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Families question Scientology-linked drug rehab after recent deaths

By Anna Schecter

Rock Center

Famous Scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have touted the value of Narconon, a drug rehabilitation program based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

"We are the authorities on getting people off drugs," Cruise said in a video about Scientology released online.

John Travolta hosted a fundraiser for Narconon's Hawaii location in 2007.

But the parents of one young person who died  while in treatment by Narconon’s flagship facility have called Narconon “inhumane,” and others whose children died on the premises of Narconon caution anyone from sending their children there.

Narconon's method of rehabilitation is unorthodox.  Patients are called "students" and they study a series of eight books based on the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. 

The books resemble grade school workbooks and the students practice exercises that Narconon says helps them lead drug-free lives.  The program costs $30,000 per patient and the treatment usually takes three to six months to complete. 

Narconon's unconventional methods include spending up to five hours a day in a sauna for 30 straight days and taking up to 5,000 milligrams of the vitamin Niacin daily.    It is similar to Scientology's regimen called a "purification run-down," designed to free the body of toxins in order to achieve spiritual gains.

Narconon is a "non-medical treatment facility,” meaning it does not administer pharmaceutical drugs to aid in the withdrawal process or the healing of addiction.  Hubbard shunned the pharmaceutical, psychiatric and psychotherapy industries. He believed any drug is essentially a poison and even medicines create a barrier to spiritual well-being.

The detox is part of a larger system of life skills training that many Narconon graduates say has helped them lead drug-free lives.  

In a letter to NBC News, former Narconon student and later employee, Amber Wold, said, “What I like about the Narconon program for myself (sic) was that although it was really hard, it helped me take responsibility for my life and myself."

Narconon says it runs 62 treatment centers around the world, including 19 in the United States, and says it has helped thousands of people get off and stay off of drugs.

But Narconon facilities have been running into trouble. Four "students" at Narconon Arrowhead in Oklahoma have died in three-and-a-half years.

Statement from Narconon Arrowhead to Rock Center

Statement from Narconon International to Rock Center

Statement from the Church of Scientology to Rock Center

Kaysie Werninck, 27, left her Florida home to check into Narconon Arrowhead in 2009.

Mother calls Scientology-linked Narconon 'inhumane'

Her mother, Connie Werninck, said she had initially been drawn by the 75 percent success rate advertised online.  She said she also liked the idea of Narconon's unconventional approach. 

"I’m a health conscious person myself. The sauna program was attractive to me," Connie Werninck said.

But just a few weeks after her 28th birthday, Kaysie succumbed to a respiratory infection in a Tulsa hospital. Werninck said Narconon staff did not give Kaysie the right medication. 

"She kept getting worse over the course of one week," she said.

Werninck said she arranged for a helicopter to take Kaysie to a Tulsa hospital 100 miles away.  She said Kaysie's infection had taken over her body and she died within an hour of arriving at the hospital.

"It is inhumane that a person that sick, you're paying them thousands of dollars, and they let her die,” she said.

Werninck said she is telling her story now so that no one has to go through what she did.

"I want to get the word out so no one sends their child there," she said.

Werninck and her husband, Keith, sued Narconon.  The organization settled for an undisclosed amount without admitting wrongdoing.

"I didn’t want their money, I wanted my girl back," Werninck said.

Narconon Arrowhead CEO Gary Smith said he is frustrated that he cannot comment on this case because Kaysie's family would not provide a release from HIPAA, the medical privacy law, which restricts Narconon from discussing her case. 

In October 2011, the first of three deaths within a nine-month period occurred at Narconon Arrowhead.

Gabriel Graves, a 32-year-old father of two young girls, was found dead in his bed at Narconon Arrowhead.

His mother, Shirley Anne Gilliam, said she felt misled by Narconon.

"I felt like they were leading me to believe he overdosed and I was devastated," she said.

Her son's autopsy report shows only trace amounts of morphine in his system and the cause of death remains a mystery.

Gilliam said her son told her Narconon Arrowhead was anything but drug free-- a place where drugs were used by some to barter for sex. 

"He said that it was one of the easiest places he's ever been to get drugs if you want them. He said there were drugs offered for exchange of physical favors," she said.

A former client and a former employee told similar stories. Narconon Arrowhead has strongly denied the allegations.

Gilliam also said her son told her that he felt Narconon was trying to convert him to Scientology.

"He said that's their whole thing, trying to get us to be Scientologists.  That's what they do," Gilliam said.

Gary Smith said the Church of Scientology has supported Narconon since its inception 40 years ago, but insists Narconon is a non-religious program  that does not recruit for the church.

“All of teachings have been secularized,” Smith said.

