Narconon Not Scientology? Then Why Is Its Leader in the Church's Concentration Camp?
On Saturday, we took you inside the troubled Scientology drug treatment center in eastern Oklahoma, Narconon Arrowhead.
Three deaths have occurred at the center since October, and the most recent of them, Stacy Murphy, 20, was found on the morning of July 19.
A former patient who knew Stacy told us what conditions were like at the center, which uses Scientology's odd "training routines" rather than drug counseling. We also talked to a former employee of the facility who told us about the shaky history of Narconon Arrowhead's certification by the state of Oklahoma. Even before the recent deaths, he told us, officials at the center had worried that its certification was "vulnerable."
And now, we have startling information about the connection between Narconon and Scientology itself which, like so many other stories we've explored here, brings us right back to church leader David Miscavige's concentration camp for executives, known as "The Hole."
We've noticed that news organizations have a tendency to characterize Narconon as "affiliated with" the church or, as one Oklahoma TV station put it, "associated with the teachings of Scientology."
We even found one story about the investigation into Murphy's death -- in the Tulsa World -- that didn't mention Scientology at all.
That tells us that reporters either don't understand the real connection between Scientology and its drug-treatment front group, or worse -- they're operating under the notion that it's for some reason inappropriate to go there.
We're hoping this story addresses that.
It's true that Scientology and Narconon sometimes do their best to give the impression that they have little to do with each other. The drug treatment centers are each non-profit corporations of their own. They pay licensing fees to a non-profit umbrella organization called the Association for Better Living and Education, or ABLE.
ABLE, in turn, is careful to say that it is a secular "social betterment" organization that uses the ideas of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but is not a part of the church itself.
These are smokescreens. As researchers have shown for years, Narconon is under the tight control of Scientology and its elite corps of quasi-military leaders in the church's "Sea Org."
-- Only Sea Org members can be employed at ABLE, which itself grew out of Scientology's notorious "Guardian's Office," responsible for a vast 1970s infiltration of federal government offices that was broken up by the FBI.
-- From the beginning, the connections between the organization that would become ABLE and Scientology were obfuscated so Narconon and the other "social betterment" programs could be kept strictly under Scientology control while masking that connection from the public.
-- Narconon Arrowhead itself was designed at Scientology's International Base east of Los Angeles, says an executive who worked there at the time.
-- And the most troubling connection between Narconon and Scientology, which has not been reported previously: For at least the past five years, the woman who is the president of ABLE, the umbrella group that runs Narconon and Scientology's front groups that try to get Hubbard's "technology" into public schools, has been a prisoner of Miscavige's hellish concentration camp for Scientology officials at Int Base.
Her name is Rena Weinberg, and we have eyewitness accounts that place her in "The Hole" from at least 2007 to 2012.
We put it to our fellow journalists, and to the officials looking into Narconon in Oklahoma and Quebec and Georgia and Michigan and everywhere else the drug treatment centers are being investigated and sued -- if Narconon and its parent company ABLE are secular and independent of Scientology, why is ABLE's president languishing in the church's notorious California desert prison?
1. SoCo and Snow White
As we mentioned in our previous story, Narconon was started by an Arizona prison inmate named Bill Benitez in 1966. Narconon's website has a glowing history of Benitez helping other inmates after he'd discovered value in the books of L. Ron Hubbard. What the website doesn't mention, however, is that when Narconon was incorporated in 1970, two other people involved in that incorporation were Henning Heldt and Arthur "Arte" Maren, senior members of Scientology's "Guardian's Office."
British historian Chris Owen explains why that's significant:
A decade later, Heldt was in prison along with L. Ron Hubbard's wife and eleven other Guardian's Office staff, Maren and Hubbard himself were named as "unindicted co-conspirators" and the Guardian's Office was exposed as the instigator of a massive international campaign of espionage and intimidation aimed at anyone who Scientology saw as a threat: governments, newspapers, businesses, individuals. It was eventually disbanded in 1982 after losing a power struggle with the present management of the Church of Scientology.
The extent of the Guardian's Office's espionage became clear in 1977, when the FBI raided Scientology offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, seizing documents which spelled out the program of infiltrating federal offices, a program Hubbard had called Operation Snow White. Among the documents seized, Owen points out, were Guardian's Office records which showed that Narconon and Applied Scholastics (Scientology's school curriculum arm) were part of a group of organizations collectively known as Social Coordination, or "SoCo," and were intended to be front groups with their connection to Scientology hidden.
When the Guardian's Office was disbanded as Mary Sue Hubbard and the others went to prison for Operation Snow White, SoCo remained in existence and was later transformed into ABLE.
