Internet sites link Scientology foes
[Tampa Tribune 1 June 1996]
6/1/97 -- 9:27 PM
The world is watching Clearwater.
Since December, people around the world have been intrigued by reports of the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
In Australia, Canada and England, critics of the Church of Scientology have invoked McPherson's name during protests.
Arizona critic Jeff Jacobsen designed a Web site devoted to McPherson that has been duplicated to 18 different sites around the world.
Numerous conversations on Internet ``chat rooms'' are devoted to either the police investigation or the wrongful death lawsuit filed by McPherson's family.
``As a critic, before I got on the Net it was kind of lonely, like having a weird hobby,'' Jacobsen said. ``Once I got on the Net, there were hundreds of critics all over the world.''
He and others protested against Scientology in downtown Clearwater in March. Some in the group carried signs with McPherson's photo or her name.
Police say McPherson, 36, entered the Fort Harrison Hotel, Scientology's Clearwater headquarters, in November 1995. They say she was physically healthy but psychologically disturbed.
Seventeen days later she died. An autopsy determined her death was due to a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration'' and ``bed rest.''
Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood has said the medical evidence indicates McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days, possibly longer, and was comatose for at least 24 hours before she died. Bites on her hands were most likely made by cockroaches, Wood has said.
Police have joined the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office to investigate the death.
Ken Dandar, the Tampa attorney for McPherson's family, said he is ``constantly getting e-mail'' from people around the world interested in the lawsuit.
Clearwater police Detective Sgt. Wayne Andrews, who is investigating the death, has received Internet mail from Germany, Greece, England, Australia, Mexico and Switzerland from people asking about the investigation or wanting to relate tales about Scientology.
``There's worldwide interest in what happens in this case,'' Andrews said.
Interest is particularly high in Germany, where the government has concluded Scientology is not a church but a dangerous business.
``After having conducted thorough studies on the Scientology organization, the [German] government has come to the conclusion that the organization's pseudo-scientific courses can seriously jeopardize individuals' mental and physical health and that it exploits its members,'' the German government said in a statement through its embassy in Washington, D.C.
German courts have concluded Scientology ``purports to be a `church' merely as a cover to pursue its economic interests.'' Germany requires Scientology to register as a business.
McPherson's death has been reported by German television and radio stations, newspapers and at least one national magazine.
Germany's Miami Consul General Claus Soenksen wrote to Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey.
``Some members of the German Parliament, who deal with sects and psycho groups, will visit the United States between the 2nd and the 9th of November,'' the letter said. The officials plan to spend some time in Washington, D.C., then come to Clearwater to gather more Scientology information, the letter said. It does not mention McPherson's case.
Scientology officials have compared Germany's attitudes and actions toward the church to Nazism.
In the United States, McPherson's death has attracted the attention of the Tampa Bay media, as well as The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and ``Inside Edition'' and ``Hard Copy'' television shows.
The Tampa Tribune first reported McPherson's death in December 1996.
``Almost a year after her death the media decided that a story distorting the facts and circumstances of it [McPherson's death] would sell newspapers,'' Scientology spokesman Brian Anderson said in a written statement Friday.
``The story the Tribune is doing right now is a perfect example of this self-generating mechanism - a media story about all the media stories. This is not news.''
Former Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cazares, a longtime outspoken critic of the church, says he hears considerable talk about McPherson's death from around the country and in Europe.
``This [case] brings out to the public that maybe there is something unusual and unacceptable about this group, that it's not just an odd religion,'' Cazares said.
He says McPherson's death is of particular interest to Germans because it ``is a perfect case that substantiates many of their charges.''
Anderson has a different theory.
``Media such as that in Germany have utilized this issue because it furthers their own prejudice, promoting intolerance and hatred,'' his statement said.
In Clearwater, investigators say their efforts to gather information in the case have been slowed because all of the church- affiliated people they've sought to interview have attorneys.
That includes McPherson's former co-workers at AMC Publishing, which is owned by Scientologists. All in all, some 50 to 60 people who have been interviewed have been represented by up to 21 attorneys, police say. Subpoenas have been issued for 30 to 40 of those people. The clients have not disclosed who is paying for the attorneys.
Anderson disputed the police account. He refused to say whether any of the attorneys are paid for by the church.
``There are fewer than five attorneys representing witnesses in this case,'' Anderson's statement said. ``The terms of their employment are a matter between the attorneys and their clients.''
Later, in a telephone interview, Anderson said, ``If we had to hire a hundred lawyers to bring the Clearwater police into alignment with the Constitution, we wouldn't hesitate to do so.''
Police have interviewed more than 100 people, including paramedics and hospital personnel who treated McPherson.
In response to a subpoena, the church has provided some records relating to McPherson.
``I consider them significant,'' Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said. Investigators will not discuss the documents.
McPherson's family members are suing the church, claiming its members are responsible for her death.
Dandar, their attorney, says he also has the subpoenaed documents, which he describes as an incomplete set of church ``medical records'' that ``support all of our allegations.''
Anderson said that characterization ``is not true.''
``The Church of Scientology is willingly cooperating in the police investigation and has provided numerous documents in response to the civil request for production,'' Anderson's statement said.
``Mr. Dandar is once again playing to the media to try to bolster his case via the press.''
Scientology officials and members have repeatedly said the church is not responsible for McPherson's death.
They allege the autopsy was flawed, that the medical examiner lied about the results and that investigators have been out to get the church for years.
Read previous stories in this series at http://www.tampatrib.com/reports/scientol/
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