Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket

Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket

By Mark Ebner 03/27/11

Narconon promises desperate addicts that they can sweat out their demons (and gobs of green ooze) by spending hours in sweltering saunas. But is it a real rehab? Or a front trying to lure vulnerable converts to a declining cult?

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The Narconon Way: No meds, hours in 150-degree saunas and dangerous
doses of vitamins.

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Cold turkey, heat exposure and kooky cocktails may seem ridiculous and amusing, but they can pose health hazards of special concern to alcoholics and drug addicts. Moreover, these dangers have long been known. According to a 1991 study in the American Journal of Public Health, one quarter of deaths related to sauna use were caused by alcohol or cocaine use—usually from hyperthermia, an elevation in body temperature. Given that hyperthermia is also an adverse effect of alcohol abuse, addicts undergoing the extremely elevated heat of Narconon saunas may be exposing their bodies to a compounded risk. As for megadose niacin, it can be toxic to an addict’s already-weakened liver and kidneys.

At least six Narconon clients have died—most of them in their 20s—while undertaking the program, according to documents on narconon-exposed.org, a whistle-blower website run by Dr. David Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and one of Scientology’s most dogged academic critics.

The first reported casualty was that of Jocelyne Dorfmann, 34, an epileptic who died of a seizure in 1984 at a Narconon rehab in Dijon, France, according to the 1995 "French Parliamentary Report on Cults." A budding Scientologist, she entered the program in order to be weaned off her epilepsy medication. A French judge ruled that the center’s assistant director was guilty of negligence and ordered the facility to be shut down. Christopher Arbuckle, 25, of Portland, Oregon, died when his liver failed during the vitamin-ingestion phase of the Purification Rundown—after completing several hours of required running in a sauna, according to papers filed with the Oregon State Court. (The Church of Scientology told the St. Petersburg Florida Times that the young man’s death was caused by his steroid use and pre-existing kidney problems that he failed to disclose.) In 1995, in Lombardy, Italy, Paride Ella, 22, and Giuseppe Tomba, 26, died of kidney failure within two days of each other, reported the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Scientologists associated with the Narconon center were found guilty of several crimes, although a higher court later quashed the convictions. In 2002, a 33-year-old Italian woman fell into a coma while in Narconon’s care and later died of peritonitis, an infection that is rarely fatal unless ignored. The woman had apparently been urged by staff at the Narconon center in Torre dell'Orso to ignore her symptoms and complete the program.

A particularly troubling aspect of these deaths is that they all seem to have been preventable—given prompt medical care. But by the time Narconon staffers decided to call on outside medical help, it was too late. The absence of licensed medical professionals at many Narconon rehabs, coupled with the general prohibition against drugs, including lifesaving medication, is a dangerous combination.

Touretzky, who toldThe Fix that he receives about one e-mail a week from a former Narconon client, has compiled a lengthy Narconon rap sheet that includes unsanitary accommodations, the on-site use of recreational drugs—including patients having sex with staff in exchange for drugs—and the abandonment of patients at remote bus stations late at night when they spoke out against abuses. “I hear from parents of kids who have been abused in Narconon and from people who have done drugs with their counselors,” Touretzky says. “There are all the bad things you could imagine [at a rehab] at Narconons."

One of the most serious allegations is that Narconon holds clients against their will. Daniel Locatelli, 35, of Grass Valley, Calif., claims to have been imprisoned by the Newport Beach Narconon in 2008. Two days into his stay, Locatelli grabbed his bags and bolted for the door, according to a June 2009 complaint filed by his fiancee in a California State Court, alleging fraud, breach of contract and attempts at religious conversion. The Narconon staff allegedly held him against his will for two more days, moving him to a second Narconon center, where he was allegedly denied access to a doctor to get treatment for his bronchitis. Locatelli claimed he was forced to read Scientology propaganda and to endure a demeaning ritual known by Scientologists as “bull-baiting,” during which other clients verbally humiliated him. In September 2009, Narconon settled the suit, paying Locatelli and his fiancee $22,000 ($2,000 less than the amount Locatelli had spent on his “recovery”), on condition that they did not publicly discuss the suit—or how the group’s coercive policies forced a recovering drug addict to thumb his way down the highway with his bag in hand, until a staff member finally picked him up and drove him to the airport.

Narconon staff who attempt to resign have also been imprisoned, especially if they have dirt on the organization. “I tried to leave on two or three different occasions,” said David Love. “I was held in a room against my will for two days, with the door blocked. They wouldn’t give me my ID, my driver’s license, nothing.” Narconon Trois-Rivieres, where Love worked, may have had no medical service, but its security and surveillance were abundant, according to Love. “It’s like a military compound. They have security guards, student control officers, and ethics officers. They count you every 15 minutes, just like a prison. They have a very good P.T.S. [Potential Trouble Source] interview interrogation-type system, where they will turn [clients and staff] around into wanting to stay.” After his escape, Love filed five different lawsuits against Narconon in the Canadian court system.

Yet lawsuits settled out of court and scattered media exposes have done little to diminish the group's popularity. Like the Church of Scientology, Narconon has effectively adapted itself to the internet age. With its deployment of many “drug,” “rehab,” and other recovery-related domain names, the organization’s web strategy nets many viewers. Narconon sites are wreathed with generic clip-art images of smiling families and clean-cut doctors in lab coats and stethoscopes; they feature scientific-looking manifestos and additional links to obscure, decades-old academic journals and come packed with glowing reviews. “I matured more in the few months that I was at Narconon than I did in the previous five years,” exclaims “A.S.” on the website drugrehab.net. “I now have dreams and goals again. I wake up excited about living each day and knowing that drugs wont [sic] be there.”