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Twenty-seven years ago today: The final hours of Lisa McPherson’s Scientology life
We want to warn you the story we’re reprinting today is very disturbing and contains graphic descriptions that some may find difficult to deal with. Seven years ago we marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Lisa McPherson by recording, in real time, the final weeks of her life. Today marks the 27th anniversary of her final day on earth, and we are reproducing the culminating piece of our series which we published seven years ago.
It’s a harrowing account of Lisa’s final hours, and not for the squeamish. If you are not familiar with her story, you might go back to the beginning of our series (links are provided below) about this lovely woman whose mental breakdown was treated by Scientology with a grim enforced seclusion at their holiest place, the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida. By this point, she was on her 17th day of isolation, with her caretakers not saying a word to her as dictated by the policies of L. Ron Hubbard.
What Laura Arrunada, Lisa McPherson’s final caretaker, saw in Room 174 of the Fort Harrison Hotel in the last three days of Lisa’s life was so upsetting, Marty Rathbun made her reports disappear.
Laura had trained to be a doctor in Mexico, and had completed her coursework and a two-year residency, but had stopped short of taking the board exam to become a physician. Ten years later, she was working in the Sea Org at Scientology’s Flag Land Base in its medical liaison office. She had first been asked to work a shift with Lisa McPherson on the day after Thanksgiving.
A week later, she was working with Rita Boykin and Heather Hoff while being overseen by Janis Johnson. Laura’s shifts started in the late afternoon and went until the early morning. And on Lisa’s final two nights, Laura witnessed a disturbing sight.
Sunday night, December 3, 1995, Laura watched as Lisa, who at this point could no longer stand or get around the hotel room on her own, was lying flat on the floor, face down. And her hips began to move.
Laura began to realize what was happening. Lisa was moving as if she was having sex with someone. She was kissing the floor and grinding her pelvis on it. Then, Lisa turned from the floor and began to masturbate.
Laura told police that Lisa repeated the act the next night, Lisa’s last alive. And while pushing and rubbing against the floor, Lisa had made two, symmetrical scrapes on the end of her nose.
It wasn’t the first time that one of the caretakers had recorded sexual behavior by Lisa. On the first day of her ‘babywatch,’ on November 19, Lisa had tried to provoke Susanne Schnurrenberger by kissing her, touching her breasts, and licking her face. Schnurrenberger didn’t react, and, following the protocol of Scientology procedure, remained silent around Lisa.
Now, more than two weeks later, Laura Arrunada said, under oath, that she’d seen an even more disturbing sight, with Lisa moving against the floor.
On the night of December 4 she also told Janis Johnson, the chief medical officer, that Lisa was looking bad and perhaps needed an IV to get fluids into her. It was a rare admission by one of the Scientologist caretakers that Lisa might actually need to see a real doctor.
Laura’s shift ended at about 6 in the morning on December 5, twenty-seven years ago today.
Heather Hoff, just 17 years old, took over for the day, and she reported that Lisa stayed in bed and wasn’t talking or moving, a big contrast to just a few days earlier. Like Laura, Heather felt compelled to make sure that Lisa was still breathing.
At 5 pm, Laura returned for another shift, and Heather was in the bathroom with Lisa, running the shower while Lisa sat in the tub, looking limp.
Laura was immediately struck by how much worse Lisa looked than just twelve hours earlier. To Laura, with her medical training, Lisa looked septic — like she was suffering from an infection. And while Laura went to help Heather with the shower, Lisa’s diarrhea returned as her bowels emptied while she sat in the tub.
Laura was really alarmed now. She knew that Lisa’s anus relaxing like that could be a sign of real trouble. She told Heather she was going to notify Janis Johnson, the chief medical officer.
“I went to tell Janis that she was not looking good…You know, like she was a, like darkness around her eyes. And I mean, I know that when this anus is relaxed it is some neurological trouble,” Laura later told police.
