'The 13th step' investigates sexual misconduct in New Hampshire's addiction centers
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Now for a story from New Hampshire with many twists and turns. Lauren Chooljian is a senior reporter and producer at New Hampshire Public Radio. And early on in the pandemic, she reported on an outbreak of COVID-19 at the largest addiction treatment network in New Hampshire. Then, not long after that story published, she got a tip about the founder of the treatment network. The tipster alleged that the founder of Granite Recovery Centers, Eric Spofford, had sexually abused female clients and employees. So Lauren Chooljian started making calls. And now that reporting is the subject of her new podcast, The 13th Step. In the show, she goes deep into the world of addiction treatment and the allegations made against Spofford. And a warning to listeners, this conversation will discuss sexual assault.
Lauren Chooljian joins us now to talk about the series and some of what she's learned. Welcome.
LAUREN CHOOLJIAN, BYLINE: Thanks, Ayesha.
RASCOE: Tell me about this tip that started you on this reporting journey. What made you follow up on it? Because a lot of times, you might get a tip but you might just go, oh, this person sounds awful. I'm going to just ignore that.
CHOOLJIAN: Right, right. Well, this time, it was such a huge allegation, I was kind of stunned by it. So it was an email from a former clinician at one of Granite Recovery Centers' facilities, and she made a huge allegation. She said that the CEO and founder of this network - his name is Eric Spofford. She said he was facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct including a sexual assault allegation by a woman who worked for him who used to be a patient at one of these facilities. And this clinician also said that there was a list of women who Spofford had paid for their silence and that she, this clinician, and a bunch of other employees had quit after hearing these allegations.
So obviously, that's an incredibly serious accusation, no matter what workplace or what industry this is. But what really made me want to dig further about it was because substance use disorder - like everywhere in this country, but especially in New Hampshire - it's a public health crisis. And Eric owned most of the treatment beds in our state. So I really wanted to get to the bottom of what was actually happening here.
RASCOE: Eric Spofford, the person at the center of these allegations - can you tell us more about who this person is?
CHOOLJIAN: Yeah, it's like a big fish in a small pond situation, you know? Eric is from New Hampshire. He's in recovery himself, and he really put his story of addiction and recovery at the center of this treatment business. And, you know, he started this company in 2008 with a sober house for men. And, you know, that was a time when opioid use disorder especially was really starting to take hold in New Hampshire. And so a lot of powerful people - politicians, policymakers - they were desperate for a solution to stop overdoses. And here comes somebody who not only is providing a solution but has a story people can get behind. But what I learned through my now almost three years of reporting is that there was also a darker, more hidden story going on here.
One woman told me that the day she left one of Eric's treatment facilities - that he sent her explicit pictures of himself on Snapchat. Another former employee told me Eric sent her similar Snapchats and that he actually sexually assaulted her during the workday. And then finally, that tip I mentioned earlier - that ended up checking out. I mean, multiple employees of Eric's quit because they heard allegations from a female employee who used to get treatment at GRC that she and Eric had a sexual relationship that was not always consensual. And multiple people quit over those allegations.
RASCOE: When you're digging into this, what was some of the evidence that you found to back up your reporting and the allegations?
CHOOLJIAN: Right. As you well know, we can't just run with something that one person says, right? A corroboration is a huge, huge part of this reporting. And with sexual misconduct reporting, you know, one of the first things you ask someone, because there often isn't physical evidence, is, did you tell anyone? And in each of these cases you know - the employee I mentioned at the end there, I didn't speak to her directly. She didn't want to speak with me. But because I had spoken to multiple people who had spoken with her and then additional people who they had told about these conversations, all of the dots just began connecting and connecting and connecting. The woman who made the sexual assault allegation during - that he had assaulted her during the workday - she had told multiple people about it. They then told similar stories to me about what they remembered. And the reason why this took so many years is because you really want to make sure this stuff is locked down and that you can corroborate it to the best of your ability.
RASCOE: How did Spofford respond to your reporting on these allegations? Were you ever able to speak to him?
