Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

We bring you the facts about COVID-19

Support Reveal
Jul 18, 2020

American Rehab Chapter 4: Cowboy Conman

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal’s American Rehab exposes how a treatment for drug addiction has turned tens of thousands of people into an unpaid shadow workforce.

In this chapter: He’s a liar, a killer and a wannabe country singer. Luke Austin creates Cenikor in the image of a cult. But graft and violence nearly destroy it.

Dig Deeper

• Listen: The American Rehab podcast series
• Read: Reveal’s reporting on All Work, No Pay.
• Learn: American Rehab resources

Credits

Reporting team: Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski and Ike Sriskandarajah

Chapter 4 reporting and production: Laura Starecheski

Edited by: Brett Myers

Production manager: Mwende Hinojosa

Production and mix assistance: Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Katharine Mieszkowski and Claire Mullen

Original score, mix and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Additional guitar on “It Was Luke” by Matt Berkshire.

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: WHYY in Philadelphia for production help

Original art by Eren K. Wilson

Reporting help from Amy Julia Harris; original art by Eren K. Wilson; web design by Gabriel Hongsdusit and Sarah Mirk; fact checking by Rosemarie Ho; editorial support from Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan and Narda Zacchino; production support from WHYY in Philadelphia; special thanks to Sarah Delia, Corey Jones, Volker Jannsen, Mooj Zadie, Charlie Kaier, Al Banks, Diana Martinez and Catty Donnelly, who was the voice of Luke Austin’s prison letters.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons FoundationDemocracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:
Cecilia Chairez is a chef in Oakland California, known for slow cooked barbacoa and fresh gorditas.

Cecilia Chairez:
I love it. I just can say I love it.

Al Letson:
But the coronavirus has forced Cecilia to temporarily close her restaurant, Mi Zacatecas. These days, instead of cooking, she and her sister are sewing beautiful masks to keep people safe from the virus.

Cecilia Chairez:
So far it's been good. Making living, what is the most important thing.

Al Letson:
Now, Cecilia is making masks for Reveal, too.

Cecilia Chairez:
I'm really grateful to have the skill and that opportunity to be able to do that.

Al Letson:
In the past few years, we've been offering Reveal members our FACTS T-shirt. But in these times, we thought what better than a FACTS mask? Because of Cecilia's work, we're able to offer new members a custom Reveal face mask. If you'd like to support our work as well as Cecilia's, just text the word reveal to 474747. Again, to become a member and get one of these great masks, just text the word reveal to 474747. Remember, the only way forward is together.

Al Letson:
From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This is chapter four of American Rehab: Cowboy Conman. I'm here with Reveal's Shoshana Walter. Sho has been investigating drug rehabs that send people to work and keep all their pay.

Laura Starecheski:
A few years ago, I came across Cenikor, a rehab with locations in Texas and Louisiana. It's one of the bigger work-based rehabs I found.

Al Letson:
Cenikor is a spinoff of Synanon, that culty, ingenious, and abusive organization that died in our last chapter.

Laura Starecheski:
A spinoff that's unique in that it's kept going mostly the same for decades, the same work therapy I heard about from Tim Rowe back in Chapter One.

Tim Rowe:
I was told that you would help me find a job. I wasn't told that I'd be just thrown into a van and hauled off to some job and be told that, like it or not, I have to do it.

Speaker 5:
Wow, Tim.

Tim Rowe:
All they do is just work the dog shit out of you. And you don't get paid.

Laura Starecheski:
The same kind of weird punishments.

Tim Rowe:
The verbal chair, that's where I would sit with my hands on my knees and I'd have to stare straight ahead.

Al Letson:
Now, some of it seems to echo Synanon, but some of it is a mystery.

Laura Starecheski:
And the question I had was, "Who launched Cenikor? Who was the person who started something so strong, it could last for more than 50 years?" On the Cenikor website, it says the first Cenikor chapter was founded inside a state penitentiary in Cañon City, Colorado. The description is short. "Inmates gathered together to discuss their issues with drugs and alcohol." There's no mention of a founder.

Al Letson:
So whoever organized this first Cenikor chapter is written out of the organization's history.

Laura Starecheski:
I did learn the founder's name, James Lucas Austin. He went by Luke. Once I found out that Luke ran Cenikor for a decade, it seemed even stranger that his name had been left out. It was Luke's vision that would end up sending thousands and thousands of people to work, when what they really needed addiction treatment.

Al Letson:
Our colleague, Laura Starecheski, loves digging way back into the past, following the trail left behind by old documents and photographs. So we sent Laura to find out who Luke Austin was. We begin in a Colorado prison in 1967, the birthplace of Cenikor.

