Death of Lisa McPherson
February 10, 1959|
|Died||December 5, 1995
Lisa McPherson (February 10, 1959 – December 5, 1995), an American woman, was a member of the Church of Scientology who died of a pulmonary embolism while under the care of the Flag Service Organization (FSO), a branch of the Church of Scientology. Following the report of the state of Florida's medical examiner that indicated that Lisa was a victim of negligent homicide, the Church of Scientology was indicted on two felony charges, "abuse and/or neglect of a disabled adult" and "practicing medicine without a license."
The charges against the Church of Scientology were dropped after the state's medical examiner changed the cause of death from "undetermined" to an "accident" on June 13, 2000. A civil suit brought by her family against the Church was settled on May 28, 2004.
In 1994, Lisa McPherson, who became a Scientology adherent at age 18, moved from Dallas, Texas, to Clearwater, Florida, with her employer, AMC Publishing, which was at that time owned by Bennetta Slaughter and operated and staffed primarily by Scientologists. During June 1995, the church placed Lisa in an "introspection rundown" due to perceived mental instability. Lisa completed the rundown, and she attested to the state of Clear in September.
On November 18, 1995, McPherson was involved in a minor car accident. Paramedics initially left her alone because she was ambulatory, but after she began to remove her clothes, the paramedics decided to take her to the hospital. At one point she remarked that she had taken off her clothes in hopes of obtaining counseling. Hospital staff agreed that she was unharmed, but recommended keeping her overnight for observation. Following intervention by fellow Scientologists, McPherson refused psychiatric observation or admission at the hospital and checked herself out after a short evaluation.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada concluded:
Lisa McPherson refused psychiatric observation or admission at the hospital; she expressly stated her desire to receive the religious care and assistance from her fellow congregants that she and they wanted her to have.
McPherson was then taken to the Flag Land Base for "rest and relaxation" according to the Church of Scientology, but sworn statements demonstrate that McPherson was brought there for another introspection rundown.
My understanding now is, from talking to many, many witnesses, the purpose of her being there in the Church, correct me if I'm wrong, she was experiencing some mental problems, and you guys were going to stabilize her through an isolation watch. And after that watch occurred, there was going to be a procedure run on her, and the procedure was an introspection rundown.
The church accommodated McPherson in a cabana and kept a "24 hours' watch" over her. Detailed logs were kept on McPherson’s day-to-day care. These logs were handwritten on plain white paper. Most of these logs were kept but the logs for the last three days were summarized from the originals and the originals shredded. Brian J. Anderson, the then Commanding Officer of the Church's Office of Special Affairs (OSA) in Clearwater, said in his sworn statement:
I saw the handwritten notes, gave a cursory look to see if the summary—see if they matched and matched, and I threw the handwritten reports in my shred basket, and I had the report, kept the report.
McPherson’s "care logs" narrate the last 17 days of her life: McPherson was incoherent and sometimes violent, her nails were cut so she wouldn’t scratch herself or the staff, she bruised her fists and feet while hitting the wall. She had trouble sleeping and was being given natural supplements and the drug chloral hydrate to help her sleep. She looked sick and developed sores; "She looked ill like measles or chicken pox on her face." On repeated occasions she refused food and protein shakes that the staff offered. On the 26th, 30th, 3rd and 4th the staff attempted to force feed her, noting that she spat the food out. She was noted to be very weak, not standing up nor on some days moving at all. Scientologists who questioned this handling were told to "butt out".
On December 5, 1995, the Church staffers contacted David Minkoff, a Scientologist medical doctor who twice prescribed drugs (Valium and chloral hydrate) for McPherson without seeing her. They requested for him to prescribe an antibiotic to McPherson because she seemed to have an infection. Minkoff refused and stated that McPherson should be taken to a hospital and he needed to see her before prescribing anything. They objected, expressing fear that McPherson would be put under psychiatric care. Janice Johnson stated that Lisa had been gasping and had labored breathing while en route. However they passed a total of four hospitals along the way to their ultimate destination. When they arrived at Minkoff's hospital 45 minutes north of Clearwater McPherson arrived without vital signs. They worked on her for about 20 minutes trying to resuscitate her, giving her CPR and antibiotics, but to no avail. She was then declared dead.
Scientologists called McPherson’s family to say that she had died of meningitis or a blood clot on December 5, 1995 while at Fort Murray for “rest and relaxation”. A suspicious death investigation began the next day and an autopsy was performed. A year later, in response to a Clearwater Police Department website request for information on her death, Clearwater media began speculating about the causes of McPherson’s death.
