Journalism in the Public Interest


Twelve 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.


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

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 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 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.”

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 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 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 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 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 – 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 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, ‘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.”

* * *

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. 

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

  11. 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.

  12. 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. 

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.

  2. 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.

  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

  5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

  6. 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.

  7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

  9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

  11. 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.

  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities

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 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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.

“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.”

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,, 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. 

First hand experience with this: My sister was followed home from an AA meeting and raped by a fellow AAer.

I wish I could suggest that this is a new story, but people have known for decades that events that emphasize how everybody is powerless basically generates easy prey for creeps.

But the story, I think, also focuses on AA a little too closely.  There’s a problem there, of course, but people also don’t pay attention to the people around them, and nobody ever wants to get involved with domestic abuse.  It’s hard to blame even the abuser, when nobody questions that someone gets a black eye from falling into a doorknob.

Seriously, think about how many things could have gone wrong in a life like Karla’s, where the end of the story still changes, because she was helped to not go home, one night.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, since I’ve been in a position to help people), I’ve seen this sort of story a few times, starting in my own family.  Had Karla survived the night, here, the next step would have been to move away from the family, isolating her.  Then he buys a gun “for protection.”  Then there are jokes about shooting her if she doesn’t do what she’s told.  Abusive relationships like this happen with even the sharpest people, but again, when you pick them out at a meeting where they admit their powerlessness to begin with…

I think the story is unfair to AA. I have been to a couple of AA meetings as a guest with someone close to me. It is clear that these are messed up people. But they are messed up people trying to help themsleves and each other for the most part. Obviously many are not going to make it. Sometimes instead of helping each other they will pull each other down. Some of the stories people tell are so depressing they might make you want to drink. (And have never been a drinker.)

It might be worth looking at this more from the judges’ end. What criteria if any do judges use when requiring someone to go to AA? They probaly should have the person evaluated by a professional theoripist first. It is really not possible for AA to screen people’s criminal records.

monica richardson

June 24, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

This is so great to finally see this story reported in the national news. AA has been getting away with this stuff for decades. I know first hand murders happened early on in AA and were covered up . Rapes in NA happened around 2005 by a NA man who was answering phones for the organization. He then went over to her house and raped her! The AA story was told to me by an AA board member and ex delegate. This is such a tragedy like what happened to Christian and Saundra Cass who were murdered by CLayborne Connely in August of 2010.

When we tried to address the reporting of women being raped and sexually harassed we were told to be quiet. That is was an outside issue. There they go with their “clichés. Now I get reports of rampant sexual harassment,  a toddler being molested “IN AN AA MEETING” in Bellingham , Washington, Woman’s boobs being grabbed IN A MEETING and men standing up in meetings in Ohio saying they raped and 8 year old. No one called the police. When I did call the police, they said, “why didn’t they call us, or beat him up or throw him out.”

The traditions of AA were written in the 1940’s when AA still screened their new members. The idea that a court ordered these violent offenders into a lay persons, unregulated,  self help group with no safety policies is insane. To top it off the whole anonymity thing is used to cover this activity up and the language has been twisted to suit the predator… not the new vulnerable member.

Even old timer AA women are shocked to find out that this practice is occurring. Thank you Propublica and Gabreille Glaser for finally getting this story told to the world. My heart goes out to Karla’s family as well as all the other women recently murdered by men they met in nn AA meeting. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Its just a bunch of people talking about drinking, for some people talking about drinking issues helps keep it fresh. You try it after- Psychiatry, drugs, lost of family etc, trying to quit 1000 times etc..Sometimes it works for some people. The court does send people to meetings, its easier than them having to take control.
Fact is it works, I don’t know why, I don’t care why. If you arent hurting anyone then nobody should care why. Where I attend 90% of the AA people are drug addicts, and I personally think there is difference. Most people wont get addicted to alcohol and need it. Then most people who do get like this can put the alcohol down and walk away and never crave it. A few can do this, and AA helps them. Drugs tend to be designed to hook you. Crack and Heroine anyways. So being addicted to those is somewhat different.


June 24, 2013, 1:14 p.m.

Great article!  AA is not safe. Period. This article is not unlike an article I wrote on my blog:

In fact Karla’s mom gave the same pic to me.

Of course there are always steppers who think this is “unfair” to AA. This protestation only proves the problem - the culture thinks they are safe in these meetings when they’re not and those who have been convinced are full of fear since they have been taught they cannot trust their own thinking.

Not only is AA dangerous with the mixing of predators with the vulnerable, on its own it is not healthy to label oneself with negatives such as powerless, character defective, or alcoholic - who can never leave the program lest you end up in “jail, an institution or dead.”  What horrible rubbish.

