There are dozens of commission and committee meetings every week in Los Angeles County's massive Hall of Administration, but in only one will you hear serious discussion of members being slipped a mickey through air-conditioning vents.
At meetings of the Ritual Abuse Task Force, a corps of well-meaning men and women use the clout of county authority to warn of satanic abuse they claim forces thousands of young people into unholy rituals including human sacrifice, torture and orgies.
On Monday, several task force members repeated their longstanding claim that satanists are poisoning them and other satanic abuse survivors--and their therapists--by exposing them to a toxic pesticide pumped into their offices, homes and cars. One woman claimed she was even poisoned during a task force meeting.
The supposed victims say they suspect satanists of slipping diazinon, a chemical compound used in bug sprays and powders, into air-conditioning vents to silence them.
"I can't believe I'm sitting here listening to this," said Paul J. Papanek, chief of the county's toxics epidemiology program. "This is outrageous."
Task force member Stephanie Sheppard had asked Papanek--and members of the media--to attend Monday's meeting. Sheppard then called on the alleged victims to prove their bizarre claims or keep quiet and stop wasting taxpayers' time and money.
None of the 43 supposed victims has produced any medical proof that the ailments--including headaches, dizziness, numbness and memory loss--are caused by poisoning.
"The integrity of the task force is severely on the line," said Sheppard, an out-of-work artist who says she is a survivor of ritual abuse. "If people are making those statements, they need to back them up."
Sheppard later added that claims such as those made by her colleagues do nothing but undermine the already shaky reputation of the 4-year-old, 14-member task force, which is a subcommittee of the county's Commission for Women.
"They are blaspheming the whole ritual abuse thing," she said. "It's like they've shouted wolf too many times."
Indeed, at a time when the Board of Supervisors has been meeting just five floors below the task force to dismantle county health care programs, lay off part-time employees and cut all other services because of a severe budget shortfall, some are questioning whether the group--and particularly its obsession with poisoning--is not just a little frivolous.
One county employee suggested that the task force has not been disbanded because it is one of the few that actually make money. Since 1989, the task force--made up of therapists, alleged victims and religious leaders--has sold a handbook that outlines the telltale signs of ritual abuse. More than 17,000 copies of the handbook have been sold at $1 apiece, more than enough to offset the costs of the task force.
Many mainstream psychologists and law enforcement officials insist that it is extremely unlikely that thousands of people have been forced to participate in satanic rituals, as alleged survivors claim.
The task force was formed at the request of Commission for Women Chairwoman Myra Riddell, a psychologist who also serves as chairwoman of the ritual abuse group. She said she had noticed an increase in the number of her patients who recalled experiencing satanic abuse as children.
During Monday's meeting, Riddell did not directly address the poison claims, saying only: "It's not a question of disbelief. It's a question of what action we want to take." She did not return telephone calls later in the day.
Others were more vocal, demanding answers about why there were so many similarities in symptoms reported by those who believe they have been poisoned.
"Why is this group feeling so awful and feeling so awful in the same kinds of ways?" asked task force member Vicki Graham-Costain, a psychologist who treats people claiming to be victims of ritual abuse.
Papanek said Graham-Costain's question was a good one, but he said he did not think they were poisoned.
"I certainly did not hear any evidence of diazinon poisoning," he said after the meeting. "If you seriously think you have been poisoned, you don't come to the eighth floor of the county building. You go see a doctor."
Papanek said it is possible to become sick by inhaling diazinon through vents, but usually only if large quantities are present.
Several of the alleged victims, who did not identify themselves at the meeting, said they have seen doctors but that their cases have not been reported to county health officials--a violation of the state health and safety code, if true.
After the meeting, task force member Catherine A. Gould, a clinical psychologist noted for treating victims of satanic abuse, said she would produce lab results Monday afternoon documenting diazinon poisoning in two patients. She had not provided the information by Monday evening and she said she was "trying to find some people willing to go public."
Gould said she was also poisoned after she brought the issue before the task force in March, and that the poisoning caused her to experience blurred vision and failed memory. Yet, she admitted, she never had a blood test or went to a doctor to determine what ailed her.
"I never got tested," she said. "Everyone said you can't find this in a work-up."
But Papanek said diazinon is fairly easy to detect with the proper tests, and he questioned why supposed victims rarely sought medical help. One woman who claimed to have been poisoned said her doctor told her that "it was all in my head."
The Ritual Abuse Task Force of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women was formed in 1988 to deal with what was perceived as an increase in the number of people who claimed to have been abused in satanic rituals as children. However, many mainstream psychologists and law enforcement officials dispute the notion that thousands of people have been forced to participate in satanic rituals. Horrible childhood "memories" of such abuse are likely to be suggestions made in treatment by psychotherapists rather than actual recollections, these critics say.