Scientologists espouse a philosophy of personal and spiritual growth,
but the church's critics say it comes at too high a price
By MARK SOMMER
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
First of Four Parts
Jeremy Perkins didn't want to take his vitamins.
He sometimes took the dozen or so his mother, Elli, set aside for him
in the belief they would make the delusions and voices go away.
But not this day.
On a cold morning in March 2003 in the Perkins family's white,
two-story home on busy Hopkins Road in Amherst, Jeremy flushed the
vitamins down the toilet.
"I don't like to take (them) because I always feel better if I don't,"
the 28-year-old Perkins later told Amherst police. "I told her I
didn't want to today."
Perkins also didn't like his mother telling him to take a shower. He
obeyed her, but when he finished, he told the police, he stabbed at
his wrists with a utility knife.
"I wouldn't die," he said, "so I decided to do my Mom in instead."
Jeremy Perkins was a member of the Church of Scientology.
The church's beliefs of spiritual enlightenment and self-improvement
are based on the philosophical and psychological teachings of its late
founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
Because Jeremy and his mother shared the church's adamant opposition
to psychiatry, he didn't take drugs that medical professionals say
could have staved off his illness - and saved his mother's life.
Scientology's anti-psychiatry stance is one reason the 51-year-old
organization remains a source of worldwide controversy and,
frequently, condemnation. It claims up to 8 million members in 154
countries, including about 500 members in Western New York.
The church has received credit for its anti-drug and pro-literacy
teachings. But it also has been criticized by governments, former
members and cult experts who say the church is an authoritarian,
moneymaking cult that can ruin people's lives.
In November 2003, the Buffalo branch of the church moved into a
renovated 19th century building north of the Theater District,
heralding Buffalo's role as a Northeast hub of Scientology. In light
of the global controversies and its growing presence in Western New
York, The Buffalo News has examined church practices, looked at court
records and interviewed more than 60 people, including Scientologists,
attorneys, former members turned critics, medical professionals, city
and county officials, and targets of Scientology lawsuits.
Among the criticisms, and what The News found:
Scientology can tear apart families. The Buffalo church pressures some
of its members to sever contact from loved ones critical of
It uses deceptive practices. Some of the Buffalo church's recruitment
methods - such as a "free personality test" - lack professional
The church seeks legitimacy through government alliances. The Buffalo
church wooed city and Erie County officials in an attempt to escape
its reputation as a cult. Mayor Anthony M. Masiello obliged by
declaring "Church of Scientology of Buffalo Day"; county jail
officials joined church officials in trying to bring a
Scientology-related drug program to Erie County Holding Center.
It practices intimidation and harassment. The Church of Scientology
has a history of using lawsuits to silence critics, and private
investigators to spy on them.
Spiritual pursuit is costly. Advancing personal spirituality within
the Church of Scientology can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And, as seen with the Perkins family, the Buffalo church - known
internally as the "Buffalo org," for "organization" - opposes
Elli Perkins' devoted opposition may have proven fatal.
"Elli was adamant about not allowing psychotropic drugs," said Dawn
Pastva of Kenmore, a longtime friend of the family. "She said it was
against all the (Church of Scientology) tenets, and psychiatry was the
equivalent of the devil."
On the morning of March 13, 2003 - L. Ron Hubbard's birthday - Jeremy
Perkins went into his family's kitchen, grabbed a 12-inch knife and
hid it behind his back.
In his delusional state, he was suspicious of his parents' decision to
send him that afternoon to live for a while with someone in the
He thought the vitamin pills his mother wanted him to take were making
him worse. And he believed his mother possessed an evil eye.
Elli Perkins, a Scientologist for more than 30 years, was talking on
the telephone when Jeremy pushed her into a bedroom.
He stabbed her 77 times.
Perkins was arrested that morning and held without bond. A grand jury
indicted him three months later on second-degree murder and weapons
Scientology's anti-psychiatry position reaches back to the medical
establishment's dismissal of Hubbard's 1950 book, "Dianetics: The
Modern Science of Mental Health." That book laid the foundation for
"Books like this do harm by their grandiose promises to troubled
persons, and by their oversimplification of human psychological
problems," psychologist Rollo May wrote in the New York Times shortly
after its publication.
Hubbard believed the psychiatry profession was composed of "psychotic
criminals" and was convinced it was behind criticisms leveled against
That view remains unchanged today among church leaders.
"Psychiatry attacks us because they know our technology works," said
Teresa Reger of East Aurora, president of the Buffalo church. "They
are making billions of dollars on drugging people, electroshocking
them, and basically maiming and harming them."
The group's anti-psychiatry outlook extends to the emerging
bioinformatics hub in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, just blocks
from the church.
"I think (bioinformatics) is absolutely terrible," Reger said. "The
drugging of America is the downfall of America, and that's what that
That view was prominent in a graphic exhibition at the Langston Hughes
Institute, on High Street, in September, and one that briefly appeared
last Monday in Old County Hall, both set up by a Scientology spinoff
group. It warned that millions of children were being given
"cocaine-like drugs" for behavioral and learning disorders.
