by Gabrielle Glaser, Special to ProPublica
In the spring of 2011, Karla Brada Mendez finally seemed happy. She was 31 and in love,
eager to move ahead on the path to maturity – marriage, a family,
stability. She had a good job in the customer-service department of a
large medical supply firm, and was settling into a condo she had recently
bought near her childhood home in California’s San Fernando Valley.
Her 20s had been rough, a
struggle with depression, anxiety, alcohol and drugs. But early that spring two
years ago, she told her parents and younger sister that she had met a charming,
kind and handsome man who understood what she had been through.
Their relationship blossomed
as the couple attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week. But
there was much Karla didn’t know about the tall blond man who said he was an AA
Court records show that Eric
Allen Earle repeatedly relapsed and turned violent when drunk, lashing out at
family members, his ex-wife and people close to him. By the time he and Karla
crossed paths, judges had granted six restraining orders against him. The
40-year-old sometime electrician had been convicted on dozens of criminal
charges, mostly involving assault and driving under the influence. He had
served more than two years in prison.
Unlike Karla, Earle was not
attending AA meetings voluntarily. A succession of judges and parole officers
had ordered him to go as an alternative to jail.
In that regard, Earle was
part of a national trend. Each year, the legal system coerces more than 150,000
people to join AA, according to AA’s own membership
surveys. Many are drunken drivers ordered to attend a few months of
meetings. Others are felons whose records include sexual offenses and domestic
violence and who choose AA over longer prison sentences. They mingle with AA’s
traditional clientele, ordinary citizens who are voluntarily seeking help with
their drinking problems from a group whose main tenets is anonymity. (When
telling often-harrowing stories of their alcoholism, the recovering drinkers introduce
themselves only by their first names.)
Forced attendance seems at
odds with the originaltraditions
of the organization, which state that the “only requirement for membership is a
desire to stop drinking.” So far, AA has declined to caution members about
potentially dangerous peers or to create separate meetings for convicted
criminals. “We do not discriminate against any prospective
AA member, even if he or she comes to us under pressure from a court, an
employer, or any other agency,” the public information officer at New York’s central
office wrote in a June email. “We cannot predict who will recover, nor have we
the authority to decide how recovery should be sought by any other alcoholic.”
Friends and family members
say that Earle gained little lasting medical or spiritual benefit from AA. “On
the way home from meetings, he’d stop at the liquor store and buy a pint of
vodka,” said his father, Ronald Earle. “He’d finish that thing in an hour.” His
estranged wife, Jennifer Mertell, said Earle
frequently told her that he never had any intention of stopping drinking. “He
had no desire to ever get sober,” Mertell said.
But Earle figured out
something at AA. Friends and his former wife say he learned to troll the
meetings for emotionally fragile women whom he impressed with his smooth
mastery of the movement’s jargon and principles. Mertell
says he met four of his most recent girlfriends by doing just that. “He has no
place to live. He has no job. He goes to AA and finds these women who will take
him in. He can be very sweet-talking and convincing,” she said. “He weasels
himself into these girls’ lives, and just does what he has to do to have a
In recent years, some critics
have pressed AA to do more about the combustible mix of violent ex-felons and newcomers
who assume that others “in the rooms” are there voluntarily. “It’s like letting
a wolf into the sheep’s den,” said Dee-Dee Stout, an Emeryville,
California alcohol and drug counselor who offers alternatives to traditional
12-step treatment. Twelve-step
adherents accept the notion of alcohol dependency as a disease that can be
remedied by abstinence and attending meetings with others who are trying to
stop drinking. Stout has been an outspoken critic of what she views as the medical
and judicial overreliance on AA and its offshoots.
Internal AA documents show that when questioned
about the sexual abuse of young women by other members, the organization’s
leadership decided in 2009 that it could not do anything to screen potential members. AA,
which is a nonprofit, considers each of the nearly 60,000 U.S. AA groups
autonomous and responsible for supervising themselves. Board members argued
that a group organized around anonymity could do nothing to monitor members without
undercutting its basic principles.
