Scientology Rehab In Big Legal Trouble: Drugs, Death, And L. Ron Hubbard

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Narconon, the controversial drug rehabilitation program that has been linked to the Church of Scientology, is facing its third lawsuit in as many months.

Attorneys for Shirley Gilliam, whose son died at the Narconon Arrowhead center in eastern Oklahoma last October, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on Wednesday. According to the lawsuit, her 32-year-old son, Gabriel Graves, was a patient at the facility when he was found face down and unresponsive in his bed. A heroin addict suffering severe withdrawal symptoms, he had complained of headaches and vomiting but was denied pain medicine or access to a doctor before he died, according to the suit.   

Graves was one of three patients who died at Narconon Arrowhead within a year. The families of the other two patients -- Hillary Holten and Stacy Dawn Murphy -- have also filed lawsuits, the first in August and the second earlier this month.

Founded in 1966, Narconon comprises some 100 rehab centers in 44 countries around the world. The facilities employ the harsh and controversial rehabilitation methods of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who believed drug addicts should quit cold turkey and not be weaned off drugs slowly. Reports identifying Narconon as a front group for Scientology date back more than 20 years. On its website, Narconon says that its rehab program was founded on “key principles” established by Hubbard.

However, the parents of Graves and Murphy say they were unaware of Narconon’s association with Scientology. Speaking to reporters this week, Gilliam said her son was in need of immediate help at the time he was admitted, and that she had not had time to research the facility beforehand. She said she paid an upfront fee of $35,000 for her son’s treatment.   

In an interview with the Daily, Gary Richards, the attorney who represents Gilliam and Murphy’s parents, said his clients would not have admitted their children to Narconon Arrowhead if they'd known of its Scientology connection. “When they went to the facility, they saw a picture of L. Ron Hubbard hanging on the wall, and asked directly if they were part of Scientology,” he told the Daily. “They were assured that they were not.”

Gilliam added that her son was forced to undergo five-hour saunas, vitamin treatments and exercise while he was going through withdrawal. Moreover, she claims she was told that at least one medical doctor would be on hand 24 hours a day; instead, a physician was only available once a week. On its website, Narconon says it has eight full-time nurses and one doctor on staff.  

In an open letter posted on Tulsa’s 2News website in August, Gary Smith, the CEO of Narconon of Oklahoma, insisted that the facility has not violated any laws. He said reports about the patients’ deaths are rife with “inaccuracies” and that reporters have ignored Narconon Arrowhead’s 20-year track record in which the “first 19 years of operation there were no client deaths.”

Added Smith: “Narconon Arrowhead is certified to offer non-medical detox services by the [Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse] and accredited by [the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities] and has complied fully with all applicable regulations and treatment standards set forth by these two agencies.”

Narconon claims that more than 70 percent of its patients remain drug-free after they complete the program. 

An autopsy report for Graves’ death was inconclusive. According to the AP, Pittsburg County sheriff's office are still investigating all three deaths and awaiting the final autopsy and toxicology reports for Murphy.

Gilliam is seeking $75,000 in damages.

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