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Twelve Steps to Danger: How Alcoholics Anonymous Can Be a Playground for Violence-Prone Members

Twelve Steps to Danger: How Alcoholics Anonymous Can Be a Playground for Violence-Prone Members
Karla Brada Mendez (Photo courtesy of the Brada Mendez family)

Karla Brada Mendez (Photo courtesy of the Brada Mendez family)

by Gabrielle Glaser, Special to ProPublica, June 24, 2013, 8 a.m.

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 2013 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 old-timer.

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 living situation.”

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.”

* * *

Karla Brada 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 the garden.

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 w
as 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 Karla’s condo.

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 2013 and says it has no way of enforcing them anyway 2013 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.

Sponsors 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 support.

* * *

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 comment.

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 2007 say.

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 2013 homeless and with the goodwill of his friends and family members exhausted — he checked into Eden Ministries, a sober-living facility for m
en in Canyon Country, about 8 miles from Santa Clarita. There, he shared a mobile home with John and his future sponsor, Patrick Fry.

Eden 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 2013 no one seems to remember the exact date 2013 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 came2014or who paid his bills.

A 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 2018druggy 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 said.

Karla’s 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, 2018She’s loaded,'” John said. “But it was, 2018This 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 with her.”

* * *

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. 

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