Laura Starecheski:
When he got the idea to start Cenikor, Luke Austin was a wayward country singer stuck doing time in the state penitentiary. In better days, he'd toured with Johnny Cash and played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. That's what I picked up by reading grainy newspaper accounts about Cenikor anyway, which is the first thing I tried. Luke told the papers his idea was to start his own Synanon chapter, but the warden said no. Synanon already had a bit of a bad name, so Luke changed it to a word he made up, Cenikor, for the center of the core of the person, that innermost part of us all, the soul, the part that Luke and Cenikor could fix.

Luke Austin:
It's getting harder and harder to raise money because of the economic problems that we're having in the country and being a former country western artist myself, I decided to go into this and try to raise some money for Cenikor. This is what we're doing.

Laura Starecheski:
This is the one recording I've been able to find of Luke talking about Cenikor. It's from a Houston local TV broadcast, a little spot about the Cenikor band, from 1974. In one shot, there's this huge tour bus with Luke Austin and Country Kingdom USA painted on the side. In a room inside a Cenikor building, a few band members fiddle with their instruments. Luke talks to the camera with a cigarette burning down in one beefy hand. He's wearing a silver chain around his wrist and a chunky turquoise ring. He's a big man with even bigger lapels on his brown suit jacket. He's got beady blue eyes, red hair slicked back, and fluffy sideburns.

Luke Austin:
We have an album out now. We have a single that's being released today. We're playing out at Dance Town USA on Sunday, December 8th. The tickets are $2.50 apiece. And we hope everybody comes, because they're going to have a good show.

Laura Starecheski:
And yes, I found the record.

Luke Austin:
(singing)

Laura Starecheski:
This song is called Louisiana Swamp Man. Luke wrote the song and that's him singing it.

Luke Austin:
(singing)

Laura Starecheski:
The lyrics tell the story of a young outlaw, desperate to escape the swamp, but destined to die there a wanted man.

Luke Austin:
(singing)

Laura Starecheski:
The next thing I did is request Luke's prison records. The Colorado State Archives sent me two pages scanned from an old logbook. Luke had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1966. That's why he was in prison serving a one to two-year sentence. The log book said Luke was born in October 1932 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Okay, so not a Louisiana swamp man. His occupation was listed as musician. And the more I read, the more versions of Luke Austin I would find. He told one newspaper he got the idea for Cenikor because he had heard about Synanon. He told another one, actually he was a member of Synanon for a little bit. Then he said he lived at Synanon for three and half years out in California. In one account, he said he had a drug problem, that he'd been using pills in prison. In the next, he claimed he'd never actually used drugs himself.

Laura Starecheski:
I spent months digging into Luke's backstory. I read more old newspapers. I requested records from other states. I called up early Cenikor members. I even put in a records request with the FBI to try to get beyond the legend of Luke Austin and discover the true origin story. Here's what I found. Luke Austin was actually born in Keene, New Hampshire. So he was a New Englander, not a Southerner. Luke was born on October 7th, 1931. I mention the date, because in some of the record I found he tweaked the day or the year. His real name was James [Sanborn Thompson 00:09:05], Jr. So Luke's birthday was a fake. His hometown was a lie. His name was an alias.

Laura Starecheski:
Next his criminal record. I got prison records from Colorado, Nevada, and Massachusetts. Luke started serving time when he was 18 years old. He was sent to a military prison camp for stealing cigarettes and beer when he was a private in the Air Force. He was dishonorably discharged. He was arrested eight times by the time he was 21, mostly for drunkenness over and over, and stealing a truck once. And he was pretty much continuously in prison for the next 20 years. As I pieced together charge after charge, crime after crime, prison after prison, I saw a pattern. First, Luke was always begging for a guitar in letters he wrote to prison officials. I had an actor read a few excerpts.

Actor:
August 2nd, 1952. Deputy Superintendent, Mr. J.J. [Dacey 00:10:09], [Norford 00:10:10], Massachusetts. Dear Sir, I know you may get angry with me, but if you understood how I feel that I know you'd see your way clear to let me have the one thing that is almost a part of me, my guitar. I've prayed night after night for the Lord to let you see your way clear to let me have it. I am a good guitarist. I am not a beginner. Please, do this one thing for me.

Actor:
April 5th, 1962. Captain Orville Jackson, Senior Captain. Sir, I thought perhaps I might be able to explain a few things in writing, better than talking with you. I believe you know and understand how much I want to be able to play guitar again and how much it means to me. The fact that because I've been in trouble so much is the reason I never became a big success. All in all, I've made a mess of my life completely.

Laura Starecheski:
The second thing I noticed in the records, work. At state and federal prisons, inmates like Luke had been made to work for decades. Unpaid prison labor is a longstanding American practice. And after the Civil War when slavery was abolished, the federal government made one exception, work as a punishment for people convicted of a crime. Across the South, states exploited the loophole to force recently freed Black Americans right back into involuntary servitude, effectively extending slavery. Inmates were forced to farm on plantations. They were leased out to private companies to work on railroads and in mines. The government later tried to sell prison labor as a reform effort as you can hear in this film from 1935.

