Scientology-Based Rehab Continues To Operate Despite Slew of Deaths, Lawsuits

By Keri Blakinger 01/25/17

The controversial program has not been criminally charged for the on-site overdose deaths.

Scientology building in Los Angeles

When Stacy Dawn Murphy checked into rehab at Narconon Arrowhead in Oklahoma, it seemed like a step in the right direction. The former waitress hoped to kick her heroin habit, and the Pittsburg County facility looked like a good choice, especially given its reported claims of 70% recovery rates. 

But instead, Murphy died in July 2012 when she overdosed inside the Scientology-based rehab center. A year later, Oklahoma enacted Stacy’s Law to provide better oversight for drug rehabs by criminally punishing facilities that attempt to provide rehabilitation without proper state certification. But after four deaths in three years and a slew of civil lawsuits, somehow the facility is still open—and without that necessary certification. 

A loophole in the law distinguishes between inpatient facilities—which need the certification—and halfway houses, which need a less stringent kind of certification. But because the facility near Lake Eufaula is certified as the latter, it has been able to escape the watchful eye of state regulation, according to the Associated Press

"It's a different certification," Narconon Arrowhead executive director Gary Smith told the newswire service. "It's a level of care. We are a drug rehab, like we always have been. Halfway house is a level of care that Oklahoma has for drug rehab programs." 

After Gov. Mary Fallin green-lighted Stacy’s Law the year following the 20-year-old’s death, Narconon Arrowhead lost its license to operate as a medical detox facility in McAlester and was shut down. But the drug rehabilitation program at the flagship 200-bed rehab by the lake still offers the same services including large doses of vitamins and steam baths as part of its treatment regimen, said Smith.

"I am very surprised they are still open, I sure am," Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson told The Oklahoman. Richardson has represented Murphy’s parents and a number of other former Narconon Arrowhead patients in close to a dozen lawsuits. 

Legal troubles kicked off for the facility in 2009, when Kaysie Wernick died of a respiratory infection. Her family filed a wrongful death suit and settled out of court two years later. 

Then in late 2011, Gabriel Graves was found dead in his room after he was denied medical treatment when he complained of severe headaches. His mother filed suit and settled claims in 2015.

In April 2012, Hillary Holten died two days after entering the facility for treatment. Her parents later claimed in a lawsuit that Narconon Arrowhead falsely asserted there was a round-the-clock physician to look after Holten’s adrenal gland disorder. 

Narconon has never faced any criminal charges for the deaths on its watch—and it appears it's only managed to stay open by rearranging its programs to qualify for the less-stringent halfway house certification. 

"They restructured that program and then applied to have the restructured program certified as a halfway house," said Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services spokesman Jeff Dismukes. "After it was determined that the restructured program met all necessary requirements to operate as a halfway house, that program was granted halfway house certification."

But Sen. Tom Ivester, the state legislator who introduced Stacy’s Law, said that was not how halfway house certification was meant to be used. "Narconon is not advertising as a halfway house, and they don't bill you as a halfway house," Ivester said. "You can call yourself whatever you want, but you are holding yourself out to be a drug rehab center."

In addition to the wrongful death suits, the facility has been battered by a series of other suits—many of which ended in settlements including gag orders. 

One former client, Colin Henderson, even launched an anti-Narconon Facebook page called Narconon Exposed. “Stacy’s Law should have shut them down,” he said. “They should not be open right now.” 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.