Los Angeles courts have sentenced some patients with alcohol or drug problems to treatment at unlicensed clinics, of the type police are investigating for possibly killing men with "aversion" treatments that include force-feeding them alcohol, a county health official said Thursday.
Following a meeting Thursday of representatives of city and county agencies to set up a task force to deal with the problem, a warning was sent to the courts not to approve such institutions for mandatory substance-abuse therapy, said Fred Leaf, chief of compliance and contracts with the county Department of Health Services.
Meanwhile, details of the recent death of a patient at a North Hollywood clinic emerged in a police report obtained by The Times, including statements by group leaders that the man was put out of the building onto the sidewalk when it appeared he was dead or dying. Other patients who witnessed the actions were bound and gagged and moved to another building when police showed up to investigate, one of them told officers.
The North Hollywood clinic was one of at least nine such unlicensed facilities, often apparently run as a group enterprise by the patients, that officials are investigating. Charges have been brought against group leaders in the North Hollywood case and in another death at a downtown clinic.
Both deaths allegedly followed "aversion treatment" that involved forcing the patient to ingest large amounts of alcohol in an attempt to kill the desire to drink. One victim, according to a coroner's report, had ingested rubbing alcohol, radiator fluid or some other poisonous, undrinkable form of alcohol.
Leaf said that treatment facilities such as those where the two men died were on a list of clinics distributed to defendants sentenced by Los Angeles courts to secure treatment for drug and alcohol problems.
"These programs are sort of billing themselves as [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings," Leaf said. "The names and addresses of some of these facilities are on a list being given out by the courts. The clerk would look though the list, and they'd sentence you to six AA meetings or whatever."
He said county officials, working with police and other agencies, have identified at least nine unlicensed facilities in Los Angeles that "appear affiliated with these groups [allegedly] involved in the criminal activities."
He said he could not say how many of them were on the lists used by courts and did not know whether Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza in North Hollywood or Grupo Vida Nueva Alcoholicos Anonimos near downtown--the clinics where the deaths occurred--were on the lists.
On Thursday afternoon, county health officials met with representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the county coroner, and county zoning officials and lawyers in an "interagency brainstorming session" to address the problem.
"The purpose was to go over the information and evidence that has been collected by the Police Department, and to look at the regulatory aspects of what can be done," Leaf said.
Leaf said a task force will be formed "to inspect these facilities and determine what in fact they are doing."
In addition to issuing an advisory to the courts, Leaf said immediate plans called for launching an education campaign in the Latino community to warn residents to stay away from such potentially dangerous facilities.
Court officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
Leaf said police investigators at the meeting offered no indication of how many deaths they suspect are attributed to the informal storefront clinics. In addition to the two homicide cases already filed, detectives are investigating at least six other deaths that may be linked to several clinics around Los Angeles County, one source close to the investigation said.
More information emerged Thursday about the death of Enrique Bravo at Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza in North Hollywood, known among members as "el grupo."
Bravo, who died after he was was allegedly tied up and force-fed alcohol at the group's facility in the 8600 block of north Lankershim Boulevard, was untied and carried to the sidewalk outside before authorities were called to the scene, according to a police report.
Armando Saquil, who identified himself as one of the group's leaders, told detectives he "dried out" at the facility after himself being tied up and fed a mixture of vodka and beer, and eventually became an "overseer" of the program.
He told detectives that Bravo awoke about 6 a.m. May 25 and became "delirious and aggressive."
Saquil said he and group member Dante Barrera then tied Bravo up and "gave him some beer to calm him down," the report said.
About an hour later, Saquil told detectives, someone said Bravo appeared dead. He said another group member attempted CPR but could not revive Bravo.
Saquil said that he and another group leader named Alberto Saguache then carried Bravo outside, according to the report. Barrera then called paramedics, Saquil told detectives.
Saquil said "he wanted to save [Bravo], not kill him," the police report said.
Saguache also acknowledged that Bravo, who "appeared to be dying," was carried to a sidewalk in front of the group and placed in a chair before authorities arrived.
Barrera, who also identified himself as one of the group's leaders, told police "that he and others concealed what happened because they wanted to keep the program open," the report said.
Saguache said he, Barrera and Saquil had all been through the group's detox process and now lived and worked at the facility.
The three men and another group member, Jose Rodriguez, were charged with involuntary manslaughter and false imprisonment in connection with Bravo's death. They pleaded not guilty June 3. Rodriguez was released on bail Thursday. The three other men are being held pending a preliminary hearing.
Prosecutors said earlier this week that the coroner's office had yet to determine the cause of Bravo's death.
In the downtown Los Angeles case, three defendants have pleaded not guilty to murder charges and are awaiting trial.
The police investigation of the North Hollywood clinic was spurred by Ralph Garcia, who told detectives he was present the day Bravo died, the police report said.
Garcia told investigators that nearly a dozen potential witnesses to Bravo's death were bound and gagged and taken to another building to keep them away from officers who came to Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza to investigate his death.
Garcia, 43, contacted Los Angeles police detectives three days after Bravo's death, the report said.
A day later, May 29, detectives obtained permission from Saguache to search the group's facility, the report states.
Detectives seized several straps, one matching the description of the material Garcia said was used to restrain him. Investigators also found bottles of alcoholic beverages and rubbing alcohol, the police report said.
Toribio Perez, 38, died at the facility on Oct. 1, 1996, of "acute ethanol-isopropanol toxicity," according to county death records.
That means a combination of ethanol and isopropanol was found in Perez's body and caused death, according to medical examiners in San Diego and Orange counties.
Ethanol is the alcohol found in common alcoholic beverages, but isopropanol is found in substances such as rubbing alcohol or radiator fluid, they said.
Garcia, the police informant, said he was referred to Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza by a man he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Sun Valley. He said he was held captive at the center and forced to drink for three days before he was finally allowed to begin the dry-out process.
He told police that many of the men who get dried out at the clinic get jobs as day laborers and that their money is turned over to the men who run the group.
Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this story.