Audio:
Hard honest work is usually the most potent force in the reformation and rehabilitation of the prisoner. He must learn a respectable trade or vocation and be taught to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. [crosstalk 00:12:19]

Laura Starecheski:
While he was an inmate, Luke worked in a prison kitchen. He worked in a prison concrete plant. He worked in a prison mill, in a boiler room, on a farm.

Audio:
City boys, who wish to learn trades, get their lessons on actual construction to teach the prisoner real habits of industries, so he will be able to keep pace with his fellow men when he leaves prison. He must have a hand in the production of useful articles and commodities.

Laura Starecheski:
Sometime around the late 1950s, Luke went to a federal penitentiary in Virginia called Lorton. Lorton was America's iconic workhouse prison. Teddy Roosevelt set it up in 1910, designed as an example to show that hard work could reform men, who stole, beat their wives, or were addicted to alcohol and drugs. And while Luke was there, they would've had a farm, a dairy, a foundry. They would've been teaching prisoners how to become electricians and plumbers. They had brick kilns where the prisoners made the bricks and built the buildings that they themselves would be imprisoned in. I started to think that if there was any place that gave Luke the idea to make Cenikor participants work, to teach them that hard work is the key to changing yourself, it could've been Lorton.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke could get violent when he was angry inside prison and when he was out. But he didn't seriously hurt anyone until the summer of 1961. One night in Las Vegas, after drinking two quarts of gin with some friends and his girlfriend, Luke thought he saw one of the friends embracing her. According to prison records, he stabbed his girlfriend once in the shoulder and then he stabbed the man to death. Luke got a sentence of 10 years to life in a Nevada state prison.

Kandy Latson:
Throwed it up from my unconscious mind to my conscious mind. It was about Luke.

Laura Starecheski:
It was in that prison where Luke met our old friend, Kandy Latson, one of the original members of Synanon.

Kandy Latson:
God damn, I haven't thought about that boy in years. And I could see him with cowboy boots on, jeans, red hair, guitar.

Laura Starecheski:
Kandy had been invited into the Nevada state prison to start a Synanon chapter for inmates.

Charles Kuralt:
The first time Kandy Latson saw the inside of a jail, he was 19 years old and hopelessly addicted to narcotics. Now 29, Latson hasn't taken so much as asprin since joining Synanon six years ago. He's now a regular and welcome visitor to Nevada state prison. He carries with him into these cell blocks an idea, that crime, like dope, is an addiction, and that both are an addiction to stupidity.

Laura Starecheski:
CBS news Charles Kuralt covered this new idea, that Synanon could help people who use drugs and people who committed crimes. Kuralt interviewed Kandy on his show The 20th Century.

Charles Kuralt:
Well, these things that you discuss in the prison aren't really the kind of things that inmates usually talk about. How do you get through to them? How do you make them talk about things they never talked about before?

Kandy Latson:
Most guys in prison, they kind of got an image. I've done time a couple of times and I've been arrested about 30 times. They know me and I know them. The same little walk and talk that they do in jail was the same walk and talk I did when I was in jail. We relate more as human being, like I don't [crosstalk 00:16:03]-

Laura Starecheski:
That's where Luke became a member of Synanon, not out in California, but inside a prison.

Charles Kuralt:
Would you please tell me what is the Synanon game?

Laura Starecheski:
It was Kandy who taught the Luke how to play the game, that group therapy born at Synanon.

Kandy Latson:
And I tell it to you like this, at Synanon they say you're as sick as your secrets. So you're trying to pop that secret like a bug. You're trying to pop that poison out of there, drain some of it off.

Laura Starecheski:
With Kandy as his teacher, Luke soaked in all the behavior modification techniques that Synanon used. Inside that prison, just as he was supposed to be using the rules and tools of Synanon, working to confront his past, his drinking, the murder he committed, Luke started to weave a new persona. He claimed he'd been friends with Elvis Presley. And in 1961, he wrote a letter to a gossip magazine called Screen Stars, asking for help from his old friend, Elvis. This time he explained he was a musician from Tennessee. He said he met Elvis in Memphis. Luke wrote-

Actor:
I've had to go through hurt, longing, disappointments, tragedy, and finally prison to really be free. I've found something, more than a new way of life. It's something greater that I can't even explain. I know that with God's help, I've been molded into a man with something worthwhile in life to really strive for. I'm going to come out of here and make the long climb back.

Laura Starecheski:
In 1964, just three years into his possible life sentence for stabbing a man to death, Luke was released from prison. But he didn't make the long climb back just yet.

