Scientology is facing crises on several fronts: flagging membership, internal schisms, relentless Internet exposure, and whole new levels of public consciousness and mocking because of a celebrity divorce and an upcoming movie with Oscar buzz.
But perhaps the most surprising component of the church’s recent rise in negative attention seemed to come out of nowhere, and may turn out to be one of the biggest challenges it’s facing.
Scientology’s drug treatment program, Narconon, is being consumed in a conflagration of its own making.
As with just about every other Scientology controversy, Narconon’s problems are not new. Throughout its history, it’s faced protests, as well as debunking by experts.
But this time, its problems seem of another magnitude. There are not only four deaths at the flagship Oklahoma facility under investigation — three just since October — but Narconon is also mired in litigation in Michigan and Georgia, it was chased out of Quebec, and has also apparently given up on the UK.
“All these Narconon centers are run on the same principles. They use deception to get people in, they make false claims about their effectiveness, and the person sending patients there is actually a salesman working on commission,” says Carnegie Mellon professor Dave Touretzky, who has been studying Narconon for years and maintains an extensive online archive of information about the drug treatment program’s many controversies.
Now, with unprecedented attention drawn to it, Narconon’s vulnerability comes into sharp focus: If Scientology itself often gets a pass because it calls itself a church, Narconon cannot claim that privilege. If Scientology is made up of people who have voluntarily joined to explore their past lives, Narconon patients — and the parents or court officers who send them there — often have no idea of the program’s connection to the controversial church. Although it is endorsed by celebrities, Narconon’s less glamorous reality puts very vulnerable people in risky settings. And, increasingly, public officials are beginning to question how such an unusual program could be licensed to do business in their jurisdictions.
With the media’s interest in all things Scientology heightened, Narconon could be in serious trouble.
Rick S., who asked that I not use his last name, remembers that when Stacy Murphy, 20, returned from a short visit to see her family, she was mobbed by the other patients at Narconon Arrowhead, the drug treatment flagship facility on Lake Eufaula in eastern Oklahoma. She had become popular with the others in the several weeks that she’d been at the drug treatment facility, Rick says. And after getting a “leave of absence” to stay a day and a half with her family, she’d come back to a warm welcome.
“Stacy was beautiful,” Rick says, and that made her stand out when so many others were not looking their best, suffering from the ravages of drug use.
That Wednesday night, July 18, he says, was the last time he saw her alive.
Two months earlier, Rick had checked himself in at the center for his alcoholism. Like so many others who end up at Narconon centers, he had no idea that it was connected to Scientology when he went in to dry out. But after paying an up-front fee of $13,000 and going through a tough withdrawal, he was then put on Narconon’s strange “training routines” that had nothing to do with his particular problem.
“Within the first hour of that, I realized this was Scientology,” Rick says.
He got into an argument about the definition of a word he was told to look up, which is a big part of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology “technology.” Rick says he knew they weren’t using a word correctly, and when they told him to look it up in the dictionary, he showed them that he was right, not them.
Things were off on the wrong foot, he says. But he felt obliged to go through the routines. He was paying, after all.
“I thought, I might as well give it my best shot. But what they try to get you to do is insane,” he says.
Before long, he found himself talking to ashtrays.
As we’ve written earlier, even Tom Cruise did some of his early Scientology training by talking to ashtrays and beverage bottles, part of Hubbard’s approach that is supposed to increase a person’s communication skills.
Rick got to know the other patients at the facility, which is surrounded by a state park near Canadian, Oklahoma.
He felt particularly fond, and protective, of Stacy Murphy, he says.
With the other patients, they endured Narconon’s odd approach: while getting no counseling about their particular addictions, and with no medical staff around, the patients sat in a sauna for five hours a day while taking massive doses of Niacin and other vitamins. After several weeks of that treatment, Murphy asked for permission to go home and visit her family.
“She did not meet any of the criteria for a leave of absence,” Rick claims. “But she got all of the signatures, and I was told by one of the workers that they were making an exception for her.”
Rick remembers seeing her prepare for her visit home.
“She was getting ready to go on her leave, and she was saying her mom was going to have dinner on the table. The house was going to be smelling nice. I told her to make sure and bring leftovers — the food at Narconon is so bad, it’s a joke,” he says.
Wednesday night, she returned. And later, Rick says, the staff noticed that “she was flying high on something.”
(I confirmed with a member of Stacy’s family that she had gone home for a short stay before returning to the center the night before her death. I have left a message to speak with Narconon Arrowhead’s executive director, Gary Smith.)
Rick says Stacy was sent to the “withdrawal unit” of the facility that night once it was discovered that she’d used. And it was there that her condition became grave.
“There was no doctor there, no nurse on staff. There’s nothing like that there,” Rick says. “The staff, they’re all former patients. The exception are the people who would drive you to the airport, or the security people. My understanding is that everyone there is pretty much a former patient.”
