Exclusive: Inside Narconon, CEO Answers Accusations About Deaths In Rehab
McALESTER, Oklahoma - Amid mounting allegations of lies and cover ups, the leader of a controversial rehab facility with ties to Scientology is speaking out.
Narconon Arrowhead, near McAlester, has been under the microscope for the past year, after three patients died while in the facility's care.
In his only one-on-one interview, CEO Gary Smith sat down with News On 6 to address the allegations.
There are more than 160 Narconon centers worldwide. The flagship site, Narconon Arrowhead, has been licensed in Oklahoma for 20 years.
Gary Smith said no one died in the first 19 years of operation.
And now, after a string of deaths, Smith said he wants to set the record straight—that Narconon is a safe place.
Overlooking Lake Eufaula, in the wooded hills of Arrowhead State Park, sits a facility in the center of a firestorm.
Gabriel Graves, Hillary Holten and Stacy Dawn Murphy all died while in the care of Narconon Arrowhead in a nine-month span.
Stacy's mother, Tonya White, said she remembers getting the call that her daughter had died.
"I just couldn't believe it. I just kept screaming, ‘No, no, this can't be,'" White said.
Narconon has been operating in Oklahoma since 1992. President and CEO, Gary Smith is a devoted believer. He said the program helped him kick an addiction 36 years ago.
"I've had it personally, I've helped people, I've seen what it does," said Smith. "Yes, it's very serious".
According to Narconon International's website, the treatment the facility offers is based on teachings by author and Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. A series of Hubbard's books are used to help rehabilitate those in therapy.
"They try to teach you to be a Scientologist. That is my belief," said Shirley Gilliam, the mother of Gabriel Graves.
While he admits the Church of Scientology is a supporter, Smith said his program is not a tool to recruit anyone to Scientology, and has no religious affiliation whatsoever.
"It's not accurate to say to say it's Scientology-based, because Scientology is a religion," Smith said. "We are not a religion. You can look at all our materials—there is no religious philosophies or anything in any of the materials that the individuals study here. It's life-skills. We'll never be the Church of Scientology. We never were."
Narconon graduate, and now employee, Niko Bain said religion was never talked about during treatment.
"Everyone is so respectful of every single person, as an individual," said Bain. "They were so respectful of my religious beliefs. I was able to keep my own beliefs and no one ever tried to change them."
Narconon is a non-medical rehab facility and a doctor is on site only one day a week. Drug addiction there, isn't treated with drugs, but by teaching communication and life skills, according to Smith.
"First, realize what problem they were trying to solve by doing drugs or alcohol," said Smith. "Secondly, [try to] to help improve their life skills in the area of communication, problem solving, problem identification and also to help them improve their moral values."
Nearly 75 percent of the staff is made up of Narconon graduates, according to Smith.
"Ex-users helping users has always had its value. A person who's on drugs will trust an individual who they know has been on drugs, and they will be more honest with that person then," Smith said.
Narconon staff must meet all state-required training before being hired. Smith said any former-addict must be stably recovered before they are allowed to start working one-on-one with those in the program. He also said that no one with a violent criminal history is eligible to work at Narconon.
"There are individuals, who did have problems way back, because of their and addiction, and have fully resolved it and have years of sobriety and have proved they are contributing members of society," Smith said.
Possibly the most criticized practice is their sauna and exercise program. Smith said it eliminates cravings by sweating out toxins.
"The idea there is to improve physical health. Most people that are addicted are in varying degrees of physical and nutritional deficiencies, let's just say," Smith said.
Before starting treatment, Smith said clients must pass a physical exam.
The program starts out with 30 minutes of light exercise, followed by four-and-a-half hours of sweating in a low, dry heat sauna, with cool down and hydration breaks.
The treatment also includes a specific vitamin regimen, including Niacin.
Smith said there are two types of Niacin: Immediate release, which he said is medically safe in high doses and sustained release, which he said can cause liver problems.
"The Narconon sauna program uses IR Niacin and only IR Niacin," Smith said. "SR Niacin has never been used, because of the potential dangers associated with using it in high doses."
Gilliam said her son started complaining of a severe headache after the sauna program, but was refused pain medication and couldn't get in to see the doctor.
She claims Narconon promised a doctor would be on site 24 hours a day.
"I know what happened was bad," Gilliam said.
Smith told us Narconon prefers to treat nutritionally first, but does allow over-the-counter medications.
"If they are medications that are needed to keep those potential life-threatening situations under control, that's incorporated as part of the treatment plan," Smith said.
Narconon employs seven registered nurses. Smith said there is always a nurse on site, who will see patients at any time and the staff doctor is always on-call.
Narconon advertises a 70 percent success rate—a number Smith said comes from a series of survey calls, following program completion.
But there are still those three deaths, which remain a mystery.
"It's a tough job. There's people that die from addiction every day," Smith said.
When Gabriel Graves died last October, his mom said Narconon told her he overdosed. The medical examiner ruled that out, but couldn't determine how he died.
Hilary Holten died in April. Her family claims she was refused medication for a medical condition.
The medical examiner's report noted some bruises on her body, but ruled her death unknown.
Then there's Stacy Murphy.
"We went there for her to be cured, safe," said Stacy's father, Robert Murphy. "She had so much potential".
Stacy turned up dead in the withdrawal unit in July. Her parents said they, too, were told their daughter died of an overdose, but the medical examiner has not determined how or why Stacy died.
"We're not here to hurt people. We're here to help people," Smith said.
Because of client confidentiality, Smith said he can't comment on specific cases.
But he did tell The News On 6 that the circumstances surrounding the deaths were in no way related to the treatment received while at Narconon.
"Unfortunately, death is part of addiction," Smith said. "It's an ugly part, and it happens in rehab and out of rehab and nobody wants it to happen."
The families of the three who died at Narconon have filed suits against the facility, all demanding changes.
"My daughter's death could have been prevented, easily, easily. And I don't want her death to be in vain," Murphy said. "There's procedures that either have to be changed, or this place has to be shut down."
Narconon Arrowhead is being investigated by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Pittsburg County Sheriff's Office and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.