Questions over Scientology's 19 calls in 48 hours before 110,000-volt suicide

Brisbane Times, Australia/October 28, 2009

The 110,000-volt electric charge that killed Edward McBride was so strong it caused an explosion capable of causing flash burns up to 10 metres away.

Witnesses who saw it at the Energex substation in Everton, in Brisbane's north, two years ago likened it to fireworks that glowed red long after the Brisbane soldier's life had ended.

There could be no doubt the 30-year-old Special Forces commando and trained electrician wanted to die, of that fact State Coroner John Lock could be sure.

Less certain, though, is what prompted this sudden, violent end, so close to the beginning of Mr McBride's new life away from the army. Questions also remain about what, if anything, the Church of Scientology knew about his fatal decision.

An inquest into his February 7, 2007, death this month raised more questions than it answered, but not for want of trying.

In a 31-page interim report, released ahead of an army Commission of Inquiry, Mr Lock expressed frustration at the Church of Scientology and its Sydney leaders, who spirited away secret files on Mr McBride to the church's US headquarters in defiance of a Queensland Police warrant for their seizure.

The coroner also dismissed as "selective" evidence given to the hearings by a spiritual counsellor, known in Scientology parlance as an "auditor", who had led Mr McBride through an intensive course designed to help followers face distressing issues from their past.

For this "draining, straining, personal and confronting" experience, the soldier paid the Church of Scientology $25,000.

"I have no idea as to what is on these files and it may be something completely innocuous," Mr Lock wrote in his findings.

"However, the fact of the matter remains that Mr McBride's attitude changed some time after the afternoon of February 5 2007 and these files may very well have had some information which could give the inquest some assistance in determining what happened.

"... It seems we will never know."

'It was silly behaviour'

Edward Alexander McBride was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the middle of three sons.

He grew up in Perth, where he trained as an electrician and represented the state in martial arts before taking his rite of passage and travelling through Europe, the Middle East and South-East Asia at 21.

An extreme sportsman and talented athlete, he had planned to join the British Army but was talked out of it by his parents, Kathleen and Alan. Instead, he came home and enlisted with the Australian Army as a private posted to a Townsville-based engineering company.

It took just two years for Mr McBride to win selection for Special Forces training but he was robbed of the opportunity at the last hurdle when, in 2005, he had to withdraw with injured knees.

He was posted to the 6RAR infantry battalion at Brisbane's Enoggera barracks later that year, but ended up with the Battalion Training Team, a company set up to rehabilitate injured soldiers.

While in Brisbane in 2006, Mr McBride lodged a complaint with his commanding officers after having food smeared on his back by fellow soldiers and being forced to drink alcohol from his helmet as part of an army initiation ceremony known as a "Boozer Parade".

At the time of his suicide, the once-enthusiastic commando was bored, unpopular, felt bullied and was itching to get out of the military. He applied for a medical discharge but was forced to wait four months for a response from Canberra.

The Commission of Inquiry will examine the role of bullying and harassment in Mr McBride's suicide and the ADF has already conceded the handling of his discharge was done badly and may even be placing other soldiers at risk of mental health problems. But for Mr Lock, the young man's death atop a live substation tower, with a noose as a backup, was more complicated than that.

"[Bullying] is not an issue that I consider contributory to how and why Mr McBride died," he said.

"[He] clearly had a strength of personal character to speak out about what he considered was silly behaviour.

"The discharge process and the uncertainty of his date of discharge does seem to be of some concern and no doubt would not have assisted Mr McBride in being able to plan for the future at that time.

"However, there is no indication that there were any stressors evident as a result of this uncertainty which suggested this had such a detrimental effect on his state of mind that he would want to take his own life."

'He loved Scientology'

Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland, Dr Richard Hutch describes Scientology as "a system of self-actualisation and personal growth" which "facilitates an inner journey through the study of a structured set of beliefs to explore and find meaning and purpose in life".

It has also been described as being "psychotherapeutic in nature."

Whatever its pull, Edward McBride was clearly enamoured.