And that’s where things stood
in 2010 when Karla decided her substance abuse was out of control. She checked
into a rehab facility in her hometown of Santa Clarita, where she quickly made
friends, despite her emotional turmoil. “She was the life of the party, a
social butterfly,” said her sister Sasha Brada
Mendez. “Everybody loved Karla.”
* * *
Mendez was born on Sept. 3, 1979, the second of three daughters. She was a
talented athlete and a gifted linguist, fluent in her mother’s native Czech and
her Mexican-born father’s Spanish. After high school, Karla took classes at a
community college and worked full time in a series of jobs she hoped might
ignite a deeper interest. She played softball and the saxophone and took
kickboxing classes with her sister Sasha. She had excelled as a cosmetology
student, but she didn’t feel the life of a hair stylist would provide the same
security as her job at the medical firm, so she cut friends’ hair on the side.
At one point, dismayed by her
lack of progress in the world, she saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed
depression. She kept this a secret, riddled with guilt that her immigrant
parents had sacrificed so much for her middle-class comfort: her airy, childhood ranch home had a
pool, cedars that pierced the California sky and hummingbirds that buzzed in
She also kept another secret
from her family: Sometimes she abused prescription pills and drank too much. In
mid-2009, she had crashed her car after a night out with friends. No other cars
were involved, and Karla was unhurt. But her father, Hector Mendez, later
learned that she had paid a lawyer $1,500 to get a driving under the influence
violation removed from her record. And at the advice of her then-boyfriend, a
Los Angeles policeman, Karla checked into rehab. She stayed a month in the
facility, where she attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous,
a separate group with a similar approach to treatment.
Rehab facilities like the one
Karla’s insurance was paying for often send patients to AA and NA meetings. After
her release, Karla continued to attend meetings. But she never spoke about it openly,
and her family, unfamiliar with the program, did not inquire. No one felt the
need after her release. “She looked and seemed so much better after,” says her
sister Sasha, now 28.
With her big green eyes,
thick curly hair and engaging smile, Karla was never at a loss for male
company, but she despaired over finding a man with whom she could build a
future — especially as she attended peers’ weddings, and rejoiced over the
news that girlfriends were pregnant. To kick-start the next chapter of her own
life, she bought a condo near her family home and began living on her own.
By late 2010, she felt lonely
and isolated. She was bored in her job, felt despondent about being single at
30, and once again began drinking and taking drugs. One weekday afternoon near
Christmas, her mother, Jaroslava, found Karla asleep
in her darkened bedroom. They agreed that perhaps another stay in rehab would
help to establish a more lasting recovery. “We thought it could help her
again,” said Jaroslava.
In her second stint in rehab,
Karla roomed with a woman named Suzanne, and they became instant friends.
Suzanne, like several others in this story, asked that her last name be
withheld in order to protect her privacy. During their monthlong
stay at rehab, Karla took a daily van to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics
Anonymous meetings at nearby facilities, Suzanne said. When people abuse both
alcohol and narcotics, addiction counselors often suggest that they try both groups.
In late January 2011, when
they were both released, Suzanne and Karla agreed that Suzanne would move into
During those shaky days, the
two women strove to help each other adjust to life without illicit substances.
When they first emerged from rehab, Suzanne had difficulty waking up. Karla,
she said, would come into her room every morning with a steaming cup of coffee,
gently urging her friend to get out of bed. “She just knew how to care for
people,” Suzanne said.
At some point in early 2011,
Karla went to a 12-step meeting at the sober-living home where Earle was living
at the time. Such facilities serve as interim housing for people recently
released from rehab or as an alternative to incarceration. Earle’s former roommate,
John, said Earle quickly noticed Karla. “That girl is fine,” John
recalled Earle saying. Earle quickly found a way to introduce himself to her.
Earle was a nimble
conversationalist, especially with women, and spoke engagingly about his children,
music and motorcycles. “He was charming,” said Sasha. “He found a way to use
whatever information people gave him to connect to them.” There were no clues,
initially, that his intentions were not in Karla’s interest. “Anybody who helps
him, that’s who he picks on,” said his father, Ronald Earle. “It’s a weakness
he sees and tries to exploit.”