Rick says he doesn’t hold the staff responsible for what happened. “You really can’t expect them to be able to diagnose a drug overdose. I’m not upset with them. It’s the direction from the top down that has to be illegal.”
The staff was just overmatched for what was happening, he says.
“The drugs that would have saved Stacy’s life were either not available or no one there knew how to administer it.”
Thursday morning, July 19, he heard that she was dead.
“She died before 10 am. I heard about it pretty immediately,” he says. His own tenure at the facility ended soon after. “I got kicked out because they found out I was going to the police and the media. That’s how upside down the place is.”
Now, he’s trying to stay sober on his own, and Rick says he is fearful after going to the authorities.
“I have to pause multiple times a day because of Stacy’s death. I feel sick about it. They should have saved her,” he says. Instead, he fears that he’ll suffer retaliation for helping with the investigation. “I’m afraid for my life.”
The investigation has expanded to include three other deaths: Hillary Holten, 21, who was found dead at Narconon Arrowhead in April; Gabriel Graves, 32, who died at the facility in October, and Kaysie Dianne Werninck, 28, who died in 2009, according to Pittsburg County Sheriff Joel Kerns.
LeFlore also reported that sheriff’s deputies escorted into the facility inspectors from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health, who, she wrote, are “looking into the facility’s licensing provisions.”
And if you know something about Narconon’s licensing history in Oklahoma, you know those are ominous words indeed.
In 1966, Narconon was started in an Arizona prison by inmate Bill Benitez, a former Marine whose drug addictions got him court martialed during the Korean War and then, in 1964, sentenced to 15 years in prison as a habitual offender. Narconon’s website tells the heartwarming tale of Benitez discovering the works of L. Ron Hubbard while doing time, starting up a drug treatment approach based on Hubbard’s works, and then, even after proving in court that he’d been sentenced under the wrong law, volunteering to stay in prison long enough to make Narconon a viable program.
As inspirational as that story is, it has little to do with what Narconon quickly became — a program steeped in Scientology.
Narconon involves a cold-turkey withdrawal (the program denies that it is cold-turkey because it involves the faith-healing technique of “touch assists”) followed by a program of Hubbard training that is nearly identical to what beginning members of Scientology go through, including heavy sauna use.
Notably missing from the program is any individual counseling or any real discussion of drugs and addiction.
A former employee at Narconon Arrowhead backs up what Rick S. and others have told me about the lack of drug information in the Narconon program.
“It is true that there’s very little drug information. You do the training routines, the sauna program, learning improvement, the objectives,” he says. (“Objectives” is the part about talking to ashtrays, among other things.)
“You learn about Scientology’s ethics. About overts and withholds. You do ‘conditions,’ and then The Way to Happiness, and then you’re done. You feel bright and polished, but there’s no real addressing of what the real problem is for each person.”
You have to wonder how many people would send a family member to Narconon if they knew its training was all about L. Ron Hubbard, and not about drug addiction.
But Narconon is very good at hiding its affiliation with Scientology, which licenses Narconon centers through its division called ABLE, the Association for Better Living and Education.
It was so good at masking that connection, the Indian tribes that first gave Narconon its start in Oklahoma had no clue about it.
In 1980, the Indian School at Chilocco, Oklahoma closed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs later turned over its land to five local tribes. By 1988, those tribes were being courted by Narconon representatives who wanted to find a place for a large in-patient facility — at the time, Narconon had only a single 12-bed center in Los Angeles.
Without revealing its ties to Scientology, in 1989 Narconon convinced the Ponca tribe to sign a 25-year lease for its new center, which would have 75 beds and was being touted as the largest drug-treatment facility of its kind, anywhere.
But then a man named Bob Lobsinger started asking questions. Editor of the little Newkirk Herald Journal in a town near the Indian land, Lobsinger found in a tiny local library that Narconon was actually a Scientology front, and he began to make a stink about it.
Over the next two years, Narconon waged war with Lobsinger and fought unsuccessfully to get Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health to give it a certification.
One person offended at the accusations made about the center was Narconon’s celebrity endorser, Kirstie Alley.
“It is an unconscionable attempt by the representatives of vested interests to stop a truly effective program that saves lives,” Alley said in December 1991 when state officials decided to deny the center certification, even though the facility had been taking patients for more than a year.
A year later, however, Narconon Chilocco got around the state’s objections. At the time, Oklahoma law allowed for the center to get an exemption from state certification when it went instead to a private group, the Commission for Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), for approval.
As Lobsinger pointed out in July, 1992, the first two CARF inspectors, who granted Narconon its certification, ended up with jobs there.
In 2001, Newkirk finally did win its battle to be free of the center, when Narconon decided to close the Chilocco center and move about 200 miles southeast, to its present location at the Arrowhead Lodge on Lake Eufaula.