Al Letson:
That's Reveal's Laura Starecheski. Laura continues to follow Luke's path to Cenikor. Next stop, the country music bars of Denver, where he meets Pauline, a woman who was about to see his dark side.

Pauline Pfundstein:
I honestly had an out of body experience, because I was up above him looking down. I don't know how this happened, but it's the truth.

Al Letson:
That's coming up next on American Rehab from Reveal.

Al Letson:
From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Luke Austin was a man known for lying, stealing, and killing. Yet he's about to create what would become a respected rehab network, Cenikor. Reveal's Laura Starecheski picks up Luke's story in Colorado.

Laura Starecheski:
In one of his prison records, I saw that Luke had written down his contact as someone named Pauline Pfundstein in Denver. The logbook said she was his girlfriend, so I started looking for Pauline. I tried a few different phone numbers, but none of them worked. I sent a snail mail letter to an address in Denver, and after a lot of back and forth, I finally got Pauline Pfundstein, on the phone. She's 81 years old now, and she met Luke around 1965.

Laura Starecheski:
How did you even meet Luke Austin?

Pauline Pfundstein:
Okay. I met him out on West Colfax at Ricky's. And he had recently, I guess, got out of jail. I'm not sure. That's what I was told later. But anyway, we met out there. He was a very nice person. He has great personality. We just hit it off pretty good and we went together for a while.

Laura Starecheski:
I asked Pauline what she looked like in 1965. She said she wore miniskirts and a bow in her red hair. She was "one of the sexy girls out there having a good time."

Laura Starecheski:
I'm just wondering if there's anything else you can tell me about what he looked like. Or did he liked to have jokes-

Pauline Pfundstein:
Yeah, he had sandy hair. He was about 6'3", 4" maybe. He weighed 280, but he wasn't fat. He was just a big guy. He was solid. I know, because I danced with him. He wasn't a flabby man. I know he was in good shape and he sang good. He had a guitar.

Laura Starecheski:
Was he a friendly guy with a smile or was he more reserved?

Pauline Pfundstein:
Oh no, he smiled. He had a beautiful smile, yeah. He'd show his teeth and he had a twinkle in his eye. He always looked like he was happy. And he got to know my kids. I had two children at that time, a boy and girl. Well, I still have them.

Laura Starecheski:
Just a few months into their relationship, maybe six, Pauline isn't sure, Luke makes a sweeping gesture.

Pauline Pfundstein:
He just one day decided to get engaged and gave me a beautiful, beautiful diamond ring, gorgeous.

Laura Starecheski:
And they decide to move into together. So Luke brings some of his stuff over in boxes.

Pauline Pfundstein:
One night there was a bunch of papers and stuff sitting there and stuff and little trinkets. And I started going through them. Then I found this article that said he went to prison for killing a man over his wife or girlfriend, I can't remember what she was, but this man had attacked his girlfriend. And when Luke got to him, he just beat him to a pulp.

Laura Starecheski:
This was the guy Luke stabbed to death in Las Vegas. The man hadn't actually attacked Luke's girlfriend, according to his prison record. He just embraced her. But details aside-

Pauline Pfundstein:
It scared me. And I told him, I says, "I'm going to give you my ring back and I'm not going to be engaged, but we'll be together. But I have to get to know you a lot better. I've got two children." Long story short, he just grabbed me under my chin. He's a huge man. And he just picked me up under my chin and he said, "Let's get this straight. If I can't have you, no one will." And he set me back down and walked out. And I went, "Whoa!" Now, that scared me.

Laura Starecheski:
She said her jaw hurt for a month after that. Later that day, Pauline ran into a friend who told her that Luke was out looking for her and he had a gun with him.

Pauline Pfundstein:
And I thought, "Where in the hell did he get a gun?" That's what everybody else wanted to know. Where'd he get the gun? And I said, "Well, what kind was it?" And they said, "A small one." Well, I had a 22-short gun that was way, way up in the back of my closet. In fact, I'd forgotten about it, it was so far back. And how he found it, I'll never know. But he did.

Laura Starecheski:
The next morning, Pauline went over to her friend Bonnie's house and-

Pauline Pfundstein:
Right through the front door came Luke into her house. He didn't knock, nothing. He just opened the screen door, almost tore it off. And he came in the kitchen and he grabbed me. I can't remember what all he said to me. It wasn't good. I know that he scared me to death. And he threw me on the floor and he put the gun in my face.

Laura Starecheski:
You're kidding? This is terrible! This was not what was expecting to tell me.

Pauline Pfundstein:
Well, this is the truth. I still got witnesses. And I pulled myself into a sitting position. He said, "Look at me." And I said, "No." He said, "Look at me or I'll shoot you." And put my head down between my knees and he shot me in the back of the head.

Laura Starecheski:
What!