Karla fell in love. Soon,
Earle persuaded her to stop attending Narcotics Anonymous sessions, which spoke
to her principal addictions, and exclusively attend AA meetings, which
addressed his drug of choice, Suzanne said.
While AA has few set rules
– and says it has no way of enforcing them anyway – its literature
advises members against dating anyone until they have marked one year of
sobriety. The theory is that a person struggling to quit drinking and put his
or her life back together is unable to make sound emotional decisions. Romantic
entanglements during that fragile period are unnecessarily confusing. As
a relative newcomer to AA, Suzanne said, Karla had not yet chosen a sponsor, a
customary part of the program. Typically, sponsors are peers who have longer-lasting
sobriety, and who help guide others through the 12 faith-based steps.
need not be trained in counseling or have unblemished legal records; the only
requirement is that they be knowledgeable about the program. Likewise, group
leaders need only meet the same qualifications. “When they show an AA group on TV, they
show a leader, like someone knows what’s going on,” said Stanton Peele, a psychologist,
attorney and author of numerous books that challenge the 12-step approach to
drug and alcohol treatment. “But that’s not how it is in reality. You’re on
your own. It’s the Wild West out there. Who knows who you’re
sitting next to?”
But if Karla hadn’t memorized
the 12-step guidelines, Earle was certainly familiar with them: He had been a
regular at AA since 1992. After convictions for battery and property damage in May
of that year, court records show, he was ordered by a judge to attend 104 AA
meetings over the next 52 weeks. According to Earle’s extensive criminal
record, it was the first of at least four times that officials would demand
that Earle address the alcohol problem that correlated with recklessness and
violence. Many of those who are coerced into going to meetings must have
attendance sheets signed by meeting secretaries.
“He was ordered into AA at
least four different times,” recalled Jennifer Mertell,
41, who married Earle in 1994 and left him eight years later because of his
escalating violence. Mertell, the mother of two of
Earle’s three children, estimates that he owes her nearly $100,000 in child
* * *
Eric Allen Earle seemed know
his way around rules from the start. The third of three children, Earle was
born in 1971 to Ronald Earle, an Army veteran and electrical contractor, and
his wife Carlotta.
School didn’t come easily and
he had trouble fitting in socially. “He was always beating up on the little
kids in the neighborhood,’’ his father recalled. “He’d run his mouth and get
the big kids after him and then he’d have to run like hell.” He had difficulty
even at rest: He’d jump from his bed with night terrors, screaming in his sleep.
Even back then, tenderness had little impact. “We’d have to wash his face with
cold water to bring him out of it,” Ronald said. At some point, he was
diagnosed with a learning disability, and enrolled in a special private school
from which he never officially graduated. “I always said he was my late bloomer,”
Ronald said. “Only he never bloomed.”
There were girlfriends,
Ronald said. He had a child with one, but she couldn’t handle Earle’s black
moods, especially when he drank. “When he gets on booze some part of his brain
just takes over,” Ronald said, “and turns him into a monster.”
There is ample evidence of
that. On one occasion in 2001, Eric was separated from Mertell
and was living at home with his father and mother, who has
since died. In a drunken rage, he drove his fist through a wall and some
cabinetry, Ronald Earle recalled. His mother tried to stop him, and Eric put
his hands around her neck, as if to strangle her. She reached for the cordless
phone, which Eric snatched away. “You want the f__ing
phone? I’ll give you the f__ing phone,” Ronald Earle recalled
his son saying. “And then he jabbed the antenna right in her eye.”
Later that year, he was
convicted on seven charges, including battery and elder abuse. Mertell, meanwhile, filed for divorce. She said Earle was
incarcerated at the time and never signed the papers.
