For some Scientologists, pilgrimage has been fatal
By LUCY MORGAN
ęSt. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 1997
CLEARWATER -- From around the world, they come to Clearwater, looking for
Week after week, they are drawn to the Church of Scientology, seeking to
improve or rebuild their lives.
But for a few of these pilgrims, the search has ended in death.
Since 1980, at least eight members of the Church of Scientology have died
in Clearwater under circumstances that leave their friends, families and in
some cases law enforcement authorities looking for their own answers.
"We are getting old," said Mary Frei, the mother of a young man from
Switzerland who died while staying at the church to receive counseling.
"We'd like to have the truth about what happened. But I don't know. Maybe
we'll never get it."
Two of the deaths occurred at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel (Times
file photo at top), including Josephus A. Havenith's. He was found dead in
his room's bathtub. An autopsy report lists his death as "probable
The most prominent of these cases is Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old woman
who died Dec. 5, 1995. After 17 days at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel,
she was finally taken to a hospital by church staff where she was
dead soon after her arrival. Police and prosecutors are wrapping up an
investigation that could result in criminal charges.
But an extensive review by the St. Petersburg Times has turned up seven
other Scientologists in apparently sound health who died suddenly after
coming to Clearwater for training or counseling.
In four of those deaths, like McPherson's, relatives or law enforcement
officials suspect that the church's health regimen or its opposition to
psychiatric care precluded appropriate medical care. The deaths examined by
the Times include:
Margarit Winkelmann, 51, who walked fully clothed into Clearwater Bay and
drowned herself in January 1980 after she quit taking Lithium and started
taking vitamins and minerals recommended by the church.
Josephus A. Havenith, 45, who died in February 1980 at the Fort Harrison
Hotel in a bathtub filled with water so hot it burned his skin off.
Andreas Ostertag, 38, head of the Scientology mission in Stuttgart,
Germany, who apparently drowned while swimming to a sailboat anchored off
Fort Desoto Park in 1985. Reports published in Germany earlier this year
raised questions about the death.
Peter E. Frei, 37, who was found floating in a Dunedin waterway in June
1988 several days before the Church of Scientology reported him missing
his room at the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Heribert Pfaff, 31, who died of an apparent seizure in the Fort Harrison
Hotel in August 1988 after he quit taking medication that controlled his
seizures and was placed instead on a program of vitamins and minerals.
Roger Nind, 49, a Scientologist who was reportedly trying to get a
$70,000 refund, arrived in Clearwater from Australia in October 1992 and
killed in an accident on Cleveland Street the next day.
Carrie Slaughterbeck, 23, who was found dead in her Clearwater apartment
in March 1997 after receiving nutritional counseling from a prominent
Scientologist who sells Super Blue Green Algae, a dietary supplement.
Scientology officials say these deaths are isolated cases. Statistically,
they say, the death rate among the many thousands of visitors to their
Clearwater headquarters is no higher than the death rates among Catholics,
Lutherans or members of other religious denominations.
The cases, Scientology officials charge, are connected only by the
ill-formed suspicions of critics, including Clearwater police, Scientology
defectors and the news media.
"Scientology helps people," insisted Ben Shaw, director of the Clearwater
Office of Special Affairs. "It's generally for those who are able, to make
them more able."
But even in apparently routine deaths, the Scientologists act in such
controlling ways that they raise the hackles and suspicions of the police.
Consider the 1996 death of Arthur Orwat, a 69-year-old lung cancer
patient whose death was expected.
Clearwater police reports say Scientology caregiver Judy Goldberr-Weber
told officers that she did not immediately call 911 when Orwat appeared to
be dying because she was supposed to first notify church elders.
Clearwater police reports say Scientology caregiver Judy Goldberr-Weber
told officers that she did not immediately call 911 when Orwat appeared to
be dying because she was supposed to first notify church elders. Almost two
hours elapsed before Scientology officials Brian Anderson and Judy Fontana
arrived at Orwat's Hacienda Gardens apartment and called 911. Clearwater
police say they routinely encounter church officials at the scene of any
incident involving Scientologists.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw vehemently insists that church officials
never alter circumstances or otherwise interfere in scenes of members'
deaths. But Shaw and Anderson could not explain why two Clearwater church
officials were summoned to the scene of a cancer patient's death before
police were called.
