Lisa McPherson Scientology case drove Joan Wood from medical examiner to recluse

St. Petersburg Times/July 30, 2011

Dr. Joan Wood once enjoyed prominence and prestige as a medical sleuth like the heroes of the mystery books she read.

As the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner for 18 years, she conducted more than 5,600 autopsies and testified in hundreds of murder trials.

But the case she will be remembered for most is the one she botched: the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.

Based on Wood's findings, prosecutors charged the Church of Scientology in connection with McPherson's death. Their case crumbled when, four months before trial, Wood changed her conclusions.

The decision cost Wood her reputation, her job and her Florida medical license. The fallout so scarred Wood that she slipped into a reclusive retirement.

For the last eight years, she lived in a quiet townhome on Indian Rocks Road. Her closest neighbors saw FedEx or UPS trucks delivering parcels at her home every couple of days but saw Wood only once or twice over the last three years.

She didn't even emerge to walk her schnauzer, Pepper. A male companion did that.

On July 8, Wood had a stroke and was taken to Morton Plant Hospital. She died 11 days later.

She was 67.

Hardly anyone in the life she had once occupied - not police, not judges, not even employees in the Medical Examiner's Office - knew of her death until it appeared in the newspaper a week later.

Before McPherson and throughout most of Wood's career, co-workers knew her as bright and outgoing, a woman with a dry wit who smoked filtered cigarettes and sipped decaffeinated coffee from a mug that said, "Oy, the pressure!"

"She was a wonderful woman, brilliant and so dedicated to her job as a medical examiner," said Jacqueline Martino, a former chief investigator who worked alongside Wood for 16 years.

She devoured mystery novels and saw her work as a chance to solve puzzles.

"I think she felt she was like the TV series Quincy," said ex-husband Leonard Dachsel, referring to the TV coroner from the 1970s who found foul play where others suspected none.

Said Jeffrey Goodis, her former attorney: "I think she considered herself to be speaking for people who otherwise couldn't speak for themselves."

Wood shouldered the job with poise. She answered calls at all hours, including back-to-back requests one Christmas Eve to visit a crime scene in the woods, then examine a victim in a hospital. She embraced the job's staggering workload, intense time pressures and dauntingly high stakes. A blown call on an autopsy, after all, could send an innocent person to prison or set a murderer free.

Her unflappable demeanor and command of the facts made her a formidable opponent in trials for defense lawyers.

"She was an extraordinarily good witness, I thought," said lawyer Patrick Doherty. "She was calm and matter-of-fact. In the middle of her testimony she would pause and spell certain words. She certainly felt that she was part of the prosecution team, and she clearly was."

That all ended after McPherson.

On Nov. 18, 1995, McPherson, a long-time Scientologist, was involved in a minor traffic accident in Clearwater, after which she seemed disoriented. Church members cared for her 17 days, but her condition weakened. They took her to a hospital where she was declared dead.

Wood initially attributed the blood clot that caused McPherson's death to "severe dehydration." Prosecutors charged the church with two felonies: practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult.

The church made the case a top priority, commissioning its own studies, sending Wood thousands of pages of documents, including numerous subpoenas.

"It became very difficult," said Martino, 56. "I think she almost tried to stand alone against this behemoth, Scientology."

With a trial date four months away, Wood stunned prosecutors by changing McPherson's death certificate, amending the manner of death from "undetermined" to "accident."

Prosecutors had no choice but to drop the charges in the high-profile and controversial case. Four years of work had been wasted. The prosecutors who Wood had once considered teammates now looked at her as a pariah. She asked a chief assistant prosecutor if they could still be friends. He said no.

She resigned three months later.

"Once the medical examiner changes her opinion, it kind of makes her testimony fairly worthless," said former Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer, who would have presided over the trial. "It just doesn't sound right to be so positive and then say, 'I was wrong.' "

The ordeal was devastating to Wood. The once hard-charging woman was now brittle.

"I think it just changed her," Martino said. "And the outside criticism of people changed her."

Before McPherson, Wood's resume read like a fulfilled promise.

A local product, Wood graduated from Boca Ciega High School, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida College of Medicine.

She joined the Medical Examiner's Office in 1975 under Dr. John Shinner, then succeeded him in 1982. She was appointed to head the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

After she left office, scrutiny began to mount over more of her decisions, notably her finding that 7-month-old Rebecca Long of Holiday had died in 1998 of shaken-baby syndrome.

Four pathologists, including Dr. Jon Thogmartin, Wood's successor, determined Rebecca had actually died of pneumonia.

Court officials tried to subpoena Wood for more than a year, but no one could find her. When deputies went to her home, she wouldn't come out.

The state dropped charges against Rebecca's father. State Attorney Bernie McCabe asked his assistants to look into other child homicide findings during Wood's tenure.

That led to the release of John Peel, who had served four years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. Wood had determined that Peel's 2-month-old son died of shaken-baby syndrome, but the review showed no signs of hemorrhaging.

In May of this year, Thogmartin gave an interview to the PBS program Frontline in which he attributed the initial findings in the Long and Peel cases to "a prosecutorial bias, I think that 'go get him' kind of thing."

Wood tried to resurrect her career with a consulting business in 2002. It lasted a year.

Wood never emerged into the public eye again.

"Sadly, the Scientology episode took its toll on Joan Wood," said lawyer Denis de Vlaming. "That was her demise. She became almost a recluse after she changed her findings."

Martino says she will never know, but suspects Wood had misgivings over the outcome of the McPherson case. "I am not 100 percent certain Joan felt 100 percent sure that she had done the right thing," Martino said.

Perhaps tellingly, McCabe and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger declined to comment about Wood's death for this article. Thogmartin did not return repeated phone calls.

Wayne Skidmore, who was moving items out of Wood's home on Wednesday, said he has been Wood's companion the last eight years.

"I'm not going to say anything more," said Skidmore, 60. "I'm just going to protect her."

In a rare interview in 2002, one of the last she ever gave, Wood told the St. Petersburg Times that she had suffered panic attacks, lost sleep and rarely went out.

She acknowledged that years ago she had considered leaving forensic science for a career in psychiatry.

"I wish now I had," she said.

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