Also, here’s another story in Ohio.

Thanks to Gabrielle for getting this story out to a wider audience. Look forward to reading her book when it’s soon released ... Especially the chapter about Monica Richardson!

When are we going to read the story about the guy who teaches Eric Earle it’s not OK to beat up women and strangle them?  He should be left to rot in a dark hole for a very very long time.

Why does AA allow the courts to fob off predators who don’t really want to be at these meetings in the first place? AA meetings should be open only to people who voluntarily seek help.

I am sober 17.5 years through AA. I will resist the temptation to call this a hit piece, but I will say it is one-sided.  Dangers lurk in all parts of society - our neighborhoods, our work places, even schools.  Would Pro Publica suggest that children avoid high school so they won’t be a victim of another Columbine or Newown? 

To suggest that AA meetings are less safe than society in general, or any possible substance treatment alternative, is disingenuous and intellectually lazy.  Other than anecdotal evidence, do you have any other that suggests this? 

You can do better than this, Pro Publica.

By the way, I am member of AA - I am not one of it’s “clientele”.  It isn’t a spa.

The focus is completely wrong here.  Where is the responsibility on the court system for placing violent troubled predators into an environment meant for those who have a “desire to stop drinking” ?  It was clear from the article that a judge court ordered him (and many others like him) into AA when its obvious he had no desire to stop drinking and he had some serious issues that required a doctors care or some kind of lock down facility, the judge had access to his history, the members of AA take each other on face value without a look into the persons history before they enter, and a judge knows that.

I found this article and the conclusions reached about the dangers of AA a bit over-the-top emotionalism.  There are always institutions infiltrated by predators.  Even the legal system itself is rife with abuse (police brutality is handled in most cases with an off-handed attitude).  In the case of AA, incidents meriting real concern are very, very rare.  These horrendous examples of predators infiltrating the group are mere blips in the overall scope of the organization.  Millions succeed.  This extra attention paid to AA is unwarranted. 

And the organization really can’t do anything about who joins.  The only solution would be that judges stop forcing criminals into the organization.  But, even in those cases, there are success stories.  So that’ll be another whole issue, when someone went to AA to avoid jail time and made permanent and rewarding changes in themselves. 

I found this article and the conclusions reached about the dangers of AA a bit over-the-top emotionalism.  There are always institutions infiltrated by predators.  Even the legal system itself is rife with abuse (police brutality is handled in most cases with an off-handed attitude).  In the case of AA, incidents meriting real concern are very, very rare.  These horrendous examples of predators infiltrating the group are mere blips in the overall scope of the organization.  Millions succeed.  This extra attention paid to AA is unwarranted. 

And the organization really can’t do anything about who joins.  The only solution would be that judges stop forcing criminals into the organization.  But, even in those cases, there are success stories.  So that’ll be another whole issue, when someone went to AA to avoid jail time and made permanent and rewarding changes in themselves.

I have just marked my 29th anniversary of sobriety.  The twelve steps of A.A. transformed my life. In meetings I found support and friendship. I learned to distinguish between bad people and good people.  I have seen countless people, in many many countries and classes and cultures, transformed.  I have also seen people who could not be helped, but it was not the fault of meetings.  Perhaps it is a mistake to allow the courts to order people with no desire to stop drinking to attend meetings, but meetings, thousands a day around the world, are not special places of peril for young women who are already in serious trouble from drinking and drugging. A bar….now that is a source of trouble. And a $40,000 rehab is a source of profit to someone.

To those defending AA I would just like to point out that AA does more than provide a space for people to talk about their drinking and recover. It makes very specific demands on and promises to members. They tell you to give up control and rely on unqualified and unaccountable authority figures (sponsors). AA may not fit the strict definition of a cult but it has some seriously cult-like qualities. It is a perfect environment for predators to target vulnerable victims. Believe me, I know, having been forced to attend meetings by the Navy as an attractive young female.

Furthermore, I find AA’s evasive answers about its predator problem and nonchalance over people being coerced by the courts and employers to attend what are supposed to be voluntary meetings to be disturbing. What happened to “attraction, not promotion”?

Quick message to any suffering alcoholics or AA newcomers: keep coming back, but do please follow the suggestions.  Ms. Mendez’ story horrifies me and spurs me to action, but please do not let it stop you from seeking sobriety. Just for today, focus on sobriety for yourself. Today. If you’ve been victimized in AA, you still can be sober.

National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE.  Reminder, this is not just for married people, or just for females.

