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Lisa McPherson 1959-1995

November 13, 2010

LISA McPHERSON, 1959-1995

In cases of violent or unexpected death, the first reaction of the cult is not to treat the person, or to call for help, but to manage the affair so that Scientology does not appear in a bad light. It is perhaps ironical but certainly appropriate that the events leading to and surrounding the death in December 1995 of Lisa McPherson, aged 36 and up to then in good health, became exceptionally well known, because of the outrage that arose from the cult’s efforts to explain away her death.

This is by way of a summary: there are numerous websites with more complete details.

Lisa McPherson was declared dead on 5 December 1995, having been deprived of food and water for seventeen days, shut up along in room 147 at the Fort Harrison Hotel, Clearwater. She had only a few weeks earlier been declared Clear, an achievement that might have taken 150 or 200 hours of auditing with all that that implies for mental stability. When she became psychotic (for the second time in 1995), after a minor traffic accident, she was taken to hospital by an ambulance crew, but was released into the care of the CoS who invoked her religious objection to psychiatric intervention.

What happened then is not in doubt. Scientology applied Hubbard’s standard treatment for psychotics, known as the Introspection Rundown, where the individual is supposed to cure themselves on being left alone and fed on vitamins. Lisa was put into room 147 and left. Staff reported that she refused to eat or drink but no effort was made to keep her alive. She had after all survived a previous Introspection rundown after a psychotic break some time earlier in the year.

On May 9, 1997, the St. Petersburg Times published an editorial piece, entitled “When did she die?”. The point is of some importance. Mike Rinder told a German reporter that Lisa McPherson died in a room at the Fort Harrison, while the official version of the Church of Scientology was that she died on her way to the hospital:

“The television interview with Rinder was conducted by German broadcast journalists Mona Botros and Egmont Koch. During a segment concerning the McPherson case, Rinder clearly said: ‘The entire subject has become a sordid, sensationalistic media event which is capitalizing on the tragedy of the death of a woman who died in a hotel room.’

“Realizing the statement’s implications, Botros asked for a clarification: ‘In a hotel room?’ Elliot Abelson, the church’s general counsel, responded: “Uhm hum,” indicating the statement was correct. Rinder heads Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs, which is responsible for public relations and legal affairs.”

In other words Mike Rinder said, and Elliot Abelson confirmed that she died in the care of the so-called “church” and was dead for some time before they took her to a hospital. Thomas C. Tobin of the St. Petersburg Times, wondered if this was an honest mistake, a slip of the tongue or “the naked truth, carelessly uttered on camera”? It would not be the first time that a cult spokesman has been badly briefed and unaware of the “correct” or KSW version of a story.

On its face, the statement marks a major change in Scientology’s version of events surrounding McPherson’s death. It was made and recorded in the presence of one of the church’s top lawyers, who agreed with it on camera. The new Scientology statement, or inadvertent admission, would mean McPherson was already dead when other Scientologists put her body into a van and took her to a distant hospital where a Scientology doctor was available to perjure himself for the cause. This is a profound departure from what church officials had said previously about the case. Mike Rinder, the Scientology official who made the remark, said his remark had been misconstrued and the church’s account had not changed. Abelson, the Scientology lawyer, accused the reporters of being agents of the German government (which is notably suspicious of Scientology).

Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer representing McPherson’s family, believes otherwise: “I think he accidentally told the truth.” Dandar, who has viewed the tape, is alleging in a Hillsborough County lawsuit that the Church of Scientology is responsible for McPherson’s death.

Medical examiner Joan Wood said McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by bed rest and severe dehydration. She also contends McPherson was unconscious for up to two days before her death and had not had fluids in five to 10 days. She might in fact have been dead for several days before her watchers realized she was not simply unconscious or asleep. At no time was medical assistance called.

Previously, church officials have insisted McPherson died after she left the hotel. They said she suddenly fell ill at the Fort Harrison, a Scientology retreat where she spent 17 days after suffering a psychological breakdown. The church also said McPherson was speaking to her caretakers and capable of walking when she was placed in a Scientology van at the Fort Harrison and driven 24 miles to a New Port Richey emergency room, where a Scientologist doctor was awaiting her arrival, but she stopped breathing just as they arrived at the hospital. When asked why treatment was not sought sooner and why she was not taken to a closer hospital, church officials have said no one on staff knew it was an emergency. If Lisa was already dead and had been dead for some time, they were for once almost telling the truth.

“If you combine [Rinder’s] statement with the records at the New Port Richey hospital, it leads to the inescapable conclusion that they were trying to cover up her death at the hotel,” said Dandar.

In a written statement to the Times, Rinder sought to paper over the crack. “The point being made for a German audience completely unfamiliar with this issue was that the only connection between the church and Lisa McPherson was that she had been staying in a hotel room at the church and that, had this occurred in any other hotel or with someone from another religion, it would not have been a media event. There is no change in the facts concerning the circumstances of Ms. McPherson’s death.” Considering that Ms McPherson was handed over by the Clearwater Hospital into the care of known Scientologists and thereafter remained locked into a room within a property entirely owned by Scientology, this is ingenuous. Scientologists do not stay in other hotels, and no-one from any other religion has ever occupied room 147 at the Fort Harrison Hotel since it was bought by the cult.

There are further implications. In Florida, it is illegal “knowingly” to fail or refuse to report a death to the medical examiner. It is illegal to disturb or move a body “or any article upon or near the body, with the intent to alter the evidence or circumstances surrounding the death.” To do so is a first degree misdemeanor. The cult ignores this law with apparent impunity every time there is a death or serious accident on cult property. In the case of Lisa McPherson the flap was worse than usual, as she had been treated according to Ron Hubbard’s “tech” and the “tech” had manifestly not worked.

Lawyer Lee Fugate of Clearwater, who represents the church, blames the controversy surrounding McPherson’s death on the German government, which has been in a heated battle with Scientology’s German chapters in recent years.

Some Pinellas County officials say all the Scientology deaths would have gotten more scrutiny if they had occurred today because of what officials have learned through McPherson’s death, years of dealing with the Church of Scientology and better investigative technology.

The Clearwater police say: “We would handle things differently today. We’d be more cautious and we’d talk to more people and look at the scene in more depth.”



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