September 1, 2011 Karla Mendez Brada was found dead in her bed by her live-in boyfriend, Eric Earle. Earle immediately dialed 9-1-1 where the panicked Earle can be heard telling the operator how he woke up to find his girlfriend, Karla, had passed away sometime overnight. He describes bruising on her side and claimed that she could have possibly fallen, as Karla had been drinking and taking pills. Earle then contacted Karla’s family in order to bare the devastating news.
Police responded to the scene at the Santa Clarita home the couple shared. They found Karla on the bed with multiple bruises to her body. Earle told investigators how Karla had long struggled with her addictions to alcohol and prescription opiates. He claimed that the on and off addict may have relapsed and during the course of the evening had fallen down the stairs.
An autopsy report reveled a much different story on what had occurred at the couple’s home. Two days after Earle’s frantic 9-1-1 call, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Karla’s death had been determined to be the result of asphyxiation.
After his arrest, the truth about Earle’s violent past would come to light and the safety of an addiction recovery program responsible for bringing the couple together would be called into question.
A New Life
In 2009, Karla attempted to turn her life around. She had battled with prescription pill abuse and drinking for years, but it wasn’t until she wrecked her car and had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol that she began to seek help. Like many addicts, she agreed to go to rehab. Part of the rehab program Karla attended required her to also attend both Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. A sober living facility Earle had been living in had also required their residents to attend these meetings as a condition for living within the complex. That’s where Eric Earle – an angry alcoholic with a history of violence – had first met Karla Mendez Brada.
The pair began to speak regularly at their recovery meetings. Earle had struggled with addictions of his own and had spent the better part of 20 years in and out of 12-step meeting rooms within the Santa Clarita area. It wasn’t long before Karla and Eric started a budding relationship in order to kick start a new chapter in both of their lives.
AA often promotes a “one year rule” to their members, which is the suggestion that individuals entering into recovery should wait until they have remained clean and sober for a year before deciding to date anyone. Earle knew this, having been a seasoned veteran of the program, but continued to pursue Karla, a newcomer, in spite of the program’s recommendations. It was only a matter of weeks before Earle had moved from the sober living facility into Karla’s condo.
Trouble in Paradise
Karla took Eric home to introduce him to her family. According to Karla’s parents, their initial impression of him was that he was a kind, outgoing man, who, like Karla, had struggled with his own demons, but appeared to have their daughter’s best interest at heart. After just a five months of dating and several months of living together, the couple announced that they were engaged to be married.
Everything seemed to be going well for the couple. They were in love, soon to be married, and had reclaimed their lives from the clutches of addiction. That image completely shattered on August 5, 2011.
Police were called to respond to a domestic situation at the condo the couple shared. Karla was found covered in blood, having sustained injuries to her face. Eric Earle was charged with domestic battery, but he refused to leave the condo without a fight. Police say Earle had been under the influence of alcohol when he was cuffed and put into a squad car. Earle began slamming his body around the cruiser and kicked a window out of its frame. Police regained control over the situation by threatening to pepper spray Earle if he didn’t calm down. Earle later claimed that the injuries to Karla’s face had been an accident that occurred while he had defended himself from an attack she provoked.
Earle was arrested and charged with domestic battery. Karla would be the one who would come to bail him out of jail after her and Earle’s AA sponsors encouraged her to drop the charges against him. Only Karla’s friend who dialed 9-1-1 for her that day and the couple’s AA sponsors knew of the attack by Earle.
Life seemed to go back to normal for the couple and they continued to attend AA meetings hand in hand as if nothing had ever happened. Less than a month later, Karla would be murdered by her abuser.
In September of 2014, Earle was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years to life in prison. Karla’s parents, as well as the rest of Karla’s family, were happy that justice had been served to the man who perpetrated the fatal attack against their daughter, but became concerned that the same organization responsible for bringing the couple together – Alcoholics Anonymous – could possibly play an integral role in introducing other young men and women around the country to abusers and murderers.
A Matter of Safety
AA, and other 12-step programs it went on to inspire, has long stood by their open door policy for their participants. The only requirement for an individual to join AA is the desire to give up drinking. When an individual enters into a program like AA they are in an incredibly vulnerable state. Their lives are in shambles and have been ravished by their history of drinking and drug use. Some members are court ordered to attend, while others find their way into a meeting after years of struggling to find help.
Since Karla’s murder by an abusive man she met at an AA meeting, a new wave of activism has emerged. These activists, consisting of current and former 12-step members, say that programs like AA are absolutely responsible for vulnerable members falling prey to the dangerous criminals and sexual predators who fill the rooms around them. One of these activists, Juliet Abram, was able to speak candidly with me about the culture of AA and the sort of reforms she would like to see within all 12-step programs.
Juliet tells me that she is a former member of AA. She began attending meetings as part of a court order resulting from a D.U.I. conviction. Though she was court ordered initially, she continued to attend meetings on her own accord. After nine years of attending meetings she began to notice that certain aspects of the program didn’t sit well with her.
She felt uncomfortable around certain members who would make suggestive and sexual comments to her and looked to the meeting’s directors for help. When she confronted the directors and told them of the sexual harassment that had been occurring to herself and other female members who attended that meeting, the directors told her that if she had a problem with someone there, then she should find a new meeting.