But a former employee at Narconon Arrowhead tells me that the story of licensing did not end when the state accepted the CARF certification. For years, he says, officials at the drug treatment center were extremely worried by two things that made the facility vulnerable to being shut down. First, state law was changed so that CARF certification alone was not sufficient to satisfy state licensing issues, he says, and second, the CARF approval only applied to the first of Narconon’s four steps in its treatment program — the non-medical withdrawal phase. The rest of Narconon’s handling of drug addicts, with saunas, megadoses of vitamins, and Hubbard’s odd training routines, was not certified. [Note: My source corrected me — CARF certified the entire program, but the state Department of Mental Health used the CARF approval to apply only to the first part of the program, not the rest.]
For years, he tells me, Narconon spent considerable resources to stay on the good side of officials at the state Department of Mental Health, knowing that if they ever took a hard look at the center, it might not survive a thorough audit of its licensing.
“They’re extremely vulnerable right now,” he tells me.
If, as Jeanne LeFlore’s reporting seems to indicate, Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health is now focused on that certification, it isn’t the only time in recent years that questions about Narconon’s licensing have been raised in the wake of a death.
On July 2, 2006, Patrick W. Desmond was stopped for a traffic violation in Brevard County, Florida, and then was arrested when he was found to be in possession of cocaine.
A Marine veteran, Patrick was the son of Major Patrick C. Desmond, US Army Special Forces, retired.
The Green Beret’s son was sentenced by a county drug court to six months in rehab, and his parents scrambled to find someplace to send him.
Like so many desperate parents before them, they found a Narconon website that made promises of astounding success rates, and no mention of Scientology.
They sent Patrick to Narconon’s center in Atlanta in September, 2007 for six months of in-patient care. While taking his courses at the Narconon facility, Patrick and the other patients were housed at a nearby apartment complex, One Sovereign Place. Patrick completed the program, and was then asked to stay on as staff, the usual way that Narconon finds low-paid workers. After his sentence was completed, he returned to Florida. As is usually the case, however, at Narconon Patrick had received no counseling about addiction and his own problems with it. He soon relapsed, failing an alcohol test, and the court ordered him back to the center.
On May 23, 2008, he returned to the Narconon facility and living at One Sovereign Place. Nineteen days later, he was dead.
The Desmond family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Narconon Georgia, Narconon International, and several individuals in May, 2010.
Narconon’s defense was a simple one, as (vaguely) spelled out in its court filings: If Patrick was dead, it was his own fault. On the night of June 10, Patrick had gone out with a friend, and while away from the Narconon facility, had overdosed on heroin. By the next day, he was declared dead.
But as Desmond family attorney Jeff Harris investigated the death, he found some startling things about Narconon Georgia and the way it did business.
Specifically, the Desmonds, Lisa Mooty (the Brevard Drug Court administrator) and Patrick’s probation officer were all informed by Mary Rieser, and other agents of Narconon Georgia, that the facility was: 1) properly licensed, 2) residential, 3) six months in duration, 4) provided drug and alcohol rehabilitation counseling, and 5) the counseling was provided by adequately trained professionals. All of these statements were untrue.
That’s from the Desmond family court complaint.
Other court documents show that over the last two years, Harris has had to fight Narconon tooth and nail to get key documents from them, but now that he has, the revelations are rather astounding.
— Since 2002, Narconon Georgia has only been licensed by the state to operate an out-patient facility, and had been denied the right to run a residential center.
— The Desmond family alleges that Narconon got around that by asking a Sea Org couple to lease apartments at One Sovereign Place as a de facto residence hall for the Narconon facility.
— Narconon’s own internal documents show that its own investigations uncovered the terrible conditions at One Sovereign Place, finding that it was rife with drug abuse and poorly-supervised patients.
— The Desmonds allege that Narconon Georgia’s executive director, Mary Rieser, would remove the words “outpatient” from the center’s letterhead when she was communicating with the court that had sent Patrick to a supposedly in-patient facility.
In their lawsuit, the Desmonds allege that Narconon billed itself as a residential program when it didn’t have a license to do so, and that it put people like Patrick Desmond at great risk by housing them at an unlicensed residential center that it knew was rife with drug use.
I talked to Jeff Harris this week, and we discussed the issues in his case — I pointed out that it can be tough for the public to sympathize with drug users, but he feels that Narconon’s behavior will shock a jury. He also thinks the public will be thoroughly astounded by the information in Narconon’s documents — but so far, the drug program has been allowed to file those documents under seal. Harris thinks that’s about to change.
I also asked him, more than two years since he first alleged that the state of Georgia had been snowed by Narconon as it allegedly operated like a residential program without a license, has the state showed any interest in investigating that?
He said it hadn’t.
I put in a call to Georgia’s Department of Human Resources. I’ll keep trying to get a response from them, to see if they, like their counterparts in Oklahoma, now want to revisit how Scientology’s drug program is operating in their state.
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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, and if you ask nicely he’ll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.