In life, I’ve been advised: don’t give rides to strangers; don’t talk on the phone while walking around (the modern-day purse snatching); listen to my instincts; don’t walk by myself at night; lock the doors; let a friend know where I’ll be when going on a new date.  Until we find a way to teach people not to violate others, we have to teach people to protect themselves from violation.

When I was an AA newcomer, I also was told: do not date in your first year of sobriety; get a female sponsor; do not socialize before/after meetings without another woman there; always have your transportation set up ahead of time; don’t talk about money.  I didn’t always follow the suggestions because I’m so smart, ha ha, and guess what, I learned the hard way there are legitimate reasons for the suggestions. 

It was especially sensitive as a LGBT newcomer for whom the generic “get a [specific gender] sponsor and stick with the [specific gender] members” rule complicated things even further.  [PROPUB: follow-up piece???]

Newcomers are utterly vulnerable, and they need protection. Within AA, we have to stand up for one another. We try our best to protect one another.  That being said, there are examples listed above where people were aware of a problem and looked the other way.Fear, inertia. Here are a few resources: law enforcement, crisis hotline, one’s sponsor, therapist, doctor, clergy.  These are resources for a victim, the friend or family of a victim, the bystander, the friend or family of the predator, whomever.

YES there are predators in AA, male and female, young and old, convicted-criminal and not, lengthy sobriety and short. They also can be found at our work, school, watching baseball in row 15, at the poetry reading, landscaping my neighborhood, behind the coffee counter, walking dogs. THIS DOES NOT EXCUSE THEIR BEHAVIOR IN AA. It means we watch out for one another wherever we go.

If I am vulnerable, I can be victimized easily. If I am not vulnerable, I still can be victimized.

If anyone has knowledge of abuse or intimidation, law enforcement exists for purposes of investigating this. This includes any conspiracy of silence or cover-up.  At any location.

My heart goes out to Karla’s family. How terrible!

It seems Karla was shown early on that she wasn’t dating a man living by the 12 Steps and principles of AA. (She also chose to attend a meeting on the grounds of a men’s halfway house.) Instead of giving him up, she gave up the program. Adults get to make these choices.

I’ve never been treated with anything but love and respect at 12 Step meetings, and I’m healthy because of them. I agree that it’s the judges who force sociopaths into the program who should reconsider. Forcing AA to change its life-saving program isn’t the way.

AA didn’t murder this Karla Brada Mendez. Eric Allen Earle did that.

To support this statement, I would ask you to consider all the violence, detailed in this report, which Eric Allen Earle committed prior to his involvement in AA.

In fact, it sounds like the violence against Karla Brada Mendez began only after this couple STOPPED attending meetings.

I am looking forward to next week’s articles on a woman murdered by a sociopath she met in a bar, and how the bar shares responsibility for the crime.

“It seems Karla was shown early on that she wasn’t dating a man living by the 12 Steps and principles of AA. (She also chose to attend a meeting on the grounds of a men’s halfway house.) Instead of giving him up, she gave up the program. Adults get to make these choices.”

Nice victim blaming, Heidi.

“I am looking forward to next week’s articles on a woman murdered by a sociopath she met in a bar, and how the bar shares responsibility for the crime.”

There are many ways a bar could be held liable in that situation. Such as the bartender witnessing the guy drugging the woman’s drink and not intervening. Lots of businesses and institutions are sued successfully for failing to provide a safe space. AA is not special and I hope Karla’s family succeeds in their suit.

We 12-step members can, and should, do a better job of policing our own. We can discourage predators and warn the newcomers.

Nonetheless, it is not the group’s fault when consenting adults pair up, stop attending meetings, and return to using. In all likelihood, the group strongly discourages such choices.

Unlike colleges or the Catholic Churches, 12-step fellowships are not hierarchical in nature. There is no body which governs or oversees (a term used, inaccurately, in this piece) the meetings it serves. AA doesn’t “consider” each group to be autonomous - each group IS autonomous.

And a professional who suggests that someone attend AA for alcohol and NA for pills is unaware of what NA offers. Narcotics Anonymous welcomes people who abuse any drug, legal or illegal, including alcohol.

To Donna Faye: AA does not “tell you to give up control and rely on unqualified and unaccountable authority figures.”  It does nothing of the sort.  Those authority figures aren’t “authority figures” in the least.  They are friends and advisers, and all they provide is counseling. You sound like someone who shouldn’t have been there, forced there by another institution.  Now you seem to have an axe to grind with AA.  AA can’t be responsible for the behavior of institutions outside of itself, sending people like you into their midst, and bringing with you an attitude not conducive to the premise of the program. 

