Last month the Colorado Times Recorder published a story about FullCircle, a Denver-area 12-step support group for teens and young adults struggling with substance abuse issues. Our coverage — which failed to include critics of the group — was in line with recent reporting on the group from 9News and local outlet Front Porch.
Shortly after publication, CTR was contacted by members of the Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Alliance (ESAA), a nonprofit organization that alleges that FullCircle and its sister group, Cornerstone, which provides an intensive outpatient program, are part of a national network of teen addiction programs that, through their “enthusiastic sobriety” methodology, are a kind of cult that encourages teens to take part in risky, often illegal behavior, engage in animal abuse, and encourages racism and homophobia.
CTR found the allegations so serious that editors decided to remove the FullCircle story from our news site and investigate further. This much longer story — and the ones that will follow this week — combine our original story with the results of our investigation.
Content Note: The following story contains descriptions and photos of drug abuse, animal abuse, racism, and homophobia.
“In November of 2020, a random private Facebook group popped up and I was added to it,” explains Liz Nickerson, one of the founders of ESAA and a survivor of the North Carolina Enthusiastic Sobriety program. “Within one month, there were 400 people [who were] part of this group, and it just kind of formed into this survivors’ support group. After a month of us all chatting, talking, posting, someone would make a post and there would be like 400 comments. I think we realized that our individual experiences weren’t so unique and that we were all sharing the same stories from across state lines, across decades, and we all decided to do something about it.”
Father John Bonavitacola, a Catholic priest with the Phoenix diocese and the founder and executive director of FullCircle, describes ESAA’s efforts as a “smear campaign.”
Similarly, Frank Szachta, who owns Cornerstone and has been involved in Enthusiastic Sobriety programs since 1983, says there is nothing sinister about the program, which is voluntary, nonresidential, and works with parents to help their children recover from addiction.
“It seems like about every ten years or so a group of people starts to form and starts going public,” says Dave Larsen, a Colorado State University adjunct faculty member and the original founder of Cornerstone.
Larsen took over Cornerstone, which was originally called Alpha and based in Greeley, in 1996. Larsen’s experiences with Enthusiastic Sobriety, and its controversial founder, Bob Meehan, were documented in a 2021 article in The Atavist Magazine, which detailed the group’s cult-like, abusive behavior toward staff members, who are all themselves products of Enthusiastic Sobriety’s 12-step program and its in-house counselor training program, the Meehan Institute. Larsen left Enthusiastic Sobriety in 2003, after discovering the work of Dr. Steven Hassan, a leading cult expert and author of Combating Cult Mind Control.
“To me, that’s where the real cult is,” says Larsen. “It’s at the staff level. They recruit people out of their client base and through their training program, which is really kind of an indoctrination into these methods, and also, really to me, a form of exploitation.”
Meehan officially severed ties with Enthusiastic Sobriety in 2005, following an ABC News exposé that revealed Meehan’s racist rants during training sessions at the Meehan Institute. Nickerson and other survivors of Enthusiastic Sobriety programs in North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Colorado say Meehan’s influence and vision for the program is still as strong as it ever was.
“When I first got there, the first thing that happened is I had about six or seven like girls who were probably around my age, a little older, a little younger — at the time I was like 16 — and they were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so pretty. I love you. I love you,’” recalls Michelle, an Eagle Crest High School graduate who declined to use her real name. Michelle started attending FullCircle in March of 2020 at the recommendation of a family friend following a stint in a residential rehab program for drug use and self-harm. “They just constantly kept saying, ‘I love you’ and I didn’t even know their names. That’s a huge thing in the group — it’s like love bombing. You pretty much go in and just like everybody is like showing you this love.”
Love-bombing, the practice of showering new recruits with unconditional love and praise, is a common cult recruitment technique that has been used effectively by Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and David Koresh, among others.
“I’m used to nobody caring about me, which is why the group was so attractive,” says Iris, who also asked that we not use her real name. Iris, who struggled with opiates, alcohol, and cocaine, joined FullCircle in October 2019 at the recommendation of a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I grew up in a really abusive house,” she says. “Nobody ever said ‘I love you’ or hugged you. Any physical touch was like abuse when I was a kid. So I showed up, and instantly when I walked through the doors, you see people hugging me and saying that they love me, and they were like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad that you’re here,’ and it was just so supportive.”
