Over the past year, the sheer number of damning documents coming out of the case — and harsh findings by Judge Stacey Hydrick — suggested that Scientology was heading for a nightmarish reckoning over its Atlanta-area rehab center, Narconon Georgia.
Until the last minute, however, Narconon’s attorneys gave every indication that they were prepared to go to trial and prove that Patrick Desmond’s 2008 heroin overdose death was his own fault, not the rehab facility’s.
But Desmond family attorney Jeff Harris had uncovered stunning evidence of the deceptive way that Narconon Georgia operated, and painted a picture of a facility rife with drug abuse. That research convinced the state to begin proceedings to close the center, and now a criminal investigation is looking into allegations of insurance fraud.
The Desmond family wrongful death case, at least, is going away. Is it too late for Scientology to contain the larger scandal about its drug rehab quackery?
At 8:15 pm, the tireless researchers over at the Reaching for the Tipping Point Forum received official word from Desmond family attorney David Bills that the case had been settled.
We’ve put out messages to Jeff Harris and other people knowledgeable about the case, and we hope to add to this post when we hear from them. For now, we’re to bolster it with some of the revelations this case produced.
UPDATE: Lucas Catton just got word directly from Jeff Harris confirming that the case is over. Catton was at one time the president of Narconon Arrowhead, the drug rehab program’s flagship operation in Oklahoma. After speaking to us publicly for the first time, he’s become a vocal source of information about Scientology’s involvement in Narconon, and the deceptive practices at the drug rehab network.
Catton tells us he was slated to testify in the trial, and he had talked with Desmond family attorneys as recently as Wednesday getting updates on the case. He points out that in a hearing this week, Narconon Georgia coughed up a partial settlement of $950,000 out of an insurance policy.
“The idea was to go after Narconon International at the trial and really disrupt their entire network,” Catton says. “Narconon International’s attorneys really looked like they were freaking out at the hearing, I was told. They were asking for a continuance or a separate trial, and Judge Hydrick denied both of those.”
Catton says Scientology was looking at a nightmare situation in which Narconon International was going to have to blame things on the locals, such as former Narconon Georgia executive director Mary Rieser, whose lies were called out by Judge Hydrick in dramatic fashion. With one Scientology-licensed nonprofit aiming at another, “it was crazy,” Catton says.
We asked Luke if he thought the settlement will prevent this scandal from affecting other parts of the Narconon network.
“I think they’re doing whatever they can to contain it, but it’s too late for this location. Now they’re making Oklahoma the final battlefield, like it has been in the past. If Oklahoma goes down, it will happen because of what’s happening there, not here,” Catton says.
We asked for some thoughts from Mary McConnell, one of the Tipping Point researchers, who has kept a close eye on this case for a long time. She sent us this statement:
Despite knowing throughout this case that a settlement was possible at any time, that Narconon of Georgia was asset-poor, and that Narconon International was ill-prepared for the trial and in such a damning position, I was still shocked to find out it was settled.
I guess I wanted to see this case go as far as it could without a settlement happening, but I had to consider the Desmond Family and all they have been put through. So it’s a good thing for the Desmonds, who, after all, put themselves on the line here to carry this case to where it ended. The nightmare is over for them.
In retrospect, this case certainly went far and exceeded my original expectations. The damaging documents and deposition testimonies that came out of this case will be referred to in other cases and exist on the Internet for many years to come. The criminal issues are still pending and I do see charges being filed very soon. On top of that, the facility has lost its license and hopefully they will lose their appeal.
Both Narconons are paying for what they did. And will continue to pay in more ways than financial. I can’t imagine the settlement being a small amount of money, either. Narconon International must have felt they were caught between a rock and a hard place as the trial date approached. Narconon International probably feared having to go bankrupt because of this case and rightly so. It was never a matter of them winning in this case. Only how bad the outcome. We got most of the information and more documents are forthcoming from the court. The civil damage is done and settled and now it’s on to the criminal complaints.
OK, some basic facts and background if you’re just coming to this news story.
— Scientology is made up of many different entities, all of which are tightly controlled by its “Sea Organization,” with David Miscavige at the top. When it’s convenient, the church says that Miscavige’s only role is to be the “ecclesiastical” leader of church scripture as the chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center. But in actual fact, his former top lieutenants say, from that perch he maintains a tight grip on the rest of Scientology’s alphabet soup of organizations. One of them is the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE) which is staffed completely by Sea Org executives. ABLE, in turn, provides licensing and oversight to various front groups, including Narconon International, which in turn licenses and oversees individual Narconon rehab centers. When Miscavige is boasting about the Narconon network at large church events, there’s no question that it’s a Scientology operation. But when Narconon centers run into controversy, they claim to be independent operators separate from the church.
— Documents in the Desmond case, however, show that Narconon Georgia executive director Mary Rieser was reporting directly not only to Narconon International but also Scientology’s intelligence and covert operations wing, the Office of Special Affairs, which would naturally step in after a legal scare like the death of a patient. Also, a document recently released showed that Rieser also had to put up with meddling from the local Scientology church. So, while the mainstream media is often snowed by Narconon’s claims not to be part of the church, the ties have been obvious for decades. In fact, as Catton confirmed to us, patients at Narconon don’t receive drug counseling at all, but instead get the same basic Scientology training that new church members receive.
— Most parents who send their drug-addicted kids to Narconon centers have no idea of the connection to Scientology. Narconon in fact goes out of its way to camouflage the connection with generic-looking websites and referrers who are paid bounties for bringing in new patients. The parents of Patrick Desmond were like so many others who just wanted to find a safe place to put their son, Patrick, a veteran who was having problems with alcohol. Patrick had been sentenced by a Florida drug court to an in-patient, residential drug rehab center, and the Desmonds were assured by Narconon Georgia that they ran such a facility.
— In fact, Narconon Georia had never received a state license to run an in-patient facility, so, court documents showed, executive director Mary Rieser simply lied about that to the Florida drug court. Testimony in the case showed that Rieser instructed an employee to remove the word “outpatient” from Narconon Georgia letterhead so they could deceive the Florida drug court and other patients that they had a license to run housing.
— Since they didn’t have a license to run their own dormitories, Narconon Georgia instead recruited a Scientologist couple from the local church, Don and Maria Delgado, to lease some apartments at a complex called One Sovereign Place. Patients were housed there, four to an apartment, at an enormous profit. Narconon International — the organization that was supposed to be keeping an eye on Mary Rieser’s facility, in fact did investigate the housing and found that it was out of control, with patients and employees using drugs.
— It was in that environment that Patrick Desmond drank heavily, then went for a drive from the apartments and tried heroin for the first time. It killed him.
— The Desmond family’s attorneys fought hard to get documents out of Narconon, which, true to the Scientology playbook, relied on delaying tactics and held back information (which backfired on them in spectacular fashion). Eventually they did turn over information, which made it obvious that fooling state regulators was part of the business plan. Georgia investigators had, in fact, tried multiple times to show that Narconon Georgia was in flagrant violation of its license, and now, the state finally is serious about it. State regulators announced their intention to cancel the facility’s license and shut it down. Narconon appealed, and it’s open in the meantime. But now a criminal investigation has also been opened as documents surfaced showing that United Health Care was being billed for hundreds of thousands of dollars in care that didn’t happen — and that’s just in the case of a single patient.
We’re really looking forward to coverage by Atlanta’s local media, which has been so dogged covering this controversy. Look for Pete Combs at WSB radio, Jodie Fleischer at WSB TV, and Christian Boone at the Atlanta Journal Constitution to swamp these developments with coverage in the coming days.
Posted by Tony Ortega on February 8, 2013 at 21:30