"Formerly our name was Social Coordination. ABLE's purpose is 'To create a total revolution in the fields of drugs, crime and education by pushing LRH tech into wide, wide use'," announced ABLE's first newsletter, in 1988.
If Scientology sometimes plays down how much its Sea Org and its top entities, like its secretive "Watchdog Committee," exert control over ABLE, it's less shy in internal documents meant for other Scientologists. From a 1988 document showing how the church entities were set up following a complex reorganization years earlier, there was this diagram that made it quite clear that ABLE was just another "sector" in the world of Scientology:
And more recently, the Voice obtained secret plans for Scientology's new "Flag Mecca" building in Clearwater, Florida that has been under construction since 1998 and is still not open. Also known as the "Super Power Building," schematics show that much of the building's first floor celebrates Scientology's various divisions with elaborate displays. In the following diagram, you can see that ABLE's various programs -- including Narconon and Applied Scholastics -- will be honored along with Scientology's "orgs" (its word for churches) in a set of circular rooms (click the image to expand):
[In the left room, you can see the displays set aside for the "orgs," the program WISE, which targets chiropractors and dentists and accountants and other businessmen with Hubbard "admin technology," IHELP-- the International Hubbard Ecclesiastical League of Pastors (an association for field auditors), and the Volunteer Ministers, the yellow-jacket wearing Scientologists who show up at disaster sites to offer a faith-healing technique called "touch assists." In the room on the right are displays for the groups under ABLE -- Criminon, the church's reform program in prisons, Narconon, The Way to Happiness Foundation, which disseminates Hubbard's 1980 booklet of generic life advice, and Applied Scholastics.]
From its incorporation in 1988, ABLE has only employed members of the Sea Org -- the hardcore elite of Scientology, who tend to be recruited very young from the ranks of second-generation church members.
A year after it was founded, ABLE hired a 16-year-old Sea Org member to become its vice president of personnel, and he was put in charge of staffing up a crucial new project, to open Narconon's first really large residential facility on an Indian reservation in Chilocco, Oklahoma.
His name was Marc Headley.
2. ABLE bodied seamen
We've written about Headley's later adventures at Scientology's International Base, where he labored for pennies an hour as one of the technical workers, helping David Miscavige put out taped Hubbard lectures, put on video displays at events, and develop new e-meters. Eventually, Headley escaped from the base in 2005 with his wife Claire, and the two later sued Scientology for their years of sub-minimum wage work and for the two forced abortions Claire says she had to endure. (That lawsuit was dismissed and recently failed to be reinstated on appeal.)
Before he went to the base, however, when Marc was a new Sea Org member, he found himself working at ABLE in Hollywood, where he was at least paid minimum wage.
"It was supposed to be a separate entity from Scientology. So we got paid minimum wage and wore civilian clothes -- 'upstat civvies,' they were called," he says. "It was minimum wage, but we were only being paid for a 40-hour week, even though we were working 100-hour weeks."
While he was making a few dollars an hour, meanwhile, Headley says there was a push for ABLE to bring in big money. And the executives in charge of that effort were told to find a way to get the government on the hook to pay for the social betterment programs, as well as to go the tried-and-true route of hitting up wealthy Scientologists and celebrities.
"All the big time Scientologists were being pressured to give money to ABLE," Headley says. "When I was there Kirstie Alley gave $300,000 to Narconon."
And getting her to fork that over had been an elaborate operation.
"We recorded a video of Jeff Pomerantz talking like a news anchor about Narconon, to reg her," he says, using the word, pronounced "rej," which is short for "registrar," the name for church officials who pressure members to donate money.
"She came down to the Celebrity Centre, saw the video, and gave $300,000. It was a really big deal. You didn't normally bring in that much in a week," he says.
Headley, meanwhile, was tasked with a major undertaking a thousand miles away. "My job was to put together a mission, to put together all of these people who were going to set up Narconon Chilocco," he says, and admits that he failed miserably. "I could never get anyone who was qualified."
As we wrote in our previous story, at the time Narconon was courting several Indian tribes in Oklahoma who were trying to figure out what to do with an old school that had been closed down. Saying nothing about its ties to Scientology, Narconon persuaded the Ponca tribe to sign a 25-year lease for several former school buildings.
They were opposed by Bob Lobsinger, the editor of a local newspaper, the Newkirk Herald Journal, who had discovered the connection between Narconon and the church.
"That guy at the Herald Journal, he was the nemesis of ABLE. That guy was so far up their asses," Headley says.
Despite that local opposition and the state Department of Mental Health's refusal to grant the center certification, Narconon eventually won its battle with the state when it obtained approval from a private certification group.