Kevin Kucharczyk says his daughter found FullCircle when she was a freshman, after getting in trouble for smoking cannabis and vaping. “Here’s my daughter who didn’t know any of these people ten days ago, and as soon as she walked in, there were 30 kids telling her they love her and hugging her,” he says. “It’s just, you know, weird.”
Szachta, the owner of Cornerstone, points to an adage from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “The opposite of addiction is connection,” he says. “I’ve always thought the hugging and the ‘I love you’ is cool. I think the world needs more of that.”
The term “love-bombing” was coined by members of the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, during the 1970s. Hassan used his own experience as a Moonie to develop the BITE framework, which analyzes organizations based on their use of behavior, information, thought, and emotional control.
“I was taught in the Moonies to recruit,” says Hassan. “I just thought, ‘What would it be like to go through all of the Moon stuff?’ How they recruit and how they indoctrinate and just list all the different behaviors, and organize them by behavior control and thought control and emotional control, and then there was a missing element, which I came up with information control, because information is the tools we use to think. If you can control someone’s information, you can control everything, their beliefs and their behaviors and how they feel about it.”
According to Hassan, the practice of love-bombing is an aspect of emotional control, it makes the subject feel a sense of belonging and integration into the group.
After their initial love bombing, Enthusiastic Sobriety youths begin, as they say in 12-step programs, “working the program,” a modified version of AA’s 12 steps that includes Enthusiastic Sobriety-specific activities like “wedging,” or staying awake for over 24 hours, “fun felonies,” which are exactly what they sound like, and intense group therapy sessions where participants are expected to be completely honest about their past behaviors.
FullCircle serves as the entry group, where youth can attend meetings free of charge, according to Bonavitacola. Those that relapse in the group, or need a higher level of care, as determined by the Meehan Institute-trained staff, are referred to Cornerstone, which offers a 12-16 week intensive outpatient program, and additional supports for up to two and a half years, for a one-time fee of $10,000. Scholarships are available through partnerships with nonprofits, says Bonavitacola.
Those that need additional support, beyond what Cornerstone can offer, are referred to Enthusiastic Sobriety residential program Step Two in Phoenix, Arizona, for an additional five-figure fee. According to Bonavitacola, FullCircle currently serves over 170 families in the Denver metro area.
Fun Felonies Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
“It really started almost in 2000 to 2003,” says Bonavitacola of FullCircle. “We first started our high schools here in Phoenix, our Catholic high schools, and kids would get in trouble with drugs, and they would just expel them. I thought we should do a little bit better and provide some assistance to the family, and maybe find a way for the kids to stay in the school. So we started a support group in high school, so if the kid got in trouble they would come to the support group as long as they stay drug free and do their schoolwork, they could stay in the school.”
Bonavitacola says he was introduced to Meehan’s concept of Enthusiastic Sobriety shortly afterward. “Somebody gave me a copy of the book Beyond the Yellow Brick Road,” he recalls. “I started reading that, and thought, ‘There’s some really good stuff in here.’ And so I contacted one of the programs which was in Phoenix, and started to ask them about it and if we could use some of their concepts, that sort of thing. So that’s how it started. Now we don’t provide treatment, which is support. So it’s, it’s kind of different. And then the treatment program, but that was pretty much how I got introduced to it.”
The Phoenix program, Pathway, was the subject of a 2005 exposé by the Tucson Weekly, which looked into the program’s alleged history of forging licensure documents, homophobia, racism, and coercion.
Meehan’s book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, is a central text for clients, parents, and staff in Enthusiastic Sobriety programs. Its central tenet is that in order for teens to stop using drugs, they must be given exciting, engaging alternatives that are just as, or more, fun than recreational drug use. FullCircle and Cornerstone provide weekly social functions for youth in their programs, for a modest fee.
“The big missing piece from treatment programs is the social part,” says Kate McCormick, whose son went to FullCircle after his stint at a Wilderness program failed to curb his cannabis use. “If you go to inpatient or outpatient, they pretty much, all the programs, tell you you need to stay away from the people that you’ve been using with, and there’s nothing that fills that space.”
Not only does Enthusiastic Sobriety teach kids to “stick with winners,” or those sober and effectively working the program, but it also provides sober social outlets for youth. “They are genuinely so fun,” says Michelle of the program. “It’s like the enthusiastic part of the sobriety. They would have games, like water balloon volleyball, or like a murder mystery party that you would come to. They do Quidditch from Harry Potter, except it gets, like, incredibly violent. People throw kids on the ground, people pass out. When I played it, I almost broke my fingers because I got slammed into the ground and then three people got a concussion from getting slammed into the ground. Like people get hurt at these functions too, but they make them so fun somehow.”
