More than 3,750,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Lisa McPherson Scientology Case: A Medical Examiner's Meltdown

NOTE: On March 29, 2015, HBO aired its documentary about the Church of Scientology called "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief." The expose is based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same title. The Church of Scientology consists of 11,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups around the world. While the HBO documentary did not give me an understanding of the religious doctrine of the church (I'm not sure it's meant to be understood) the film did confirm my belief regarding the cause and manner of Lisa McPherson's death.


 For a criminal justice system to work, its major law enforcement players--the police, prosecutors, and forensic scientists--have to be hardworking, competent, and honest. In Florida's Pinellas and Pasco Counties between 1997 and 2000, the medical examiner's office was not up to par, and the effect on local criminal justice was disastrous. Dr. Joan E. Wood, the head of the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, was the principal source of the problem.

     A graduate of the University of South Florida Medical School, Dr. Wood began her career as a forensic pathologist in 1975 as an associate in the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. She became the chief medical examiner in 1982, and for six years was the chairperson of Florida's Medical Examiners Commission, the body that regulates the state's forensic pathologists. Her career seemed to be on track until the mid-1990s when she became involved in a high-profile and controversial homicide case. This case, the 1995 death of a 36-year-old Scientologist named Lisa McPherson, marked the beginning of the end of Dr. Wood's career.

     As revealed in court documents and reported in the St. Petersburg Times, the sequence of events began at 5:50 in the evening of November 18, 1995 when paramedics responded to a minor traffic accident in downtown Clearwater involving McPherson's sports utility van. She was not injured but took off her clothes and walked down the middle of the street telling paramedics, "I need help. I need to talk to someone." The distraught woman said she had been doing things that were wrong but didn't know what they were.

     The paramedics transported McPherson to the Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Following her examination, a group of Scientologists from her church came to the emergency room and escorted her away, promising that she would be cared for by the church, a decision grounded in their distrust of psychiatric medicine. The disturbed woman was taken to the church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater where troubled Scientologists were taken for rest and relaxation.

     On December 5, 1995, Lisa's caretakers at the hotel rushed her to a hospital in New Port Richey, a 45-minute drive, to see an emergency room physician who was a Scientologist. McPherson had been at the Fort Harrison Hotel 17 days and when she arrived in New Port Richey the five-foot-nine-inch patient weighed 108 pounds and was covered in bruises. McPherson was also unkempt in appearance and pale. She was either dead on arrival at the hospital or pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

     At eleven o'clock the next morning, Dr. Robert Davis, a forensic pathologist in the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office, performed the autopsy with Dr. Joan Wood looking on. According to Dr. Davis, Lisa McPherson's death had been caused by an embolism of the left pulmonary artery which had partially obstructed the blood flow that carried oxygen from her heart to her left lung. She had therefore died of asphyxia. A thrombus (blood clot) located behind her left knee had traveled from her leg to her heart and into the lung. At the time of her death, Lisa was severely dehydrated, a factor that contributed to her demise. In Dr. Davis's opinion, her dehydration was so pronounced she would have been unresponsive for more than 24 hours before her death. The forensic pathologist believed that the blood clot behind her left leg was caused by a combination of dehydration and bed-ridden immobility. Dr. Wood, instead of ruling McPherson's manner of death natural or accidental, labeled it undetermined, a manner of death that did not preclude a later finding of criminal homicide.

     Because of the condition of Lisa McPherson's body following her 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Clearwater police quietly began looking into the case. Detectives determined that Lisa had been a Scientologist for 18 years, and during the past two years, had spent about $70,000 on church-related counseling. Before the traffic accident she had spent relaxation time at the Fort Harrison Hotel. McPherson had worked for a Dallas publishing company that mostly employed Scientologists. She had moved to Clearwater when the company relocated there about a year earlier. McPherson had weighted between 140 and 150 pounds when taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel following the traffic accident.

     Curious about just what kind of medical care one received at the Scientologist owned hotel, investigators learned that a few of Lisa's caretakers had medical training, including one person who had been an anesthesiologist. That caregiver, however, had lost her license because of a drug problem. As far as detectives could determine, no one at the hotel had been a licensed physician. The police also discovered that during her stay, Lisa had been physically restrained. She had been tied to her bed and given injections of muscle relaxants and other chemicals.