Laura said that this happened a little after 5 p.m., when she first arrived for her shift. But Janis didn’t arrive at the room for almost two hours, at about 7 p.m. (Janis told police she arrived as soon as she could “break free.”)
Janis checked and found that Lisa didn’t seem to have a fever, but she did appear to be septic, like there was an infection in her blood. Also that she looked very dehydrated.
Janis took Laura aside — they were still trying not to talk in Lisa’s presence — and told her that she wanted to talk to a Scientologist doctor named David Minkoff, an infectious disease specialist at a hospital in Pasco County, about 45 minutes away.
Laura put Lisa into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt while Janis went to call Minkoff.
Two weeks earlier, Janis had met Minkoff for lunch, to talk about referring patients to his pain clinic, another reason Janis might have thought of Minkoff. (Neither Minkoff or Janis mentioned to police what David Houghton, the dentist, had said, that about a week earlier he had talked over with Minkoff the situation in Room 174, and the two of them decided to get some liquid Valium to have on hand to sedate Lisa. The Valium was never used. Minkoff, meanwhile, gave police the impression that the first time he’d heard about Lisa was when Janis called him on the evening of December 5.)
Janis told Minkoff that Lisa needed an antibiotic, but Minkoff told her he’d need to see a patient before prescribing one. She asked him about bringing Lisa to see him, and hoped to keep away from the “hoo-hah” of the emergency room. Minkoff was a Scientologist, and understood what she meant — they wouldn’t want people making noise or speaking to Lisa if they could help it. Minkoff told Janis to bring Lisa down to the hospital, and that he’d be working until 10 p.m.
Janis then put together the go team. She sent Laura to ask Paul Greenwood to join them, asked Emma Schamehorn to draw a map to the hospital in New Port Richey where Dr. Minkoff worked, and then went to get her Mazda minivan from across the street to pull it up to the curb at the cabanas on Osceola Avenue.
Greenwood was a retired chiropractor from Bellingham, Washington who was now a deputy staff section officer and had been doing some coursework when Laura asked him to come help.
When he arrived in Room 174, Lisa McPherson was lying on her bed with her eyes open, staring at the ceiling and breathing heavily, not saying anything, and not moving.
They could see that Janis was pulling her minivan up to the curb, so Paul lifted Lisa under her arms while Laura lifted her feet. They carried her out to the van and put her sitting up in the middle of the bench seat in the back.
Being careful not to say anything in Lisa’s presence, Laura got into the car so she was sitting next to Lisa on her left. She put her arm around Lisa, whose head rested on her shoulder. Paul got in next to Lisa on her right, and Janis, with the map Emma had drawn for her to the hospital in Pasco County, began driving.
Just five or six minutes away there was a much closer facility — Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. But it was the one where Lisa had been taken after her car accident on November 18, and Janis would have worried that doctors there would try again to get a psychiatric evaluation. In fact, Janis passed four hospitals that were all closer than the one in New Port Richey, where Dr. Minkoff was waiting.
Asked later about taking such a long drive to get Lisa to a doctor, Laura defended Janis’s decision, saying that they really didn’t know she was so sick.
About halfway through the journey, both Paul and Janis each told police, Lisa’s breathing suddenly changed. They said Lisa started breathing more quickly, but then settled down and it “got very, very soft,” Paul later said.
He took her right wrist into his hand, searching for a pulse. He found it, but it was getting harder and harder to discern. He looked at Laura and signaled for her to look for a pulse as well, again trying to keep silent around Lisa in the Scientology custom.
With about five minutes left in the journey, Laura checked Lisa’s carotid artery and also expressed with a hand gesture that she too was having a hard time finding a pulse.
Neither of them called for Janis to stop the car so they could start lifesaving activities. They just drove on.
When Janis arrived at the emergency room entrance, she ran out to tell the front desk person that she needed help.
The first to the scene was a registered nurse, Theresa Klimaszewski. She went to the van and could see that Lisa was leaning on Laura. Theresa tried to find a pulse, but was unable to. But it was dark, and she assumed that Lisa was just unresponsive.