CHOOLJIAN: Well, Ayesha, a thing to know about this journey I've been on is that my reporting was initially published in March of 2022 as a news story because as I'm collecting all of this, even though I produce podcasts, we realized, you know, we're really sitting on a lot of news here. So at that time, Eric's lawyer sent us a statement threatening to sue us if we went forward with the reporting. And then that statement also said that Eric vehemently denies any alleged misconduct. But I had offered an interview. That didn't happen. I sent a bunch of questions. They did not answer any of those specific questions.
Now, in the year plus since that story came forward, a lot has happened. Eric has responded in many ways that we detail in the podcast, but the TL;DR is that his lawyer sent a lot of intimidating legal letters - to my sources, to us, including the sources who made sexual misconduct allegations who are anonymous. We used pseudonyms for them in the original reporting, and we do in the podcast. And eventually, where this all went is that Eric sued me, two of my colleagues and three of my sources for defamation.
RASCOE: Is that case still going on?
CHOOLJIAN: So, yes, it is still going on, so there's only so much I can say about it. But it was dismissed, and yet, the legal battle is very much not over.
RASCOE: This has been a really intense situation for you, for the people who spoke to you. What kind of backlash have you faced since you started doing this reporting?
CHOOLJIAN: Well, backlash that I could not have imagined. You know, unfortunately, my family house or the home I grew up in, the house that I live in now, my news director's home, and actually a house I used to live in were all vandalized - bricks thrown through the window, the C-word spray painted on doors. And at my house, just the beginning was written under the broken window at my house, which is an experience that, you know, wasn't just a lot for me. I mean, I then had to talk to my sources, and that was a lot for them to hear.
RASCOE: The name of your podcast is The 13th Step. What does that mean? What is the 13th step?
CHOOLJIAN: Yeah. So I should say I, you know, have people in my family who are in recovery. And, I mean, I don't know everything about it. I'm not a person in recovery. But I thought I had, like, a good handle. But it turns out, the 13th step, while a new concept to me - this is something that's well-known in the recovery community. And the way I learned about it was after I published that initial story, other women came forward. And when one of them was explaining her experience with Eric Spofford, she basically just walked right into explaining, oh, you know what this is, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE 13TH STEP")
ANDREA: You're so vulnerable. You're so unwell. And the things that drive people to addiction are because you have such chips on your shoulder. You're so insecure. You feel like you're just maladjusted to life, and all you want to do is just be a normal person and fill this gaping hole that you feel like is inside of you. And if it's not through the drugs or the alcohol, sometimes it's through the attention of the opposite sex. And that's why they have a lot of these unwritten, you know, but - rules where they say no dating within the first year of your recovery. It's because it's so notorious, and it's so bad. And what they - you know, there's, like, this thing called the 12 steps.
ANDREA: Well, what they do - they made a joke about being a 13th stepper. You know, it's been a while, but I think the 13th stepper is, like, when you take advantage of a newcomer or something like that. Like, they joke, like, don't be a 13th stepper or something. So it's very prevalent. But he really had it down to a science.
CHOOLJIAN: Thirteenth stepper - I'd never heard that before. By the time I hung up with Andrea (ph) and walked back to my desk, she'd already emailed me an article she found online about 13th stepping being a colloquial term in AA circles.
RASCOE: So this was a new term to you and to me, but you made it pretty clear in the podcast that in the world of addiction treatment, this is not a new term at all, right?
CHOOLJIAN: Right. I mean, after I talked to Andrea, I started asking literally anyone that would pick up the phone with me, you know, have you heard of the 13th step? And it turns out a lot of people had, and here are some of those responses that I got.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thirteenth step was a bad word. Like, men did not want to be called that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I mean, I've been clean for 15 years. You know, that's something you learn right away when you go to AA. Yeah, it's just wicked common.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thirteenth stepping - that's been around since, I think, the beginning of time.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The fact that we have a name for it is just disgusting, right?
RASCOE: One thing that seems to come out in the podcast is, like, 13th stepping is something that happens to people who are newer to recovery, but it seems like the perpetrators are people who are further along and then take advantage of people when they are very vulnerable, right?