"I got a call that Arthur Orwat died and I went to the Hacienda,"
* * *
Lawyer Lee Fugate of Clearwater, who represents the church, blames the
controversy surrounding McPherson's death on the German government, which
has been in a heated battle with Scientology's German chapters in recent
German television reporters, Fugate says, a year ago raised questions
about whether Ostertag's drowning in 1985 was actually a homicide. Fugate
believes the questions caused local authorities to pursue the McPherson
investigation. Pinellas County officials had ruled the Ostertag death a
But some Pinellas County officials say all the Scientology deaths would
have gotten more scrutiny if they had occurred today because of what
officials have learned through McPherson's death, years of dealing with the
Church of Scientology and better investigative technology.
"We would handle things differently today," said Paul Maser, deputy
police chief in Clearwater. "We'd be more cautious and we'd talk to more
people and look at the scene in more depth."
Before the McPherson case, Maser said, many officers in his department
considered Scientology overly secretive and aggressive, but posing no
physical danger to its members. Now, they take a harder look.
Clearwater police are suspicious about the number of 911 calls that come
from rooms at the Fort Harrison Hotel. Police respond to each call only to
be told most of the time by Scientology security guards that the call was a
mistake. Police are not allowed to check individual rooms where the calls
In the past 11 months, 161 calls to 911 were made from rooms in the
hotel, but each time Scientology security guards said there was no
Scientology officials say most of the calls are mistakes that occur when
foreign visitors try to dial the international access code, 011, after
dialing a 9 to get an outside line. They are working with police to resolve
the problem, Fugate said.
Some former Scientologists say the deaths, even those that appear
accidental, contribute to a level of fear that keeps members from leaving
"With no money, frightened and intimidated and knowing that others have
committed suicide, have died in accidents or perhaps been murdered, they
cannot leave," wrote Lawrence Lee Sr., in a 1989 affidavit prepared for a
lawsuit against Scientology. "Without contact with the outside world, they
have no one to turn to for help or protection."
Scientology officials say Lee is wrong. There is no fear among
Scientologists, insists spokesman Ben Shaw, just paranoia among the police.
"Scientology deals with matters of the spirit," says Shaw. "We offer
spiritual gain. Look at the people who come in and are benefitted.
Scientology is about improving conditions."
Scientology has long denounced the practice of psychiatry, blaming it for
various problems. Scientologists are not allowed to take psychiatric drugs
or seek treatment from psychiatrists or psychologists.
But Scientology officials say they would never block members from seeking
medical treatment and have a policy against offering services to members
are taking mind-altering drugs.
Scientology does not interfere when the member's own doctor has
recommended a course of treatment, Shaw insists.
But at least two of the deaths examined by the Times occurred when a
member quit taking a prescription drug and began a Scientology course
designed to rid the body of drugs and other toxins.
"You just don't want to take people who have been medically treated off
of drugs without contact with the doctor who put them on the drugs and
monitoring," said Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and a former
professor at the University of California Berkley. "It's a very dangerous
Singer is an expert on cults who has often been critical of Scientology.
Dr. Joan Wood, medical examiner in Pinellas County, also questions taking
patients off some medications without adequate support.
After reviewing autopsy reports of the seven deaths at the request of the
Times, Wood said the cause of death may never be known for some of them. In
some cases Wood was not sure what caused the deaths, but could rule out
play. With others, Wood thinks more investigation is needed.
Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he was unaware of any
Scientology deaths other than McPherson's until the Times asked him about
Margarit Winkelmann, 51
Elvira Borden, a 71-year-old resident of Oak Bluff Apartments in
Clearwater, watched in horror on the morning of Jan. 11, 1980, as a woman
ran down the street toward the Clearwater waterfront.