Scientology was determined to expand its drug treatment program and make claims that Narconon was the biggest, most effective program in existence. (Experts have repeatedly debunked the 75 to 90 percent effectiveness rates that Narconon claims -- the best legitimate drug treatment programs never claim that more than about 25 percent of their patients will stay off drugs in the long term.)
Why was Scientology pushing Narconon so hard? It's important to remember that in 1989 through 1991, when it was fighting the battle of Chilocco, Scientology did not have tax-exempt status. The church's all-out war with the IRS had been going on for 25 years, and the government had repeatedly won court decisions backing up its position that Scientology was a business, not a church, even if it did have social betterment programs. Then, suddenly, in 1991, the IRS threw in the towel. Over the next two years, it hammered out a secret agreement with Scientology giving the church just about everything it was asking for.
That secret agreement was leaked in 1997, and from it we can see that the IRS clearly characterized ABLE and Narconon as "Scientology-related entities."
By then, Marc Headley had been moved to the International Base, east of Los Angeles, where, a few years later, he watched as a new, even larger Narconon center in Oklahoma was being planned by church executives.
"That whole place was designed and set up by Sea Org members, and approved by David Miscavige," he says. "I was there when we did it, at Int Base. I saw it happening."
Although Narconon had a 25-year lease at Chilocco, in 2001 it closed the facility and moved to the Arrowhead Lodge about 200 miles to the southeast, where it is today.
Headley says the Narconon facility is treated by Scientology the same way it treats one of its local churches, called orgs.
"It's set up the exact same way an org is. Any Scientology org is its own corporation, but they have to get trademarks and licensing from the Religious Technology Center," he says, referring to Scientology's controlling entity. "And they have to be inspected by RTC, and that's how they control it, but not own it. The Narconons are all set up the same way. It's a shell game they play."
And the point of the game?
"So Scientology can say it has the best drug treatment record in the world," Headley says.
Marty Rathbun, formerly the second-highest ranking official in the church until he defected in 2004, noted recently at his blog that Scientology is quick to claim Narconon as its own when it wants to raise funds from wealthy members, but when the drug treatment center runs into trouble, the church claims to have no connection to it...
When failed products of Narconon brought complaints to media or authorities, Scientology Inc. did everything it could to distance itself from Narconon, claiming zero connection or responsibility for its operation. The public at large, possessing a good measure of common sense, couldn't help but note the hypocrisy.
As I talked with Headley, several times he mentioned the name of ABLE's president, Rena Weinberg.
She was from South Africa, he said, and had been recruited into the Sea Org at a very young age. For her work with Applied Scholastics, she'd been named an early Freedom Medal Winner, the highest award David Miscavige can bestow on a Scientologist.
Every time Headley said it, Weinberg's name struck a chord in my memory. And then I remembered where I'd seen it -- in our story last Thursday, Weinberg's was just one of more than a hundred names of Sea Org executives who had spent time in Miscavige's notorious office-prison, known as "The Hole."
"Yeah, how does that work? If ABLE has nothing to do with Scientology, how did she end up in the Hole at Int Base?" Headley asked when I made the connection.
But how long was she in The Hole?
I checked first with Mike Rinder, who had been Scientology's chief spokesman and who had been a prisoner in the Hole in 2006-2007 -- was Weinberg in with him at that time, which was during the gulag's most hellish early period?
Yes, he told me.
And was she still a prisoner in 2010, when John Brousseau left the base in April of that year?
Yes, Brousseau tells me.
And I now have a report that Weinberg was still a prisoner in the Hole just a few months ago.
So three witnesses tell the Voice that for at least five years, Rena Weinberg has been confined to the special prison detail for the Church of Scientology's fallen executives at its International Base in Riverside County, California -- through its most nightmarish period and up to more recent times, when more humane conditions have been introduced.
ABLE's website, however, still has a happy message from its president, giving no indication that she's fallen from favor, or was made to eat slop three times a day, or has spent years taking part in brutal mass confessions...
Weinberg apparently continues to run Scientology's "secular" programs while confined to its ecclesiastical prison.
On Thursday night, NBC's Rock Center will give the Oklahoma Narconon deaths national exposure. And we've heard that the network is fending off a severe pummeling from Scientology's attorneys in advance of the show.
Gary Soter, the church's mouthpiece attorney, has never answered my requests for comment.
Hey, NBC, do us all a favor and ask him this question.
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Neil Gaiman, 7, Interviewed About Scientology by the BBC in 1968
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And a post that pulls together the best of our Scientology reporting
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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.