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Scientology-linked rehab Narconon under fire from two former executives

Eric Tenorio around the time he went to Narconon for substance abuse problems in 1996.
Eric Tenorio around the time he went to Narconon for substance abuse problems in 1996.

By Anna Schecter

Rock Center

In the wake of a Rock Center with Brian Williams report on three deaths at a Scientology-linked drug treatment center in Oklahoma, the former president of the facility, and a former executive at a Narconon facility in Michigan have come forward to expose what they call deceitful marketing techniques and underqualified staff.

"Narconon preys on vulnerable people.  That's part of the sales techniques," said Lucas Catton, who stepped down as President of Narconon's Arrowhead facility in Oklahoma in 2004.

Lucas Catton working at Narconon.
Lucas Catton working at Narconon.Courtesy of Lucas Catton

In an interview to be broadcast Friday, April 5, on Rock Center, Catton and his former colleague, Eric Tenorio, alleged that Narconon advertises a bogus success rate of 75 percent to lure in desperate families of addicts and hires recent graduates to be counselors without any traditional drug treatment training.

Tenorio, the former executive director of Narconon's Freedom Center in Michigan, showed Rock Center official-looking certificates he received as a "Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor.” He said he purchased them for himself and his staff for several thousand dollars from an organization called the Pita Group, Inc., which was created by Kent McGregor, a contractor for Narconon’s Arrowhead facility located in Canadian, Oklahoma.

"No course.  No tests.  No oversight,” Tenorio said. “It’s absolutely fraud."

McGregor denied Tenorio’s assertions and said the Pita Group requires 20 hours of training and two years’ experience to obtain a CADC certificate.

Tenorio said he believes the deaths at Narconon Arrowhead could have been prevented if qualified addiction counselors had been on staff.  Beyond the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, he said, staff members do not receive instruction on how to treat people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

"Part of what I have to do to right the wrong is just be honest about it. If it gets me in trouble, that's the risk I'm willing to take. Any quote, unquote, ‘punishment’ that may come of it is better than someone dying," he said.

Both Tenorio and Catton describe Narconon's methods of treatment as "pseudo-science." 

Narconon promotes itself as a non-medical rehabilitation program.  Its methods include five hours a day in a sauna for 30 straight days and mega doses of the vitamin Niacin.

Narconon’s patients are called "students" and they study a series of eight books based on the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, part of a larger life-skills program that Narconon said has helped tens of thousands of people around the world lead drug-free lives.

The three-to-six-month program costs about $30,000 per patient, which is comparable to other addiction treatment programs.

Eric Tenorio around the time he went to Narconon for substance abuse problems in 1996.
Eric Tenorio around the time he went to Narconon for substance abuse problems in 1996.

Both Catton and Tenorio first arrived at Narconon in Oklahoma as patients in their early 20s, Tenorio in 1996, and Catton in 1998.  

They said at the time and for years after they thought the program helped them, though they now say it was more of a change of geography than Hubbard’s teachings that helped them get sober.

Another striking similarity in their experiences --  both men became Scientologists while at Narconon. 

"I dedicated all of my time, life, money; everything was dedicated toward the purpose of advancing Scientology's aims.  That is what you're doing at Narconon, is you're advancing the aims of Scientology," said Catton.

Catton alleged the Church of Scientology uses Narconon as a way to recruit new members, an assertion which both the Church of Scientology and Narconon deny.

Catton also said one of the main focuses at the management level was to bring in as much revenue as possible.  In 2011, Narconon Arrowhead alone brought in $10.88 million in revenue.

"You're willing to either lie to [prospective clients] or misrepresent who you are or take people who aren't really qualified; anything to bring in the money to keep the facility going, week after week after week," said Catton.

Catton claims the success rate when he was at Narconon was closer to 25 percent.  Narconon stands by its 75 percent statistic.

"It's all based on deception," Catton said. "Everything from the success rate to their counseling certifications, to their general requirements of what it takes to be a staff member to their connection to the Church of Scientology-- every single one of those things is deceptively portrayed to the general public versus what really goes on behind the closed doors," he said.

