Lisa McPherson turned to the Church of Scientology in her 20s as she tried to shed the emotional baggage of a rocky youth. By age 36, with a high school education, she was earning a handsome salary as a sales representative in Clearwater.
Today, as the church tries to rebut assertions that it caused her sudden death, it also credits Scientology for her successes in life.
But McPherson's turnaround came at a financial price.
From 1991 until she died in December 1995, McPherson spent more than $175,000 on Scientology courses, counseling and causes, according to financial records. In three of those years, her donations to the church ranged from 29 percent to 55 percent of her income.
She spent more than $57,000 on Scientology in the final year of her life, which ended after a 17-day stay at the church's downtown Clearwater retreat, the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Since then, the investigation into her grim physical decline while in the care of Scientology staffers has produced a related tale about one parishioner's steep financial commitment to the Church of Scientology.
That story leaps off the number-filled pages of McPherson's bank statements, her check registers, her tax records and something rarely seen outside Scientology's guarded circles: the internal "parishioner statements" that kept track of what she donated and spent at the church.
Although the church says its services are not expensive, McPherson regularly gave far more of her income to Scientology than Americans, on average, give to traditional religions and charities.
Her records also illustrate how the 1993 IRS decision to grant Scientology tax-exempt status helps underwrite payments from individual Scientologists to the church and the finances of the church itself.
In 1994, McPherson spent so much money taking Scientology programs she was able to reduce her six-figure taxable income by 42 percent, solely by claiming a charitable deduction, according to an IRS 1040 form found among her personal papers. The form indicates she filed for a government refund that year of more than $17,000 _ four times the average for taxpayers in her income group.
In an interview, church officials and their attorneys said the Times is unfairly singling out Scientology by reporting what McPherson spent.
They said no one forced McPherson to spend money on the church. That she did, they said, is a testament to how much she valued it.
"Why is it a negative?" asked Brian Anderson, the church's spokesman in Clearwater. "If it is higher, I'm proud of that. It's a barometer of how successful we are and of the good work we do worldwide."
For all her tax-exempt giving, McPherson was comfortable but not wealthy.
Her salary in the last three years of her life ranged from $85,000 to $140,000, depending on her sales performance.
She paid cash for her 1993 Jeep and spent $695 a month for her Belleair apartment. She occasionally traveled back to her native Dallas to visit friends and family.
She had been in Clearwater almost two years when she entered Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel on Nov. 18, 1995, to recuperate after acting erratically and taking off her clothes at the scene of a minor auto accident.
After 17 days under the care of Scientology staffers, she was taken in a van to a Pasco County hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy later found she died of a blot clot in her left lung. But police still are investigating, and a legal dispute rages over whether her care at the Fort Harrison caused the clot.
Detectives are expected to complete their work before Thanksgiving, and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe will decide whether criminal charges are warranted.
During a visit to McPherson's apartment after her funeral, her mother, Fannie McPherson, and two aunts uncovered a box of financial records in a closet. When the case became public last December, they allowed reporters to make copies.
Other documents have been produced in recent weeks by church attorneys responding to a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Church of Scientology by McPherson's family.
Among the papers in McPherson's closet were her Scientology "parishioner statements" from 1994 and 1995. They detailed how McPherson built up her running account at the church with large deposits, and how the church drew thousands of dollars from the account when she decided to take Scientology counseling.
In the final months of her life, McPherson's personal problems affected her job at AMC Publishing, a Clearwater company owned by other members of the Church of Scientology.
The amounts on her sales commission checks dropped dramatically, according to AMC payroll records supplied by the church. Still, she kept stoking her church account with large donations.
She deposited $3,000 in January of 1995.
More than $6,500 in February.
More than $10,000 in March.
Nearly $9,000 in July.
More than $11,000 in August.
Meanwhile, AMC Publishing advanced her $8,475 in March, $8,800 in July and $5,400 in August. Those exact amounts turned up as deposits in McPherson's church account.
In addition, records indicate she borrowed smaller amounts from a separate corporate account her employer kept with the church. The church would handle the transactions by transferring money between McPherson's account and the corporate account.
McPherson was charged $13,000 in February for counseling, or "auditing," in the lower levels of Scientology, where she remained after taking church courses for 13 years.
Another $12,450 was deducted from her account in April for "auditing" from a top-flight Scientology "auditor."
Over the summer of 1995, she spent $18,620 on services that involve preparing and becoming eligible for the upper levels of Scientology.
"I think Lisa was a 36-year-old adult who could choose to spend her money however she chose to spend it," said Laura Vaughan, a Tampa lawyer representing the church.
Anderson, the church spokesman, said Scientologists give to the church at widely varying levels. "There are people who go for years and years without donating any money to the church," he said.
He noted that Scientology allows members to advance by "auditing" each other at no charge.
