Scientology's Narconon: A Legacy of Failure and Death

Harrowing tales of the "con" of Narconon and its history of mysterious deaths continue to surface.

By , Contributor

Recently, the organization Narconon, whose stated mission is "to eradicate the problems of drug and alcohol abuse through effective drug prevention, drug education and drug rehabilitation services," has been in the news for a series of deaths at its flagship facility, Narconon Arrowhead.

A number of articles appeared in the Village Voice, perhaps the most telling being an interview with veteran Oklahoma newsman Bob Lobsinger, whose headline quote about Narconon was, "They Lied Every Step of the Way."

In the first of the Village Voice articles, Tony Ortega, the Voice editor and perhaps Scientology's worst enemy in the media these days, noted that Narconon "is also mired in litigation in Michigan and Georgia, it was chased out of Quebec, and has also apparently given up on the UK."

In the second article, Senor Ortega cited eyewitness accounts that Rena Weinberg, the head of a non-profit umbrella organization called the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE), had been a prisoner in the concentration camp-like prison for Scientology executives called "The Hole" from at least 2007 to 2012. He also noted that although Narconon was started by Arizona prison inmate Bill Benitez in 1966, 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'."

It's such a small world in Scientology. Before I left in 1996, I knew Arte Maren fairly well, and for a short time in the 1980s, I shared a house with Henning Heldt, his wife Mary, their daughter Letty, and a couple of other people, one of whom was a strange character named Robert Wiseman.

As I read about the recent Narconon deaths (three within a year), and the history of attacks Lobsinger had suffered at the hands of Scientology, I thought about another Narconon-connected death in 1986, of a talented actress who had once been my girlfriend.

As I watched the "Rock Center" segment about Narconon on NBC the night after the Lobsinger article appeared, and learned more about the deaths of Gabriel Graves, Hillary Holten, and Stacy Murphy, the anguish of the stunned parents of the deceased reminded me how I'd felt when Laura Hippe died.

I'd dated Laura for a couple of months in 1985 and she had been pressuring me to move in with her. Preoccupied with plans to take a week vacation with her to talk about it, I went through a Hollywood intersection late one night and my Honda Accord was blindsided by a massive old Chevrolet. I ended up with a totaled car, a broken hand, and learned that my insurance would only pay off the bank loan on the car. Laura graciously took me in and an orthopedic surgeon her mother worked for repaired my hand on credit.

At the time, I made a living as a temp typist in law firms, and with a broken hand I was out of work. So I worked on my writing with one hand as my other hand healed, and I was around Laura all the time, because she taught acting out of her home, which was only half a block from the Celebrity Centre in the Hollywood Hills. She did pretty well, with clients like the then aspiring Damon Wayans. I thought that maybe living with Laura and having a deeper relationship might work, but about the time the cast came off my hand, I learned a well-kept secret. Laura was an alcoholic with a long-term problem.

The revelation came one day when an auditor (Scientology counselor) came to her house with an E-meter to do a check on her, to see if she was drinking. "Watch this!" Laura whispered to me excitedly, then sat in front of the auditor, who asked her a few questions, then said, "Your needle is floating." This meant that (supposedly) Laura was free of her problems. She confided to me when the auditor left that she'd "had" a problem but it was gone. Suddenly, I understand the odd smell of her skin at times, and strange behavior I hadn't understood. She had been fooling me just like she fooled that auditor and the E-meter.

Swinging Barmaids.jpgLaura was a talented actress who had been going places, starring in the first movie she went out for, The Swinging Barmaids, directed by Goldie Hawn's ex-husband, Gus Trikonis. (On the poster, that's Laura on the left.) She'd also been in Stay Hungry and Logan's Run, and been the guest star in TV shows like Baretta. She'd been going places, and then she got into Scientology. Once in Scientology she quit taking weight loss pills to stay thin, and her weight ballooned. She admitted to me that she began drinking heavily to kill deep physical pain. She never took this up with a doctor; she tried to handle everything with Scientology.

Laura trained and certified as a "Class IV" auditor at Celebrity Centre, and on the auditing side, advanced through the infamous "Wall of Fire" level, Operating Thetan 3. Given Scientology's promises about these steps on "The Bridge to Total Freedom," Laura should not have had a care in the world. Yet she was an alcoholic.

I tried to help Laura stop drinking, but the disease apparently had too strong a grip on her. Finally, I told her I was going to move out because she wouldn't "handle it" (a Scientology term that dedicated Scientologists, as I was then, use too often when they're frustrated).