Pauline Pfundstein:
And Bonnie screamed at him something, and he took off out the front door. I honestly had an out of body experience, because I was up above him looking down. I don't know how this happened, but it's the truth. And when I told Bonnie what I heard, she said, "You couldn't've heard it, because you were on the floor, gone."

Laura Starecheski:
This is the assault with a deadly weapon charge. When Pauline told me this part, I was like, "How are you calling me? How are you 81?" Pauline says the gun Luke fired was the one she had in the back of her closet. It had been there for so long, maybe it didn't work correctly, or maybe the bullets were old. Whatever the reason, the bullet didn't go through her skull. She was bleeding a lot, but she was more or less okay. Pauline escaped with some nerve damage and a bad concussion.

Pauline Pfundstein:
I went home and all I can remember is every time I tried to close my eyes and go to sleep, I'd come up and I could see that gun in my face. I never saw him again, but that gun was in my face every time I tried to sleep for years.

Laura Starecheski:
After Luke was convicted, he got a two-year sentence. He wrote her letters from prison. He wrote a poem for her daughter. He asked Pauline to buy him a Gibson Dove guitar which would've been really expensive at the time. One day, the warden called her and said, "I'm looking for a reference for Luke Austin, a positive character reference." And Pauline said, "Why are you calling me? I'm the one he shot."

Pauline Pfundstein:
But he did sing beautiful and he played a nice guitar, but then he was stupid in other fields, I guess, to do what he did. He gave up a lot of his life for going after people because he's mad.

Laura Starecheski:
And it wouldn't be the last time.

Al Letson:
That's Reveal's Laura Starecheski. When we come back, Luke Austin goes legit.

Ken Barun:
I stayed at Cenikor for 11 years, 11 years. I stayed there under a dictator named Luke Austin.

Al Letson:
That's next on American Rehab. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Al Letson:
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're back with the final chapter in the story of Luke Austin, a criminal and wannabe country western singer who founded Cenikor. Before the break, we heard about Luke shooting his girlfriend Pauline and landing back in prison. But he wouldn't stay there long. Here's Reveal's Laura Starecheski.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke would end up serving only about 14 months at the Colorado prison. In his prison file, there were a couple photographs, first a mugshot dated 1966 after he shot Pauline. In this photo, his lips are parted, almost as if there's an invisible cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. His prison work shirt is baggy and wrinkled. His hair is greased back into a ducktail. He has a receding hairline and big ears. A little placard hangs around his neck that says, "Colorado State Pen." Luke looks mean, like a lackey for the mob you'd seen in an old movie. Then there's this other beautiful old silver gelatin print in the prison file, dated 1967. Luke's not wearing his prison work shirt anymore. He's got a suit and a skinny tie with a little embroidered design on it. Not sure where he got the outfit while he was in prison, but his hair is combed forward. It looks soft. There's no grease in it. His gaze is lifted slightly upward. He's smiling just a bit. And if this was the only photo you ever saw of Luke Austin, you'd think he were a preacher or a missionary. He looks like a man with a higher purpose.

Laura Starecheski:
So what happened between 1966 and 1967, the times these two photos were taken? Luke founded Cenikor. The very first Cenikor chapter inside the Colorado state prison had a core group of 26 men and a waiting list of more than 100, that's according to a Cenikor booklet I found from the early days of the organization. The booklet is Luke's Cenikor manifesto. It's like a handbook. In it, he used the man with the higher purpose photo to introduce himself to potential followers. The handbook says that when Luke got out of prison in 1968, he and his new wife, Dottie, established the first Cenikor house in Lakewood, a Denver suburb. There's a photo of that in the booklet too. Just a cute little house with a front lawn. The first outside Cenikor members, just a few people, lived in this house with Luke and Dottie.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke wrote this booklet in 1969, the year of the moon landing. Protesters are raging against the Vietnam War. Student movements for peace and democracy and liberation are shaping the world. It's the year of Woodstock, when free love hippie culture is sweeping the country. Meanwhile, inside the Cenikor house, Luke creates an authoritarian system, a total environment as he called it. Into this total environment, walk young people, teenagers, whose parents were panicking about the drug use that was just starting to hit the mainstream. Some grown men, who'd already done major prison time for drugs and violent crimes, and then people who actually did have problems with heroin, like Ken Barun.

Ken Barun:
I am executive vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And I started my career at Cenikor on June 12th, 1972.

Laura Starecheski:
I met Ken at his office at the Billy Graham Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The building's all stone and huge timber beams. Ken is an evangelical Christian. He had a born-again experience about 20 years ago. He also maintains his Jewish faith. So on the shelves of his office, there's a menorah and there are also portraits of Jesus and Billy Graham. Ken grew up in New York City. He started using heroin as a teenager in the mid '60s. He says he had this constant gnawing anxiety in his gut.

