Church loads up for one last fight

Six years after Lisa McPherson died, one lawyer delves through sheaves of Scientology challenges to pursue a wrongful-death suit.

St. Petersburg Times/December 9, 2001
By Deborah O'Neil

Clearwater -- No angry swarms picketed the Church of Scientology last week.

No candlelight vigils. No TV cameras.

No extra police patrols.

For the first time in six years, the anniversary of the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson passed quietly.

The McPherson maelstrom, which brought nightmarish publicity for the church, has ebbed dramatically, now that the high-profile criminal charges against the church were dropped and a raucous group of church critics recently left Clearwater.

But one critical battle remains, one so important to Scientology, it is spending vast sums fighting it.

A civil wrongful-death lawsuit, itself now almost 5 years old, alleges church workers let McPherson die Dec. 5, 1995, in the Fort Harrison Hotel, where she spent the last 17 days of her life being cared for by fellow Scientologists. The lawsuit contends that church staffers allowed McPherson, 36, to become so dehydrated she was too weak even to stop cockroaches from biting her.

As it did in the criminal case, Scientology has committed exhaustive resources to defending itself, assembling a squadron of top-notch lawyers and nationally known scientists. Observers say the aggressive legal strategy is designed to outlast the opponent, Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer representing McPherson's estate.

"They are going to and have worked Dandar to a near-death experience," said longtime Clearwater attorney Denis deVlaming, who has represented some of Scientology's harshest critics.

The outcome of this case, which could go to trial in June, is crucial for Scientology, say observers.

"The biggest stake is legitimacy, showing that they are a legitimate religious organization just like the Baptists, just like the Jews, just like the Catholics," deVlaming said. "Every time there's a horrific article about very unreligious conduct, it sets them back and gets the public talking."

If either side in this David-and-Goliath fight has shown restraint, it's difficult to find.

Paperwork alone has swelled to near epic proportions. The case now sports 194 volumes -- stacked up, they're as tall as a two-story building.

"It is unique in the sense that every issue is fought to the death," said Judge James Moody, who as a Hillsborough Circuit judge oversaw the first three years of the lawsuit and now is a federal judge. "Every issue is a big issue. Every issue is a mountain of briefs and fought to the last gasp."

Legal motions are submitted in multiple, inches-thick binders.

Hearings go on for days, stretching over months.

One 21/2-hour session last year preoccupied with hyper-technicalities left Pinellas Circuit Judge Frank Quesada holding his head in his hands and rubbing his forehead. At the end, he joked with the lawyers, "I appreciate your effort to save us a rehearing on the rehearing for the rehearing."

So querulous is the feud, a retired Pinellas circuit court judge, Robert Beach, is being paid by both sides to monitor even the taking of depositions, an unusual step.

But, without him, there's "chaos," said church lawyer Kendrick Moxon.

Settling the case has almost been a nonissue. The church once offered $20,000. Dandar countered: $80-million.

"Over the top," is how veteran Clearwater civil lawyer Tom Carey describes the case, which he is not involved in.

"The church is taking a full-bore attack," Carey said. "It's what I'd call a full-court-press defense. That itself is pretty rare in litigation."

But Dandar did go after Scientology. Church leaders say the lawsuit is nothing but an assault on Scientology, funded by church haters. Their vigorous defense, they say, is all about setting the record straight: McPherson died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism and Scientology is not to blame. Her death certificate calls her death an accident.

"The issue as far as we're concerned is truth," said Ben Shaw, head of external affairs for the church's Clearwater organization. "The press on this was horrendous as to the allegations. How do you deal with that unless you get the truth out?"

Dying wish

When a Texas woman named Ann Carlson contacted civil litigator Ken Dandar in January 1997 to talk about her dead niece, he knew little about the Church of Scientology. To him, "It was a just a little cult in Clearwater," he said.

The case had already made national news. Joan Wood, then the Pinellas County medical examiner, appeared on Inside Edition and said of McPherson, "This is the most severe case of dehydration I've ever seen."

Dandar went to Texas and met McPherson's mother, Fanny McPherson, who spoke for four hours about her fair-haired daughter who had moved to Clearwater to be near the spiritual center of the Church of Scientology.

Dandar promised to expose how Lisa had died, and the two agreed he would take the case. Soon after, Fanny McPherson died. The lawsuit was filed the following month.