A moment later, triage nurse Rick Pemberton arrived with a wheelchair. (Janis had been told that the ER didn’t have a spare stretcher to take to the van.) Pemberton later told police that as soon as he reached Lisa and began to put her in the chair, he knew she was already dead. A few minutes later, Theresa was sure of it too. But if Lisa had died, she was pale but not cyanotic (she hadn’t turned blue), suggesting to them that she had just expired. Theresa assumed it had just happened, Rick guessed that it was up to an hour before — but he emphasized to police that he was not a forensic specialist.
Minkoff was told that his patient had arrived, and when he saw Lisa slumped on the wheelchair, he was struck by the appearance of her skin, which bore hemorrhages just under the skin, suggesting sepsis. He took her immediately into the trauma room, had her intubated, and started CPR. About a half hour later, they stopped their efforts.
Other workers at the hospital, who were not Scientologists, backed up Minkoff’s insistence that he had no idea, from Janis’s earlier call, that Lisa was in such bad shape. He was stunned when he first saw her, and let Janis know that he was angry.
Back in the lobby, Janis realized that Lisa McPherson had died when one of the hospital workers began asking her and Laura about how to spell Lisa’s name, and where she lived, and who was her next of kin.
They had forgotten to bring her purse, and neither Janis or Laura knew Lisa very well, despite what they’d been through in recent days. They didn’t know what to say.
It fell to Tom DeVocht to call Scientology leader David Miscavige in California and inform him of Lisa’s death. From an office at the West Coast Building in Clearwater, DeVocht called Miscavige. Janet Reitman, in her book Inside Scientology, points out that Marty Rathbun was also present in Clearwater, and he also kicked into action.
Mark “Marty” Rathbun had been the second-highest official in Scientology, David Miscavige’s right hand man and a formidable enforcer. He had worked his way back from a fall from grace — he’d “blown” (left) Scientology in 1993, and then had served a kind of banishment on the Freewinds until the summer of 1995. He had watched with concern as Miscavige had supervised Lisa’s auditing.
Miscavige had overseen Lisa McPherson’s auditing, had declared her “Clear,” and now she had died after what looked like a terribly botched attempt to keep her confined in a hotel room while she was going through a mental breakdown. What immediately worried them was any evidence that Lisa’s health had been in the hands of Janis Johnson, the disgraced Arizona doctor who had lost her license to practice medicine following an investigation there that she had stolen pain drugs from her patients.
Rathbun fired up an operation to have any evidence that Johnson had been practicing medicine on Lisa removed from the premises. (The hotel also had plenty of time to completely scrub Lisa’s cabana, and replaced her two double beds with a king-sized bed before police ever got a look at the room.) Rathbun also admitted, in 2009, that he’d had documents destroyed.
Each of the caretakers had been asked to write down statements, and to have filled out daily logs about their shifts. More than a year later, as a police investigation picked up steam, Rathbun looked through the caretaker logs. In a 2009 interview, Rathbun told the St. Petersburg Times about his decision to make some of that information from Lisa’s final days disappear…
Three entries particularly troubled Rathbun. One contained a bizarre sexual reference McPherson had made. Another revealed that no one thought to remove the mirror from the room of a psychotic woman bent on harming herself. The third was one caretaker’s opinion that the situation was out of control and that McPherson needed to see a doctor. Rathbun concluded the notes had to go.
Arrunada’s observation about Lisa’s disturbing sexual movements on the floor occurred on December 3 and 4 — the two days that Rathbun had destroyed. That was also the time when Arrunada suggested to Janis that Lisa needed an IV and real medical care.
Reading the existing caretaker statements, the caretaker logs, the sworn statements, the prosecution summaries, and lengthy police and prosecutor summaries, the material in them is, for the large part, very consistent. The few examples when that’s not the case stick out like a sore thumb.
Janis Johnson, for example, lies like a rug repeatedly in her interview with police to the point where it’s almost physically painful to read. The disgraced former physician repeatedly pushes Scientology’s shore story, that Lisa was at the Fort Harrison to get rest and relaxation, did not want to see a doctor, and only became very ill at the last minute.