There is no figure for what Scientologists spend on average, Anderson said.
"There are all kinds of levels in the church, depending on what they want to do," he said. McPherson's "willingness is shared by 8-million other Scientologists around the world who want to see the Church of Scientology grow and expand."
In 1977, Lisa McPherson graduated with honors from Bryan Adams High School in Dallas, finishing 60th in a class of 743.
Instead of college, she got a job at Southwestern Bell Telephone, where her family says she met a supervisor who introduced her to Scientology.
In depositions in the family's lawsuit, the church's attorneys have characterized McPherson as a once-promiscuous young woman with a drug problem and a bad early marriage who turned her life around with Scientology's help.
The depositions indicate she lived with alcoholic parents and an older brother who shot himself to death when McPherson was 14. Her father committed suicide 10 years later. A church attorney indicated she had two abortions.
Once in her diary, McPherson agonized over whether to tell a prospective boyfriend in Clearwater about "my past."
According to one church document, McPherson began taking Scientology courses in 1982. But the earliest available records of her finances don't begin until 1991.
The $176,744 she spent from 1991 through 1995 is only a partial figure for what McPherson spent in Scientology.
The records available do not address what she spent in previous years. And there is no way to tell how much she would have spent had she lived and taken the years-long trek into the upper levels of Scientology.
After 13 years in the church, McPherson had slowly crossed to a middle point along "The Bridge to Total Freedom." That's the church's name for the highly detailed progression of steps for improving one's "spiritual awareness, self-confidence, intelligence and ability."
It was developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986.
Hubbard said he discovered that people are spiritual beings called "thetans" who have lived before and will live again. This view was reflected in the language of the church memo written the night McPherson died.
It said she had "dropped her body."
The upper levels of Scientology offer the promise of becoming an "operating thetan" or "OT," which according to church materials, is someone who lives "with full awareness, memory and ability, independent of the physical universe."
One Scientologist identified as "K.C." described the "OT" experience more specifically in a recent church brochure.
While walking down a street in Clearwater, "I was exterior with full perception," K.C. recounted. "Now I can "see' a car coming around a blind corner or someone coming down the hall, before my body gets there. It's great! And I'm looking forward to expanding this ability."
The church's media guide says the "OT" levels offer immortality, "which is priceless."
Two months before her death McPherson had reached "clear," a state below "OT" in which Scientologists believe a "thetan" can live without interference from memories buried in the subconscious or "reactive mind."
Although "clear" is a high achievement in Scientology, McPherson had further to go.
She got a form letter written years ago by Hubbard. It said it was her duty to "attain OT as soon as possible," and after that, to help "clean up this sector of the universe and make it safe not only for ourselves but the billions of others who have been harmed."
McPherson's 1995 parishioner statements suggest she already was paying thousands of dollars to become eligible to enter the exalted and highly secret OT levels. But there also are indications in church records that her climb to that point had not been smooth.
Three times from 1986 to 1993, she traveled from Dallas to Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater in hopes of being officially declared "clear." She was denied, according to a church summary of McPherson's time in Scientology.
The summary notes she once felt she had achieved the state of "clear" in her "last lifetime."
In 1989, McPherson joined the church's administrative work force, called the Sea Organization, but left after several months.
Church records say she received no "auditing" in 1989 or 1990, a period when she filed for divorce from her second husband, also a Scientologist, and went to bankruptcy court with debts of $45,000.
In 1991 _ one year out of bankruptcy court _ McPherson donated $11,828 to the church's "Celebrity Centre" in Dallas, according to a church letter in her files.
Also that year, the church says, McPherson underwent a Scientology interrogation called a "security check" because she left the church staff.
One of the few financial records available for 1992 is McPherson's personal check register from March through December. During those 10 months, she wrote checks for $11,925 _ or 29 percent of her income _ to the Dallas church and related organizations, such as the International Association of Scientologists.
A separate document from the Dallas church puts her donations for all of 1992 at $21,781.
The same year, McPherson was "sick and roller coastering constantly," despite a form of Scientology counseling that was supposed to help her, church records say.
Roller coastering is a term in Scientology for someone who gets better, then worse, and repeats the cycle. The records don't specify her sickness.
McPherson's donations began to pick up in 1993, according to a list of church invoices.
She gave $6,000 that winter, $5,000 in the spring, $8,000 in the summer and another $8,000 in the fall. The year's total: $27,000.
In 1994, McPherson's employer, AMC Publishing, moved from Dallas to Clearwater. Its owners, David and Bennetta Slaughter, are Scientologists who wanted to be closer to the church's spiritual hub, known as the "Flag Service Organization" or "Flag."
Through marketing materials, the company helps insurance companies recruit independent insurance agents to sell their products. Among AMC's products is a magazine and a "market pack" featuring cards with advertisements.