Ken Barun:
Drugs gave me feeling of confidence that I could do anything. But then I found myself physically in need of that feeling of confidence.

Laura Starecheski:
That launched him into seven years of serious addiction.

Ken Barun:
A day was like a year sometimes, and it was all chasing heroin. It was chasing heroin, chasing heroin, chasing heroin.

Laura Starecheski:
Ken says he roamed the country like that, from the east coast to the west coast. At one point, he almost walked into a Synanon house in California for help. He got partway up the steps, but he couldn't make himself go inside. He wasn't ready to quit.

Ken Barun:
The fear of pain from withdrawal is absolutely overwhelming, the fear of sickness. It's like somebody getting inside of you and taking control of you. Your life is run by that. There are no boundaries, there are no morals, and all because you want to get... And after a while you don't get high, you just get what you call normal.

Laura Starecheski:
Ken's parents disowned him. His wife left with their baby. Eventually, he ended up in a psychiatric ward in Houston, Texas. At the time, prisons and psych wards were just about the only options for people using heroin, besides Synanon.

Ken Barun:
So they put me in this room. I guess it was in the psych ward. Now things became very blurry to me. But it had one of those woolen blankets on it, no sheets, bars on the windows, and gave me a hospital gown. I looked out the window at the highway that went by the hospital in Houston. I remember asking myself, "How can these people live normally?" As I'm watching the cars, I'm imagining the people in the cars and families and people going to work. I said, "I just can't imagine being able to do that. I've lost touch with how to do that."

Laura Starecheski:
Ken did detox and got discharged, but he still needed help. He hadn't really dealt with his addiction. He headed to Colorado. And on June 12th, 1972, Ken left the outside world and entered Cenikor.

Ken Barun:
I can remember what I was even wearing, this purple pair of bell bottom jeans. Crazy, it was crazy. My hair was long.

Laura Starecheski:
By this time, Luke Austin had moved Cenikor from his own house to an old industrial bakery. Luke and the early members had torn out the huge ovens and set up dorm-like rooms upstairs.

Ken Barun:
I remember saying I would stay there three months. That was it. I would have this figured out. I stayed at Cenikor 11 years. 11 years, I stayed there under a dictator named Luke Austin. He walked strong. He carried himself, strong personality.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke and Dottie kept everybody in line with almost exactly the same rules and tools used at Synanon, no drugs, no alcohol, no acts or threats of physical violence. They play the game three nights a week, circling up in folding chairs, getting into it, yelling and screaming for hours sometimes, just like the participants. I Luke's total environment, anyone who breaks the rules is "rewarded with distasteful and humiliating chastisement" in the words of the handbook, punishments like getting your head shaved, or sitting in a so-called idiot chair with a sign around your neck that says, "I'm stupid. Please help me." Another rule, everyone had to work, even in the early years when Ken Barun first got there. Inside the Cenikor house, the residents did repairs, cooked, and cleaned. They were required to stay busy. And outside the house, Luke was tinkering with the program, trying to make money and coming up with different Cenikor businesses. The participants did landscaping. They built rabbit hutches. They built sawhorses and sold them at Safeway for $4.95. They called the work "industries" and the money went to Cenikor.

Ken Barun:
And then we bought a truck, a big 18-wheeler. Gas prices were low then, so we decided to make that an industry. A couple of us learned how to drive. I drove an 18-wheeler cross country!

Laura Starecheski:
Ken drove a big loop. He took beef from Colorado to California, then picked up artichokes and cabbage, and hauled back to Colorado.

Ken Barun:
We did that a bunch of times, went up to, I remember, Moses Lake, Washington, picked up a load of potatoes and brought it back. Beautiful trip, it was absolutely beautiful. But we still maintained this Cenikor environment with us. Nobody would go drink. Nobody would cuss. We would monitor ourselves pretty well.

Laura Starecheski:
The landscaping business was called Cenikor, The Earth, and You. They had a custom van shop, a Cenikor-run Chevron gas station. They got food donated, buildings donated, which the participants fixed up themselves. By the early '70s, Luke had expanded the program. He added a facility in Houston, Texas in an abandoned hospital. He bought an old Masonic temple in Long Beach, California. Luke had a vision. Cenikor houses all around the country. This was the start of a movement. Some people say the mastermind behind it all was actually Luke's wife Dottie, the woman he married right after he got out of prison.

Ken Barun:
I don't know where he met his wife, Doris or Dottie Austin, but she was completely the opposite except for the red hair. She had red hair and she was tiny. She was a tiny little thing. She was probably 5-foot and, soaking wet, would've weighted 100 pounds at that. But she was always sickly, always sickly. And boy, she was a mean as could be. She was mean.

