In March 1996, Jacobsen and 17 other critics traveled to Clearwater, Florida, the church's spiritual headquarters. Jacobsen and the others spent a day of uneventful picketing outside a church-owned bank and then returned home.
Six months later, Jacobsen says, he started thinking about rallying the troops for another trip to Clearwater, but this time he decided they should target one of Scientology's holiest sites, the Fort Harrison Hotel. According to a church brochure, the hotel is a religious retreat where Scientologists come "from around the world to participate in advanced auditing and training."
Before organizing the trip, Jacobsen surfed the Internet for information on Clearwater, and landed on the city's home page. Clicking his way to the police department's site, Jacobsen noticed that homicide detectives were asking for the public's help in solving the "suspicious death" of a woman named Lisa McPherson. The notice asked anyone who had information about McPherson to contact the police. It also included McPherson's last known address.
Jacobsen realized, to his surprise, that he recognized that address. It was the same street number as the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Scientology mecca Jacobsen had planned on picketing. Although the police notice made no mention of either the hotel or Scientology, Jacobsen suspected that McPherson's "suspicious death" might involve the church itself. He typed up a brief mention of McPherson in a newsletter he sends to other church critics, and mailed a copy to Tampa Tribune reporter Cheryl Waldrip.
Jacobsen says Waldrip did nothing with his tip until she realized that no obituary or any other information about McPherson's death had appeared in print. That made her suspicious, Jacobsen says, and led her to look into the police investigation.
Articles in the Tribune and other papers, and the church's changing story about what happened in McPherson's death, soon led to national coverage. Newspapers questioned Scientology practices and printed accusations that adherents, like McPherson, are held against their will. The attention turned an obscure death investigation into a highly publicized battle between police and Scientology. Eventually, the church was indicted for abuse of a disabled adult and unauthorized practice of medicine, both felonies. McPherson's family, meanwhile, has filed a civil lawsuit against the church.
The death of Lisa McPherson has become the most publicized controversy in the church's 45-year history. Stories about McPherson have appeared in nearly every major American newspaper as well as foreign publications and on numerous television programs.
Jacobsen, meanwhile, maintains an extensive archive of information about the case on several Web sites and, through the help of other a.r.s members, in four foreign languages.
McPherson was a 36-year-old member of the church who had belonged to the religion for 13 years. In November 1995, McPherson had finally crossed the Bridge to become a clear. But she told friends and family that she was unhappy at her job at a Scientology-owned publisher and that she planned to leave it and return home to Dallas.
On November 18, McPherson was involved in a minor auto accident. When paramedics arrived, they found that McPherson, who appeared unhurt, had disrobed. "I need help. I need to talk to someone," she told them. Paramedics noted McPherson said she had been doing "wrong things she didn't know were wrong."
McPherson was taken to a hospital, where a doctor recommended that she go through a psychiatric evaluation. Scientologist friends of McPherson arrived, however, and objected, saying that psychiatric evaluations are forbidden in their religion.
With Scientologists at her bedside, McPherson told hospital workers that she wanted to go home with her friends. A doctor advised against it, but ultimately released McPherson, noting that the Scientologists promised they would provide 24-hour care for the troubled woman.
McPherson checked into the Fort Harrison Hotel for, the church said, rest and relaxation. Seventeen days later, she was rushed in a Scientology van to a hospital 24 miles away, bypassing four closer hospitals in order to get to a Scientologist doctor. McPherson was dead by the time she got there.
An autopsy performed by the county medical examiner found that McPherson had died from a blood clot brought on by "bed rest and severe dehydration," according to the examiner's report. McPherson hadn't had anything to drink for five to 10 days and was unconscious for one or two days before her death, said the medical examiner, who added that McPherson's arms were covered with what appeared to be cockroach bites. The autopsy also found evidence of a staph infection, and the church argues that it was the infection, which came on suddenly, that caused the clot and killed McPherson. Church officials insisted that McPherson's time at the hotel had been pleasant and that she had exhibited no medical problems until her final day.