In April, the regional government in Quebec, Canada shut down Narconon’s largest facility in North America, Narconon Trois Rivieres, because it failed to meet new health and safety laws.

Narconon and the Church of Scientology say they disagreed with the Quebec decision to allow only the medical model of detoxification and notes that Narconon facilities continue to operate elsewhere in Canada.  

Marc Lacour, director of the regional health agency, said there was no medical supervision at the facility, and as such it “posed a risk” to patients.

Also in April, 21-year-old Hillary Holten died in her room at Narconon Arrowhead.  Her family has retained Tulsa lawyer, Mike Atkinson, to investigate the facts surrounding Hillary's unexplained death.

Colin Henderson, a former student at Narconon Arrowhead, organized a protest near the facility after Hillary's death.

He said he left after two weeks because he was denied his blood pressure medication. He also said he felt the Narconon program was too restrictive.

"I came to Narconon to get off drugs, not to have Narconon attempt to rewire my brain in order to reform to their way of thought. I will never allow anyone to attempt to control my mind. I think for myself,” he said.

A lawyer for the Church of Scientology says Henderson is unreliable and prejudiced against Scientology.

As Henderson was starting to plan a second protest, another young woman died inside Narconon Arrowhead in July.

Stacy Murphy was 20 years old. 

"We were so close. She was so full of life, so outgoing.  She made people feel good about themselves," said her mother, Tonya White.

White said she had heard about two deaths and even asked about them when she took a tour of the facility with her daughter.

"They explained there were extenuating circumstances.  I was so encouraged that they could help my daughter," White said.

Stacy’s father, Robert Murphy, said Stacy complained that there was no drug counseling and that the exercises she was encouraged to practice were strange.

“She says, ‘They got us doing this weirdest stuff, Daddy…we have to sit in front of another student and look to them and yell at them and curse at them and say awful things about them and they're not allowed to react in any aspect whatsoever,’” Murphy said.

Seven weeks into her stay, Stacy went home for a one day visit. Upon her return, Stacy used drugs she had smuggled back into the facility, according to Narconon clients interviewed by the local sheriff's department.

According to the sheriff's report, she was put in a withdrawal unit where she was left unsupervised for several hours and by the time a staff member looked in on her, she was dead.

"This shouldn’t have happened. They should have kept a closer eye on her. They should have called me the night before when they found out she had used drugs," said White.

“Sometimes I still can't believe it.  I wake up and she's the first think of.  I can't believe she’s gone," she said.

Narconon Arrowhead CEO Smith said he cannot comment on any of the recent deaths due to federal privacy laws. He said his staff was devastated by the loss of young lives and he said "our prayers are with the families" of the deceased.

Oklahoma law enforcement and health department authorities have launched investigations into the facility.

Smith said his organization is cooperating fully with all law enforcement, licensing and administrative authorities.

A Church of Scientology spokesperson said, "Narconon has an exceptional record of helping tens of thousands of individuals to lead drug and alcohol free lives. The Church of Scientology is committed to helping people free themselves from the ravages of drugs."

Narconon International president Clark Carr released a statement saying, "Narconon has served tens of thousands of people" and that "three out of four graduates are able to live stable drug-free lives." Carr also cited physicians and PhD's who support the Narconon method.

"Based on the fundamental well known principles of equilibrium chemistry...such therapy is a very reasonable approach to detoxification," said Dr. Vin LoPresti, a biologist who supports Narconon's methods.

LoPresti said the use of sauna therapy is "gentler" and has "fewer side-effects" than drug-based detoxification.

LoPresti said he has not been to any Narconon facilities and is not aware of the circumstances of the deaths at Narconon Arrowhead.  He said he can only speak to the efficacy of Hubbard's methods.

Dr. David Root, a specialist in workplace medicine, has been working with Narconon for two decades.

"It is the best program out there and it works," he said.  Root said he has not spent extensive time working in any Narconon facility but has visited Narconon several times.

"These people know what they are doing and are doing great work," he said.

Other experts disagree.

Susan Foster, director of policy research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, says she has not seen any science that supports a "sweat it out" approach.

She is not a medical doctor, but says extensive research shows a combination of pharmaceutical drugs and behavioral therapy is the safest and most effective way to get people off of drugs.

Foster says the number of deaths at the Narconon Arrowhead facility is alarming.

"You're supposed to go there to recover, not to die," she said.

Statement from Narconon Arrowhead to Rock Center

Statement from Narconon International to Rock Center 

Statement from the Church of Scientology to Rock Center

Katie Boyle, Sabrina Esposito, Elizabeth Brooks and Ed Demaria contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: Harry Smith's full report on Narconon aired Thursday, August 16 on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.  

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