And that some males hit on you is no reflection on the program at all.  There is crude male behavior wherever you go.  You can’t dismiss the program because of those things.  Not EVERYONE hit on you.  In fact, I’d bet that most of the people there either ignored you or sincerely welcomed you.  You can’t take anecdotal events to make an argument against AA.  It’s not fair.

I think all of the comments made about the article are relevant- those saying that it’s too focused on AA, and those stating that AA has real problems.  I was in AA for many years and I think that it is very cult-like in many ways.  Moreover, the attitude about women, or more accurately, sex in general, is very permissive.  Even the “Big Book” takes a liberal attitude when it comes to this topic.  It’s preached that complete honesty is required for sobriety/recovery (vs. simple “abstinence” - a whole other story), and yet I was consistently “13th stepped” by married men during my almost 20 years in AA.  It seems to be an accepted attitude around “the rooms” and if you talk about it, you are simply told to “look at your part”.  It’s time that our society begin to talk about the down-side of AA and also to give much needed attention to the alternatives.  Leaving AA, I felt alone and ostracized and had to truly go through a period of deprogramming.  I finally feel free and realize that I was truly brain-washed for quite awhile.  Kudos to Ms. Glaser.  There is so much glorifying of AA in the media and in society.  I think we can handle also hearing some of the criticism.

“Such as the bartender witnessing the guy drugging the woman’s drink and not intervening.”

Bad analogy, I think. If someone is drugging someone’s drink, that’s an illegal act. You can contact the police for that, whether it occurs in a bar or any other location.

If someone’s just a “bad guy,” you can warn the woman who wants to date him, but if she chooses to go out with him anyway, what is AA, or anyone, supposed to do?

Don’t date in the first year of recovery. Get a sponsor of your own gender. Get a support network of your own gender. Most newcomers hear all this right away.

It is also suggested that a person should not stop attending meetings, and should not return to using. If someone chooses to do every single one of these things, anyway, how does it become the responsibility of the organization making the suggestions which were, without exception, ignored?

Karla’s murder after prolonged abuse is tragic, as are the assaults and harassment against many vulnerable women (and some men) attending 12-step meetings.  None of that should have happen. 

Readers should understand, however, AA is a collection of equal individuals.  Groups exist solely as space for individuals to support each other in getting and staying sober.  And the fact remains that thru AA, literally millions of individuals have become sober.  And many million more people have been helped indirectly, as family members, friends, and associates who no longer are affected (or affected as much) by the drunk in their lives.

If someone came to me and asked whether AA was safe for their young daughter to attend, I would answer, absolutely yes.  Perhaps I might add, she’s far less likely to be assaulted from an AA member than, say, by a classmate at college, a fellow service member, or even an older relative or family friend while growing up.  And she would be far, far safer in AA than being drunk in a bar or while driving or at a party or just walking down the street.

Gabrielle Glaser has a valid point.  But she muddies it in her loosely worded, biased, and at times factually inaccurate article.  It’s troubling also that her husband has final say on all content as ProPublica’s editor-in-chief.

The massive holes in this story can be explained in the shirttail about the writer: “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.”


June 24, 2013, 4:27 p.m.

Thank you DONNAFAYE!!!!  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  Keep it up!

@ DonnaFaye. We still have a seat for you.  Perhaps some actual study of the steps might help with those resentments.  You can join many of us in taking personal responsibility for our behavior without using “unaccountable authority figures”.  Personally I have a sponsor but he’s hardly unnacountable!  I take responsibility for my own choices including who I trust.  You can’t just foist that off on others when it doesn’t work out. 

For me the article is weak for one reason.  It does not address the authentic issues of American institutions today.  A piss poor education system, a non-health care system and the devils triad of bought legislators, a police state and a judiciary that has been removed from much of the process so that our corporate overlords can be easier served.  End of story.  Note to publisher; If you’re going to practice nepotism you have to bring it.  C’mon folks.  A better written article would have served to raise consciousness on this issue while holding all institutions accountable.  AA is not above criticism.  But I could not use this article to win an argument in AA.  Too bad because I am one of those old-timers who feels we should be saying no to the court system. 
April, 1987 and never missed a week.


June 24, 2013, 4:41 p.m.

If someone just happened to come across this article, they can plainly see the problems in 12 step programs.

The anger and blaming the victim and strong defense of 12 step cults is enough to prove the extreme indoctrination. 

Whatever happened to the promises?  Where is your “happy, joyous and free?”  Where is your ability to handle situations which used to baffle you?  They are non-existent, that’s where. 