A copy of Cornerstone’s social activity liability waiver, provided by ESAA, asks parents to acknowledge the risks of “physical or psychological injury, pain, suffering, temporary or permanent disability, economic or emotional loss, and death.”
In addition to officially sanctioned events at FullCircle and Cornerstone “shops,” youth in the program often participate in after-hours hangouts and activities with other group members, and without staff supervision.
“They tell them to get rid of curfew as long as they’re with the group,” says Iris. “These parents’ kids are coming home at like two, three a.m., and sometimes not coming home at all, and they trust it because they’re with the group.”
One of the sections in Meehan’s book touches on the topic of “fun felonies.” Meehan writes, “It’s fun to get chased by the cops. It’s a drag to get caught. Anybody who has never felt that way must never have been a teenager.”
Meehan goes on to provide a list of “fun felonies” that include putting fireworks in mailboxes, soaping windows, ding dong ditch, swimming in someone else’s pool, shooting slingshots at passing cars, and even rolling tires down a hill into traffic.
“It was a stupid and dangerous thing to do,” writes Meehan. “I caused accidents. But it was fun. A fun felony.”
Bonavitacola notes that it is important not to take Meehan’s words out of context. “The book was really written for parents,” he says. “The concept of something like fun felonies was really more of a way to get parents to think about, ‘Oh heck, when you were young, what kind of crazy things did you do?’ Just so they could start to understand their teenager. We do not ever encourage felonies to be committed at all.”
Szachta shared stories of trespassing onto an abandoned bridge in his youth, the site of a scene from Kurt Russell’s classic film “Escape From New York,” but says he discourages Cornerstone youth from engaging in illegal activities. “We tell them, ‘Don’t do anything illegal, stupid, or destructive.’”
Despite the warnings, Enthusiastic Sobriety youth take Meehan’s message to heart. In Colorado, the fun felonies are often illegal bonfires on private property, which technically aren’t felonies. In the early hours of May 1, 2022, Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputies encountered a large group of Enthusiastic Sobriety teens involved in a massive bonfire. From the incident report, “The fire department had discovered a large bonfire started with wood pallets and had blocked the exit until law enforcement arrived. We were informed that a large group of juveniles were present with approximately ten vehicles. There is also a stage one fire [restriction] in place for all of Jefferson County due to the high winds and dry climate. Most of the individuals contacted were under the age of eighteen.”
Bonavitacola notes that the incident happened outside of program time, off of FullCircle’s property. “Part of our program is to help young people experience natural consequences,” he says. “They experience the consequence of that really bad behavior and they’ll probably never do it again.”
A spokesperson from the West Douglas Fire Department confirmed a series of bonfires near Sedalia, connected to Cornerstone youth, was referred to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in the fall of 2019.
“We did a lot of the same things that are in Meehan’s book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road,” recalls Iris. “Throwing tires down a hill and seeing if they hit a car or not. Fireworks. Fireworks in your car. I’ve seen a lot of people, like two or three, get injured by setting off fireworks in their car. Speeding, like, ridiculously speeding, like 120 [mph]. Breaking in. There was a lot of trespassing. One of their major hangouts is going to this hotel downtown and climbing up on the roof. They sneak onto the elevator and go up as far as they can, and then they climb up on the roof through the emergency ladder thing.”
Michelle recalls a reenactment of Meehan’s “stupid” and “dangerous” tire game. “The hangout that I really remember the most, it’s something called tire rolling,” she says. “They go to Centennial Center Park and they have a really big tire, like a whole truck tire for a semi, like a massive tire that somebody can fit in, and then they roll down a hill and somebody at the bottom of the hill catches you. First of all, it’s just dangerous in general to put a kid in a tire and roll it down a hill. And the night that I went there, they were practicing rolling it down the hill and the kids were at the bottom that were supposed to catch it, either weren’t paying attention or got scared. So the tire went and hit one of the kids’ cars.”
According to Michelle, the incident soon turned into full-blown vandalism. “They decided to do it again, except this time it actually hit an electrical box in the side,” she says. “The boys of the group then proceeded to shake it back and forth.”
Szachta says he vaguely recalls the incident in Centennial Center Park, but does not condone those actions. “Sober is as sober does,” he says.