From her ninth-floor apartment, Mrs. Borden saw Margarit Winkelmann, a
51-year-old visitor from Zurich, walk fully clothed into the water,
back to the shore and then throw herself face down into the water.
By the time police arrived, Mrs. Winkelmann was floating dead in the
water, still clutching a Scientology pamphlet in her hand. Her husband,
Ernst Winkelmann, and other Scientologists told police she had been
receiving psychiatric treatment for years but had come to Clearwater
a Scientology prescribed cure that did not include drugs or psychiatry.
At the time she died, Mrs. Winkelmann was taking vitamins and minerals
prescribed by Scientology and apparently was on a program designed to clear
her body of toxins.
She seemed to be "progressing," Ernst Winkelmann told police. But earlier
in the week she told him she had felt better when she was taking the
prescribed by her psychiatrist in Europe. An autopsy found no Lithium in
bloodstream and determined her death to be a suicide by drowning.
Today Scientology officials say Mrs. Winkelmann probably should not have
been accepted for treatment because of her medical history, but say an
exception may have been made in 1980.
Wood said she believes it would be unwise to take a patient off Lithium
without careful supervision.
Josephus A. Havenith, 45
Josephus A. Havenith was a Dutch citizen living in Munich, Germany, where
he taught music. On Feb. 25, 1980, Havenith had been at the Fort Harrison
Hotel for two months taking counseling and following a regimen of vitamins
and minerals prescribed by Scientology.
A maid said Havenith left a note on his door -- Room 771. It read
"sleeping," so he was not disturbed until later in the day when other
discovered that the carpet outside his room was soaked. Inside, the hot
water was still running in the tub.
* * *
At the time, church officials and police told reporters that Havenith was
in his "50s or 60s" and was found dead in bed. In truth, Havenith was found
by the maid lying dead in the bathtub. The water was so hot it had taken
skin off of his body.
No one is certain when he died.
An autopsy report lists his death as "probable drowning" but notes that
his head was not under water. In 1980 when Havenith died, Florida officials
had little knowledge of the vitamin and mineral programs used by
"Is it possible that given whatever was going on in his body, getting
into hot water did something?" asks medical examiner Wood in reviewing the
With no evidence of a struggle in his room or other foul play, Wood said
she had to presume that some sudden event occurred involving his heart or
"We'll never know what happened, the questions remain unanswered," she
His body was cremated and shipped home to the Netherlands at the expense
of the Church of Scientology. Family members could not be located.
Andreas Ostertag, 38
Andreas Ostertag, 38, was a longtime Scientologist and head of the
church's mission in Stuttgart, Germany, when it was founded in the early
1970s. His brother and sister also were prominent Scientologists.
In late 1985 Ostertag was in Clearwater for meetings at Scientology's
spiritual headquarters. On Halloween day Ostertag and Joachim Bender, a
German friend, tried to swim from Fort Desoto Park to the St. Christopher,
148-foot schooner aground on a sandbar about a half mile off shore.
Bender, also a Scientologist, told police Ostertag disappeared while
swimming in rough water. Ostertag's body was recovered several days later.
Reports published in Germany earlier this year questioned the death,
saying Ostertag had been summoned to Clearwater by Scientology bosses to
answer questions about financial problems at the Stuttgart mission.
Scientology officials in Clearwater say rumors spread by enemies in
Germany caused people to raise unfounded questions about Ostertag's death.
Records in Clearwater do not include any disciplinary action taken against
Ostertag or explain why he was in Clearwater at the time he drowned,
Scientology officials said.
Peter E. Frei, 37
An off-duty Dunedin police officer was mullet fishing near Victoria Drive
in Dunedin when he noticed a body floating face down near the shoreline on
June 30, 1988.
For days, police tried to identify the dead man without success. Then on
July 4, the Church of Scientology reported that Peter Ernst Frei had been
missing since June 29. The Swiss citizen had been in Clearwater taking
courses at the church and was supposed to have returned to Switzerland on
the day his body was found.
Church officials had already cleaned out Frei's room and packed up his
possessions by the time police arrived, but friends told police a valise
with his wallet and other valuables was missing.