This, for example, is how Janis described Lisa’s reaction on the evening of December 5 — several days after the other caretakers said Lisa could barely speak, couldn’t walk, and was completely incoherent…
“She was actually the friendliest she had ever been to me. She actually was happy to see me. She smiled at me, you know? She said ‘hi.’ It was like, whoa, this is different. Maybe she realized she did need some help and she was, you know, at last willing to accept some help.”
At last willing to accept some help. It may be the single most disgusting lie told in the entire investigation. That Lisa McPherson, after 17 days of forced feedings, being held in a room against her will, and being subjected to a cruel silent treatment finally would allow herself to be “helped.”
Another obvious lie: Janis claimed that she had to talk Lisa into the idea of going to see Dr. Minkoff. Janis describes having a conversation with Lisa and overcoming her objections to seeing a doctor by explaining that he was a Scientologist.
Remember, this supposed conversation happens a couple of hours after Lisa was so far gone, she had sat limply in her bathtub and shit herself as Heather Hoff and Laura Arrunada had been bathing her.
But another reason that Janis’s story that she overcame Lisa’s objections is an obvious shore story is that just minutes later in her interview with police, she’s talking about how she and Laura moved out of Lisa’s earshot to discuss how they were going to get her to the New Port Richey Hospital. Oh, that’s right, neither of them were having any kind of conversations with Lisa because none of them had said a word to her in more than two weeks as part of Scientology’s sadistic Introspection Rundown.
And about that, this was Janis Johnson’s response when police asked her about the Introspection Rundown: “I don’t know of any such course…She was simply there to rest.”
Reading Janis Johnson’s lies, you can begin to see why, as Janet Reitman explains in her book, Clearwater Police and state investigators asked the state prosecutor to indict Janis for manslaughter. They also wanted Janis and Laura indicted for practicing medicine without a license, and Laura and Alain Kartuzinski indicted for manslaughter. Instead, the prosecutor chose lesser charges, and against the church rather than individuals. It was a weak choice, Reitman explains, and then later fell apart anyway.
As Reitman explains, Dr. Joan Wood, the Pinellas-Pasco County medical examiner, had made a crucial mistake. She found that Lisa had died from a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in the lungs — that was brought on by bed rest and extreme dehydration. But she also said that Lisa had to have been unconscious for 24 to 48 hours before she died, which didn’t comport with what the caretakers and security guards and Paul Greenwood and others had said in reports and interviews. Scientology, Marty Rathbun has revealed, spent millions trying to destroy Joan Wood and her conclusions. But as Reitman explains, it was the absence of a substance in Lisa’s body — known as ketone proteins — that proved Wood had been wrong about Lisa being unconscious for two days, and lent credence to what the caretakers had said, that Lisa was becoming unresponsive, but was at least conscious and still receiving some small amounts of nutrition up to her last day. After a retest showed again the lack of ketones, “Wood was cornered, and she knew it,” Reitman writes. Forced to change her report, Scientology pounced, and prosecutors knew that they’d be unable to call Wood as a witness. Their case crumbled, and the criminal prosecution was ended in 2000. Wood still maintained that Lisa had died from the pulmonary embolism, but now she removed reference to bed rest and dehydration, and called the death accidental.
But regardless of Wood’s mistakes or the crushing legal onslaught Scientology subjected her to, other experts backed up her assessment that Lisa’s case of dehydration was practically off the charts. Tom Tobin of the St. Petersburg Times submitted the findings of Lisa’s autopsy to five independent doctors who were tops in their field, and they all agreed that Lisa had been extremely dehydrated, and that it had happened over a considerable time. And again, that matched the large amount of material in the caretaker statements, caretaker logs, and police interviews. For more than two weeks, the Scientologist Sea Org workers had gotten Lisa to ingest an inadequate amount of food and water, and gave her things like Cal-Mag which only exacerbated the problem.