Blake Strider, a member of ESAA’s board of directors, claimed an incident involving Enthusiastic Sobriety youth from North Carolina’s Insight Program resulted in $81,000 in damages to the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2018.
Kucharczyk says his daughter engaged in a variety of risky activities with FullCircle youth. “We used to have Life360 on her phone, so I could see where she was,” he says. “She’d go to the functions at 8:00 at night and I’d wake up and it’d be 4:30 in the morning, and I’d look at the phone and she’d be in Colorado Springs or in Evergreen or something, doing whatever they do. One time when she was 15, she called her mom and said, ‘The kids are going to California.’ It was a Friday night, and my ex-wife told her that it was fine, go ahead and go, so she drove with three other kids from Denver to L.A. and came back on that next Wednesday, and she was 15 years-old. That’s just kind of what they do.”
Szachta says it’s common for teens to drive from the Cornerstone shop in Centennial to the Great Sand Dunes National Park after meetings, a nearly four-hour drive one-way.
“I’ve seen the pictures they’ve taken,” he says. “It’s gorgeous.”
In October, 2021, Enthusiastic Sobriety youth hit a mountain lion with their car. According to Strider, who provided a photo of the incident, the youth posed with the dead animal. The incident underscores what ESAA members describe as a culture of animal abuse.
“Someone bought a baby chick last year, and they’re walking around letting everyone pet it,” recalls Iris. “It was this little, tiny baby chick that you can put in your hands, and this guy, and a bunch of other guys surrounded him. He threw it through a basketball hoop, and it broke its leg, and then he snapped its neck. … The counselors didn’t really do anything. They were just like, ‘Hey, not cool.’”
Strider told Yes! Weekly about an incident where Enthusiastic Sobriety youth in North Carolina released opossums into a Charlotte Target.
“I asked Tyler [Barkey, a counselor at Cornerstone] about the animal abuse because my son had told me a story about a baby bunny being killed one day,” says McCormick. “[Barkey] hadn’t seen it, but he had heard about it, he was there, inside, when they did it.”
In May, McCormick met with Barkey at the Cornerstone shop to discuss the incidents of animal abuse she had learned about from her son, and from ESAA’s website. One of those incidents involved the treatment of frogs during FullCircle and Cornerstone’s annual campout to Lake McConaughy in Nebraska.
“People would catch frogs and torture them in a bunch of different ways,” recalls Iris. “I’ve seen people pour hot sauce on frogs, and throw them in fires, take them and cut them with knives, and burn them with cigarettes. I don’t do any of that. That’s some psychopath stuff.”
In the recording of McCormick’s conversation with Barkey, he acknowledges the incidents. “Some of these things happened years ago,” he said. “These aren’t things I keep in here all the time with all the other things on a daily basis I’m trying to think about.”
Former members and parents also express concern over the prevalence of nicotine use within the group. “They told parents that if their 15 year old is smoking cigarettes then it’s better than heroin, and even if your kid has never even used heroin, they’re like, ‘They will eventually, or fentanyl,’” says Iris. “They’re like, ‘Do you prefer cigarettes or fentanyl?’ They get parents scared to death of their kids dying, even if they’ve never even had a problem with actual controlled substances, or if they’ve been sober for a while.”
Kucharczyk’s daughter, like Iris, Michelle, and members of ESAA, started smoking and vaping after joining FullCircle. “I don’t understand how, why parents allow that, but that’s kind of the almost like a tenet of the group, you’re allowed to smoke cigarettes because they say it’ll take years for cigarettes to kill you, but you could overdose on drugs and kill you that day, so it’s better to do cigarettes,” he says. “My oldest daughter is a cigarette, nicotine addict now, based on the groups.”
Michelle says smoking was part of the appeal of Enthusiastic Sobriety. “They’re like, ‘Oh, well, it’s like an AA.’ They drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, but keep in mind, all these kids are underage,” she says. “I came back, fresh out of residential [treatment] and the first thing that people are offering me is five or six cigarettes at a time, and then a whole bunch of nicotine, and then a whole bunch of free coffee, and then just a whole bunch of people just coming up to you and giving you attention. As a kid who was in a place where I didn’t have a lot of friends, that brought me in so quick.”
Szachta admits the smoking is a challenge. “As the decades have gone on, that’s become a challenge,” he says, noting that a majority of Cornerstone’s clients started smoking before they came to him. He says he doesn’t allow youth to smoke inside the building, but beyond that he can’t do much to address behaviors outside of the program.