Coroner's report and review 
First coroner's report 
On December 5, 1995 McPherson’s autopsy was accomplished by assistant medical examiner Robert Davis. Davis never completed McPherson’s autopsy report because he was asked to resign from his position. The autopsy report was completed by his supervisor medical examiner Joan Wood.
The report identified the cause of death of Lisa McPherson as a thromboembolism of the left pulmonary artery caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration" and the manner of death as "undetermined". The report also identified multiple hematomas (bruises), an abrasion on the nose and lesions consistent with "insect/animal bites" in the right lower arm just above the wrist.
On January 21, 1997, Wood went public on the TV show Inside Edition and stated that the autopsy showed McPherson had deteriorated slowly, going without fluids for five to 10 days, was underweight, had cockroach bites and was comatose from 24 to 48 hours before she died.
The Church of Scientology legal team proceeded to sue Joan Wood to gain access to Wood's files; including tissue, organ and blood samples from McPherson's body. The lawsuit argued that Wood waived any right to keep her records on the case closed when she spoke openly about the case with news reporters. The Church alleged that the records were needed to start their legal defense. These records were previously denied to the Church because they were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Independent opinion 
The St. Petersburg Times contacted five medical experts for their opinions about the report, and they confirmed Wood's opinion. The Church of Scientology responded that the five doctors should have been given the entire autopsy report, not just the vitreous fluid tests, which pathologists use to determine the composition of blood at the time before death.
Scientology hires forensic pathologists 
Scientology hired its own team to oppose Wood’s findings, including two nationally known forensic pathologists: Dr. Michael Baden, a former Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York, and Dr. Cyril Wecht, a county coroner from Pittsburgh. Doctors Baden and Wecht concluded that McPherson, 36, died suddenly and unpredictably of a blood clot in her left lung that originated from a knee bruise she suffered in a minor automobile accident 17 days earlier.
This scientific evidence was then sent to Joan Wood for review. The scientific evidence sent to Wood included:
- Research on compounds known as ketones, which people produce when they are dehydrated, starving or even fasting. Tests of McPherson's bodily fluids showed no ketones.
- Findings from a body measurement expert hired by the church. The expert compared autopsy photos of McPherson with those taken shortly before the accident. The expert concluded from the photographs there was "no appreciable weight loss," countering the prosecution's view that McPherson lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) to 40 pounds (18 kg) while in Scientology's care.
- A report by a Morton Plant Hospital doctor who saw McPherson just before she entered Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, stating McPherson was already thin with protruding cheek bones.
- A report by Robert D. Davis, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy for Wood's office, concluded McPherson's body was of average nutritional status.
- Medical literature and sworn testimony that it says proves the eye fluid samples were improperly handled by Wood's office, incompetently tested at an independent lab and ultimately contaminated.
Also notable was that Wood did not do McPherson's autopsy personally but assigned it to Robert Davis, an employee who later was asked to resign and was a witness for the defendant (Scientology). He disputed Wood's conclusions and testified that she did not speak to him about her findings before signing his autopsy after he had resigned.
They simply argue that the McPherson postmortem test results of fluid,... cannot be relied upon.... They apparently ignore the testimony of Robert Davis, M.D., Joan Wood, M.D., David Minkoff, M.D., Janice Johnson, M.D., attendant staffer Rita Boykin, attendant staffer Heather Hof Petzold, the ER personnel, and the two autopsy technicians, Stodgell and Daerr.
Due to the vitreous fluid tests, they maintained that she was dehydrated. Chemical pathologists Calvin Bandt and Werner Spitz concurred with the initial coroner's report in their affidavits. Referring to Dr. Minkoff's affirmative testimony of McPherson described with "hollowed-out eyes ... thin skin ... and did she look dehydrated, yes", the plaintiff said even still the abovementioned Scientology experts "opine Lisa McPherson was not dehydrated in appearance and therefore it is error to look at the post mortem chemistries." Plaintiff witness Dr. Alan Wu also testified that ketones need not be present for dehydration in a special case like McPherson where she was fed proteins and therefore didn't create measurable ketones. The plaintiffs maintained that Lisa did lose water weight to result in 108 pounds (49 kg) with respect to the vitreous fluid.
Final coroner's report 
In light of the new scientific evidence provided by the church, a review was mandated by the policy manual which says the medical examiner will "readdress key issues" in a case if "credible new evidence is presented, regardless of its source."
