CLEARWATER - Police are investigating the death of a 36-year-old woman who fell ill last year during a 17-day stay at a Church of Scientology hotel and died while fellow Scientologists drove her more than 20 miles to a New Port Richey hospital.
The cause of her death is in dispute.
Police point to an autopsy by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner, which says Lisa McPherson died from a blood clot brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration." The autopsy also found "evidence of injury," including several bruises, abrasions and lesions on the woman's body.
Scientologists contend the report is incomplete and that the investigation is the latest in a 15-year police effort to discredit them. They point to hospital records they say conclude that McPherson died of complications from a severe staph infection, which caused the marks on her body.
It all apparently began with a traffic accident.
Clearwater police Sgt. Wayne Andrews said Monday that McPherson, who worked in sales for a Scientologist-owned book publisher, was taken to Morton Plant Hospital after an accident Nov. 18, 1995, on S Fort Harrison Avenue near Belleview Boulevard.
According to a report, McPherson drove her 1993 Jeep Cherokee into the back of a trailered boat, which was stopped in traffic for a motorcycle accident. An outboard motor on the boat went through the Jeep's grill. McPherson did not appear injured.
Andrews said paramedics took McPherson to the hospital a few minutes later, after she took off her clothes and walked down the street naked. She did not stay at the hospital.
"She leaves Morton Plant, physically healthy, with some other Scientologists," the sergeant said. "The emergency room doctor told us she had some type of behavioral dysfunction. The investigation shows she left against medical advice; she signed herself out.
"The investigation is focused on what happened to her and who took care of her after that because 17 days later, she was dead."
Andrews said McPherson went to the church's main building in Clearwater, the Fort Harrison Hotel, where church members stay while receiving spiritual counseling.
"She didn't have a medical condition at all at that time," said Elliot Abelson, a Los Angeles attorney representing the church. He said McPherson checked into the hotel "to rest and think and get her strength back."
He said he did not know what triggered McPherson's odd behavior. He said she was free to come and go at the hotel. According to Abelson, she received no medication or professional medical care while there.
Abelson said that near the end of her stay at the Fort Harrison, McPherson's skin took on a yellow tint. She was seen by someone from the church's Medical Liaison Office, which refers church staffers to health professionals. "It didn't seem to be an emergency situation," he said.
On Dec. 5, a group of Scientologists drove McPherson from the Fort Harrison Hotel to HCA Community Hospital in New Port Richey to see Dr. David Ira Minkoff, a medical doctor who is a Scientologist. He did not return messages left Monday at his Clearwater office.
According to Sgt. Andrews, McPherson died on the way to New Port Richey. He said that when she arrived at the hospital, it was the first time Minkoff had seen her.
"There was such a change in 17 days," Andrews said. "If she was that ill at (Scientology headquarters), why not drive three minutes to Morton Plant instead of to New Port Richey?"
According to Abelson, "She didn't want to. She (didn't) trust or like doctors."
Dr. Anthony Acosta, emergency room chief at Bayfront Medical Center, said staph infections can cause death and usually are an indication of a weakened immune system. "Even people who are treated appropriately can die from it," he said.
Andrews wants to question three members of the Medical Liaison Office who have since left Clearwater. He said the church has not cooperated in finding them.
Church officials say they cooperated with another detective and were led to believe the case was closed. They complained that Andrews was overly aggressive when he took the case this year.
Two months before she died, McPherson reached the level of "clear," a major goal for Scientologists. "Clear" is attained after many hours of spiritual counseling, which Scientologists believe rids them of undesireable forces such as irrational fears that lurk in the subconscious.
Dell Liebreich of Dallas, McPherson's aunt, said her niece had back problems sometimes but no other physical ailments.
Fannie McPherson last spoke to her daughter by telephone some time before the accident, Liebreich said. She said McPherson mentioned to her mother that people at work "were badgering her about her sales," so she would not be home in Dallas for Thanksgiving because she was too busy.
"We thought she was happy except for that time she called and told her mother that she felt she was letting people down at work," Liebreich said. "She led Fannie to believe that maybe she might want to leave the church but never said that in so many words."
She said McPherson's family did not know she had died until one of her employers from AMC Publishing called the day after her death.
"We didn't even know about her accident," Liebreich said. "We think they locked her up, and we never heard from her again."
Abelson said the church does not lock up staff members or parishioners.
Numerous Scientologists, including McPherson's employers, went to her funeral in Dallas. "They were smothering us," Liebreich said. "They had all kinds of lies about what happened to her. We could not get a straight answer from them."
McPherson joined the church in Texas around the time of her high school graduation 18 years ago.
According to Liebreich, McPherson's records included IRS documents showing she made $140,000 one year. Scientology officials said Monday that she earned $70,000 to $80,000 a year.
Liebreich said McPherson died with $11 in her savings account.