"That would be the first and last time I met Fanny McPherson," Dandar said. "I didn't know how close she was to dying."

Dandar, a Temple law school graduate, has won settlements for clients from multinational corporations such as Du Pont and Toyota. But nothing compares to doing legal battle with Scientology, he said.

The case has dominated his practice. And, he said, some weird stuff has happened.

Former clients have been called and told Dandar was under investigation for arms and drug dealing.

The phone company McPherson once worked for in Dallas showed up on his credit report indicating he owed hundreds of dollars, Dandar said.

One day, a couple pulled into his driveway and told Dandar's wife they were there for a funeral. "They had a map with my home on it circled," Dandar said. "I live in a residential area. There aren't any funeral homes for miles."

"It's crazy," Dandar says. But he admits, "I can't prove anything."

Scientology leaders and lawyers say it's been difficult dealing with Dandar, whom they describe as "an ambulance chaser." He concocts ridiculous stories that do not stand up in court, they say. "This is the way this guy litigates the case, incredibly dishonest," said Shaw. "These things he's telling you, I've never heard of. They're outrageous."

An ongoing question has been how Dandar has managed to finance his long legal fight.

Money has come from the law firm Dandar shares with his brother Tom Dandar and from New England millionaire Robert Minton, founder of the Scientology watchdog group, the Lisa McPherson Trust, which recently disbanded, shutting down its Clearwater operation.

Minton testified last year that he had given Dandar more than $1-million for the case. He wrote Dandar an additional check for $250,000 in May, according to Minton's personal bank records obtained by Scientology.

Because Minton has contributed to the case, the court has allowed church attorneys to grill him and delve into his personal affairs.

"It's hard to distinguish the trust, Mr. Minton and the plaintiff in this case," Judge Beach said during a September deposition. "They're so intertwined, as a matter of fact, it almost appears that Lisa McPherson has been overshadowed by the activities of the trust and Mr. Minton in pursuing this case against the Scientologists."

Church leaders say Minton is hoping to collect money from the church.

"They're here to try to get money," said Moxon, a Scientologist and church lawyer. "The horrible part of it is, this is money that's been donated to a church for religious purposes."

Minton says Scientology has pursued him to deflect attention from the real issue.

"It's an intentional strategy and it's the only thing they can come up with to defend themselves," Minton said. "The last thing they want to do is fight the case based on what happened to Lisa McPherson."

Courtroom strategy

In a three-day hearing last week, the Scientology camp nearly filled the courtroom. Boxes and boxes of meticulously ordered files, tended to by church workers, appeared on demand.

Copies of legal motions? The church has extras.

Video transcripts? Got those too.

Obscure scientific article? Right here.

At one point, Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer questioned whether a bailiff had brought her water.

"We have some extra bottles of water," church attorney Sandy Weinberg offered.

"Do you?" Schaeffer asked and in a flash, she had bottled water.

On the other side of the room, Dandar was alone at times.

The one onlooker who showed up to flank Dandar, Scientology critic Patricia Greenway, was served with a subpoena from Scientology lawyers within two hours of her arrival. "Now you know why nobody ever comes to support Ken," Greenway told a reporter.

Dandar says three law firms have offered to assist him in the case, but so far, he sees no need for help.

"Their tactic is bury you in paper," Dandar said. "To me, the more lawyers you have, the more insecure you are."

In civil court, Dandar must convince a jury that "more likely than not" negligence led to McPherson's death. Legal experts explain it this way: If all the evidence were placed on the scales of justice, Dandar wins if the scales tip ever so slightly in his favor.

Although a criminal prosecutor must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of proof in civil wrongful-death cases is "much easier," said University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Lidsky.

Scientology's expensive strategy has reaped victories. In June, a judge dismissed one of the five counts against the church alleging McPherson was held against her will by church workers. The lawsuit's remaining counts allege negligence, battery, infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death.

Last week, the church leveled a well-orchestrated assault on a key piece of Dandar's scientific evidence. "Junk science" is how church attorney Weinberg described an eye fluid test that Dandar says proves McPherson was severely dehydrated and therefore neglected by church workers.

After hearing Scientology's offensive, Schaeffer put Dandar on notice: "If you've got something, you better produce it."

Dandar promised to deliver when he makes his presentation in February. He told the judge: "You haven't heard the rest of the story."

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