Thursday 25 July 2013

The Death of Heribert Pfaff I

When Heribert Pfaff died in 1988 of an epileptic seizure in Clearwater Florida, he was using Scientology processing to try to wean himself off his medication.

"Victim face down"
Heribert Pfaff had suffered major epileptic seizures for 10 years after being injured in a serious car accident. In normal circumstances, the right medication would have helped him manage his condition.

But Pfaff was a Scientologist, and so was his doctor.

His family and friends say Heribert had been persuaded that Scientology could cure him of his fits – and that this involved coming off his medication.

They told him he would get the treatment he needed at Flag Land Base, in Clearwater, Florida, which Scientology promotes as its centre of excellence.

Even before he left Germany however, Pfaff's seizures were so bad that his wife Anita had asked family friend and fellow Scientologist Markus Stuckenbrock for help.

Stuckenbrock is no longer a part of the movement. Since losing his brother Uwe, who died of multiple sclerosis while in Scientology's Sea Org cadre, he has become an outspoken critic.

“Shortly before Heribert and his wife left their home in Friedrichshafen [Germany] I was asked to sleep in a room next to Heribert's room in order to help him if he had 'grand mal seizures' at night,” Stuckenbrock told Infinite Complacency.1

“I visited them four times if I remember right and Heribert had one severe seizure during this time,” he added.

This was 1988, he said: back then, he was a young man with little or no medical knowledge.

Since then however, he has acquired more than two decades' experience as a nurse caring for handicapped people, many of whom require medication to prevent seizures – the kind of medication Pfaff was persuaded to abandon.

“Compared with other people I had to care for in the last 22 years, I would say that Heribert had very severe seizures with a huge risk of severe injuries,” said Stuckenbrock.

A grand mal seizure is a frightening thing to behold, he added.

“For people who are not used to this it is like in a horror thriller where a demon is taking over the beloved person's body,” he said.

“I was there because his wife feared the seizures and because she was physically too weak to help him.”2

If Heribert had found a competent doctor, he would have put him on the right medication to stop the seizures, he said.

“In almost all the cases when people suffer from seizures, medication can help them to stop the seizures completely,” he said.

But Pfaff's doctor was a Scientologist.

“Anita and Heribert had the dream that the 'auditing' in Flag would help Heribert heal his seizure disorder,” Stuckenbrock recalled.

They believed the promises of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that his system could heal almost any illness “...especially when the illness is caused by so-called 'engrams',” he added. “Engrams” is the word Hubbard used for the negative mental charges that Dianetics/Scientology is meant to eliminate.

Pfaff's handlers inside the movement knew about the car accident that had triggered his seizures, said Stuckenbrock. “So the Scientologists made him believe that the 'engram' which he had during the accident was causing his seizures.

“This I know for sure because Anita told me that it was their hope for their journey to Flag Land Base that the splendid auditing there could heal his illness.”3

Warning signs

But in Clearwater Pfaff's fits continued, as another witness has since testified.

One former member initially posted his account pseudonymously as “This is NOT OK” at the Ex-Scientologist Message Board: but he has agreed to let Infinite Complacency reveal his identity and has provided further details. He is Fred Oxaal, a Scientologist for 33 years before finally quitting the movement.4

At the time, wrote Oxaal, he was working as a Planetary Dissemination registrar: it was his job to approach public Scientologists taking courses at Flag to get more money out of them – for the library donations campaign to get Hubbard's books in libraries, for example.5

He was told by his superior to go and see Pfaff, who had arrived in Clearwater a few days earlier. They wanted to get him to donate $50,000 towards The Way to Happiness campaign.6

As soon as he started to talking to him however, Oxaal could tell something was wrong.

“I noticed he was moving his tongue around a lot in his mouth and I asked about it. He said that he’d had a 'small epileptic fit' the night before and had bit his tongue a bit.

“He stuck it out to show me and it was astonishing! The left 25% of his tongue (front to back) was just flattened – and I mean flattened.

“I asked if it hurt and should he not see a doctor. He said it was getting better.

“I asked if he had any medication to use to prevent another episode. As I remember it, he said, 'No, the C/S and I are working out a handling so I never have to take the medicine again.'”

The C/S is the Case Supervisor, the person responsible for deciding what kind of Scientology processing Pfaff should be getting.

“I thought this was strange...,” Oxaal recalled – but he did not pursue the matter.

Why strange?

Oxaal had seen the official literature insisting on a proper medical check from a doctor before doing the Purification Rundown, part of Scientology's treatment programme. He had seen the signs in Scientology centres “warning people that Scientology was not aimed at physical cures and if people needed medical treatment, they should see a doctor.”