McPherson was AMC's senior sales person at the time, and, like several employees, she followed the company to Clearwater.
The same year, her spending on "Flag" services increased dramatically. According to her 1994 parishioner statement, the church charged her account $75,275 for Scientology "auditing" sessions.
Records indicate McPherson kept pace by depositing $54,667 into her running church account over the year.
The final year of McPherson's life began happily at a New Year's party in Dallas, where she celebrated with cousins she had not seen in 15 years. An aunt, Dell Liebreich, remembered her leaving the party for another engagement, then turning around.
McPherson explained "she just wanted to stay and be with her family," Liebreich said. Later that year, back in Clearwater, McPherson wrote to an uncle saying she was "doing incredibly well" and meeting the "stiff targets" she had set for herself at work.
Then, in June 1995 McPherson became psychotic and stayed that way despite attempts to help her, according to church records. The records offer no specifics but say McPherson eventually pulled out of it.
Meanwhile, her commissions at AMC Publishing plummeted. Her bi-weekly paychecks, once in the $4,000 to $6,000 range, sank to $600 and $700, according to AMC payroll records turned over by church attorneys as part of the McPherson family's lawsuit.
Church records indicate she was undergoing Scientology procedures at AMC to improve her Scientology "ethics" and was performing a recurring exercise in which she would write reports about each of her transgressions.
On Sept. 7, McPherson finally achieved the state of "clear" during a ceremony at the Fort Harrison Hotel. She got a bouquet of flowers and spoke briefly of her "wins" in Scientology.
In the color photo her family has, she is beaming.
"Being clear is more exciting than anything I've ever experienced," McPherson wrote in a document provided by the church. "I am so thrilled about life and living I can hardly stand it!"
A few weeks later, however, McPherson made a tearful, long-distance phone call to her mother. She complained she was not doing well at AMC and was letting her co-workers down.
In November 1995, she turned psychotic again. This time, she was taken to a room in the Fort Harrison and watched around the clock by staffers at "Flag."
By the church's own account, she emerged 17 days later drawing what would be her last breaths.
McPherson had donated 55 percent of her income that year to "Flag" and Scientology causes.
From the church's beginnings in the 1950s, critics have seen Scientology as a wealthy commercial enterprise masquerading as a religion.
Church officials respond in part by dismissing the notion that Scientology services are expensive.
They explain the cost, saying it takes a whole team of staff members to deliver Scientology services, compared to a single priest or minister in other religions.
They also say the government probe that preceded the 1993 IRS ruling put to rest any financial concerns about the church. And they insist Scientology deserves to be treated as a mainstream religion.
But if McPherson's giving habits are indicative of what others spend on Scientology, the church's financial structure is clearly unique. Her donations far exceeded what Americans typically give to mainstream churches and other charities.
While McPherson gave thousands to Scientology, the nation's 30-million Protestants gave an average of $477 per member in 1994, the latest figures available, according to empty tomb inc., an Illinois group that tracks giving patterns in U.S. Protestant churches.
Another recent survey by the Lilly Endowment found that the nation's 59-million Catholics give an average of less than $200 per member each year.
Catholics and Protestants represent roughly two-thirds of America's church members.
In 1995, McPherson's tax-deductible payments to Scientology were far beyond the average of charitable contributions by taxpayers in her income group.
The National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal reports that taxpayers earning $100,000 to $200,000 donate on average about 2.5 percent of their incomes to charity. McPherson donated 55 percent in 1995.
Her last federal income tax filing was in 1994, when she earned more than $136,000, according to her records.
Her donations to Scientology totaled more than $57,000, or 42 percent of her income. In contrast, taxpayers in McPherson's income bracket donated, on average, about $3,400 to charity in 1994, according to the IRS.
The average refund was $4,000 in 1994, compared with McPherson's $17,500.
The church has been using its tax-exempt status as a marketing tool to get more Scientologists in the door for services.
Many of its mailings include a picture of Uncle Sam with text urging Scientologists to take church services "now" so they can deduct it from their personal income tax.
The mailings say "Uncle Sam will back you" in receiving Scientology services.
In determining that Scientology was a charitable organization, the IRS in 1993 reached the conclusion that no individual was benefiting from the church's vast income.
Where does a parishioner's money go?
According to Anderson, it goes toward church expansion. He said Scientology spends the money on its counseling programs and on its worldwide efforts to improve literacy and get people off drugs.
McPherson "obviously wanted to contribute to that," he said. "I think it was a measure of how she felt Scientology helped people."
She died with a $5,773 balance in her Scientology account.
The church returned that money to McPherson's mother.
What is the norm?
Here is how McPherson's charitable deduction and refund compare to the average for others in her income group.
Taxpayer average Lisa
Donated to charity $3,388 $57,517
% of income to charity 3 42
Refund from government $4,018 $17,500
+ $100,000 to $200,000 income bracket