Not only is it unsafe physically, it is also unsafe to label yourself with negatives for the rest of your life.  You are not powerless and you are no immoral and you are not full of character defects!  Go and be happy, joyous and free ... no matter what you do, the truth shall prevail as this article has done.  Sorry for your loss.

I do love how my personal experience (which I have not even described but that is not stopping people from forming their own assumptions about it) is treated as the overreaction of a hysterical female to isolated incidents while the positive experiences of others are help up as if they are empirical evidence of the greatness of AA. Glad it’s worked out for YOU, John, but you are not everyone who has gone to AA.

I was wondering how this hit-piece wound up on Pro-publica. Then a couple of other comments directed my attention to the writer’s bio at the bottom of the article.

The “reporter” has a book beating up on AA, which will be released this month. (

Her husband is Pro-publica’s Editor-in-chief. So this article appears just before the release of the book, and is now linked on his wife’s website.

So…does it stand to reason that the success of this book will have an impact on the editor-in-chief’s household income? This sounds like the sort of self-dealing Pro-publica is supposed to expose - not practice.
“The anger and blaming the victim and strong defense of 12 step cults is enough to prove the extreme indoctrination.”

Do you really want to claim the act of pointing out why an argument is unsound (and self-interested) “prove” those who disagree with the argument have been “indoctrinated?

I also find your terminology interesting. How is a group containing people with every imaginable religious outlook (including agnostics such as myself), and with no leadership, a “cult?”

@Donna Faye: Hold on there, lady.  You did describe your experience, and you clearly.  You stated plainly that you were forced to go by the Navy.  And the rest of your statement revealed that you didn’t even truly understand what went on there.  I doubt seriously that you’ve had enough experience in that program to make such sweeping statements that were unfairly harshly critical.  And I don’t mean to judge, for the Navy to require you attend meetings means you had some sort of behavioral problem.  No doubt your attitude was resentful, which caused you to feel some sort of hostility toward the other members, so that the only thing you took away from the experience was that a couple of guys hit on you.

I quit drinking many years ago, and I have to say that this story rings true.  AA, which I attended for many years, is simply not a safe place for a vulnerable person to go. 

The safety problem is almost inevitable given the structure of the program.  You have vulnerable, desperate people looking for an answer to their drinking problem, people who have often been told in treatment that the solution is to be found only through AA meetings—that if they don’t go they’ll die. They are, in many ways, captive; they haven’t even been told about the many different pathways to recovery (in addition to medications, there are non-faith based programs, such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing, which don’t anticipate lifelong attendance).

Then there are the predators, who have absolutely no one to answer to, as AA has conveniently declared itself leaderless.  And there’s considerable program dogma discouraging people from complaining about mistreatment (“take your own inventory, not the other man’s”....“look at your part”....“there are no victims, only volunteers”...“if you point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at you”....”).

Of course, predators have a field day.  And they aren’t just looking for sex, either.  There are plenty of emotional and financial predators, too.  The violent ones?  They are just the tip of the iceberg.

I wish it wasn’t this way, because there are many good people in AA and the social support can be helpful, particularly in early sobriety.  But if I had it to do over again, I’d never go, and I cannot in good conscience recommend the program to others.  It’s just not safe, and it seems committed to staying that way.

Donna, thanks for the article. Sadly, you can expect attacks, on several levels, from the self-appointed protectors of AA. I know, I have struggled with them for almost 20 years. Any criticism is treated as a threat, making you the enemy who must be destroyed,
And, as for the article, yes, I have witnessed people who go to AA meetings to prey [ not pray ] upon newcomers. Fortunately, none has ever gone as far as this.
AA can, and has, stopped people from drinking. Sadly, that is the only change in their lives. Drinking is but a symptom of deeper problems, and some who go to AA only stop drinking. Many will hide behind their knowledge of AA literature, etc., but will never work on the real problems, they focus and treat only the symptom.
thanks for the article.

@Danna Faye: Well, there you go.  That response right there reflects the over-the-top attitude you probably brought with you to that group.  I, myself, am not an AA member, nor have I been, but I’ve attended those meetings with friends, and I was there to support them.  I was in a relationship with a member.  So let’s get that straight.  I saw this program working for those people who WILLINGLY attended.  Sure, there were people there who didn’t follow the suggestions properly, and in some cases there were some disappointing consequences.  All that time, I saw only one person who was predatory, and he was an admitted sex addict.  But I saw literally HUNDREDS of other people who were quite ordinary and no one was killed or beaten up. 