He had joined the church in Sydney around the time he became injured and had considered becoming a Scientology auditor himself once his army discharge was finalised.

Ex-girlfriend Kate Devine said Mr McBride told her he "loved Scientology because it was a way of healing himself".

His mother and father said he was more outgoing after joining the church; his eldest brother described it as being "something that he had been looking for all of his life".

Mr McBride loved it so much that by August 2006 he took out a $20,000 bank loan to complete three Scientology courses, called Drug Run Down, Happiness Run Down and ARC Straight Wire. By January the following year he was attending church programs three nights a week and all day Saturdays.

He was also being "audited" by a senior church counsellor, Lisa O'Kane.

"It is not altogether clear what is involved in the auditing process," Mr Lock concluded.

"At the commencement of a parishioner in his courses of religious counselling, an auditing file is created. The file is confidential, and only the counsellor and case supervisor have access to this folder."

Ms O'Kane told police a fundamental principle of Scientology was that a person could only improve their condition by finding the truth about themselves through the auditing process.

The final stage involves the use of an Electropsychometer - or E-meter - "used for measuring low voltage and changes in the human psyche".

"The E-meter assists in the final validation and attesting," Mr Lock wrote.

But, despite his earlier fervour, it seems Mr McBride was not keen to complete this final stage. Two days after finishing the auditing course and a day after he was due to undergo final attesting, he threw a rope over a live electrical tower.

'L. Ron Hubbard would not approve'

It was reports of two men in the vicinity of Energex substation T36 on Old Northern Road that first made police suspicious.

After neighbours reported a large blue and red flash about 8.45pm and found Mr McBride's body on a substation isolator, officers took down statements.

In the end, the sightings came to nothing - probably just youngsters "making trouble" - but by then an investigation was underway.

More than 50 soldiers were interviewed, Mr McBride's car swabbed for DNA and his room at the Enoggera barracks turned over. His last hours - a meal at McDonald's, a drive to the Gold Coast, some Southern Comfort and cola - were pieced together.

But it was the contents of his hand-held personal data assistant and phone records which piqued police interest - and that of the coroner.

Between the completion of his auditing course on February 5 and his death two days later, Church of Scientology members called and texted Mr McBride 19 times.

The contents of the calls and SMS messages is not fully known, after data including voicemail messages left on his PDA were irretrievably lost when the device's battery went dead.

But police had listened to them, and told the inquest they included "forceful" demands for Mr McBride to urgently attend the church to complete his spiritual training, as well as a warning US-based Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard "would not approve".

"You are putting another person's job at risk through your actions," was one account.

"It is not kosher for you to be out of contact with me. You really should come in for an audit."

And: "This is not good enough. You need to call me. You are going to get me into a lot of trouble. You need to come in now, we need to get this sorted out."

The church members, including Ms O'Kane, were later interviewed by police.

"It was suggested that any contact with Mr McBride [by members of the church] over those days was simply to have him come in and finalise the administration processes of his auditing program, which was just completed with Ms O'Kane," Mr Lock wrote in his findings.

"The tenor and quality of the messages however is not one of a desire to finalise some administrative processes. It seems to have a much more serious tone about them as if something else had happened.

"What was there to be concerned about because someone wanted to postpone a meeting to finalise the course?

"What is clear to me is that there had been a change. Something had happened to Mr McBride because in the next day/hours he would take his own life in quite a premeditated way."

'The door is still open'

In deference to the military Commission of Inquiry, Mr Lock has refrained from handing down his full coronial findings, and perhaps too his theory on what led to Mr McBride's demise.

But he has left the door open to Church of Scientology leaders to offer up Mr McBride's auditing files that may be the key to solving this mystery for his grieving family.

"There is nothing to suggest that there was anything in [Mr McBride's] behaviour which should have alerted anyone in the church or elsewhere to the possibility that he was contemplating taking his own life," Mr Lock said.

"There are some unknowns as a result of the non-production of his auditing file which may have shed some light on what he was thinking at that time. It may not.

"If the church in the United States of America is willing to provide the file on the basis of the orders that I have made then I would be happy to receive it."

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