In 2003, Eric’s sister Rondalee Johnson, a respiratory therapist, took out a
restraining order against him. “That’s because he threatened to strangle her
and her daughter,” Ronald Earle said. Johnson did not respond to requests for
The following years showed
little promise. Earle cycled out of jail, mandated attendance at domestic
violence counseling, and educational programs for those convicted of driving
under the influence. “Proof of Zero Progress in Counseling,” court records from
In May 2008, Earle was
arrested on 18 charges, including driving under the influence, reckless
driving, and evading police officers. Court records say he was clocked driving
at a speed exceeding 95 miles per hour. He was sentenced to nine months in state
prison, and was released on 11 months of parole.
In 2010, Earle’s problems
with the law continued: Despite repeated delinquency with child support, he
fought Mertell for custody of their two children. Late
in the year – homeless and with the goodwill of his friends and family
members exhausted — he checked into Eden
Ministries, a sober-living facility for
men in Canyon Country, about 8 miles from Santa Clarita. There, he shared a mobile
home with John and his future sponsor, Patrick Fry.
Ministries director the Rev. James Cliffe recalled that for a couple of months, Earle adhered
to the facility’s rules, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and attending
frequent 12-step meetings.
At some point during this
period – no one seems to remember the exact date – he met Karla. John
said Earle was paying $450 per month for a bed in a trailer and easy access to
the 12-step meetings that were held on the grounds. It was unclear why Eric came—or
who paid his bills.
few months later, John recalled, Karla arrived at Eden Ministries from her own
rehab, a nearby facility that cost $42,000 for a month’s stay, according to
records. “She showed up in what we
call a ‘druggy buggy,’” he said.
Earle would sit next to Karla in a
large room with chairs arranged in a large square, John recalled. “He was
always around her, sitting next to her,” he said.
The two began dating and, at
Earle’s insistence, began attending AA meetings together. Eden Ministries
founder the Rev. James Cliffe said he discouraged
their relationship, citing AA’s guidelines about romantic involvements in early
sobriety. “As soon as he latched onto her, he started to fall away from the
principles of the program that we teach,” Cliffe
bubbly personality and pretty smile were impossible to ignore, but Earle also
mentioned another attribute to John: her financial security, John said. Karla had a job in a large company with a 401(k) plan and
equity in her condo, and she was receiving temporary disability payments during
her rehab. As a convicted felon, Earle’s job possibilities were limited.
“It wasn’t like, ‘She’s loaded,’” John
said. “But it was, ‘This girl has some dough.’”
Indeed, at around the same time early
that spring, Cliffe recalled, Earle quit going to
church and stopped attending meetings at Eden Ministries. “We expelled him from the program,” he said, “and he took off
* * *
The 12 Steps
The 12 steps of
Alcoholics Anonymous were developed in the late 1930s by two men who were
“chronic inebriates” who had been unsuccessful in their attempts to
stop drinking. Together, the men drew up a set of spiritual
guidelines for themselves and others who were struggling with the same
affliction. Over time, the approach became the foundation in the United States
for the treatment of alcohol dependency. The steps were
adapted by other groups, including those dependent on narcotics, those with
gambling compulsions, and overeaters.
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become
Came to believe that a power greater
than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as
we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the
exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would
injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory, and when
we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve
our conscious contact with God as we
understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power
to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result
of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice
these principles in all our affairs.
They were followed by the 12 Traditions, developed in the 1940s as
A.A. grew in popularity.
Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He
may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted
servants; they do not govern.
The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as
Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic
who still suffers.
An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related
facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige
divert us from our primary purpose.
Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may
employ special workers.
A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or
committees directly responsible to those they serve.
Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside
issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
Our public relations policy is based on
attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at
the level of press, radio, and films.
Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all
our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities
2011, Karla Brada Mendez and Eric Allen Earle were a
couple. Karla busied herself with cooking her favorite dishes: caldo de pollo and
a spicy salsa she had learned from her Mexican grandmother. To Suzanne, the
condo began to feel crowded. The man who had seemed so charming at meetings
– “like a Boy Scout,” Suzanne recalled – suddenly became
domineering and suspicious. If Suzanne invited friends to the house, Earle
demanded to know who they were, and what they were doing there. Uncomfortable,
she moved out, and Earle moved in.