"Mental illness does not exist, just like God does not exist in my
view," said Thomas Szasz, a Syracuse psychiatrist often touted by the
church. "The public has a need for it to exist, because it gives them
an easy way to deal with such things."
The Perkins family practiced Scientology devotedly and was steeped in
its anti-psychiatry beliefs.
Donald Perkins, Jeremy's father, had been a staff member in the
Buffalo church in the 1970s. Elli Perkins was an advanced
Scientologist, and an upper-level "auditor," or spiritual counselor,
and part-time staffer about to go full time.
Jeremy's older sister, Danielle Carlson, is a high-level auditor, and
her husband, Jeffrey Carlson, is the Buffalo org's executive director.
Family members declined to be interviewed for this story.
Scientology's Reger said she didn't believe Scientology should be
singled out as a religion because it rejects psychiatry.
"The only thing our religion is trying to do is bring people together.
We help people stay away from drugs, repair their marriages, and we
teach kids how to read," Reger said.
Jeremy Perkins had a friendly and easygoing, even timid demeanor. He
was artistically inclined, like Elli, a glass painter who depicted
scenes of plants and rural life.
Perkins had learning problems that caused him to repeat the first
grade. He later dropped out of Williamsville North High School.
He enjoyed playing the drums, sometimes practicing with a couple of
Perkins installed siding for his father's business and was a good
worker until late summer 2002, according to a defense attorney.
Jeremy's declining performance had made him such a risk to his own
safety that his father fired him. Most troubling to Donald Perkins was
that he found his son not responding well to questions.
Around the same time, Perkins was arrested at the University at
Buffalo after scuffling with campus police. He blamed his presence on
voices telling him to find "Diana, the Roman Goddess" in the school
Ron Epstein, a next-door neighbor and close friend, said Jeremy
Perkins was taken to three hospitals in a short time span for
psychiatric evaluation - Buffalo General Hospital, Erie County Medical
Center and Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital's emergency room.
And a letter Danielle Perkins Carlson sent to The News Saturday
claimed her brother had been given psychiatric evaluations on at least
three different occasions.
"My parents also took him to a neurologist who again said he was,
"just off in his own little world and no danger to himself or others,'
" she wrote.
The letter failed to give any specific details, and she declined to be
John R. Nuchereno, Perkins' court-appointed attorney, said he was told
that Perkins was taken to two local hospitals for CT scans.
But he insisted the family, including Danielle, never told him of
additional psychiatric care.
"I only knew what the family and Jeremy provided me with, and what
they provided me with was that he had no psychiatric evaluation or
psychiatric treatment in the past," he said.
Nuchereno also said the family continued to reject treatment with
In the eight months before the killing, Jeremy suffered
hallucinations, imagined space aliens were pursuing him and thought he
was rock singer Jim Morrison.
The Perkinses thought Jeremy's erratic behavior may have been the
result of a head injury suffered while working on his truck. Elli also
wondered if her son could have been slipped a hallucinogenic drug at a
club a week later.
"They were trying to think of everything that wasn't a psychological
problem," Pastva said.
"As his behavior became bizarre, it was clear he needed psychiatric
care," Nuchereno said. "That's when the vitamin therapy started."
Elli Perkins sought help by contacting Dr. Conrad Maulfair Jr. of the
holistic Maulfair Medical Center in Topton, Pa.
Maulfair, a Scientologist, requested a sample of Jeremy's hair to
diagnose his condition.
After a family visit, Maulfair said Perkins had a high level of
arsenic and toxic metals, including titanium, in his system, and he
recommended an expensive intravenous therapy, said Nuchereno.
R.P. Singh, a forensic psychiatrist in Rochester, later examined
Perkins on behalf of the court.
"There is no science that supports any treatment that is based on hair
samples," Singh said.
Maulfair, through his wife, declined requests for an interview.
Elli Perkins decided to prepare her own vitamin supplements, Nuchereno
said, but they appeared to have little effect on Jeremy's decline.
Ron Epstein, a next-door neighbor and close friend, Epstein, the
neighbor, said the Perkins family made "hundreds" of phone calls in an
effort to help their son.
"They pursued every avenue open to them through their belief system,"
Epstein said. "Although they, as Scientologists, didn't agree with
psychiatry, I think they had reached a point that alternative medicine
wasn't working and were willing to go beyond that."
Two days before Jeremy's attack, Elli Perkins called the church
seeking help for him, said Anne-Marie Dunning, then the church's
"ethics officer." She said Carlson, Jeremy's brother-in-law and the
executive director, told her to tell Elli to keep him busy.
Jeremy had been classified by the Buffalo church as a Potential
Trouble Source Type III, Dunning said. Hubbard had stated that was a
person who is "entirely psychotic" and for whom there was "no
treatment of a mental nature."
Reger at first denied to The Buffalo News that Perkins had ever been a
Scientologist or taken Scientology classes. Later, she admitted he had
been a member.
