To many people, Dr. Melvin Morse was a brilliant pediatrician at a renowned children's hospital and a best-selling author who parlayed his research on near-death experiences into appearances on "Larry King Live" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Away from the spotlight, however, Morse was tormented by personal and financial problems and, according to court records, wrestled with depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts. His latest trouble involves allegations of waterboarding his 11-year-old stepdaughter, using the simulated drowning technique to bring her to "a possible near-death state," police have said.
Based on his work involving children's near-death experiences, police suggested he may have been experimenting on her.
Morse, 58, was accused in July of grabbing his stepdaughter by the ankle and dragging her across a gravel driveway as her 6-year-old sister watched. When police did a follow-up interview last week, the girl said Morse had held her face under running water at least four times since 2009, using faucets in the kitchen, bathroom sink and bathtub. Her mother, Pauline Morse, witnessed some of the waterboarding but did nothing to stop it, police said.
Both Melvin and Pauline Morse are free on bail. They face a preliminary hearing Thursday on felony endangerment and conspiracy charges.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Melvin Morse called the charges an overreaction by authorities. An attorney for Morse, Joe Hurley, said the idea that Morse was experimenting on his own daughter was "the sheerest of speculation."
“I will tell you that I think the real problem is the post-Bradley hysteria,” Morse told the AP, referring to the case of Earl Bradley, who was convicted a year ago and is serving 14 life sentences for sexually abusing scores of his young patients over more than a decade.
Child spurs near-death research
Morse began researching near-death experiences in children about three decades ago after the near drowning of one of his patients. He was fascinated by the spiritual experiences the girl, and other children, described to him, including images of light, heaven and tunnels.
He sought to prove that drugs were causing the hallucinations, though he said his research proved otherwise. In 1990, he published "Closer to the Light," which spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He was featured in a Rolling Stone magazine story, and television shows had him on to speak about paranormal experiences.
He worked for Seattle Children's Hospital and Seattle Magazine listed Morse among the city's best doctors for more than a decade beginning in 1995, according to Morse's website. But by 2007, Morse had retired from full-time medical practice and moved to Delaware. Hepatitis C that he contracted in 1998 while treating children became too much of a toll on his health for him to continue working full time and he was declared disabled, he said.
While Morse once earned a six-digit income, he has struggled financially for years and owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes.
"I have the most ordinary reasons for that — the collapse of my income and my first divorce," Morse said. "I do not have an adversarial relationship with the IRS. ... I'll eventually repay my taxes."
Morse's financial problems are outlined in court records from a contentious divorce and custody battle with his first wife that stretched on for nearly a decade.
Morse's ex-wife, Allison Morse, claimed her ex-husband has abused prescription drugs and made false accusations against their adopted children that have led to criminal charges against them.
"He is a pathological liar and he makes stuff up about his own children," she told the AP.
At the same time, Allison said Morse was a good dad and never abused their three adopted children during their marriage of almost 20 years.
As the marriage began to unravel in the late 1990s, however, he became more and more emotionally unstable, she said.
"He was just angry all the time and just really had some severe emotional problems going on," she said.
Allison said she was never able to find out why her husband was so troubled.
In 2006, Morse said in court papers he was once the subject of an inquiry by the Medical Quality Assurance Commission in Washington, which he blamed on stress from his marital problems. Morse said he accepted three months of psychiatric treatment.
In that same court filing, he denied that he had a history of multiple suicide attempts but said he made a "suicide gesture" when his marriage was falling apart by swallowing prescription pills.
In separate court filings, Morse referred to an earlier suicide attempt and being taken to an emergency room in November 2001 for "drug overdose, alcoholism, and depression."
Morse has published several books over the years, and writings include a quasi-autobiographical story in which he describes how an imaginary falcon told him to move "quickly in the dark of night" to the East Coast, where his destiny lay and where he could find rich soil for his "BIG IDEA" to grow.
Morse, who said he uses "a lot of irony and a lot of tongue-in-cheek" expressions when he writes, told the AP his "BIG IDEA" involved a theory of consciousness based on his study of children who have suffered cardiac arrest.
"These children made it clear that consciousness persists despite having dying, dysfunctional brains," he said. The theory is that brains are linked to "a non-local consciousness and a timeless, spaceless reality," which Morse calls the "God Spot."
Morse currently lives with Pauline Morse in Delaware with their two children, the 11-year-old girl and her 6-year-old sister. Their marriage was at one point dissolved, and it's not clear if they remarried. Their children have been placed in state custody.
His website, http://spiritualscientific.com, is strewn with commentary about God, love, family and death.
Just before Melvin Morse's arrest last month, P.M.H. Atwater, a fellow researcher into near-death experiences, said she saw him at a conference in Montreal.
"He gave one of the best keynote addresses he has ever given in his life," she said.
But when she went to hug Morse, Atwater sensed something was wrong.
"I just picked up a lot of worry, a lot of stress, a lot of problems," she said.