State rehab facility under investigation for negligence

Tulsa World/July 29, 2012

Alive, but only just, Heather Landmeier blinks to communicate from a vegetative state.

She has almost no control of her body below her neck and will be fed through a tube for the rest of her life.

Landmeier, 27, overdosed on heroin and Oxycontin at a Tulsa hotel in March 2008. A day earlier, she was dismissed from Narconon Arrowhead, a state-licensed non-medical drug detoxification facility in Pittsburg County, records show.

Landmeier's family alleges in court documents that her dismissal was related to drugs and alcohol provided to her by Narconon staff.

"Heather believed Narconon would be the start on her road to recovery," said Landmeier's younger sister, Hilary Landmeier. "Our family believed that as well. We put our trust in them. They truly made us believe that."

Landmeier's case is part of a controversy that surrounds Narconon, a southeast Oklahoma center that uses practices commonly associated with Scientology and the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.

Since October, there have been three confirmed deaths related to the facility. Since 2005, there have been four other deaths - three of which were on the premises, according to state records.

The most recent death was Stacy Murphy, a 20-year-old from Owasso, on July 19. In the days after she died, at least two state agencies and Pittsburg County authorities have been investigating the facility.

The center faces claims of violating state mental health facility statutes and consumer protection law, authorities said.

Narconon Arrowhead Director Gary Smith declined a phone interview. In a brief email, Smith, citing federal health laws, said he couldn't comment on any client's specific case. In a previous statement, Smith said the organization will cooperate openly with any local and state agencies' investigations.

Murphy's father alleges his daughter wasn't given proper medical attention by Narconon staff. The Landmeier family claims Narconon was negligent. And an Oklahoma man who spent two weeks in the facility says Narconon is trying to indoctrinate people in Scientology.

Scientology-based rehab

Narconon Arrowhead opened about 12 years ago in Canadian, a community northeast of McAlester. The facility refers to patients as "students" and focuses on a "sauna purification process," according to the organization's website.

About 150-200 clients can be serviced at Narconon at a time, with more space for staff who live on campus, authorities have reported.

The Oklahoma center, Narconon International's flagship facility out of several in the U.S., is rooted in Scientology and likewise based on the teachings and the "technology" developed by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, according to the organization's website.

The facility advertises a non-drug path to rehabilitation that focuses on three activities: exercise, vitamins and sauna sessions. In the daily sauna session, participants are given niacin, which is a vitamin, and then exercise.

"From here they go into the sauna to sweat taking a break every 20 minutes and drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration," according to the website. "The sauna treatment usually lasts about 5 hours a day total. Salt and potassium are readily available to avoid overheating, headaches and to help promote the ability to sweat. After a completed day of sweating, the individual is given healthy oils to replace those lost in the perspiration process and a very specific vitamin regimen."

According to a court filing in Landmeier's lawsuit, Social Betterment Properties International owned the property last year. SBPI is listed as a non-profit that maintains properties used for programs that follow the "methods developed by L. Ron Hubbard and that are associated with and supported by the Scientology religion."

Colin Henderson, a patient at the facility in July 2007, said he thinks Narconon is more concerned with Scientology converts than helping drug addicts.

"While at Narconon, I saw first-hand the training methods were intended more to indoctrinate students into Scientology," he said.

This year, Henderson filed a complaint with the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, citing problems he experienced during his two-week stay.

On Tuesday, the World requested from ODMHSAS all inspection and complaint reports concerning Narconon. A spokesman said the reports were being compiled and reviewed.

Henderson said one recovery method used at Narconon is called an Eyes Open TR0, which means Training Routine 0. Henderson said, while at the center, he was forced to sit about three feet from another patient.

"You sit with your back perfectly straight, your hands on your knees and staring only into the other person's eyes," Henderson said. "You cannot blink, cough, move, or break eye contact for five minutes."

If you fail, you have to start over, he said. Henderson said patients have to successfully remain still in increments of five, 10 and 15 minutes. As the class advances, the time increments increase to one hour, he said.

The investigations

Narconon Arrowhead is licensed through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to provide "non-medical detoxification services," according to Jeffrey Dismukes, director of public information for ODMHSAS.

"Not all aspects of Narconon's program fall within the department's jurisdiction," Dismukes wrote in an email. "It should be noted that the (ODMHSAS) is currently reviewing other aspects of the Narconon program to determine if additional components should be subject to state certification standards."

The department is investigating the facility, he said.

Since Murphy's death, agencies involved in Narconon investigations include ODMHSAS, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Pittsburg County Sheriff's Office and the Pittsburg County District Attorney's office, according to reports.

Dismukes said the reports from the state were being compiled and reviewed.

Although Narconon is only certified for non-medical detoxification, the facility has been in the process of becoming certified to deliver medical detoxification services, Dismukes said.

Claims of negligence

Stacy Murphy had voluntarily admitted herself to the clinic and had been a patient for about six weeks when she received a day pass to go home, said her father, Robert Murphy.

After she returned to the center, she began acting peculiarly, and the center gave her a drug test, which came back positive for opiates, he said.

"She died from someone neglecting her after they knew she had drugs in her body," he said.

Unlike Stacy Murphy, Heather Landmeier lived there and was kicked out after testing positive for drugs, according to court records.

After Landmeier's drug use, dismissal and subsequent overdose, Landmeier spent months in hospitals diagnosed with brain damage before being released to her family in Illinois. They provide 24-hour care, Hilary Landmeier said.

"We lived hundreds of miles away and all we could do was trust them to take care of her," she said. "The second she needed them the most, they just absolutely abandoned her."

According to court documents filed by Narconon attorneys, Landmeier was a "student" and later a "trainee" being groomed to join the center's staff. Her last round of rehab was her third time through the facility.

The Landmeier family is seeking damages from Narconon for an unspecified amount more than $75,000, according to the family's Tulsa lawyer, Donald Smolen II.

The case is ongoing in Pittsburg County before Associate District Judge James Bland, records show.

Defense attorneys for Narconon argue in court filings that Narconon Arrowhead administrators dismissed Landmeier as soon as they were made aware of her drug use and are not responsible for her overdose after she violated rules and left the premises.

Hilary Landmeier said she would encourage family of anyone at Narconon to get them out as quickly as possible, especially considering the recent deaths.

"My heart just goes out to the family" of Stacy Murphy, Hilary Landmeier said. "I'm just so thankful that I have my sister here still. It may not be the same Heather that I had before, but she's still my sister. ... No family should ever, ever have to go through something like this."

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