In fact, Perkins had taken Scientology courses in Buffalo as late as
2002, according to Dunning.
He signed a "billion-year contract" (the church believes in
reincarnation and the contract is for future lives) to work for an
elite branch of Scientology in Los Angeles in the late-1990s, Dunning
said, although he appears not to have done so.
Scientology's Source Magazine revealed he took a course in 1999 aboard
the church's 500-passenger ship in the Caribbean Sea.
And he, along with others of his immediate family, was also a lifetime
member of the International Association of Scientologists, Dunning
Scientology presents an unwaveringly shiny, upbeat public image,
reinforced through its literature, videos and public presentations.
Elli Perkins' killing - coming just five months after the opening of
the church's new building in Buffalo - threatened to puncture that
image at a critical time.
After Jeremy stabbed his mother, the church began covering trails that
could link Jeremy Perkins to Scientology, according to Dunning and her
"This was a black eye they were afraid of," said Rich Dunning,
Anne-Marie's husband and the deputy executive director before the
couple left Scientology in May 2003.
There were other concerns. Elli Perkins was classified in the church
as an "Operating Thetan," meaning she was an upper-level
Bad things, let alone grisly murders, aren't supposed to happen to
them, Anne-Marie Dunning said.
"They're afraid it will show OTs are not any different than anyone
else, and that's what they're selling," she said. "If she has her
salvation, why would she be brutally murdered by her son?"
According to the Dunnings, this is what happened immediately after
Elli Perkins was killed:
A handful of the church's national leaders arrived at Buffalo Niagara
International Airport from New York City and Clearwater, Fla., within
24 to 36 hours of Elli Perkins' death.
Also flying in from New York was a member of the Office of Special
Affairs, the church's legal bureau.
The out-of-town officers gathered Buffalo's church management and
instructed them not to discuss Perkins' death with anybody, especially
"They told us, "Don't say anything, we will handle this. It's a job
for the higher-ups,' " Rich Dunning recalled.
That included leaving out any reference to Scientology in Elli
Perkins' obituary, although memorial donations were solicited for the
Church of Scientology in a paid death notice.
Proper care absent
If Scientology officials did their best to distance the church from
Perkins, the judicial system put it in the public record.
Court-ordered expert testimony during Jeremy Perkins' appearance in
Erie County Court suggested his rejection of modern psychiatric care
contributed to his worsened mental state and possibly the tragedy that
Jeremy Perkins was initially diagnosed as a "chronic paranoid
schizophrenic" in court-ordered psychiatric examinations and treated
with psychiatric medicine.
"The onset of a schizophrenic illness was not dealt with in an
appropriate manner," psychologist Joseph Liebergall concluded in April
2003. "It is unclear how long this illness has been active, but no
definitive treatment has been afforded to this man."
Singh, the forensic psychiatrist, went further. He testified in court
in January 2004 that, had Perkins been treated with proper psychiatric
care, "his mother would be alive today."
That was the crux of Nuchereno's defense.
"Jeremy was a young man who had never harmed a fly in his life," the
defense attorney said. "Had he obtained competent psychiatric care, he
would not have been in the predicament he found himself."
Perkins was found mentally not responsible for his actions and is
confined to Rochester Psychiatric Center.
Pastva, Elli Perkins' friend, has wondered if things would have turned
out differently with psychiatric intervention.
"Amongst our group of friends, we would try to go around Scientology
by equating what was going on with Jeremy with being a physiological
problem," she said. "The joke was we really couldn't get what
Scientology was about. But we loved Elli - she was such a beautiful
soul - and after all, we'd say, "it was her religion and it wasn't
like it was going to kill her.' "
The Buffalo church's Reger expressed sorrow over the tragedy but said
the church's stance against psychiatry should not be blamed, noting
that people on psychiatric drugs have committed murders.
Perkins' sister, Danielle, in her letter to The News said: "My brother
has been confined to the hands of psychiatry for the past two years.
They have tried every psychotropic drug available to "help' him to no
Perkins, like many Scientologists, had a page on the Internet with a
brief biography. The page - which appeared six years ago - was removed
by the church shortly after Elli's death.
The biography said he enjoyed playing drums, was a lifelong
Scientologist, and would have wound up in more trouble if his parents
hadn't been Scientologists.
"Scientology has helped me be more in control of my life," Perkins
concluded. "Scientology has also shown me what lies ahead for the
Today: Anti-psychiatry beliefs of Scientology and how a follower
descended into madness.
Monday: How the Church of Scientology operates in Buffalo through the
eyes of a couple who was with the Buffalo church for 18 months.
Tuesday: How local political leaders have supported efforts of the
Church of Scientology, and professionals question the anti-drug
treatments prescribed by the church.
Wednesday: The high cost of Scientology to individuals who are urged
to break from their families and give money to the church.
Derek Gee/Buffalo News
The Church of Scientology in Buffalo moved into a renovated building
on Main Street in 2003 and declared the city a Northeast hub for the
faith. In September 2004, retiree Frank Green protested against the
church, saying it had alienated his family from his niece, a