Laura Starecheski:
Dottie had little poodles with painted toenails. And the participants were made to take them on walks around downtown Houston. Cenikor eventually moved into a rundown hotel there, the William Penn hotel. Luke and Dottie made Ken and the other participants fix up a penthouse suite for them on the top floor. Once they were settled in Texas, Luke and Dottie started to withdraw from the day-to-day life of Cenikor. Some participants suspected that Luke had started drinking again. Little by little, Luke's old dream, his original dream, took over.

Ken Barun:
Luke Austin fancied himself a country western singer. This is where it started to go wacko. He bought an old country western club on the south side of Houston. We went in there and converted it and we ran a country western nightclub serving booze.

Laura Starecheski:
Cenikor's total environment was breaking down.

Ken Barun:
We built this huge bar. We hired people. I was running the place, not well.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke named the bar Country Kingdom USA. He bought a bus, that one from the video I found. He started a band, hired a bunch of musicians.

Ken Barun:
This is all with Cenikor money. I've got to tell you it's all Cenikor money that were going out to raise and he's doing these things. He recorded a song. It's actually funny to think about it, but it was sad. And we're watching this and now my ex-wife, my second wife Maria, was the accountant. She came into the program shortly after I did, but she was 16 years old when she came in.

Laura Starecheski:
Oh my gosh, a teenager.

Ken Barun:
Yeah. She was real young.

Laura Starecheski:
Maria lives in Las Vegas now. She met Ken inside Cenikor.

Maria:
I just a rebellious teenager. I wasn't a drug addict. I didn't commit crimes. I was just a wild teenager and my mother took me down there to meet the drug addicts to scare me. And I fell in love with the place.

Laura Starecheski:
And when you were doing bookkeeping at Cenikor, you just taught yourself how to do that?

Maria:
I think I did. I'm really good at book-smarts, paperwork, that kind of stuff. I pretty much taught myself account at age 17 and 18 and took over the bookkeeping and things. And I just started seeing things and I just started building evidence.

Laura Starecheski:
Well, what were you seeing in the books?

Maria:
Way too much money going to things that were just for Luke and Dottie Austin. And it didn't benefit the entire program. He had bought Cadillacs. They didn't need to drive around in cars like that when people were eating donated bagels. They didn't need to do that.

Ken Barun:
We could see it. We weren't blind. I mean they bought matching Lincoln Continentals. We're driving 1954 Fords around. And he's wearing a big gold chain and she was up in eight or seventh-story penthouse that we built them. It was really nice and just living off of all of us. And we're going, "Hmm, this is not cool. This is not kosher."

Maria:
I ended up going to some of our board members and sitting down with them and saying, "You guys, this is going on. What do we do?"

Laura Starecheski:
How did you have the confidence to take that to the board?

Maria:
It was incredibly scary, Laura. Luke had been inappropriate with a couple of the girls in the program, and I don't know to what extent, but I had seen it. I had heard about it. No one talked about it and it was something that I was very aware of. So that kind of went into my list of things I approached the board with as well.

Laura Starecheski:
Once Maria went to the board, word eventually made it's way to a Texas state senator.

Gene Jones:
My name is Gene Jones. Back in the '70s, I was a member of the Texas legislator, first the House and then the Senate.

Laura Starecheski:
When Jones heard about where the Cenikor money was going, he decided to start an investigation into Cenikor and Luke and Dottie Austin.

Gene Jones:
To this day, I remember Luke Austin with some laughter. Every time I think about him, he was on the verge of just being a clown, a dictatorial clown.

Laura Starecheski:
Strangely, Luke cooperated with the whole investigation, which would find that Luke and Dottie spent more than $400,000 on the country music effort alone, not to mention tens of thousands more on a plane, a yacht, and a bunch of fancy cars.

Gene Jones:
He had a limousine that he was driven around by one of the people who were there being rehabbed. He told me when I was talking to him that he had set himself up as a figure that, "Here I am. I've been a dope addict. I've been in the penitentiary. And here I am living a life of luxury. This is where you can be." He said that he had to give them a living example. He sounded as if he had at least convinced himself that that's what he ought to be doing. He was living like a king.

Laura Starecheski:
Senator Jones published a report on his investigation in the winter of 1976. Luke was unofficially exiled to Arizona by the board, supposedly to think up some new ideas for Cenikor. Instead, he cheated on Dottie with a new girlfriend. And for some reason, Ken says, that was the last straw.

Ken Barun:
We get on a plane and it was pre-TSA and pre-anything. They never checked you for anything. Just walk on the plane and sit down. We flew out to Arizona, rented a car, drove to his house. I knocked on the door. He comes to the door, "Oh, hey, Ken, what are you doing here? Come on in." I said, "No, Luke. I'm not coming in." Now, he's a big guy. And he says, "What's going on? Why are you here?" I said, "Well, I'm here to tell you you're fired." And he starts laughing and I said, "No. Seriously, you're fired. You have abused us and used this money. And you're out here living in... " I didn't say, "in sin with some other woman", but, "You left your [inaudible 00:45:37] and your wife." And he said, "She's behind us." And I said, "No, I'm telling you, she's fired too."

