12 Steps to Danger: How Alcoholics Anonymous Can Be a Playground for Violence-Prone Members
Karla Brada Mendez thought that she was getting a second chance on life when she started going to AA meetings. But instead she met Eric Allen Earle, an AA old-timer with a violent past.
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 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 tenet 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 original traditions 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."
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.
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 non-profit, 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 September 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 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 month-long 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—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.
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 to 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—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 eight miles from Santa Clarita. There, he shared a mobile home with John and his future sponsor, Patrick Fry.
Eden Ministries director the Reverend 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.
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 ‘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 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, ‘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 with her."
BY APRIL, 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 August 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 September 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.”
Each year, the legal system coerces more than 150,000 people to join AA. 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.
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 told her.
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, all empty.
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 meeting.
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 Newsweek described the sexual and emotional abuse of young women at a cult-like 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 suit.”
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 direct evidence.
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 unpaid.
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 August 20, Conley pried open the security bars of Cass’ 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 were fragile.
“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,” Vieth said.
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 behavior.
Rogelio Flores, a Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara County, California, finished a six-year term on AA’s board of trustees as one of its non-alcoholic 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.
“AA 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 do.”
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 … if 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.”