You, on the other hand, went to a few meetings, because you were directed to, and you came away with a very bad opinion.  But you were directed to go, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you were ordered to attend because of something you did.  That’s a fact.  I was in the Navy and I know how it works.  You more than likely were not happy to be there, probably young, and were perhaps even rebellious, a chip on your shoulder because of your circumstances.  At the meetings I attended, I saw a couple of people like you there, too.  Now, based on my own experiences with the program—and visiting several different AA and NA groups—I can’t take what you say, or anyone else who defends you, seriously. 

I object to this article making sweeping statements based on anecdotal evidence, and people like you, who is exactly the type of person who doesn’t belong there, piping up, clearly out of some axe to grind, and dumping on the organization in a glib fashion.  I know better.  The program has worked far too often to permit this indictment of it.  It succeeds for the very reason they’re criticizing it for, that it’s not hosted by professionals.  It’s a SPIRITUAL program.  For those directed to attend meetings, there’s the old saying about horses and getting them to water.


June 24, 2013, 5:49 p.m.

It’s a cult because it’s a cult. They do not allow postings of resource links here but read the orange papers cult test. It’s awesome.


I hope Gabrielle sells millions of copies of Her Best Kept Secret!  I’ve pre-ordered it and am especially looking forward to reading the chapter about Monica Richardson!

Counselorchick: “It’s a cult because it’s a cult.”  A cult demands an inflexible loyalty, without thinking or self-awareness.  With tautological thinking like you just expressed, I’d hate to be one of your patients.

Well the trolling has begun in full force where emotions and opinion substitute for written facts.  Addiction is a terrible thing and affects us all.  There is the typical undercurrent of self-victimization in many comments here.  I relate to it and that is why I endeavor to work/live “all of these principles in all of my affairs.” I must be responsible for my own actions or my addiction will win. 

A reasonable discussion of any organization needs to begin and end with it’s written mission statement and organizing principles. AA is structured around a set of spiritual ideas and concepts NOT precepts (like religion).  To attack AA is to attack the spiritual ideas of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Daoism, Buddhism, etc.  For none of the ideas composing the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are original.  They are culled from many spiritual traditions.  We still fight amongst ourselves over what religious language remains.  All AA’s have an equal voice in this.  If we conduct ourselves with dignity we are heard.  Anyone who has done their homework knows this.  None of these belief systems/traditions are above reproach and none are absent human behavior therefore they will all always be flawed in the sense that we are all flawed as people. AA’s traditions, like all others, are tailored to a specific purpose and underscored by the universal truths of all spiritual thought which leads all human beings to the greatest cause of all, a more compassionate, kind and safe community. 

Only a troll could equate ‘powerlessness over alcohol"with a self-aggrandizing statement about how that victimizes people.  Ridiculous!  None of us has any power over anything save that which we put into our bodies and let out of our minds.  If the courts are going to send us criminals then they must also take responsibility for policing them.  What nonsense.  The rehabs are full of deviants and perverts.  Why not just criminalize every organization that is being forced to do the job of a failed health-care system? 

As an aside,
I am very disappointed in Pro-Publica and will be withholding funding from here on out until I see a change in leadership.  Cronyism sucks and good luck with The Wall street Journal.  I’m sure Mr. murdoch heartily approves.

This is an excellent piece of journalism and tells a story that needs to be told, and told, to senators, representatives, church leaders and judges, prosecutors and attorneys, the general public and family and friends.

The instances of crime discussed in this article a too few.  There are many more that are not mentioned in this article.

Mandating people to AA is unconstitutional unless secular alternatives are also offered, yet the criminal justice system continues to mandate violent criminals and sexual predators to AA.  Why?  Because the various states don’t want to crowd their prisons and increase the monetary burden of putting these criminals where they should be.  The state would rather put vulnerable people at risk; AA is free.

The Trustees (all 21 of them) of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc. (GSB) have the responsibility, as detailed in their by-laws, for all matters financial and of setting overall policy.

To wit:

The Bylaws of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc. state, in part,

The General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc. now has but one purpose, that of serving the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is in effect an agency created and now designated by the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous to maintain services for those who should be seeking , through Alcoholics Anonymous, the means for arresting the disease of alcoholism through the application to their own lives, in whole or in part, of the Twelve Steps which constitute the recovery program upon which the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is founded.

7. The Charter and bylaws of the General Service Board are legal documents, empowering the trustees to manage and conduct world service affairs. The Conference Charter is not a legal document; it relies on upon tradition and the A.A. purse for final effectiveness.

8. The Trustees are the principal planners and administrators of overall policy and finance. They have custodial oversight of the separately incorporated and constantly active services, exercising this through their ability to elect all the directors of these entities.