Once again, the caretaker information (except for the obvious lies in an interview like Janis Johnson’s) was consistent and rang true. And that’s why another of Wood’s conclusions simply doesn’t work with what we know about how Lisa was handled in Room 174. Wood concluded from the appearance of Lisa’s skin on her arms and legs and nose that she had been bitten by cockroaches. Other experts disagreed, saying her skin was consistent with her ailments. But insect bites also simply didn’t comport with multiple caretakers watching Lisa 24 hours a day in a hotel room. Like Wood’s assumption about Lisa being unconscious, it just didn’t work unless there had been a massive conspiracy by Lisa’s caretakers and security guards and others to lie in statements given up to two years apart. And, like the mistake about Lisa being unconscious for two days, it just doesn’t work.
But it was a salacious detail, and one that shocked the public and tended to reinforce the beliefs of people who wanted to see Scientology as an evil force that would kill one of its own parishioners. So the cockroach bite detail overwhelmed everything else. The public got the perception that Lisa had been held in a dungeon somewhere with insects feeding on her in a swarm.
It just wasn’t the case. The truth was bad enough. Scientologists, robotically following the dictates of a man who had been dead for almost a decade, L. Ron Hubbard, had dealt with Lisa’s madness by forcing herbal supplements and inappropriate liquids into her by holding her down and using a syringe, by confining her to a hotel room day after day, and expecting that she’d “calm down” and become ready for auditing. She did calm down. She became limp. She was dehydrated and had lost weight to the point that she was skeletal. She could no longer stand and had become incontinent. And they watched. They watched as she died in front of them.
That was bad enough. And because of the church’s millions, and because even the state of Florida was so intimidated by Scientology, the people responsible were never charged and never faced justice.
On this December 5, twenty-seven years after her death, we apologize to Lisa McPherson that she never got the care or the justice she deserved. She was owed better.
Our series on the anniversary of Lisa McPherson’s death.
Nov. 15: Tom DeVocht: Watching David Miscavige watch Lisa McPherson and her faulty ‘needle’
Nov. 16: Lisa McPherson in Orlando: What her hotel roommate witnessed, and the Slaughter rule
Nov. 17: Our Scientology tech experts review Lisa McPherson’s grim cycle of guilt and self-blame
Nov. 18: Lisa McPherson’s last opportunity for standard care ended 20 years ago today
Nov. 19: ‘Babywatch,’ day one: Lisa McPherson raves out by Scientology’s holiest swimming pool
Nov. 20: Day two
Nov. 21: Day three
Nov. 22: Day four
Nov. 23: Day five
Nov. 24: Day six
Nov. 25: Lisa McPherson and the doctors: Hamstrung by the ‘spiritual’ needs of a thetan
Nov. 26: Day eight
Nov. 27: Day nine
Nov. 28: Day ten
Nov. 29: Day eleven
Nov. 30: Day twelve
Dec. 1: Day thirteen
Dec. 2: Day fourteen
Dec. 3: Day fifteen
Dec. 4: How Scientology ‘caretakers’ could stand by and watch Lisa McPherson deteriorate
Scientology’s leader goes off on Leah Remini!
We’re still marveling at the epic rant Scientology leader David Miscavige posted after the mistrial in the Danny Masterson trial. We sent out a short video about it yesterday to our subscribers, and this morning we’re making it available to everyone. And here’s the YouTube version….
Thank you for reading today’s story here at Substack. For the full picture of what’s happening today in the world of Scientology, please join the conversation at tonyortega.org, where we’ve been reporting daily on David Miscavige’s cabal since 2012. There you’ll find additional stories, and our popular regular daily features:
Source Code: Actual things founder L. Ron Hubbard said on this date in history
Avast, Ye Mateys: Snapshots from Scientology’s years at sea
Overheard in the Freezone: Indie Hubbardism, one thought at a time
Past is Prologue: From this week in history at alt.religion.scientology
Random Howdy: Your daily dose of the Captain
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