It wasn't a very smart thing to say on my part. I knew very little about alcoholism, and even less about Laura's history. Late one night, I came home from work and found Laura out cold on the bathroom floor. I could see an open can of cleaner nearby — I intuited she'd tried to kill herself; her hands were turning blue. I frantically revived her, she threw up some, and the paramedics arrived not long after I called. Driving Laura's car, I followed the ambulance to Queen of Angels hospital and met Laura's mother and sister in the waiting room.

"She's done this before, you know," said her mother, Flora.

I was stunned. I had no idea. Flora informed me that every time a major boyfriend of Laura's left her over the drinking, Laura would try to kill herself. Apparently, she'd been through three or four episodes like this one. I stayed up with Laura 36 hours straight to make sure she made it. She didn't have money or medical insurance and was behind in her income taxes, all of which had to do with $cientology's influence, so she couldn't afford a better hospital. Finally, a psychologist told her a 72-hour mandatory observation period was required.

Laura gasped; if you had psychiatric or psychological counseling, you were ineligible for Scientology. She talked her way out of the mandatory stay, saying it was all just a misunderstanding and she'd been inebriated and thought she was drinking medicine.

Brainwashed over Scientology rules, I went along with it. Once I got her home, it was my turn to nurse Laura back to health, which I thought I accomplished. But then the odd smells and goofy behavior came back. Finally, I told her I was moving out and she went wild, breaking a locked door while screaming at me. I moved out the next day.

I checked in with her after she calmed down, and this time, thankfully, she took steps to deal with things she needed to fix. She lost weight, started looking into paying her taxes, and quit having a friend cancel her classes because she was drunk. (He told students she was sick.) Only then she wanted to date me again. I didn't want that, but I didn't want her to do anything emotionally drastic.

I had moved into the house with the Hennings in Los Feliz and met housemate Robert Wiseman, a plumber who was at the time making a living as a "field ethics officer," helping people with Scientology ethics "technology." Wiseman was volunteering part-time for the Advanced Organization Los Angeles (AOLA), where people became "OT," so I thought maybe he could help Laura.

His solution was to get her into the Narconon facility, and she "completed" the program in record time, gushing about how great she felt. Then I discovered she was drinking heavily again. I drove to her house to return a book she'd loaned me and was shocked to see the L.A. County Coroner's brown van on the lawn of Laura's duplex. I walked inside and Wiseman came down the stairs.

"Laura's dead, Skip," he said matter of factly, and I kind of fell apart.

I never found out if Wiseman was dating her (taboo for Scientologists counseling others, but people did it all the time). He left town within a couple of days, and I learned he'd swindled a woman out of her life savings — she came by the house looking for him. An investigation was held by AOLA, and at Celebrity Centre, the framed cover of Celebrity magazine featuring Laura Hippe was taken down from display in the celebrity hallway the next day. They went about trying to erase all evidence she had ever been affiliated with Scientology.

Years later, some anonymous jerk posted on a Web page that after Laura's suicide I had immediately called Heber Jentzsch and he and I and the Guardian's Office (Scientology's hit team, once headed by Henning Heldt) had covered the whole thing up. It was a pack of lies, but what could I do? The Hollywood police department detective confirmed what Mrs. Hippe had told me about her daughter and was very interested about the Narconon connection that had failed.

But as usual, nothing came of it. Scientology never got investigated. What happened with Laura Hippe at that L.A. Narconon facility? I'll never know, just like we'll probably never know the truth about the three recent deaths at Narconon Arrowhead.

As I read about the Narconon Arrowhead deaths on an NBC site, I thought how ironic it was that Laura Hippe had been born in Oklahoma.

I read other articles on Narconon, including one about its past involvement with the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings. The article said: "Clark Carr, President of Narconon International, said that in 2005 in California Narconon drug educators gave live, in-person presentations to 142,000 children, lecturing over 500,000 worldwide, as well as holding training sessions with police and other organizations."

I was pretty sure those figures were highly inflated. I'd interviewed Tennessee Williams for a theater magazine Carr had published in the late 1970s. The magazine folded before Carr could publish the interview. I shook my head when I read that Carr was the head of Narconon. As far as I knew, he had no medical training whatsoever, other than what he might have learned in Scientology.

As recent history shows, Scientology "knowledge" about drug handling can be horrifically dangerous. What people need to understand, however, is that the "con" has been a large part of Narconon for a very long time, and it's repeatedly been deadly. Narconon, like Scientology, simply needs to go away.

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Skip Press is an author and teacher who has been active in Hollywood for decades. He knows as much about the inner workings of celebrity Scientology as anyone alive.

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