Before she met him, Karla’s
monthly credit card balance hovered near $1,200, according to financial documents.
In the few months that they lived together, Karla took on $21,000 in credit card debt. Earle,
meanwhile, collected food stamps and unemployment benefits. When he did manage
to find jobs, he signed his checks over to Karla, documents show.
Despite Karla’s exuberance
about her new relationship, something started to seem off as the summer of 2011
progressed. Earle, who was handy around the house, discouraged her family from
visiting, always explaining that the condo needed more home improvements before
it would be comfortable for guests. When the couple went to Jaroslava’s
and Hector’s house, they would stay only for a few minutes before excusing
themselves to go to a meeting. Her parents and sister assumed it was part of
Karla’s redoubled efforts at sobriety, and they didn’t pry. “He knew how to set
boundaries and wouldn’t let anyone get too close,” Sasha said. She recalls
feeling unsettled by Earle’s dominance of Karla’s time, but she kept it to
herself. “Everyone else was so relieved that she seemed happier and healthier.”
Not everyone. Her friend
Suzanne, who had moved to a condominium down the street from Karla’s, started
noticing strange things. A mother of three, she had regained custody of her
children and would visit Karla, kids in tow. Karla had a key to the community
pool, which Suzanne frequently borrowed. One day, Suzanne said, she came by and
found the front gate locked. She called up to an open window, knowing Karla was
not at work. No one responded.
It was clear to Suzanne that
Karla’s sobriety had faltered. Earle would take the car, buy alcohol and
together the couple would hole up in the condo and drink. Though Karla preferred
the high of pills, she drank with Earle, giving herself over to his drug of
choice, Suzanne said.
* * *
In the evening of Aug. 5,
2011, Karla ran down the street toward Suzanne’s condo. She was disoriented,
bloodied, bruised – and soaking wet. She said Earle had struck her in a
drunken rage, blackening her eye and bruising her left upper arm. He had put
her head under water while screaming obscenities, she said. Karla, too, had
been drinking. Unlike many people, Suzanne said, when Karla drank, she almost
never seemed inebriated. And when she drank, Suzanne said, she often had no recollection
of what had occurred the night before.
Suzanne asked her roommate to
walk back with them to Karla’s condo, where they could see a shattered window.
Together the three of them confronted Earle, who, Suzanne said, was relaxing on
the bed with his hands behind his head and his feet crossed.
“’What are you doing here?’”
Suzanne recalled Earle asking.
“I told him I’d never seen
anyone so beat up and still walking around,” Suzanne said. “ ‘This is Karla’s
house,’ ” she told Earle, “ ‘and you’re not welcome here.’ ”
Some time later, Karla called
911, and the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrived. They photographed
her bruises and her black eye, and carted Earle off to jail. In the squad car,
he became so enraged that he broke a rear window with his head.
From jail, however, Earle,
who stood 6 foot 2 and weighed 210 pounds, managed to convince the 5-foot-4, 139-pound
Karla that she had “attacked” him while she was blackout drunk, breaking his
nose and bruising him severely. He claimed he was the victim. “She didn’t
remember,” Suzanne said. “She just believed his version of events.”
Patrick Fry, Earle’s sponsor,
recalls noticing Karla’s bruises. “Did he do that to you, girl?” he asked her.
She demurred, Fry said. “I don’t know if she was trying to cover his ass or
what. She was really in love with the dude.”
Earle was convicted of
property damage to the police car, but charges of beating Karla were dropped.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The next day, despite Suzanne’s
protestations, Karla bailed Earle out of jail, charging $8,000 to her credit
card for his bail and lawyer’s fees.
Karla told Joanne Fry,
Patrick’s wife and the woman she had asked to be her AA sponsor, that she had
broken the window in her condo during her drinking binge. “She said she plopped
down in a chair so hard she hit her head and broke the glass,” Joanne Fry said.
“I told her, ‘That must have been some plopping.’ ” Together Karla and Joanne went
to a nearby Lowe’s store to find a replacement window.
Days later, Karla announced to
friends that she and Earle had become engaged.
