CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology said it was being sued by people who had gone too far.
It said a 70-year-old woman from Texas had allowed the lawsuit over the death of her niece, Lisa McPherson, to be "hijacked" by church critics bent on destroying Scientology.
It asked a Pinellas probate judge to remove the aunt as head of McPherson's estate, which brought the death suit.
It said the aunt engaged in fraud, and it urged the judge to replace her with someone with no ill will toward Scientology.
But Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George W. Greer rejected those arguments Thursday, ruling that Scientology has no legal interest in the estate of Lisa McPherson, the Scientologist who died in 1995 while under the care of church staffers in from Clearwater.
In a written order, Greer said he found no evidence that the aunt, Dell Liebreich of Yantis, Texas, had acted against the interests of the estate. He noted that the estate's beneficiaries, who also are relatives of McPherson, had no objections to Liebreich.
Under state law, only an "interested person" has standing to contest the administration of a probate case. The law defines such a person as anyone who "may reasonably expect to be affected by the outcome of the particular proceeding involved."
The church said it was affected because Liebreich, as head of the estate, had filed a wrongful death suit against Scientology and improperly delegated that suit to Robert S. Minton, a New England millionaire. Minton recently opened an office in Clearwater and says he has spent more than $3-million on a crusade to reform Scientology.
More than $600,000 of that has been pumped into the wrongful death case, according to court documents.
The judge made his ruling after a 17-hour hearing that spanned three days in December and January.
The church suggested in the hearing that Liebreich manipulated Lisa McPherson's mother, Fannie McPherson, who was frail and dying of cancer in January 1997 as preparations were being made to set up the estate and file the lawsuit.
Church officials insist that neither Lisa McPherson nor her mother would have wanted her estate to be used against Scientology. They allege that a signature on one of the estate documents was made by someone other than Fannie McPherson.
Greer heard from handwriting experts, a doctor, a psychologist and two people who initially said they witnessed the signature in question but sounded less sure during heavy questioning from church lawyers. Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents the estate, said of Greer's ruling:
"It shows that the actions of Scientology are so desperate because of the overwhelming evidence of their causing the death of Lisa McPherson." Mike Rinder, a top Scientology official, said the church now will pin its hopes on the state attorney's office, which has been asked by the church to consider a felony charge of fraud against Liebreich.