Scientologist electrocuted

By Claire Vitucci
The Press-Enterprise

A Church of Scientology member was electrocuted in a bizarre accident Sunday morning in an underground vault at the church's film studio north of San Jacinto, authorities said.

The woman's identity was not released Sunday. She was a woman in her 20s who had been a church member for 2 years, said Riverside County sheriff's spokeswoman Lisa McConnellc. The girl was a production company crew member at Golden Era Studios, which produces promotional and training films for the church.

Firefighters were called to the scene about 10:15 a.m., said Riverside County fire Capt. Tim Chavez. The call first came out as a traffic collision, then as a structure fire.

"When we arrived we found a woman electrocuted in a below-ground level vault, obviously dead," Chavez said, adding she was badly burned.

Firefighters called sheriff's deputies, who arrived about 11:10 a.m., McConnell said.

Ken Hoden, the manager of Golden Era Studios, said he believes the woman was trying to figure out why a squirrel had died in the vault weeks earlier.

The woman loved animals and had a squirrel as a pet, he said, and was saddened by the death of a squirrel that had ventured into the vault. He said he did not know how the squirrel had died.

The woman had worked in maintenance and grounds but was not on duty at the time of the accident, Hoden said.

"It's a tragic accident," Hoden said. "We feel very bad for her family and her husband. She was just a lovely person and we're going to miss her." Her name was withheld until her family could be notified, he said.

The entrance of the vault was a ground-level manhole, Chavez said. The room underneath was about 20 feet by 20 feet and contained four transformers inside, he said.

The woman slipped on some oil and hit some wires, McConnell said. The woman was discovered by a security guard who is also a church member, she said.

The vault was on the extreme north end of the site near a water tank and some construction work, Chavez said.

The manhole cover, estimated to be about 1 inch thick, was next to the vault entrance.

Firefighters were working throughout the afternoon to cut all power to the vault and set up a winch and rope system to retrieve the body.

The woman was removed about 4 p.m., authorities said.

About a month earlier, construction work outside the film studio led to a fatal accident.

A 16-year-old San Jacinto girl was killed in a traffic collision May 17 when she collided with a tractor that was doing work for the studio and was crossing or driving on Gilman Springs Road.

The California Highway Patrol said no warning lights, flares or construction workers were on the road to guide motorists around the tractor. There are no street lights in the area.

A day later, the San Jacinto City Council approved the Church of Scientology's proposal to realign Highway 79 away from its film studio. Under the plan, the highway would be rerouted south along Sanderson Avenue and east along the expressway to State Street. The realignment is temporary until Riverside County settles on a new route for the highway.

Staff reporter James Nash contributed to this report.

Published 6/26/2000

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