9. Good service leadership at all levels is indispensable for our future functioning and safety. Primary world service leadership, once exercised, by the founders, must necessarily be assumed by the trustees.

Note: The Bylaws are in appendix E of the A.A. Service Manual, 2011-2012 edition.

There you have it folks.  The GSB has the authority to set overall policy on all matters affecting the fellowship of AA.

Yet, the GSB remains silent and continues to enjoy the fruits of all the servants of the AA fellowship.  In 2011, according the tax returns for the 3 AANY entities, AANY made a profit of $908,740.  In 2010, AANY made over $1,800,000.  In addition, as of 12/31/11, AANY had on hand $20,500,000 in cash and marketable securities.  This cash and securities represented over 80% of the assets of AANY for 2011.

Furthermore, AANY owes its officers and employees over $15,800,000 in pension and health care retirement benefits as of 12/31/11.  This $15,800,000 represents 62% of total assets at the end of 2011.

AANY is certainly taking care of themselves while the vulnerable newcomer to AA gets sexual abuse, emotional abuse and intimidation when all they are seeking is help and are vulnerable.

Alcoholics Anonymous groups across the United States have in place committees organized with the sole purpose of recruiting new members from jails and prisons.  AANY publishes approved pamphlets outlining the necessary steps to be successful in these endeavors.  In fact, AA first went into the U.S. Prison system in the early 1940’s (San Quentin).

IF AANY really wanted to minimize their numerous problems they could.

For the newcomer to AA, be aware of who you are sitting next to.

AA fellowship members have even tried to use their 5th Step confessions as privileged communications in attempts to cover up or elude convictions of murder.

This is not a suprise AA is full of these phoney sober people who are there for all the wrong reasons. What tragedy.

John- are you kidding. Comparing AA to a real religion? You can’t make up who God is. That’s paganism in the most simplest terms. The 12 steps were elongated by Bill Wilson taken exactly from the 6 steps from the OXFORD MOVEMENT. The Oxford movement had the first step that you were powerless over your sins. Bill changed it to Alcohol. Steps 6 & 7 make no sense to separate the two..

AA ‘s traditions were written in the 1940’s when they screened members. No addicts, no prostitutes, no criminals were allowed. Bill even separated himself from the Board when he was taking the LSD cure so not to ruin the name of AA in public.  There is a site called with over 8,000 comments where people who have left AA or leaving AA are commenting. Its filled with people who have been seriously harmed by AA, sexually harassed, verbally abused by the crazy a** sponsors who have become so controlling and nutty, many feel that AA is a cult and that have to deprogram to get the nonsense out of their heads.

I agree with the woman above…AA is not above Zippys, State Farm, Betty Ford, The Catholic Church, or Starbucks. It is not a golden cow that people can not criticize. There is plenty wrong with AA. You and I both know it. And guess what ....we are going to tell the world we are fed up with the crap going on in it including rape and murder, never mind the rampant sexual 13 stepping harassment. The jig is up. I know so many old timers who have left. These were all very good AA people. But we have all left in droves because of all of these issues. Oh yea and that includes the archaic writings in the BB that are recited at every meeting like as if they were in church. Really ...we are like who have lost their legs they never grow new ones. I don’t think so. Also Bills professing of all the doom and gloom was never researched or vetted in any way. He made the stuff up after working with 50 or so men ...

There are 6 other free options that the world needs to know about. AA has kept a strangle hold on this for way too long. Its over. The tide has turned and 7-10 anti AA blogs are living proof.  Nuffsaid…

The overall tone of the discussion here seems to be that AA is something good that has started to turn bad.  It was a predatory cesspit from day 1.  One of the founders, Bill Wilson, was a well documented sexual predator as well as a thief and a liar.  He wasn’t averse to LSD either.

Hopefully, this case, and I’m sure the flood of cases to follow, will make people wake up and take notice.  If the courts are mandating people to AA, surely there must be some kind of evidence put forward that it does any good. 

Every study that has been done has shown that AA actually increases the rates of relapse, binge drinking and death.  They say it is free, but it is so detrimental to recovery that many who try it put an increased burden on medical facilities over the years.  I read recently that the Health Service in Scotland refuses to refer people to AA/NA for the simple reason that it doesn’t work - and they’ve actually been collecting the data to make that decision.

AA can only exist in an environment of secrecy.  The internet looks to have put paid to that.  AA is not a little wrong, it is completely wrong from start to finish.  It simple can’t stand up to having the light shone on it.

