Sheriff investigating after Okla. drug rehab death

Associated Press/July 25, 2012

By Sean Murphy

Oklahoma City -- After three deaths in nine months at an eastern Oklahoma drug rehab center with ties to the Church of Scientology, the local sheriff confirmed Wednesday that he has launched an investigation.

Pittsburg County Sheriff Joel Kerns said his office is looking into three deaths at Narconon Arrowhead. The most recent occurred Thursday, when the center's staff found 20-year-old Stacy Dawn Murphy dead in her room.

"She was found with no apparent abrasions or anything of that sort," Kerns said. "No apparent medical conditions."

Kerns said Murphy had recently returned to the center in the small lake-side town of Canadian, about 130 miles east of Oklahoma City, after a visit to her home in Owasso. Kerns said staff at the facility reported she tested positive for drugs after returning, and that investigators are exploring whether she may have overdosed.

Murphy's autopsy report has not been completed, pending toxicology reports, said Oklahoma medical examiner's office spokeswoman Amy Elliott. The death was first reported by the McAlester News-Capital.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Human Services, which licenses certain treatment facilities, also is investigating. The Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation gave its report on Murphy's death to the sheriff on Wednesday.

The center' director, Gary Smith, said Narconon Arrowhead is fully cooperating with investigators "and will comply with any recommendations that may be made by these agencies."

"For those of us who have committed their lives to saving people from drug and alcohol addiction, losing a young adult to drugs during their recovery process has taken an extreme emotional toll on us as well," Smith said in a statement. "It is truly a sad day for everyone when something as unfortunate and devastating as this occurs."

Murphy's death is the third since October at the facility, located on a 256-acre former resort lodge located along Lake Eufaula. Another woman died in 2009 after being transferred to a hospital, and a wrongful death lawsuit was settled in that case.

Gabriel Graves, 32, was found dead at the facility on Oct. 26, and Hillary Holten, 21, died April 11. Kerns said his office's investigations remain open into both of those deaths, and that investigators are continuing to gather information.

Graves' autopsy report showed that investigators were unable to determine a cause of death. The report noted that Graves, who had a history of heroin abuse and had been at the facility for weeks, had a small amount of morphine in his blood. "It is unclear how this was acquired, however the levels are extremely low and probably not related to death," the report states.

Holten's autopsy report has not been completed, Elliott said.

Another patient, 28-year-old Kaysie Dianne Werninck, died in March 2009 after being transferred to a Tulsa hospital, according to court records. An autopsy was not performed, but her parents' wrongful death lawsuit claimed Werninck had an upper respiratory infection that worsened because Narconon staff failed to properly care for her and gave her the wrong medication. Narconon disputed those claims, but the lawsuit was settled. Terms were not disclosed.

The center's property was purchased in 2000 by the nonprofit Association for Better Living and Education from the Choctaw Nation. The international group, which has ties to the Church of Scientology, opened Narconon Arrowhead the following year.

Narconon uses saunas, vitamins, mild exercise and a special diet in its three-month treatment, which is based on techniques developed by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. According to the center's website, the treatment is designed to flush toxins from the body, including drug residue that the center says get lodged in fatty tissues that cause cravings.

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