After the perceived lack of concern from group elders, she sought out others who were met with similar callous suggestions within their AA groups. Since then she has created the blog A.A.R.M.E.D. with Facts and has met hundreds of men and women around the country who claim that they have suffered abuse or sexual assault at the hands of people they believed were there to help them within these 12-step groups.
At the heart of the controversy, and why some are fighting to reform 12-step meeting operations around the county, is the potentially deadly cocktail of the abused and abusers who attend these meetings.
As per the AA bylaws, when a person seeks addiction support through AA, they are told to stop trusting their own thoughts and to give up their defenses in order to submit themselves fully to the program and their higher power. Failing to do so will result in criticism from older members and individuals will be told that they are “resisting the program” and accused of lacking the desire to give up drugs and alcohol. AA members have a number of catchy phrases they use to describe these issues, such as “stinkin’ thinkin’.”
The problem with the philosophies behind AA-centric quotes like “stinkin’ thinkin‘” is that they exist to show people that they cannot trust their own thoughts, even when those thoughts may signal real danger. According to a report by the NIDA, 30-59 percent of women who have suffered abuse within their childhood are prone to develop substance abuse issues later in life. Combine these vulnerable women with the 47% of violent offenders and sexual predators who are actively recruited from state prisons and you have a ticking time bomb on your hands.
What’s perhaps most alarming is that courts sometimes order people to attend AA meetings who have no history of alcohol problems. This was the case when a woman named Darlene from Ohio’s ex-husband was ordered to attend AA after he was found guilty of sexually abusing her son, even though alcohol dependency played no role in her former husband’s life. AA members are encouraged to embrace these people without question and AA as an organization prides themselves in shrouding these individuals in anonymity.
“The potential to abuse that trust is huge.” says Abram, “There are virtually no consequences for bad behavior in AA. No one wants to break someone else’s anonymity, which is why there is little media attention on the crimes in AA. Members will point out that these crimes occur outside of AA meetings, even if the victim meets their assailant at the meeting.”
Even those who do not have a past history of abuse can find themselves in a vulnerable state at the beginning stages of their recovery. They are taught to look to the group old-timers as inspiration for their own road to recovery and trust them without question. In some ways this could be seen as a good thing, but in circumstances where an older member is looking to take advantage of newcomers, like in the case of Karla Mendez Brada, the consequences can be fatal.
Abram adds, “Promoters of AA like to say Karla’s case was an isolated incident, however, if you look up the Midtown group in the D.C. area there was culture of AA meetings where old timers were preying on minor females sexually and this was thought of as a ‘treatment’ for alcoholism.”
Abram isn’t the only one who says that criminal elements and sociopaths are attracted to programs like AA, which have no safety policies for their members. Gabrielle Glaser, another writer active within the 12-step reform movement, was able to speak to family members of Eric Earle. They claim that AA is all too alluring for men like Earle to take advantage of people, “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.”
Alcoholics Anonymous members shrug off claims like Abram’s and Glaser’s, the members who choose to comment say “there’s bad people everywhere.” As fans of true crime know all too well, this is certainly a true statement. The problem lies in how personal responsibility can come into play when one of the major tenets of the program is to trust in the intentions of those individuals surrounding you in those rooms and the program’s commitment to upholding the anonymity of their members, even when those members are known to be a serious threat to others.
Mendez vs. Alcoholics Anonymous
For decades meeting rooms across the country have had a wink and a nudge term for men who frequent AA meetings in order to exploit emotionally vulnerable women who also attended these meetings. It’s called “13th Stepping,” and in Karla’s case, one of these predators was responsible for her murder. In fact, immediately after Karla’s murder, Earle was back to his old stomping grounds where he picked up a new girlfriend/victim named Brenda. No one in AA attempted to warn the woman of Earle’s alarming past, even as he faced murder charges.
I asked Ms. Abram if she knew of any plans for policy reforms within AA concerning safety issues that may arise as a result of attending recovery meetings, which came to light after Karla’s murder, she says, “I’m aware of individual meetings and a 62nd annual service conference of AA addressing safety issues, but nothing that applies to every single AA meeting you walk into.”
Karla’s parents filed a lawsuit claiming AA, as well as Earle and Karla’s sponsors through the program worked in tandem, “to aid and assist Earle in financially and physically abusing” and “ultimately murdering” Brada.” The Mendez’s complaint further stated that AA displayed, “reckless disregard for, and deliberate indifference … to the safety and security of victims attending AA meetings who are repeatedly preyed on at these meetings by financial, violent, and sexual predators like Earle.”
Ultimately the courts ruled that because these meetings are run autonomously, following no order from a head office and operating on a predominantly ad-hoc basis, that AA held no responsibility whatsoever in the death of Karla Mendez Brada. The ruling was a devastating blow to 12-step reformists like Abram, but she says she wasn’t terribly surprised by the judge’s ruling on the case. “The organizational structure of AA is complicated and implementing change is near impossible.”
While Alcoholics Anonymous may have escaped accountability for their members in the eyes of the law, 12-step reformists like Juliet Abram continue to speak out against the abuses orchestrated within church basements around the country and says that she hopes to see real change within the organization that is touted by millions as saving their lives.