Ultimately, it is up to the parents, says Szachta. “I leave that up to parents,” he says. “That’s really a family issue. If you want a curfew, give them a curfew.”
Racism and homophobia
Meehan, the founder of Enthusiastic Sobriety, retired from the network of treatment centers in 2005 after an ABC News exposé aired Meehan Institute training videos showing Meehan enthusiastically singing a song with the lyrics “white woman with a n****r.” Clint Stonebraker, Meehan’s son-in-law, took over leadership, and accounts of racism by Stonebraker were detailed in the Atavist piece, and in a Yes! Weekly series about Enthusiastic Sobriety groups in North Carolina. Stonebraker was listed as a director on FullCircle’s 2019 form 990, but Bonavitacola says he is not a part of the organization’s board of directors.
Szachta denies that racism is a part of the program at Cornerstone, but a number of photos provided by ESAA prominently feature swastikas — on the floor of the Cornerstone shop while setting up for foursquare, shaved into a child’s head at Georgia’s Insight Program, written on a child’s arm under black light during a function, and even stomped into the Great Sand Dunes during one of the frequent road trips to the Colorado landmark.
Additional photos show racial and homophobic slurs written into the snow on cars in Cornerstone’s parking lot. McCormick says her son experienced racism while he was a part of the program.
”He talked about the ethnic slurs, being called a ‘beaner’ and things like that,” she said.
Parker Mirich, a member of ESAA’s board of directors and a survivor of Arizona’s Pathway program, experienced anti-Asian racism firsthand.
“There were multiple functions where people were literally taping their eyes and pretending to be me,” she says. “I would talk about how that was upsetting to me, and I would just get told that I needed to stop being so sensitive and playing the victim and that I’m taking myself too seriously.”
Szachta insists racism isn’t a part of the program. “I’ve seen the swastika, it was teenagers being stupid,” he says. “These are not racist kids, they were kids being stupid.”
Similarly, survivors share stories of discrimination against LGBTQ members of the group. “They’re definitely treated differently and they’re told that they’re not actually genderfluid or non-binary or gay, that they’re just spiritually sick,” says Iris. “They’ve been told to work through the steps without being gay or being non-binary or genderfluid or whatever. … They told [a nonbinary youth at FullCircle] that their non-binary stuff was a mental illness or a spiritual illness and that they would get over it.”
Nickerson, Strider, and other ESAA members have used the term “conversion therapy” to describe Enthusiastic Sobriety’s approach to LGBTQ youth, which Bonavitacola disputes. “We deal mainly with substance misuse and some related issues, maybe like cutting problems or eating problems,” he says. ”We make that the primary focus. From our point of view, we are not equipped to deal with any issues of transgender or sexual orientation issues, so we don’t make it a focus. Now, if a young person is struggling with that issue, we’ll try to find them a resource with their families to work through that issue. We don’t treat that. We don’t deal with that. We try to create an all-inclusive environment. We have gay lesbian kids. We have transgender kids in the program.”
Colorado Public Radio’s Vic Vela interviewed Morgan Sinclair, a transgender boy, for an April episode of his podcast about addiction and recovery, “Back From Broken.” Sinclair credits Cornerstone and FullCircle with helping him get sober.
“We do not discriminate,” says Szachta. “We’re not the arbiters of anyone’s sex life.”
Despite criticism, there are many who attest to the Enthusiastic Sobriety’s effectiveness, including Nickerson. “We are not an anti-recovery or anti-sobriety group,” says Nickerson of the ESAA. “Two of our board members are still actively in recovery. I myself am 18 years sober still from my time in the group. I got sober there and I have not had a relapse since leaving.”
“A lot of people do really well in Cornerstone,” says Larsen, who left Enthusiastic Sobriety in 2003. “I was in a similar program, and it absolutely changed my life. I was super grateful. I felt like my life got saved.”
McCormick, who felt her son’s experiences at FullCircle, Cornerstone, and Step Two in Phoenix were ultimately unhelpful in addressing his drug use, sees potential in the Enthusiastic Sobriety model. “I really felt like at its core, this style of program could make the difference for my kid, but I also was not okay with these practices that they appear to have,” she says. “I think they are very effective at the positives, and I do think there are a lot of positives, and, at its core, I think it could be a phenomenal option for kids, but they would almost need all new staff because It’s just so ingrained.”
Isabel Lanzetta contributed to this reporting.