* * *
At the end of August, Sasha
called Karla to plan a celebration for Karla’s 32nd birthday on Sept. 3. “Bring
Eric,” Sasha suggested. Karla vetoed the idea, saying that they would keep the
event just for family. “I just thought that was weird,” Sasha said. “There were
so many red flags.”
Few, though, had foreseen the
events of August 31. Late that evening, Earle called John, his former roommate
from Eden Ministries, who was working the graveyard shift as an aerospace machinist. “He was drunk, running his mouth,” John recalled.
Karla, he said, was screaming in the background. “Johnny, he’s drunk, don’t
listen to him,” she cried.
“Listen, Eric,” John recalled
saying, “you need to leave the house now. Things are going to go all bad.” Earle
responded with a string of obscenities, John said. Then John heard the dull
smack of a fist hitting flesh. “I’ve been in jail,” he said. “I know what
punches sound like.” A few minutes later, Eric’s phone went dead. On breaks,
John tried to reach both Earle and Karla, to no avail. Finally, at 11 that
night, he got through to Karla. She assured him that she was upstairs in the
bedroom, that Earle was downstairs, and that it was going to stay that way.
But a few hours later,
Karla’s next-door neighbors reported hearing a loud television blaring from a
common wall. They even called the sheriff to report the excessive noise, court
documents show. Sheriff’s deputies drove by the house and called the neighbors to
say they heard nothing.
The neighbors also reported
that they heard Earle shouting an obscenity at odd intervals, until nearly 3
a.m. Around 7:30 that morning, court records show, they
heard Earle shout Karla’s name over and over.
Around 8, he walked to a 7-Eleven
and used Karla’s credit card to buy iced green tea costing $12. At 8:45
a.m., he called Jaroslava and Hector. “She’s gone,”
he told them. “You’ve got to come over. She’s gone.” Confused, Jaroslava thought Karla might have fled the condo. When she
arrived, she saw the ambulance, the police and tape blocking off the entrance
to her daughter’s condo. “I’m sorry about your daughter’s passing,” a detective
Earle told the police that
Karla had overdosed on drugs and alcohol, had fallen down the stairs, managed
to get back up and died in bed after he fell asleep. His story didn’t align
with the evidence: The door and doorjamb of the upstairs bedroom were split in
two, likely from the push of a forced entry. Karla’s neck was bruised and
swollen, and the inside of her lips had profound contusions, apparently, the
autopsy report said, from blunt force pressing against her teeth. Broken blood
vessels had left the whites of her left eye bright red, the result of what the
coroner said was a punch. The coroner concluded that the injuries, which
included more than 30 bruises, were consistent with compression and
strangulation. The toxicology report showed no alcohol, but there were four
drugs in Karla’s blood – an antidepressant she had been prescribed,
marijuana, methamphetamines, and methadone. None, the coroner reported, were in
amounts sufficient to cause death.
After the police left the
house that morning, Hector and Jaroslava found a letter
from a bank, which had been opened and tossed aside. It showed that Karla had
been rejected for a $30,000 loan. They also found eight large vodka bottles,
Four months later, Eric Allen
Earle was charged with the murder of Karla Brada
Mendez. In his pretrial hearings, a new woman was at his side.
Friends say they met at an AA
* * *
In September 2012, as they
waited for the murder trial – no date has yet been set — the Mendez
family in September 2012 filed a civil suit against Alcoholics Anonymous of
Santa Clarita and Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, and several other
defendants, contending that AA had a “reckless disregard for, and deliberate
indifference…to the safety and security of victims attending AA meetings who
are repeatedly preyed upon at those meetings by financial, violent, and sexual
predators like Earle.”
As of this writing, AA of
Santa Clarita didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment.
The complaint says “AA has
been on notice for years that AA meetings are repeatedly used by financial,
sexual, and violent predators as a means to locate victims.”
There is considerable
evidence to support that assertion. Sexually exploitative actions toward
newcomers in AA have long been detailed in AA’s history; biographies of founder
Bill Wilson detail his sexual encounters with attractive female members. One
associate of Wilson’s told a biographer that at one point, he and others feared
Wilson’s womanizing would derail the group altogether. The actions, which range
from inappropriate advances to rape, are known in AA circles as the “13th Step.”