Criminal case review 
Wood’s review caused the review and dismissal of the Lisa McPherson’s death criminal case. The review was done by assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow and is outlined in the 31 page memo that he sent to State Attorney Bernie McCabe recommending to drop the criminal case against the Church of Scientology.
The initial autopsy 
Crow stated that there were credibility issues with the original autopsy, including that Wood had signed the autopsy herself five months after Davis' departure, failed to examine tissue samples and did not consult clinical experts before reaching her conclusion. He also pointed out to other mistakes done by Wood like releasing the autopsy report on an active criminal case and going public on national media.
Robert Davis' testimony 
Medical examiner Robert Davis changed his testimony from 1997 deposition given in the civil case to strongly disagree that Lisa was severely dehydrated. Also he made a series of accusations against the Medical Examiner's Office's handling of the case and questioned their motive. Davis stated that Wood was not present during the autopsy and did not consult him when she signed the autopsy.
Destruction of evidence 
Crow noted that the failure by Medical Examiner's Office to follow its own policies to preserve evidence, releasing the body for cremation before a cause of death had been determined and destroying Davis’ autopsy notes will be used to attack Wood’s credibility.
Wood's explanation of the autopsy changes 
The primary reason Wood gave for changing her findings was her realization that the microscopic slides of the popliteal vein and the photographs of muscle tissue in the surrounding area provided evidence of trauma which could explain the thrombus formation. She could not explain why she had not seen this before.
Crow was highly critical of Wood in his memo stating:
Her explanations concerning the reasoning behind the changes have been illogical and inconsistent. She vacillated in her conclusions even as she prepared the amended certificate. After talking to Joe Davis she executed a notarized change in the death certificate to accident and removed dehydration and bed rest as causative factors. She then reconsidered that decision and resolved to change the manner of death to homicide with dehydration listed as one of multiple factors and then again changed her mind the next morning, deciding to follow Joe Davis' initial advice.—Douglas E. Crow
Crow also mentioned a unique set of circumstances that put Wood under tremendous pressure and might have affected the quality of her judgment. These being:
- Wood’s appearance on national television left her more vulnerable to litigation and committed her to a forensic position that would make any modification professionally embarrassing.
- The fact that Robert Davis, the forensic examiner that actually did the autopsy, was critical of her conclusions.
- The defense suggestion that if forced to litigate it would reveal information extremely damaging to Wood's office and her career.
Crow concluded that even though there was probable cause, the actions and testimony of Wood had so muddied the facts that there wasn’t enough credible evidence to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, and recommended the dismissal of all charges.
While nothing in the review has caused me to believe that the central premises behind the prosecution are erroneous, our ability to establish these necessary facts beyond a reasonable doubt has clearly been compromised. While Dr. Wood is an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable expert who is a formidable witness when defending a valid position, her inability to coherently explain her decision even under benign questioning by me is completely perplexing. Because of Wood's admission of a serious forensic error, her illogical and unfortunately inconsistent justifications of her decision to change the death certificate and autopsy report, the inconsistency between the changes made in the death certificate and the forensic basis for our charges, her continuing equivocation on issues central to the criminal case, and the very real possibility that the cause of death listed by the Medical Examiner's Office is incorrect, I have come to the conclusion that presentation of the Medical Examiner's current testimony to a jury will create a reasonable doubt on crucial forensic issues. When combined with existing problems in the case, it is my recommendation that we should not continue to pursue the prosecution. Douglas E. Crow
- December 5 - Lisa McPherson died while under the care of Flag Service Organization (FSO), a branch of the Church of Scientology.
- February 19 - The family of Lisa McPherson sued the Church of Scientology and the individuals involved for wrongful death, while the Church claimed it did nothing wrong toward McPherson.
- September 15 - Dr. David Minkoff settled his portion of the wrongful death suit by having his malpractice insurance pay $100,000 to the estate.
- November 13 - The Church was indicted on two felony charges in McPherson's death; abuse or neglect of a disabled adult, a second-degree felony, and unauthorized practice of medicine, a third-degree felony; the first criminal charges ever filed in the United States against the Church of Scientology. These charges were brought against the Church as a corporation, not against any individuals, and the maximum penalty, had the charges been pursued and the Church found guilty, would have been a $15,000 fine plus costs.
- December 6 - Florida State Attorney Bernie McCabe presented a response to Scientology's attempt to get the case dismissed.
