Pubdate: Sun, 07 Oct 2012
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Christian Boone


Patrick Desmond was running out of second chances.

About a year after being arrested for cocaine possession, the 
garrulous ex-Marine was pulled over for drunken driving. Taking his 
military service into account, a Florida judge agreed to allow 
Desmond to enter a residential drug treatment program in lieu of jail.

Enter Narconon of Georgia, where his parents say they paid $30,000 to 
get their son the round-the-clock supervision he needed and Florida's 
drug court required.

Less than a year later, while in the Narconon program and living in a 
Sandy Springs apartment complex that housed fellow addicts, Desmond, 
28, hopped into a car with two former Narconon clients in search of 
heroin. He ended up overdosing from a combination of alcohol and drugs.

"You send your child for help," Patrick's mother, Colleen Desmond, 
told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You think he's going to be 
cared for. But he wasn't cared for. He was left to his own devices."

Desmond's death four years ago has focused attention on a decade's 
worth of state investigations of the Norcross-based drug treatment 
program. Repeatedly, the state fielded complaints that Narconon, 
while licensed only for outpatient care, was illegally operating a 
residential facility.

Testimony in a wrongful-death lawsuit by Desmond's parents accuses 
Narconon of Georgia of duping out-of-state courts and parents into 
believing it provided the kind of supervision expected from 
residential drug treatment facilities. As part of the ruse, they say, 
Narconon steered clients to housing leased by employees, ex-employees 
and fellow members of the Church of Scientology, which Mary Rieser, 
the clinic's director, attends. That has made the case a cause 
celebre nationally for Scientology critics.

The state says it never had enough evidence to prove that Narconon of 
Georgia was operating a residential facility, although a number of 
its inspectors suspected that to be the case.

"We didn't have subpoena powers at the time, and we relied on their 
truthfulness in their application," said Nina Edidin, who from 
2005-2008 was manager of the legal unit for the Office of Regulatory 
Services for the Department of Human Resources, now the Department of 
Community Health.

But information obtained in the Desmond lawsuit has led the state to 
reopen an investigation. Some evidence, the family says, was right 
under the state's nose. Until a few days ago, the official website of 
Narconon International described the Georgia program as a "long-term 
residential facility with comfortable accommodations..."


"I came to Narconon, and it really did save my life," said Ji 
Johnson, a former client who now works at the Norcross clinic. "I 
know for a fact that I would be dead had I not come to Narconon."

There are many similar accounts of ex-addicts who credit Narconon's 
unorthodox techniques with their triumph over drugs and alcohol.

The treatment is informed by the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, who 
founded Scientology, though Rieser says Narconon has no affiliation 
with the church.

 From the start, clients are given an extraordinary intake of 
vitamins - so many that the state requires they be informed of 
possible risks and sign a consent form. Clients also receive sauna 
treatments intended to cleanse the body of drugs.

Rieser claims a "70 to 80 percent" recovery rate, though the 
program's own medical expert questioned that figure under oath.

When the Desmonds were looking for a treatment program, they didn't 
have time to scrutinize claims. The court gave them 72 hours to find 
a facility. Patrick Desmond had to stay six months in an inpatient 
program with around-the-clock monitoring.

Rieser said "she had everything that met the criteria," Desmond's 
father, Rick Desmond, said in an interview.

Lisa Mooty, manager of Florida's 18th Circuit drug court, testified 
that she also talked with Rieser, who assured her Narconon provided 
"24-hour-a-day coverage."

Randy Taylor, whose son Brad was sentenced to one year in a 
residential drug-treatment facility by a Tennessee drug court, told a 
similar story when deposed by the Desmonds' attorneys.

"When I told [Rieser] what the requirement was, she said, 'That's not 
a problem,' " Taylor testified. "She said, 'That's what we do here.' "

Rieser, Narconon of Georgia's executive director, insists she's never 
portrayed Narconon as something it's not.

"I will never knowingly accept somebody here, if I know they've been 
ordered inpatient, because we're not," Rieser told the AJC. "If 
anybody's in here, they sign three or four times that they know this 
is an outpatient center... I don't know what else I can do."


However, testimony and other evidence in the case point to blurry 
lines between Narconon and housing where almost all of its clients stayed.

In a 2008 email obtained in evidence for the lawsuit, Rieser wrote to 
a Scientology-sponsored organization that Narconon representatives 
"sell the program and housing too."

Former Narconon of Georgia legal liaison Allison Riepe said in her 
deposition that, at Rieser's instructions, she doctored letterheads 
to remove mention of "outpatient drug treatment program" in 
correspondence with drug courts and probation officers.

When Patrick Desmond died, he and other Narconon clients were living 
in a complex where Scientologist Maria Delgado leased housing. She 
testified that she leased a dozen apartments for $850 to $950 a month 
each, then housed four addicts to an apartment at a charge to each of 
$1,500 to $1,700 a month. The upcharges included money for their 
meals and utilities, she testified.

Other testimony shows some Narconon employees also worked and lived 
at the apartment complex, and Narconon provided the van to transport 
clients from the housing to wherever they needed to go.

State records also show that in March, 21 of 28 Narconon clients told 
a state investigator they believed they enrolled in residential care.

In an interview, Rieser said not to trust the addicts' statements. 
"These are not the most truthful people here," she said.

As for Riepe's comments, Rieser said, "sometimes when you have a 
disgruntled employee who was an ex-drug addict themselves, lord knows 
from what frame of mind they're speaking."


Following the state inquiry last spring, Narconon barely escaped 
serious sanctions, said David Cook, director of the Department of 
Community Health.

"This was a close call," he said.

But, he said, the state can't act against Narconon solely on the 
basis that it may have made false claims about providing residential care.

"There's a distinction between running a residential treatment 
facility and holding oneself out as a residential treatment 
facility," Cook told the AJC. "The violation would be actually 
running a residential treatment facility."

Former federal prosecutor Brian McEvoy, who specialized in 
health-care fraud for the U.S. attorney's office in Savannah, said 
the state's inaction is puzzling.

"This warrants further investigation," he said.

Cook said that state will look again at Narconon. "I can say that 
there seems to be much more evidence that has come to light in the 
last few days and we will certainly take that much more seriously," he said.


Scientology's critics have been closely following the Desmond 
lawsuit, set for trial in February. They have obtained depositions 
and posted them online, trying to link the case to problems at 
Narconon's flagship facility in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is probing Narconon 
Arrowhead after a client was found dead in July - the third death 
there in nine months, according to news accounts.

Critics contend Narconon facilities are arms of Scientology. Luke 
Catton, formerly president of Narconon Arrowhead and an 
ex-Scientologist, said Narconon International brings in roughly $1 
million a week from a dozen facilities and funnels 10 percent to the 
Association for Better Living and Education, a Scientology-sponsored 

Rieser's 2008 email to the association detailed issues with the 
Delgado housing, including drug and alcohol use there, and complained 
that an association official had taken Delgado's side.

Rieser disputes any ties to her church and said Narconon will 
continue to reach out to addicts. "I have been here for 11 years, and 
I think if the state thought I were running an inpatient [facility], 
they would say something about it," she said.
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