Frei's parents say he left home with 20,000 Swiss francs, about $13,000,
and had already paid the church more than 40,000 francs for counseling
sessions before he left home.
While Florida authorities were trying to identify him, Frei's apartment
in Switzerland was burglarized and ransacked, adding to suspicions
surrounding his death. Wood, the medical examiner, went to the scene when
Frei was found. She remains troubled about his death. She attributed it to
drowning, but now says many questions remain. Frei had scrapes on his arm
and cuts on his head and enough fluid in his chest to have drowned. He was
wearing shoes and socks and shorts.
"What's a fully clothed man doing dead in the water?" Wood asked.
"Clearly this death should be reinvestigated. We still don't know what
Frei's parents say he could not swim and would not have gone near the
"We have no clue what happened," Scientology spokesman Shaw said. "Most
of the drownings in the U.S. occur in Florida."
Heribert Pfaff, 31
Heribert Pfaff, 31, became a Scientologist after a brother encountered a
sidewalk solicitor who was recruiting students in Munich, Germany.
The decision to join, his family members now believe, was a fateful one.
For a decade after surviving a major car accident, Heribert Pfaff had
suffered severe seizures that often came in the middle of the night. In
Pfaff traveled from his home in Munich to Clearwater to take courses at the
Church of Scientology.
Pfaff's brother, Georg, told the Times that Scientologists in Germany
promised a cure for his seizures and took Pfaff off medication that had
The son of a wealthy German builder, Pfaff checked into Room 758 at the
Fort Harrison Hotel. He had brought about $100,000 to finance his visit,
family members say. His wife, Anita, told police she was staying with
friends so she wouldn't be awakened by the seizures her husband had been
having since he quit taking his medicine.
On Aug. 28, 1988, Pfaff's nude body was found upside down hanging out of
his bed. An autopsy determined that a seizure probably caused his death. No
anti-convulsant drugs were found in his bloodstream.
The $100,000 disappeared, says Georg Pfaff, his brother.
The family had stopped an attempt by Heribert Pfaff to wire transfer
another $150,000 from a family bank account that was requested a few days
before his death.
Georg Pfaff said he discovered after the death that his brother had paid
$26,330 for one Scientology course and $52,000 for another.
The church was only interested in his money, says Georg Pfaff.
Scientology officials say Pfaff's treatment was not recommended by the
"If someone had epilepsy, they should see a medical doctor," Shaw said.
"It was his choice to receive drugs or not."
Another of Pfaff's brothers, Joannes, remains a Scientologist.
Roger Nind, 49
Roger Nind's family says he tried several times to leave the Church of
Scientology and get a refund on the $70,000 he paid for books and courses.
"He attempted to get out, but their clutches were too good for drawing
him back," says his brother William Nind, a contractor in Perth, Australia.
"Each time he went to try and get his money back, they'd offer the next
session free and recharge him with their crazy beliefs."
Nind arrived in Clearwater on Oct. 15, 1992. A day later he lay dying in
Cleveland Street after he ran from between two buildings into the side of a
"What was going on in his mind?" asks Dr. Emile Brand, the retired
Clearwater physician who hit Nind. "It was such a strange case. It is
engraved in my mind. I wondered if he was suicidal. I could understand a
might want to hurt himself or was under peculiar stress and would act that
Police say Brand was going about 30 mph, accelerating from a stop sign at
the time of the accident and did not see Nind as he stepped into the
Brand was not charged and voluntarily took tests to prove he had not been
Clearwater police said Nind may have looked the wrong way as he crossed
the street, but Nind's family still questions the accident.
"I was suspicious about the accident," said William Nind. "It seemed odd.
He had been to America before. He was fairly bright. It's odd he would have
stepped out in front of a car."
William Nind said he could never find out if his brother had been alone
or with others when he was hit. His wallet, passport and about $1,000 in
cash was never returned to the family, he said.
Roger Nind remained in a coma for several days before he died in a
hospital. William Nind said Scientologists called him daily in Australia to
report on his brother's condition.