Catton said as president of Narconon Arrowhead, he helped Narconon take advantage of loopholes in Oklahoma state law to avoid any kind of meaningful regulation by the state.

"The state, unfortunately, has not done their job," he said.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said Narconon Arrowhead is currently certified to provide non-medical detoxification services, and that an investigation is ongoing into the into the deaths of Stacy Murphy, Hilary Holten, and Gabriel Graves, all of whom died inside the facility within a nine-month period in 2011 and 2012.

Catton stepped down as president in 2004 because he said he was tiring of the contradictory orders he was getting from the Church of Scientology, a non-profit affiliated with the church called A.B.L.E., and Narconon International.

He continued to work at the facility in other capacities until 2006, when he began working as a contractor selling Narconon to relatives of drug addicts from around the country who were looking for help on the internet.

"I had a series of websites that were non-branded--generic websites for people to look for drug treatment and rehab help," Catton said.

Catton said he referred most of those who could afford it to Narconon. The rest he referred elsewhere. He said he would earn a 10 percent commission, or roughly $3,000, on each new patient he sent to Narconon, but would never disclose to the families his financial connection to the program.   He said he made up to $200,000 annually in commissions. 

Catton said he started to question Narconon and Scientology after he began to look into unfavorable reports about the Church online around 2010. He said when he started to question church authorities he was excommunicated in 2011.

Tenorio stopped working for Narconon in 2010 after tiring of what he called fraud and poor management. Leaving Narconon essentially ended his connection with the church.

Both men said they are ashamed of their involvement with Narconon and Scientology.

"It's definitely embarrassing.  I don’t go around telling people that I meet that, ‘Yeah, I used to be in a cult,’" said Tenorio.

Catton echoed him saying, “To think I had fallen for such a scam…and sold it to others. It’s not something I would wish on anybody else,” he said.

Catton said distancing himself from the Church of Scientology has been a process over the past three years.  As part of that process, he wrote a book called Have You Told All? Inside my time with Narconon and Scientology which he self-published this year.

“I felt that it was the only way that I could actually get past all this, was to be able to help tell my side of the story.  It needed to be done.  I wouldn't be able to let it go, consciously, otherwise,” he said.

The families of the three deceased are all suing Narconon Arrowhead for negligence and wrongful death.  Narconon has denied wrongdoing in any the deaths at the facility.

In the days leading up to the publication of this article, dozens of people wrote emails to NBC News saying either their lives or the lives of a loved one were saved by Narconon.

In statements to NBC News, Narconon and Church of Scientology officials said only a very small percentage of patients join Scientology.

In an email to NBC News, Narconon Arrowhead CEO Gary Smith said approximately 25 percent of his staff are Scientologists.

"Narconon's chief concern is to salvage people from the ravages of drug addiction… Nothing in the procedures puts money before helping the person who is suffering,” said Smith in the email.

In statements both the Church of Scientology and Narconon said that Catton and Tenorio benefitted from Narconon's treatment.

Narconon Arrowhead CEO Smith provided a statement from Catton thanking the program for saving his life. Smith stressed that the statement was from as recent as 2011. He also said Catton is connected to individuals who “have been engaged in a public anti-Scientology campaign for years.”

The Church of Scientology provided video statements made by Tenorio in 2008 and Catton in 2009 thanking Narconon for turning their lives around. 

“Doing the Narconon program is what got me to where I am right now," Tenorio said on camera in a 2008 testimonial given to the Church of Scientology.

In Catton’s 2009 video testimonial given to the Church of Scientology he said, “There is not a more comprehensive rehabilitation program available than Narconon." 

Catton said his sole reason for speaking out is to help save lives in the future.

"Why would I incriminate myself?  Why would I give up my certifications?  Why would I do all these things?  It's purely so that the truth can come out, so that people can stop hurting, so that people can stop dying, and so that there can be full transparency,” he said.

Rock Center's Sabrina Esposito contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: Harry Smith's full report airs Friday, April 5 at 10pm/9CDT on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.