- February 23 - Medical examiner Joan Wood changed the cause of death of Lisa McPherson to an "accident." "Gone from the new report is the original reference to the bed rest and dehydration. Wood still traces the death to a blood clot behind McPherson's knee. But she lists McPherson's psychosis and a minor auto accident as major factors."
- March 8 - A group of more than 200 Scientologists moved to have the criminal case dismissed on the claim that it had "chilled the religious rights of every Scientologist" and that other Scientologists were now being treated with concern, suspicion or ridicule by non-Scientologists. A central point of the motion was that McPherson had undergone the Introspection Rundown, which the brief putting forth the motion called an "entirely religious" practice.
- April 4 - Scientology moved to have the entire criminal case dismissed. "The entire basis for the state's prosecution of this case has now collapsed," begins one of the many Scientology legal briefs arguing the case should be dismissed.
- June 12 - On the advice of Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow, State Attorney Bernie McCabe dropped the criminal charges against the Church. According to a memo by Crow, medical examiner Joan Wood could not be counted on to confidently testify:
- August 3 - Scientologist "OT 8" Dr. David I. Minkoff had his license suspended on for one year and was fined $10,000 for prescribing medicine to McPherson at the request of her FSO caretakers without having ever seen her.
- April 29 - The church accused McPherson attorney Ken Dandar of professional misconduct and perjury and tried to get him removed from the case.
- June 22 - Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada dismissed the count alleging that McPherson was falsely imprisoned on the McPherson's civil suit.
- August - The church of Scientology sued attorney Ken Dandar for breach of contract, for having added David Miscavige to the wrongful death lawsuit despite a mutual agreement not to add additional defendants. In a 2003 jury trial, Scientology asked for over two million dollars in damages, but received only $4,500 in attorney fees and no punitive damages.
- June 22 - Mark Rathbun, a former member of Scientology, admitted that he had instructed the Church to destroy files related to the case.
- October 31 - Ken Dandar filed a federal lawsuit against the Church of Scientology and its attorneys, asking for injunctive relief from the church's litigation, which he claimed was a violation of his civil rights.
- November 17 - In support of Dandar's lawsuit, Marty Rathbun claimed in sworn testimony that Scientology spent $30 million to influence Florida judges and defame Dandar during the criminal and civil lawsuits concerning McPherson's death. Rathbun also claimed that Scientology influenced Joan Wood's ruling of McPherson's death as "accident" by bribing her lawyer, Jeffrey Goodis, with Super Bowl tickets and other gifts. Goodis denied the charges.
- November 24 - Dendar added David Miscavige as a defendant in his federal lawsuit against Scientology.
- November 28 - Mat Pesch, the former treasury secretary of the Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, claims that he witnessed the Office of Special Affairs dumping $20 million in FSO reserves into Scientology's legal defense over McPherson's death.
The Lisa McPherson Clause 
The Church of Scientology now makes members sign a waiver specifically against suing the Church over the Introspection Rundown.
Injunction against the film The Profit 
During the civil suit against the Church of Scientology brought by McPherson's family members, an injunction was sought and obtained to keep the Scientology-critical film The Profit from being shown to avoid prejudicing the jury pool against Scientology.
See also 
- Project Chanology – worldwide protests held against Scientology on February 10, 2008, Lisa McPherson's birthday
- Death of Kaja Ballo
- Death of Elli Perkins - a senior auditor at the Church of Scientology in Buffalo, New York murdered by her schizophrenic son, Jeremy, on March 13, 2003
- Lisa McPherson trust - a now-defunct protest organization named after McPherson.
- Tobin, Thomas C. (2000-02-23). "Church member's death now called accident". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
- Farley, Robert (2004-05-29). "Scientologists settle death suit". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
- Police interview with Fannie McPherson, Lisa's mother
- Tobin, Thomas C. (2000-06-13). "State drops charges against Scientology". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
- Portlano, Bonnie (1998-01-07). Interview with Kristin Jeannette-Meyers. CBS Public Eye.