Ken Barun:
So we then jump in the car and drive back to the airport to catch our plane. And we're sitting in the back of the plane, and we see him get on with his girlfriend in first class. Now we hadn't told everybody back in Houston or in Denver what was going on. He's on the plane and we're going, "Oh, my gosh. He's going to get there before we do. And then we're out and he's in." So he comes to the back of the plane, points his finger at Maria, points his finger and says, "I'm going to kill you," because he knew that she had exposed him for all the money. So we're all shaking in our boots. I mean this is a whole new world for us.

Laura Starecheski:
But somebody on the plane heard the threat and got word to air traffic control.

Ken Barun:
So the plane makes an unexpected stop in San Antonio and on come the federal marshals and take him and his girlfriend off the plane.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke disappeared for a while after that. Ken was managing the Houston facility. And about six months later, in the summer of 1978, Ken was at his Cenikor office in the William Penn Hotel when he heard a ruckus downstairs. It was Luke and a small crew of Cenikor splitees, that's what they call people who leave the program. They busted into the hotel wearing black armbands. They had Mace, tear gas, and baseball bats.

Ken Barun:
I run down the stairs and Luke Austin points his finger and says, "That's the guy. Get him." So somebody just cold-cocked me and I went down.

Maria:
They came in to the old hotel building and started Macing everybody and telling everyone they had to get into the dining room for a general meeting. And Dottie Austin sat there on the main switchboard, punched all the buttons so you couldn't dial out. And I ran out into the middle of Texas Avenue and flagged a police car down.

Laura Starecheski:
Meanwhile, at the Colorado Cenikor facility, at the exact same moment, Luke Austin's mother led another crew in a coordinated takeover. This group wore creepy Halloween masks and brandished guns, some fake, some real, none loaded. In Houston, it took only a few minutes for the Cenikor participants to corner Luke and his crew.

Ken Barun:
We had a bunch of 2x4s in the lobby that we were doing some remodeling with them. We had them all rounded up. By that time, the SWAT teams are there and the police. They come in and arrest them all. That's the last time I ever saw him.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke had also filed a lawsuit to try to take back control, but it didn't work. Most of the money was gone. Cenikor was so broke, it's followers barely had enough to eat.

Maria:
Green Jello with rice in it. I remember someone got creative one time and made green Jello with white rice in it. It was so disgusting.

Laura Starecheski:
But somehow, with Luke gone, the lessons of Cenikor became even stronger for the participants left behind. The rules that he had put in place were more powerful than he was.

Maria:
We felt like the program was ours, but we did feel disappointed and angry that he had forgotten where he came from and who he was.

Laura Starecheski:
Luke Austin wasn't ever charged for siphoning off Cenikor's money. He served about a week in jail after the attempted takeover in Houston. He would never work with Cenikor again. After stints living in apartments, an RV park, and eventually a string of nursing homes, Luke died in western Colorado in 2000. The local paper didn't even publish an obituary.

Al Letson:
The ordeal almost killed Cenikor. But the heyday of 1980s capitalism was just around the corner and a savior was on the way.

Speaker 16:
I was glancing through your Cenikor booklet and I liked the very first sentence I read. In all the years that Cenikor has been in business, rehabilitating lives, we have nothing works as well as work itself.

Al Letson:
Next time on American Rehab, Reaganomics, the war on drugs, and NFL football pads to the rescue.

Speaker 17:
Dan Pastorini bullseyed 26 times for 354 yards on the afternoon.

Speaker 18:
See this cute little vial here? It's crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form.

Speaker 19:
The vast majority of folks that I deal with are basically bottom-feeders. They're basically looking for the perfect welfare state where the do-gooders take care of them.

Al Letson:
The American Rehab reporting team is Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Myers is our editor. Kevin Sullivan edited this chapter. Laura is our lead producer and she produced this chapter. Amy Julia Harris helped us report this story from the beginning and launched the project. We had additional editorial support from Narda Zacchino, Andy Donohue, and Esther Kaplan, and production help from WHYY in Philadelphia. Special thanks to [Sarah Delia 00:51:12], [Corey Jones 00:51:12], [Vocar Jenson 00:51:13], [Muj Zadi 00:51:14], [Charlie Kyer 00:51:15], Al Banks, Diana Martinez, and [Kati Donali 00:51:18], who was our voice of Luke Austin's prison letters. Fact checking by Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our production team includes: Najib Aminy, Katharine Mieszkowski and Amy Mostafa. Our theme song is Lifeline by Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They composed and performed all the music on American Rehab. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.

Al Letson:
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.