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Lawyer again takes on Church of Scientology

CLEARWATER — Taking on the Church of Scientology in court is like picking a fight with the Russian army. When attacked, the church defends itself aggressively, wearing down opponents with a barrage of litigation while peering into their personal lives.

Ken Dandar knows this better than anyone. In the 7-year-long Lisa McPherson case, the Tampa lawyer and the church waged one of the most grueling, fiercely contested legal battles in Tampa Bay history.

The wrongful death lawsuit became intensely acrimonious, with Dandar calling Scientology a ruthless cult and church officials countersuing and calling him a liar, a religious bigot and an ambulance chaser. The David-and-Goliath fight had Dandar flying solo against a squadron of top-notch lawyers.

Now, by targeting the church in another wrongful death suit, Dandar and his two-man law firm are essentially ringing the bell for Round 2.

What is he thinking?

"It's like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. Once you've done it, you can do it again," Dandar said.

He adds: "I anticipate this will be a completely different type of case. I do not anticipate any personal attacks on anybody from any direction."

He says this with a straight face. He pauses for a beat.

Then he laughs.

• • •

In the case of McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers in Clearwater, Dandar eventually won a confidential settlement for her family.

The latest lawsuit stems from the death of Kyle Brennan, 20, who shot himself in the head two years ago in Clearwater while visiting his father, who is a Scientologist. Brennan's mother blames Scientology, while the church says it has no connection whatsoever to the suicide.

"This case is meritless," said Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis. "It's an attempt to draw the church into something the church has nothing to do with."

Dandar says no other attorney would take the case.

"I don't care about Scientology or what they believe in," the longtime civil litigator said. "The only reason I took the case is because my client lost her son. She couldn't find another lawyer, and I have all this expertise. I had no choice."

There are similarities and differences between the two cases.

Both people who died were mentally unstable, and their cases touch on one of the most controversial tenets of the religion — its fervent opposition to psychiatry and psychiatric drugs.

• • •

The Lisa McPherson case generated nightmarish publicity for Scientology, which has made a concerted effort to play a more visible role in the civic life of Clearwater, its spiritual headquarters.

In 1995, after a minor traffic accident, McPherson acted strangely and was taken to a nearby hospital for psychiatric evaluation. But fellow Scientologists quickly brought her to the church's Fort Harrison Hotel.

According to church staffers, McPherson became crazed, attacked her caregivers, spat out food, cried and broke things. She never saw a doctor. She was given injections of magnesium and sedatives and was force-fed liquid Benadryl, ground aspirin and juice.

After 17 days, gaunt and unresponsive, she was driven 45 minutes to a New Port Richey hospital to be seen by a Scientologist doctor. But she was already dead.

The church has always maintained that staffers were trying to nurse McPherson through her breakdown when she died unexpectedly from a blood clot stemming from her traffic accident.

Felony charges against Scientology were dropped in 2000, but the battles in civil court raged for four more years. The paperwork reached 200 volumes, as tall as a two-story building.

Church leaders called the lawsuit an assault on Scientology funded by church haters. They accused Dandar of professional misconduct and perjury.

When asked about the seven-year case, Dandar refuses to discuss it other than to say, "It was seven and a half years."

One major difference between Dandar's two cases: McPherson died while in the church's care, while Brennan shot himself in his Scientologist father's private apartment.

• • •

The new lawsuit, filed in Tampa federal court, names the church, Brennan's father and two other Scientology parishioners: Denise Gentile, twin sister of the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, and her husband, Gerald Gentile.

The lawsuit alleges that the Gentiles persuaded Brennan's father to take away the unstable young man's antidepression medication, Lexapro, which led to Brennan's death.

Scientology officials say that none of these people work for the church and that a Clearwater police investigation pokes holes in the lawsuit's assertions.

"We believe there are no facts to support the allegations against them," said the Gentiles' attorney, Lee Fugate, who represented Scientology in the McPherson case.

Dandar says witnesses will dispute parts of the police report. He suggests the parishioners were taking direction from church officials: "It'll all come out."

Although a criminal prosecutor must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of proof in civil wrongful-death cases is lower. Dandar would have to convince a jury that, more likely than not, negligence led to Brennan's death.

• • •

This time around, Dandar doesn't have a wealthy anti-Scientology backer like Robert Minton, who spent $2-million to fund the McPherson lawsuit.

Instead, he's taking the Brennan case on a contingency basis. He says other lawyers are raising their eyebrows at him.

"The Church of Scientology is a tenacious foe," said Clearwater lawyer Denis de Vlaming, who has represented church critics.

"I think Ken knows what he's in for — a smack-down, drag-out, winner-take-all cage match. For him to say he'll do that again after what he went through, it's probably like going through childbirth again immediately after leaving the delivery room."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Lawyer again takes on Church of Scientology 02/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 1:40pm]
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