But he also knew that all this had come about following the 1963 raids by the US Food and Drugs Administration, who had ordered Scientology not to make medical claims for their system. To some extent then, he understood that the signs were just public relations.

Nevertheless, he said, “by the time I met up with Heribert at Flag, I was completely clueless that the church had continued to practise medicine secretly, under the direction of Hubbard bulletins...

“I never thought auditors and case supervisors were practising medicine by taking people off of vital life-saving drugs – or at least if they were, it was under medical supervision, as the policy stated.”

He assumed then, that Pfaff was at least under medical care – and of course he was right.

“So when it came to Heribert and what he told me about having stopped his medicine, I assumed that he, the C/S and medicos were in sync.”

The next day, Oxaal went back to the hotel try to close the deal with Pfaff, who had agreed to talk again with him.

“There was a bit of commotion going on near the board, so I elbowed my way in to see what was going on.

“One of the hotel staff… told me that my guy was dead – died in bed in his room in the night – from (of all things) an epileptic seizure.”

Pfaff was 31 when he died on August 28, 1988 at Scientology's Flag Land Base in Clearwater.

Years later, looking back on his meeting with Pfaff, Oxaal reflected: “I had walked him to his room in the Ft. Harrison hotel the night before to ensure no other registrars got on to him on the way to the room.

“We said 'Good night' to each other at his door and I departed. I may have been the last person he ever spoke to.”

Oxaal's boss tore him off a strip for having failed to close the deal with Pfaff the previous night.

He also recalls how another member of the sales team reacted to the death.

“What an asshole,” she said. “That guy always was Dev-T” – a scientology term that essentially means he was a waste of time.

In its promotional literature, Scientology describes Flag as its centre of excellence for auditing and the “friendliest place in the whole world”.7

Sketch from Clearwater Police files
The police investigation

On the morning of August 28, 1988, Patrol Officer John Zegzdryn was called out to the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, to investigate the death.8

Anita Pfaff told Officer Zegzdryn that she had found her husband dead in his room just a few hours earlier.

They did not sleep in the same room, she explained, because her husband was an epileptic and often had seizures at night.

In the hotel room, the patrol officer found Pfaff's naked body, lying face-down half off the bed.

"Victim face down," was noted on a police sketch of the scene.

As Detective Mark Teunis, later assigned to the case, noted, Zegzdryn "stated that he was somewhat suspicious of the incident because of the victim's age and some bruises found on the back side of the victim..." so he called it in for further investigation. Pfaff was only 31 at the time of his death.9

Pfaff's doctor, Klaus Ballin, had been with Anita Pfaff when she found her husband's body. She had called him when she could not get the door to her husband's room open (the bathroom door was blocking it) and he had called a security guard.

Questioned by detectives, Ballin described himself as not just the dead man's doctor but a personal friend. They were in Clearwater, he explained, to attend a series of Scientology conferences.

Back home in Germany, he said, he had been treating Pfaff for his epilepsy.

One of the detectives noted in his report:

Dr Ballin advised he had been prescribing Phenhydan for the deceased until February of this year.10

But because his seizures were so violent and had lasted so long, the deceased requested different treatment.

Therefore Dr Ballin was gradually taking the deceased off of the Phenhydan and putting him on a vitamin-mineral complex that would lessen the severity and duration of the seizures.

“Dr. Ballin is an M.D.,” he added, just to avoid any ambiguity – a medical doctor.

Ballin added that although he had been treating Pfaff for his epilepsy, he had not seen him in a professional capacity for the last eight weeks. The detective noted:

Ballin stated that he has prescribed a medicine for the epileptic seizures but he does not know the name of the medication.

He stated that it is an anti-epileptic medicine in a tablet form. He stated that the victim is also on a vitamin and mineral diet.

Ballin also confirmed that Heribert's wife had been unable to sleep in the same room as her husband, both here and back home in Germany, because of his night-time seizures.

Ballin's view, the detective noted, was that Pfaff had had an epileptic seizure, “...falling to the floor which cut off his breathing.”

The detectives did not find anything suspicious at the scene and once the medical examiner's report put the cause of death down to an epileptic seizure, the case was closed.

Following up

Pfaff's death got little or no coverage until a German documentary crew picked up the trail nearly a decade later.

In 1996, former Scientologist Martin Ottmann took his concerns about the movement to film-makers Mona Botros and Egmont R. Koch.11

And once Ottmann tipped them off to what was then a breaking story, they also looked into the 1995 Clearwater death of Lisa McPherson. She too had died in the care of Scientologists.12

A few days in Clearwater digging through police and medical examiner's reports and they realized there was even more to the story. They had uncovered a whole series of unexplained Scientology-related deaths – some dating as far back as 1980 – that had gone largely unreported.

They turned up seven cases in all – one of which was that of Heribert Pfaff.