- Frantz, Douglas (1997-12-01). "Death of a Scientologist Heightens Suspicions in a Florida Town". New York Times. p. A16. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Farley, Robert (2001-06-22). "Church scores round in death suit". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
- Scientology charged in member's death (Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, 14 Nov 1998
- Lisa McPherson Files - Sworn Statement of Brian J.Anderson , pg 19
- Scientology charged in member's death (Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, 14 Nov 1998)
- Affidavits & Documents | Lisa McPherson
- Lisa McPherson Files - Sworn Statement of Brian J. Anderson pg 85
- Scientology's new tack, St. Petersburg Times, November 20, 1998
- Tobin, Thomas C.; Ulferts, Alisa (2001-08-04). "Doctor in Lisa McPherson case suspended". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Lisa McPherson Memorial Page: Killed by the Church of Scientology
- LISA McPHERSON.com (documentation of civil suit)
- "McPherson Case: "Scientologist's death now ruled accidental"". Press revue from the CESNUR. Associated Press and St. Petersburg Times. 2000-02-23. Retrieved 2006-10-07.
- Fort Harrison Hotel — Room 174: Death of scientologist Lisa McPherson (Why Are They Dead)
- LisaFiles.com The Clearwater Police Department Investigation into Lisa McPherson's Death
- State takes middle road against Scientology, Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, November 23, 1998
- When can a church be accused of a crime?, HOWARD TROXLER, St. Petersburg Times, December 8, 1999
- Plunkett, John (1996-12-22). "Scientologist's death: A family hunts for answers". The Tampa Tribune. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
- Tampabay: Scientology charged in member's death
- Mystery surrounds Scientologist's death
- Police: Clearwater police needs your help!
- Church loads up for one last fight, DEBORAH O'NEIL, St. Petersburg Times, December 1, 2001
-  Website: xenutv.com, Crow Memo
- Web Site: LisaMcPherson.org, Coroner's Report
- Web site: Lisa McPherson: Coroner's Report transcript
- Autopsy Photos - Lisa McPherson (Caution: Disturbing photos)
-  Website: whyaretheydead.net , Inside Edition Transcript
- Church sues medical examiner, Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, Jan 29, 1997
- Di Maio, Vincent J. M.; Di Maio, Dominick J. (2001). "Collection of Tests". Forensic Pathology. CRC Press. p. 511. ISBN 0-8493-0072-X.
- Tobin, Thomas C. (1997-03-09). "Five doctors agree with examiner in Scientology death". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2007-05-07.
- Doctors paid by church give defense, Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, Jan 29, 1997
- Scientology prompts review of death case, Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, Nov 24, 1999
- Records outline Scientology case, THOMAS C. TOBIN, St. Petersburg Times, March 26, 2000
- Tobin, Thomas C. (2000-06-13). "State drops charges against Scientology". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Douglas Crow recommends dropping the Lisa McPherson criminal case
- Bandt and Spitz affidavits in Lisa wrongful death suit
- Opposition to Summary Judgment
- Lisa McPherson case - Response to Frye Hearing
- Scientology to argue for dismissal of case Thomas C. Tobin, St. Petersburg Times, 4 April 2000
- Suit accuses Scientologists of negligence in death, Tampa Tribune, February 20, 1997 (convenience link)
- Doctor settles his part of lawsuit in death of Scientologist LUCY MORGAN, St. Petersburg Times, Sep 15, 1998
- criminal accusations and response to defense attempt to dismiss December 1999
- Lawyer Solicits Distant Relative In Money-Grab Plot (Church of Scientology Freedom Magazine, February 1998)
- Tobin, Thomas C. (2000-03-09). "Scientologists decry toll of criminal case". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2007-04-08.
- Tobin, Thomas C. (2000-04-04). "Scientology to argue for dismissal of case". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Church targets lawsuit attorney DEBORAH O'NEIL, St. Petersburg Times, April 29, 2002
- Scientology seeks millions as punishment ROBERT FARLEY, St. Petersburg Times, Aug 20, 2003
- Scientology wanted millions, gets $4,500 ROBERT FARLEY, St. Petersburg Times, Aug 21, 2003
- Farley, Robert (2004-06-06). "Church settlement brings relief". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
- "Report: Ex-Scientologist had evidence destroyed". Associated Press. 2009-06-22. Retrieved 2012-07-15.
- "Federal suit: Scientologists spent $30 million to cover up death of Lisa McPherson". WSTP-TV. 2012-11-16. Retrieved 2012-11-24.
- "More McPherson Cover-Up Corroboration: "I Watched Them Drain $20 Million In Reserves"". Tony Ortega. 2012-11-28. Retrieved 2012-11-29.
- The Lisa McPherson Clause: Scientology Moving to Secure Its 'Right' to Kill Again
- FAQ, theprofit.org
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- Lisa McPherson Memorial website Created by critic of Scientology, Jeff Jacobsen