CHOOLJIAN: Yes, that's exactly right. I mean, the many conversations I've had about how people define 13th stepping - there are a lot of different verbs that get thrown around. Maybe a person is hitting on someone, or maybe they're pursuing a relationship with someone. Of course, my reporting is when it gets taken to predatory behavior. That phrase stands for a lot of things. But the thing that does not change is that there is an unhealthy power dynamic here, and that's where exploitation can happen.
You know, when we talk about substance use disorder, oftentimes, you know, we all know, of course, substances would affect the brain chemistry. But what we don't talk about a lot is once that substance is removed, once you start doing the really hard work of trying to move away from that substance, whether - no matter what it is, your brain is still in a really wild place. And you're kind of, like one source said to me - I mean, you're trying to figure out who you are. When we think about consent, that's really tricky in that time. You're extremely vulnerable, and all the things that you may have been numbing with drugs or alcohol, all those problems are flooding to the forefront. And so consent, like I said, becomes very tricky.
And so through the course of understanding that vulnerability and asking people about it, you know, I really started to realize how prevalent this kind of behavior is in all kinds of recovery settings. You know, I spoke to an author named Gabrielle Glaser, who wrote a book about women in alcoholism, and she actually did a whole chapter on 13th stepping, which I was really fascinated to read. And she told me when she went on a media tour to promote that book, this is what the reaction was like.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE 13TH STEP")
GABRIELLE GLASER: One night, I turned on my computer. I'd been on a radio show. And I had hundreds - I think there were more than 300 messages from women who had listened to it. And I was deluged with messages from women who had been sexually abused, either in rehab or by their sponsors, and they had not been believed. And they were so ashamed and traumatized by this. They didn't really have anybody to talk to about it. I felt like I was running a rape crisis hotline, and I felt terrible. I understood that what I had uncovered was maybe just the tip of the iceberg.
RASCOE: One of the big questions that you try to answer in this podcast is what kind of accountability and oversight exists in this industry. What did you learn?
CHOOLJIAN: Well, I don't know how much time you have 'cause we could be here all day on this one.
RASCOE: OK. Yeah.
CHOOLJIAN: But this topic is really what - I mean, I went on such a deep dive of trying to understand, you know, how can I explain to people what kind of oversight exists? And what's complicated about this industry in particular is that we are dealing with decades on decades on decades of stigma. And that is at the core of everything we're facing. I mean, people with substance use disorder have long not been believed. Their disease has not been prioritized. And so it was often on people with substance use disorder to figure out, OK, how am I going to heal myself? - and to help others on their healing process too. And so we're really just trying to catch up - right? - with the rest of the medical industry here. And so that has a lot of layers of complications to it, right? There's just not as much oversight as there might be in other medical situations, but there's also this lack of belief.
And then at the core of all this is, along with the other societal issues you face if you're trying to make a sexual misconduct allegation, is the obstacles are stacked against you. I mean, never mind not being believed anyway. Imagine if you're a person with substance use disorder and you've been marginalized to the sides of society, and people don't want to believe because they're like, well, how do we fix this problem? I mean, it's just - the obstacles in front of people are impossible.
And a lot of what's going on here is the oversight that does exist - it's just not capable of finding unethical behavior like this. You know, state agencies and accrediting organizations are the two big bodies that do the most work here, but they're not there every day. There's really a strong onus on the person who's being harmed to come forward. And as I just said, and as you all know, Ayesha, that's a lot to ask of someone - especially when they're trying to put their life back together.
RASCOE: Lauren Chooljian is a senior reporter and producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and host of the new podcast The 13th Step. Thank you so much for joining us and for all of this reporting.
CHOOLJIAN: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE")
RASCOE: Eric Spofford did not respond to NPR's request for comment about the sexual misconduct allegations. Since I spoke to Lauren Chooljian, federal prosecutors announced criminal charges against three people for their alleged role in the vandalism incidents. In the criminal complaint, the FBI says the individuals were asked to carry out the vandalism by someone who is a close personal associate of Spofford's. Two people have been arrested so far and the third person is still at large.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.