appearance of bruising.
Wood said the infection ``absolutely did not'' cause the bruising and was
not responsible for McPherson's death.
At some point during McPherson's stay at the hotel, Abelson said, she was
pounding on the walls of her room with her fists. ``We really don't know
what caused her to do that,'' Abelson said.
He said McPherson was not unconscious on the day of her death.
``I know she was not comatose on the day of her death because [Scientology]
staff people talked to her,'' he said.
He said McPherson asked to be taken to see David Minkoff, a physician at
the New Port Richey Hospital who is a Scientologist. But Wood said
McPherson could not have carried on a conversation with anyone that day.