In 2007, stories in the Washington Post and Newsweekdescribed the sexual and emotional abuse of young women at
a cultlike AA group in Washington, D.C., called
Midtown. The stories included the accounts of young women who said they
were pressured to have sex with many AA members, but especially with the group
leader, Michael Quinones, who has since died.
Police concluded that no
crime had been committed, since the women involved were over the age of 16 and
therefore consenting adults.
AA groups abroad have also confronted
the issue of sexual predation among its members. In 2001, Australian AA
officials published guidelines for
how to bar financial, spiritual, and sexual predators from the group, noting that
older members had a “moral obligation” to help
protect vulnerable new members – and possibly a legal one. In 2002, 3,400
British AA groups voted to adopt a new code of
conduct regarding predatory
behavior, concluding, “Failure to challenge and stop inappropriate behaviour gives the offender permission to repeat the
offensive behaviour and encourages others to follow
Buoyed by these actions, and
prompted by the news accounts, in 2007 a member of the board of Alcoholics
Anonymous in the U.S. and Canada drafted a seven-page memo to his colleagues on
the board that listed accounts of sexually predatory behavior for which he had
More than two years later,
AA’s newly created Subcommittee on Vulnerable Members responded with a one-page
letter. Its sentences were lawyerly but the intent was clear. It said: “The
subcommittee members agreed that the General Service Board in its position at
the bottom of the A.A. service structure would not have a role in setting any
behavioral policy or guideline for the A.A. groups or members in regards to protecting
any vulnerable member. … The General Service Board has no authority, legal or
otherwise, to control or direct the behavior of A.A. members and groups.” In AA,
reports from the country’s 59,321 groups flow from groups to districts, from
districts to regions, and from regions to the General Service Office in
Manhattan. With the exception of the paid staff in New York, positions are
And the Brada
Mendez case is not the only one of its kind. In 2010, a Hawaii judge mandated that
Clayborne Conley, a troubled Iraq veteran, must
attend AA after nine months in a state psychiatric hospital.
Conley had post-traumatic stress disorder and a record of violence against
women, facts little known to Kristine Cass, a Honolulu marketing consultant he
met at AA According to published reports, in
midsummer 2010, Cass spurned Conley’s romantic overtures. Enraged, he began to
show up at her workplace. Early on the morning of Aug. 20, Conley pried open
the security bars of Cass’s condo and shot Cass, her 13-year-old daughter and a
neighbor’s dog before killing himself.
And in 2012, Sean Calahan was on probation in Montana after jail time for
molesting a 12-year-old girl. Among Lake County Court’s demands for the
first-time offender were that he attend AA meetings regularly, remain abstinent
from alcohol, and not enter into any relationships with women. He was able to
abide only by the first condition, according to court documents published in the
Leader Advertiser, a Montana newspaper. His
probation officers discovered alcohol in his possession, along with a diary in
which he admitted to preying on women at AA meetings, precisely because they
“Will take sex where I can
get it,” Calahan wrote. “Who ever I can trick or use.
Usually women early in sobriety cause they are the most vunerable.
They have the most insecuritys
so just a few words and a little care and they fall rite in to my trap. Its not there falt but I make them
think it is there falt and tell them I love them and
everything will be okay.”
To Victor Vieth,
a former Minnesota prosecutor who now heads the National Child
Protection Training Center in
Minneapolis, none of these developments is surprising. Vieth
has been involved in sexual abuse cases and prevention for 25 years and has
become a nationally recognized expert in developing protective mechanisms for
volunteers in service organizations.
“It’s predictable that if you
put violent offenders in the company of those who are vulnerable, this is going
to happen. This is exactly where they want to be, and who they want to target,”
Sentencing a man who has
repeatedly been physically violent to women to attend AA meetings, he said, is
akin to sentencing a pedophile to be a middle-school hall monitor. “Predators
find the company of who they want and violate them,”
he said. “If you are a woman in AA and you have social factors intervening in
your life and you need someone to understand you, offenders know that. They can
demonstrate compassion and kindness. This is exactly where they want to be.
It’s 100 percent predictable that violence or sex offenses will occur because
this is their target.”
Judges, he said, should
consider the possibility of predatory
Rogelio Flores, a Superior
Court judge in Santa Barbara County, Calif., finished a six-year term on AA’s
board of trustees as one of its nonalcoholic members in April 2013. He
acknowledged that mandating attendance at AA meetings was not always the best
solution, but he said that it often seemed better than sending another person suffering
from any combination of mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse into
California’s overcrowded prisons. “In the balance of justice,” he said, “there are a lot of competing interests.”
“I understand that AA isn’t for everyone,”
Flores said. “I’m the first person to tell anyone.”
If it were up to him, Judge
Flores said, he would devise a plan to put every convicted criminal through a
psychological assessment to help determine the best treatment option. In recent
years, researchers have developed newer, scientifically proven treatments for
alcohol-use disorder, including a handful of medications. Many of those drugs
are prohibitively expensive.
is one piece of a much bigger puzzle. How do we deal with sociopaths? What do
we do with them? No one wants anyone to be hurt by predatory conduct,” he said.
“I wish I had a better answer for alcoholics,” Judge Flores said. “I really
The judge who required Earle
to attend sessions most recently did not return calls for comment.
In response to a query about
the murder case, the public information officer of AA’s General Service staff wrote
in an email: “The matters you describe are distressing and disturbing.” But she
reiterated that each AA group is responsible for supervising itself. She quoted
from the 2009 report from the Subcommittee on Vulnerable Members, which
acknowledged that groups and individual members “may encounter a few members
who do not have their best interests in mind about getting sober through the AA
program of recovery.
“It is hoped,” the report
went on, “that the areas, districts and groups will discuss this important
topic and seek ways through sponsorship, workshops and assemblies and committee
meetings to raise awareness in the Fellowship and encourage the creation of as
safe an environment as possible for the newcomer, minors and other members or
potential members who may be vulnerable.”
The information officer, who
declined to be quoted by name, said it might be possible for the organization
to develop “some form of document related to vulnerable members
the members of the Fellowship of A.A in the U.S. and Canada, beginning
at the grassroots level of the groups and working its way through the service
structure, indicated that they wanted such a piece created.” So far, there has been no such document.
Santa Clarita Alcoholics
Anonymous, which oversees the AA meetings in the area where Karla met Earle,
did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the case.
All this leaves Vieth analogizing AA to Penn State University, the Catholic
Church or the Boy Scouts of America, each of which at first denied and then was
forced to confront the abuse that had taken place in its midst. Vieth predicts that the Brada
Mendez case will create an uncomfortable institutional reaction. “Typically, we
only react when there’s a big story or a death, something that makes us so
uncomfortable, we are motivated to change it. Very few institutions change in
response to data,” he said.
“It’s stories we connect to,”
he said, “that cause people to move.”
One day late this spring,
Karla’s parents and sister traveled to the Los Angeles County courthouse in San
Fernando to attend a preliminary hearing for the murder trial. Jaroslava recalls wincing as they heard the testimony of
the neighbors and dropping her head as the coroner described Karla’s injuries. Earle
stared straight ahead.
“Karla thought she had met
people who understood her struggle,” Jaroslava said.
“All she ever wanted was to be loved.”
ProPublica’s director of
research, Liz Day, contributed to this article.
Gabrielle Glaser is an author and journalist who has reported
for the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Oregonian, and was a
Warsaw correspondent for the Economist. Her work has appeared in the New York
Times Magazine, ScientificAmerican.com, Glamour, the Washington Post, and
Health, among other publications. She has written three books, including HER BEST KEPT SECRET: Why Women Drink
– and How They Can Regain Control – which is published
this month by Simon & Schuster, and reporting for which served as a
springboard for this article. She is married to Stephen Engelberg,
editor-in-chief of ProPublica. This article was edited by
executive chairman Paul Steiger.
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