The documentary by Botros and Koch, Die dunkle Seite von Scientology (The Dark Side of Scientology), was broadcast in April 1997 – despite the best efforts of the movement to stop it.13

“After the film aired, it was translated pretty much overnight into English by a Scientology critic in the Netherlands and was published on dozens of websites shortly afterwards,” Botros recalls.

Before long, the St Petersburg Times, which covers Clearwater and was also investigating the McPherson story, contacted Botros and Koch to compare notes.

Over the following months the Times ran a series of articles following up on the German team's revelations, including a December 1997 piece by Lucy Morgan.14

In the case of Pfaff, Morgan noted, the medical examiner's report for Pfaff had determined that a seizure had probably caused his death – and that no anti-convulsant drugs had been found in his bloodstream.

The Times also spoke to Heribert's brother Georg, who said that the Scientologists in Germany had promised a cure for the seizures and had taken Pfaff off the medication that controlled them.15 That of course matches the account from Stuckenbrock, which emerged later.

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw told the Times the movement had not recommended Pfaff's course of treatment.

“If someone had epilepsy, they should see a medical doctor,” he added. “It was his choice to receive drugs or not.”16

But Botros and Koch had interviewed Pfaff's mother for their documentary and she told them her son had been put on an alternative Scientology treatment for his epilepsy.17

They also contacted Pfaff's doctor, Klaus Ballin, who while he declined to be interviewed did provide them with a written statement.

He had treated Pfaff with vitamins and Scientology processing, he told them, which at the time he thought was an effective alternative treatment. He denied any responsibility for Pfaff's death.

The film-makers consulted Professor G√ľnther Schwendemann, head of the neurology ward at Bremen-Ost Hospital. They showed him the details of the vitamins treatment Pfaff had been prescribed.

He dismissed it as worthless.

“It is contrary to the practice of the therapy to withold medication from a patient who has attacks every night, instead of looking what medication is the most effective for him,” the professor told them...

“I can tell you with the utmost probability, that with adequate treatment the patient would still be alive today,” he added.

Professor Schwendemann probably says all that needs to be said in this case.