     When word got out that the authorities were looking into Lisa McPherson's death, church officials accused the Clearwater police of religious harassment. In January 1997, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office joined the investigation. The following month, Lisa McPherson's family filed a wrongful death suit against the church.

     Looking for a second opinion regarding the cause and manner of Lisa McPherson's death, Wayne Andrews of the Clearwater Police Department and Agent A. L. Sroope of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in November 1997, traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to consult with Dr. George Podgorny, the Forsythe County medical examiner. Dr. Podgorny had reviewed medical records from from the Morton Plant and New Port Richey hospitals; pharmacy records of drugs that had been administered to McPherson; and the Pinellas-Pasco autopsy report that chief medical examiner Joan Wood had approved.

     According to police and court documents, after reviewing this material, Dr. Podgorny opined that the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson had been caused by her extreme dehydration and immobility. The forensic pathologist told the investigators that if McPherson had received proper medical treatment and had been taken to a hospital when she first became ill, she might not have died. What this patient needed and did not get was water, salt, vitamins, and extra oxygen. Moreover, her blood-cell count and kidney function should have been closely monitored. When asked if the blood clot in her leg could have been caused by the traffic accident, Dr. Podgorny responded emphatically that such an occurrence would be extremely rare, especially in a 36-year-old woman. He pointed out that people bruise their legs all the time without getting blood clots. In the pathologist's opinion, the manner of Lisa McPherson's death boiled down to improper medical care following the traffic accident.

     A Pinellas County grand jury, on November 13, 1998, returned a two-count indictment charging the Church of Scientology with practicing medicine without a license and abusing or neglecting an adult. In response to these charges, the church asserted that the Lisa McPherson case was being exploited by forces out to destroy the institution. Accustomed to fighting for its survival, the church hit back hard. One of those on the receiving end of the attack was Dr. Joan Wood, the forensic pathologist who had opened the door to the grand jury indictment with her ruling of an undetermined manner of death.

     In the months that followed the indictment, defense attorneys representing the church deluged Dr. Wood with subpoenas that demanded all sorts of information. These lawyers wanted her to change the manner of death ruling to "accidental" on the theory the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson was the result of her traffic mishap. The church also denied practicing medicine at the Fort Harrison Hotel and insisted that Lisa had been properly cared for at the Scientology retreat.

     In February 2000, more than four years after the autopsy in the McPherson case, Dr. Wood, while insisting that she had not broken under pressure from the Church of Scientology, changed the McPherson manner of death to accidental. Her decision outraged the county prosecutor and the police agencies involved in the case. As far as the prosecutor was concerned Dr. Wood had folded under pressure. Some of the journalists following the case speculated that pressure and stress had caused the forensic pathologist to come emotionally unglued. Whether she had been bullied into her reversal or not, her new manner of death ruling destroyed her relationship with the local law enforcement community. The prosecutor had no choice but to drop the case against the Church of Scientology. Dr. Wood resigned her position in September 2000.

     After leaving the medical examiner's office, Dr. Wood disappeared for two years, eventually showing up at a conference of state medical examiners in Gainesville, Florida. A reporter with the St. Petersburg Times asked her if her disappearance had anything to do with the McPherson case and if she planned to get back into forensic science. Dr. Wood denied that her reversal in the McPherson case had anything to do with pressure from the Church of Scientology, but she did admit that after 25 years as a forensic pathologist, the stress of the job had finally caught up with her. She said she still had panic attacks when she walked into a courtroom.

     Lisa McPherson's estate, in May 2004, settled the wrongful death suit for an undisclosed amount. In July 2005, Dr. Wood voluntarily relinquished her medical license following a state health department declaration that in the McPherson case she had become "an advocate for the Church of Scientology." After that, she lived in obscurity, hardly ever leaving her townhouse in Tampa. On July 8, 2011, she had a stroke, and eight days later, died in the hospital. At the time of her death the former medical examiner was 67.

1 comment: