Inside the Mysterious $11 Million Death of a Scientology Rehab Patient
John Cunningham entered a Narconon rehab facility spreading the gospel of Scientology. Then he ended up dead.
A recent $11 million jury verdict in California has found an L. Ron Hubbard-inspired rehabilitation center’s “negligence” to be a “substantial factor” in the death of a man who sought treatment at the facility.
According to legal documents, John Cunningham became a “student” at Narconon Redwood Cliffs in 2015. His sister, Jan Cunningham, came across the facility when she was researching options for her brother online. Jan did not know that Redwood Cliffs was a Narconon facility, fashioned around the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
“When Jan saw Redwood Cliffs’ website—drugrehab.net—it was advertised as a very attractive and successful conventional detox and rehab program. The word ‘Narconon’ is buried at the bottom on the page in the copyright sections.” Cunningham, legal docs claim, would never have allowed her brother to become involved with the facility had she known about the Scientology connection.
While drugrehab.net has since been taken down, the Redwood Cliffs facility is still listed on one of Narconon’s websites as “Narconon Redwood Cliffs.” Narconon.org describes the Narconon program as “based on the discoveries and writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the Founder of the Scientology religion,” but insists that, “Narconon is non-religious and a person does not become a Scientologist by doing the program.”
Scientology whistleblower and journalist Tony Ortega has reported that since the "lawsuit was filed, Scientology cut ties with its Northern California Narconon network, and the Redwood Cliffs facility has closed. But Narconon is still on the hook for its share of the verdict.”
Scientology referred The Daily Beast to Narconon’s spokesperson, who made the claim that “the former Narconon facility that is a defendant in this case is not part of the Narconon network and has not been since 2015,” and argued that there was a vast conspiracy by lawyers against the Narconon network.
In filings obtained by The Daily Beast, the Cunninghams’ legal team outlined the path that led John Cunningham to Narconon Redwood Cliffs (NRC) and then on to Bright Future Recovery (BFR). In 2010, after injuring his back, Cunningham became addicted to Vicodin, and later to Benzodiazepines. He was “in and out” of rehab facilities, and survived multiple detoxes. “John never tried to harm himself before coming to BFR.”
Redwood Cliffs’ Mike DiPalma, who was involved with Cunningham’s intake, as well as his supervisor, have both since admitted that they “have no memory of talking to Jan or John about Hubbard or Scientology before John became a ‘student’ of Narconon and arrived in San Jose.”
“NRC waits until a person pays them thousands of dollars and is committed to becoming a student of NRC, before NRC subtly discloses L. Ron Hubbard,” legal filings allege. “The public (and Cunninghams) are misled to believe that RC is just another conventional detox program when in reality it is a program based on a very controversial cult leader.”
Narconon’s website boasts “drug-free withdrawal” and “new life detoxification,” which is “based on L. Ron Hubbard’s breakthrough discovery that LSD residues appeared to remain trapped in the body, mainly in the fatty tissues, long after a person had stopped taking the drug.” New life detoxification is described as a combination of exercise, nutrition, hydration, and sauna time. “Ask any Narconon graduate about the New Life Detox,” the website insists. “They’ll tell you they sweated out the drugs locked up in their system and gained a new energy, a new vitality— a new life, free from drug cravings.”
“L. Ron Hubbard’s drug/alcohol addiction and rehabilitation philosophy is antagonistic to conventional medicine,” the Cunninghams’ legal team argued in their filings. “As such, NRC employs staff that is inadequately educated and trained in the care and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse clients. It hires former students immediately upon graduation who work directly with the present students. There is no medical staff on site.”
In an excerpt from her deposition, Jan Cunningham was “adamant” that she never would have paid Redwood Cliffs $37,500 for her brother’s care had she been initially made aware of the program’s provenance. “I just think that Scientology is a cult,” Cunningham stated. “They don’t believe in traditional medicine. And John needed help.”
Before she put John on the plane, Cunningham was allegedly advised by DiPalma to make out a check to Redwood Cliffs, as well as “Bright Future Recovery.” According to court docs, “Jan was blindsided by this. She had never heard of BFR. She believed that all of John’s care would be handled by RC.” Redwood Cliffs has since denied that they were responsible for the Bright Future Recovery referral. But the Cunningham’s legal team painted a damning picture of the relationship between the two facilities. They claimed, “In August of 2015, NRC was not providing detoxification services, they were only providing ‘rehabilitation.’ As such, NRC set up Cheree Davila, 25 years old and one of NRC’s former ‘students,’ in a non-medical residential detox facility—BFR.”
Davila received her addiction specialist certification on June 14, 2014, and formed Bright Future Recovery on January 2, 2015, according to legal docs. In July 2015, Bright Future Recovery received its Department of Health Care Services license as a “non-medical adult residential alcohol and/or drug abuse recovery or treatment facility.” Less than two months later, John Cunningham arrived at Bright Future Recovery.
“Most, if not all, of Bright Futures clients in August 2015 had been referred to them by NRC,” the court filings allege. “This allowed NRC to maintain control over the ‘student’ while they were in detox until the ‘student’ should come back to NRC for ‘rehabilitation.’”
Seven days after he arrived at Bright Future Recovery, John Cunningham was found hanging in a closet. In a press release announcing the jury verdict, the Cunningham family’s lawyer H. Gavin Long concluded that, “Bright Future was a horribly-run detox facility.”
“They had inexperienced staff and supervised their clients minimally. They lacked treatment planning and didn’t have a care policy. They didn’t properly assess patients for suicide risk,” Long summarized. “John (Cunningham) was treated so poorly by Bright Future Recovery… He was kept in withdrawal, deprived of his depression medication and left on his own. What Narconon and Bright Future Recovery did to John was disgraceful and the jury agreed.”
Legal documents allege that Cunningham exhibited withdrawal symptoms severe enough to warrant multiple hospital visits over the course of just a few days, and that, “There is no documentation verifying that any of these [Bright Future Recovery] employees knew how to supervise or care for anyone going through a Benzo detox.”
The Cunningham’s legal team argued that, “Since L. Ron Hubbard’s Narconon program is not based on evidence-based medicine, but holistic treatment, NRC staff did not have the knowledge, training, and experience to transfer John Cunningham to a detox that was appropriate for the level of care he needed—hospital level, not a brand new social model, residential non-medical detox owned by one of NRC’s 25-year-old former addicts.”
Many of the lawsuit’s numerous allegations regarding the Narconon program mirror previous claims.
A 2015 Santa Cruz Sentinel article reported that, “A new lawsuit filed against Narconon of Northern California alleges that its drug treatment center near Mount Madonna gave participants a path to joining the Church of Scientology rather than a way out of drug and alcohol abuse.”
“Nathan Burgoon, a California resident, attended the program at Narconon at 262 Gaffey Road near Hecker Pass Road in November 2014. He paid $37,500 for drug rehabilitation, and spent 20 days learning about Scientology and six to eight hours of each day in a hot sauna with limited drinking water,” according to the lawsuit. “He eventually quit the program and asked for his money back.” The article continued, “Had Mr. Burgoon been informed that the ‘treatment’ at Narconon of Northern California consisted of the study of Scientology and participation in Scientology rituals, he would not have enrolled in a Narconon program.”
A 2018 article about a separate lawsuit filed against Narconon International and its flagship facility, Narconon Arrowhead, reported allegations of “physical and mental anguish,” and being “forced to read literature that promoted Scientology.”
The article continued, “The lawsuit also alleges the facility didn’t have certified medical personnel.” It further referenced the “scrutiny” that Narconon Arrowhead had faced “following four patient deaths in recent years,” concluding, “Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the center, and Narconon Arrowhead has settled many of them under confidential terms.”