CLEARWATER, Fla. – A former high-ranking Scientology official who handled the case of a mentally ill member who died under church care ordered the destruction of incriminating evidence to cover up missteps, a newspaper reported Monday.
The ex-official and church defector, Marty Rathbun, had for years insisted the church did nothing wrong in handling the case of Lisa McPherson's death on Dec. 5, 1995. But he recently told the St. Petersburg Times the church botched the woman's case from the start.
The church dismisses Rathbun as a bitter former member who inflated his importance. The church said he had been demoted in 2003; he left in 2004.
Rathbun said he initially wanted to go to the state attorney's office after the 36-year-old's death, but he instead followed the church's culture to never admit fault. He and others removed papers from McPherson's files, including a caretaker's opinion that the situation was out of control and the patient needed a doctor.
"I said, 'Lose 'em,' and walked out of the room," Rathbun told the newspaper.
McPherson's death prompted investigations, lawsuits and has remained a talking point among Scientology critics.
A wrongful death case was settled with McPherson's family in 2004 under undisclosed terms. And while investigations brought charges of criminal neglect and practicing medicine without a license, they were later dropped when a coroner changed the cause of death to an accident from undetermined.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe said destruction of evidence charges would have had to be brought within three years of the crime and that the investigation into McPherson's death was over.
"The whole thing was done wrong," Rathbun told the newspaper. "I can't tell you what a technical crime this was."
Church spokesman Tommy Davis said he couldn't specifically comment on many of Rathbun's claims because of the settlement.
"What he's been saying — there's so many lies you can't believe anything at this point because he's been lying so much," Davis said.
McPherson joined Scientology at 18 in her hometown of Dallas and moved to the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater.
On Nov. 18, 1995, she was involved in a traffic accident and soon became frantic, according to the newspaper's report, stripping off her clothes and walking along the street. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors discussed having her committed for psychiatric evaluation. But Scientology opposes psychiatry and psychiatric drugs.
According to the Times, about 10 church members went to get her and she signed out against a doctor's advice. She was brought to the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.
For 17 days, McPherson was kept in a room where church officials tried to calm, feed and medicate her, keeping logs of what transpired.
She slapped and screamed at the caretakers, babbled and vomited, the newspaper reported. As she spiraled downward and lost about 12 pounds, a church doctor who was unlicensed in Florida phoned David Minkoff, a fellow Scientologist who was a licensed doctor in the state. Minkoff said McPherson should be taken to a hospital down the street.
The Scientologists feared McPherson would be exposed to psychiatric care there and drove 45 minutes to a hospital where Minkoff was working. Minkoff pronounced her dead upon arrival.
Other revelations in the newspaper's three-part series revealed that McPherson had achieved "clear" status, a designation that means they are free of painful trauma and unwanted feelings, just weeks before her mental breakdown and death. The designation comes through auditing, Scientology's trademark counseling sessions.
The newspaper earlier reported that the leader of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, struck his subordinates numerous times. The church denied the allegations, saying they are lies in an effort to tarnish Miscavige, who has led the church for more than two decades.