But Botros and Koch were good enough to provide Infinite Complacency with a copy of Ballin's letter and it makes for interesting reading – especially when you compare it with what he told the Clearwater police.
Articles in the Ignoring Epilepsy series:
  1. A Death in France” (Jocelyne Dorfmann's 1984 death at a Narconon Centre as she tried to come off her epilepsy medication)
  2. Hubbard on Epilepsy
  3. Tory 'Magoo' Christman's Story
  4. “The Death of Heribert Pfaff I
1 I asked Markus Stuckenbrock to elaborate on his post at the Ex-Scientologist Message Board on the death of Heribert Pfaff.
Markus's own family was torn apart by Scientology: he lost his brother, Uwe Stuckenbrock, to Scientology's elite cadre, the Sea Org, and the movement's dogmatic approach to illness meant that he died there.
In 1996, Uwe was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, writes his brother. “Because his condition was considered 'out-ethics', meaning that the person himself was at cause for [responsible for] the illness, the required 'remedy' would be auditing...,” he wrote in his summary of the story at the at the Ex-Scientologist Message Board.
Since Uwe was in the Sea Org, it was that much more difficult for him to make a free choice about the treatment he wanted. Indeed, writes brother Markus, despite his condition, Uwe Stuckenbrock was sent to the RPF, Scientology's labour camp, for having wanted to leave the Sea Org. “He spent the rest of his life in the RPF.”
Scientology lied to the non-Scientology members of his family about Uwe's condition and when they did find out, the movement obstructed their efforts to get him effective treatment, writes Markus. His brother died in October 6, 2008, aged just 45.
2 Personal communication with Markus Stuckenbrock.
For anyone who has never witnessed a grand mal seizure, it is worth pausing to describe it in detail to get an idea of just how dramatic – and frightening – they are. (See also Tory “Magoo” Christman's account elsewhere at this site).
Markus offered this definition from an online medical dictionary and given his nursing background, he can testify as to its accuracy:
GENERALIZED SEIZURES. A generalized tonic-clonic (grand-mal) seizure begins with a loud cry before the person having the seizure loses consciousness and falls to the ground. The muscles become rigid for about 30 seconds during the tonic phase of the seizure and alternately contract and relax during the clonic phase, which lasts 30-60 seconds. The skin sometimes acquires a bluish tint and the person may bite his tongue, lose bowel or bladder control, or have trouble breathing.
A grand mal seizure lasts between two and five minutes, and the person may be confused or have trouble talking when he regains consciousness (postictal state). He may complain of head or muscle aches, or weakness in his arms or legs before falling into a deep sleep.
This is what Hubbard said he could fix with Scientology processing.
My thanks to Markus for giving us the benefit of his professional knowledge in this area.
3 Stuckenbrock's account fits perfectly with what we have reported about Hubbard's writings in this area: that epilepsy is a condition caused by “engrams”. See “Hubbard on Epilepsy” earlier in this series.
4 Fred Oxaal spent 33 years in Scientology, during which time he spent more money than he cares to mention before finally quitting the movement at OT VII. As the founder and a former executive director of The Way to Happiness Foundation International he has some interesting tales to tell about Scientology's sales tactics: but that's a story for another day. My thanks to Fred for having confirmed the details of his account to me, for having provided some additional details – and for having agreed to be identified in this article.
5 Fred Oxaal originally posted this on August 30, 2010 under the pseudonym“This is NOT OK !!!!” at the Ex-Scientologist Message Board; and reposted on this thread devoted to Scientology's disastrous handling of epilepsy on January 29, 2011. He has provided a few extra details in our recent correspondence.
6 For more on The Way to Happiness campaign, see “Mexico's Cri Cri Hijacked” elsewhere on this site.
7 “Friendliest place in the world”: see for example this Scientology web page promoting Flag, their centre in Clearwater, Florida.
8 This initial account is drawn from police reports filed at the time, released by the Clearwater Police Department.
9 This passage is from an August 28, 2008 report by Detective Mark Teunis, from the Clearwater Police files.
10 The active ingredient in the anti-epileptic drug Phenhydan is phenytoin.
11 Ottmann is a veteran of Scientology's Sea Organization, an elite cadre for its most dedicated members, who also suffer most the the worst abuse meted out by the movement. His work researching and documenting Scientology's abuses has been quite extraordinary. His Citizen's Complaint against the movement, sent to the US federal authorities and duly ignored, repays careful reading. Ottmann periodically posts examples of the documents he has gathered over the years at the Why We Protest message board.
12 For more on Lisa McPherson, see Jeff Jacobsen's excellent site.
13 Die dunkle Seite von Scientology (The Dark Side of Scientology), was produced by ARD and broadcast on April 2, 1997. “After the film aired, it was translated pretty much overnight into English by a Scientology critic in the Netherlands and was published on dozens of websites shortly afterwards,” Botros recalls.
See here for an English transcript and here for a dubbed version of the documentary.
My thanks to both Egmont R. Koch and Mona Botros for sharing their findings with me – and in particular to Mona Botros for her close reading of – and invaluable notes on – an earlier draft of this piece.
14 For Some Scientologists, Pilgrimage Has Been Fatal”, by Lucy Morgan, St. Petersburg Times, December 7, 1997. The Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times, is based in Florida and has been covering Scientology ever since it moved into Clearwater in 1975.
15 Heribert's brother Georg specifically told the Times that the Scientology treatment involved taking Heribert off his medication.
16 Op cit., St Petersburg Times. Shaw's full title was given in the article as director of the Clearwater Office of Special Affairs (OSA).
17 For details of what Pfaff's mother told Botros and Koch, see this extract, dubbed into English.


  1. /SALUTE This is NOT OK !!! Fred for stepping up to put his name out in there for having Herbert's tragic story told again.

  2. Mary_McConnell25 July 2013 at 04:13

    Thank you for such a thorough and important article, Jonny. And thanks to Markus Stuckenbrock and Fred Oxaal for speaking up!

  3. Respect to one and all.

  4. Good article. Damning story.

  5. Very well written!

  6. Thank you so much, Mr Jacobson. Another brilliant piece of journalism.

  7. TheHoleDoesNotExist26 July 2013 at 02:43

    Thank you Johnny and Fred. I can't help wondering how many thousands of victims there are that we don't know about.

    This is another story that spotlights the fact that the callous scams and quackery that goes on Inside a scientology organization is not done without the cooperation and support network outside the organizations. There are field salesmen and field OSA workers and there is an entire scientology medical network. There are scientology accountants and scientology lawyers, scientology IT techs and scientology business consultants and of course a profitable large network of suppliers of vitamins and woo.

    The worst stories you will notice come out of the Hubs of scientology cities, Los Angeles, Clearwater, Toronto, Mexico City, London, and other European locations, all where scientologists have moved to for their "upper level" products and services.

    And that is how you have the horrid story of Heribert or Lisa Mcpherson. Scientology policies and orders are set up for "emergency" actions, not to Save people, but to Save the executives of scientology from lawsuits and "bad public relations".

    Not To Save People, to Save Billable Hours at the lawyers office.

  8. You really hit home, THDNE.

  9. Thank you for exposing the true face of this cult called Scientology! This cult has ruined and destroyed lives for many years. I feel lucky to have escaped alive.