Easy with the serenity meltdown, Tim.  People are watching.  Don’t want to upset your sponsor.

I have seen many studies and the only ones that showed AA in any kind of favorable light all had the basic mistake of not including a control group, thus rendering them useless.

A different piece of advice to the newcomer:  Instead of “keep coming back”............ trust your instincts, empower yourself, and choose a program that helps you build your self esteem.  Stay away from ones that try to induce powerlessness and keep members coming back for life to work the same self demeaning steps over again. 

People spout numbers, like everyone KNOWS AA has helped millions.  Hogwash.  There is no evidence to support such a claim.  That’s a myth that has been repeated by long-timers.  Where is the evidence?  There is none.  The real numbers show that AA helps 5 out of every 100 people that attend.  The powerless feature induces an increase in binge drinking and the steps cause depression.

I do agree that the courts need to stop sending people there.  AA has a responsibility too though.  It’s a very rich organization that collects funds from groups but then claim the autonomous of them.  They send out plenty of pamphlets on soliciting and donating to/for AA, etc. but ignore abuse complaints and inquiries about safety features.  The care NOT about members but AA as a whole and how much more money they can squeeze out of people.

Don’t let them fool you. They know diddly about quitting substances and don’t offer support for that.  The literature is religious propaganda.

Rip Karla Brada and thanks to those putting up a fight.  Options are needed and AA needs to stop sitting on their near 80 yr old principles and traditions. They have everything to do with brainwashing and nothing to do with supporting former drinkers.

susanlscrazy- So right on! Thank you for speaking the truth!  Now Tim S. You are showing your true stepper colors. Calling her names ...getting all aggressive and what not. I think you need a meeting and shouldn’t you call your sponsor? ANd maybe you should pray for us….


June 24, 2013, 8:15 p.m.

AA indeed DOES increase binge drinking. Read Steven Slate’s website.

Ad hominem attacks are for the desperate. We who are exposing the truth regarding the religious cult have heard it all. It’s actually sad and funny all at the same time. Keep coming back! 

I help people deprogram from this horrible cult. They have better lives due to our work together. AA takes credit for those in spontaneous remission (those who quit on their own). It helps no one.

Thankfully, there are many viable secular alternatives online and in personal meetings. The failure of 12 step groups have made this possible.

Thank you Susaniscrazy (although I hope you relabel yourself ; )
You’re not crazy. You’re right on! 

This cult program cannot survive without mandating convicted felons. When that stops (because its unconstitutional and therefore illegal), so will the madness.

This article and many, many others like it are the inevitable outcome of a program plagiarized from the Oxford Group and started by con men and compulsive liars. Like attracts like.

sally james - You’re being very generous with your AA recovery rate - 5%?  That Health Survey study I mentioned found that AA “helped” 1 in 37 people referred.  That’s less than 3%, and way below the spontaneous remission rate for alcoholism - that’s where people quit with no help at all.

Monica, I said the exact opposite of what you wasted a half hour of your life writing about inaccurately. 

None of you are making any sense. It’s like Kindergarten with all these grand proclamations of what a fellowship is that none of you have admittedly never belonged to in any significant committed way. 

No point commenting. You make my case better than I ever could have I a million years. I’m off this silly thread. 
Alric. You are one solid dude. Best of luck to you!

I enjoyed the article and thought it was a good warning shot for people who might attend AA. The courts do send some rough characters to meetings that are better avoided for however long they must be there to please the judge. Just like the killer here they most often have an agenda other than sobriety.

What rings falsely is that AA is responsible for the existing character and eventual actions of the killer simply because a local group had an open door on their meeting room and let anyone in who cared to enter.

The instructions that new people should take to heart regarding bad hookups are clear and those specific warnings are issued often in every group. We hope people will be careful driving home and I’ve been in groups that close with saying “drive safe”; but there will be some who won’t. It’s a stretch to believe AA should rightfully be sued for the resulting fender benders or worse due to the poor decisions made by those behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, Karla will probably not be the last member who ignores the warnings and the guidance offered by the sober AAs, and chooses to do otherwise, resulting in eventual great harm. Many newcomers will hear “call and talk before you drink” for example, but wind up killing others while drunk driving. AA offers a way to avoid that variety of misery for the willing, but is powerless to regulate or limit the poor choices newcomers often make for themselves.

The victim blaming I’m seeing here - the idea that Karla brought it on herself by not following the Program’s “rules” - is stomach churning.

“None of you are making any sense. It’s like Kindergarten with all these grand proclamations of what a fellowship is that none of you have admittedly never belonged to in any significant committed way”

No True Scotsman.

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