"They said they reached into his mind and he was happy with the way
things were going," William Nind said.
Scientology officials say Nind, a Scientology staffer in Perth, had come
to Clearwater to take courses that were not available in Australia and was
the victim of an accident that was probably caused by his failure to look
the correct direction as he took a morning jog.
Nind was wearing a leather jacket, black and white striped pants, a brown
belt, gray socks and high-top sneakers. His brother said he often took
Scientology officials say they have no record of Nind asking for refunds,
but did send $7,683.90 back to his relatives in Australia after receiving a
letter asking for his personal effects.
Carrie Slaughterbeck, 23
Carrie Slaughterbeck and Alan Green, her boyfriend, moved together from
Indiana to Clearwater in June 1996 to work for Kim Bright Cassano, a
prominent Scientologist who owns several Clearwater businesses.
Slaughterbeck's parents, Earl and Diane Slaughterbeck of Lafayette, Ind.,
say Cassano became Carrie's nutritional counselor, advising her to take
of Super Blue Green Algae, a product Cassano distributes through a
multilevel marketing program.
The algae is harvested from Upper Lake Klamath in Southern Oregon and is
popular among Scientologists in Clearwater. Sales literature promotes it
everyone -- pregnant women, newborn babies and the family pet. Detractors
describe it as "pond scum."
Carrie Slaughterbeck took as many as 30 algae capsules at a time, says
her twin sister, Sandy Slaughterbeck. She also took other vitamins
recommended by Cassano and signed up for several Scientology courses.
Green now says Cassano was pressuring the couple to sign up for more
expensive Scientology auditing courses and indicated that she encouraged
them to move to Clearwater just so they would join the Church of
As news accounts poured out about the lawsuit surrounding the death of
Lisa McPherson, Green returned home from an overnight trip to Orlando and
found Slaughterbeck dead in their Island Way apartment.
He summoned Cassano to the apartment while police investigated.
There, police spokesman Wayne Shelor asked Cassano if Carrie had been on
Scientology's "purification rundown," a course that includes lots of
running, hours in a sauna and vitamins and minerals.
* * *
Shelor said Cassano angrily denied that Carrie was on the program. At the
time authorities were questioning whether McPherson had been on a similar
Cassano did not return repeated telephone calls.
In an interview with the Times, Scientology officials initially said
Carrie "never set foot into the church in Clearwater," until shown her
certificates of attendance at courses she took in 1996. Ironically, the
certificates were signed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, though he
had died in 1986.
Shaw, the Scientology spokesman, said Slaughterbeck must have taken the
courses at a Scientology mission, the smallest organization within
Scientology. He said she asked to take auditing courses but was rejected
because of her past bulimia until she could see a doctor.
Slaughterbeck was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 101 pounds when her
body was found. Family members said she had liked being slim because she
thought it would help her gain modeling jobs.
Medical Examiner Wood attributed Carrie's death to "sudden and unexpected
death -- possible mitral valve prolapse." Carrie did have a heart problem,
identical to the one her twin sister has. The condition exists in about 5
percent of the population and sometimes causes an irregular heartbeat.
Wood said she was unaware that Carrie took blue green algae and doesn't
know what effect it had on her health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has twice ordered blue green algae
off the market because distributors made medical claims. State and federal
officials continue to question the algae's safety amid complaints from
consumers who say it has caused increased heart rates, breathing
difficulties and other problems.
Officials say there is no evidence that the algae is a health benefit,
but are unable to regulate it as long as it is sold as a food supplement
not as a drug.
Meanwhile the criminal investigation into Lisa McPherson's death is
drawing to a close. Later this month agents from the Florida Department of
Law Enforcement and Clearwater police expect to meet with McCabe, the
prosecutor who must decide whether anyone faces criminal charges.
Investigating officers believe some church officials who tended McPherson
during her final days should face charges.
McCabe has also indicated he'll take the rather unusual step of hearing
from Scientology lawyers as well before deciding whether to bring charges.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Alisa Ulferts
contributed to this report.