Scientology - A Question of Faith
There was never a question who committed the murder of Elli Perkins on March 13, 2003. As correspondent Peter Van Sant reports, within hours, police had a confession. His jeans drenched in blood, 28-year-old Jeremy Perkins had just stabbed his mother 77 times.
Weeks later, in a recorded interview, Jeremy told a psychiatrist what was going through his mind. "My mom, I thought she was out to get me," he said. "Like sometimes she'd be totally normal and then she'd have that face again."
Dr. Brian Joseph was one of at least eight psychiatrists who concluded that Jeremy suffered from schizophrenia.
Asked to explain what schizophrenia is, Dr. Joseph says "Schizophrenia is a brain disease where one nerve cell doesn't seem to talk properly to another nerve cell. You begin to have psychological symptoms such as feeling people are out to get you when they're not, hearing voices when no one is there."
For Dr. Joseph and John Nuchereno, the attorney who represented Jeremy in his criminal proceeding, the real tragedy is that Jeremy never got proper psychiatric treatment.
"His parents knew that he was extremely ill and experiencing hallucinations," Nuchereno says.
Asked if they called a psychiatrist, Nuchereno says, "No."
Elli and Don Perkins sincerely wanted to help their beloved son, Jeremy. But the Perkinses were Scientologists. Some pro-Scientology materials declare that psychiatrists are not only useless, but evil - their medications nothing but poisons.
Most of us know about Scientology from the celebrities in the church, like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Those Hollywood stars are the most visible members of a church which today claims 10 million members worldwide.
Scientology says its mission is spiritual betterment, philanthropy, and advancing human rights. As for the Perkins case, the church says that Elli's murder had nothing to do with her faith.
But sources close to the case - and previously sealed court documents - tell a much different story.
Elli, an artist, had been raised Jewish; Don, a contractor, had a Christian background.
One of Elli's best friends, Dawn, says Elli was searching for spiritual answers. "Sort of knowing that she had a purpose but not knowing what it was," she explains.
We're not certain exactly how Elli was introduced to Scientology, but today the church often recruits new members with a free personality test or stress test, as 48 Hours documented with hidden cameras at a booth in New York City.
Church members use a device, called an E-Meter, to determine what's troubling you. The E-Meter measures the body's resistance to electrical current. The church is required by law to affix a label to each machine stating that it serves no medical purpose.
"They'll say, 'Oh, look. The E-Meter moved when I asked you this. This means you're stressed. Come on in and we'll help you out,'" says Rich Dunning, who knows about the E-Meter. He's a former deputy director of the Buffalo Church of Scientology, where he met the Perkins family.
Dunning says Scientologists believe the device is real, but that he does not.
After our stress test, we got a sales pitch for a book, "Dianetics." The book, published in 1950, was written by Scientology's founder, a prolific science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard.
"The aim and goal of Scientology is to take an individual and put them in a position where they can confront their own problems, and solve their own problems," Hubbard explained.
"For scientologists, Hubbard's word is scripture. If Hubbard said it, then it is by definition true. And they have to believe it," explains Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. He's considered one of the foremost experts on Scientology. But inside the church, he's considered an anti-religious extremist who has been paid to testify against the church in court.
Asked whether Scientology was a religion when it first started, Kent says, "Oh no. The title of the Dianetics book is very clear. 'Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health.'"
In Dianetics, Hubbard claims each person's mind is imprisoned by traumas we've experienced in our past. The way to break free is by undergoing an intense counseling process called "auditing," much of it while attached to the E-Meter. The goal is to attain an enlightened state, which Hubbard called "Clear."
"Clear involved claims about getting rid of those negative experiences that one's had in this life that hold one back," Kent explains.
Dunning, who went through the auditing process, says it made him feel good. "You became very euphoric."
Elli's experience was so positive that she joined the church. Soon she married another member, Don Perkins.
But from the start, Hubbard's methods were ridiculed by the medical establishment. One journal called Dianetics "a new system of quackery."
"In Hubbard's reaction to the generally negative response he became increasingly aggressive against psychiatry," Kent says.
Hubbard decided to transform the "modern science" of Dianetics into a new religion called "Scientology." And by the early 1970s, when Elli joined the church, Hubbard's hostility towards psychiatry had intensified.
"Hubbard wrote a policy in 1968 called 'The War,'" says Kent. "In this letter he announced that the purpose of Scientology had become the eradication of psychiatry."
The church referred 48 Hours to Scientologist Jan Eastgate, president of a Scientology founded group called the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights, dedicated to exposing psychiatric abuses. "I applaud L. Ron Hubbard, because he was the person who identified the abuses of psychiatry," Eastgate tells Van Sant.
"Psychiatry as a profession, as an ideology, doesn't work," Eastgate says.
"How would you describe anti-psychotic and psychotropic drugs that are used today in the practice of modern psychiatry?" Van Sant asks.
Says Eastgate, "Barbaric, inhumane, should never be used. You know, these are very dangerous drugs. We're totally opposed to any form of psychiatry."
"To become a Scientologist means that one learns that psychiatry is a cosmic devil that is causing mischief and confusion and crime in the world," Professor Kent explains.
When Van Sant asked if Eastgate believes psychiatrists are evil, she replied, "I think that there are a lot of psychiatrists that are evil."
And Dawn says Elli strongly believed that psychiatry was an evil.
Elli Perkins traveled to the Renaissance Fair in upstate New York each year, where she sold her handmade glass art. Fellow artist Cookie Schoonmaker-Fransic says she was there every year.
Cookie has warm memories of Elli, her husband Don, and their kids Jeremy and Danielle, who were raised from birth as Scientologists.
Don and Elli spent much of their free time taking special Scientology courses which help members advance in the church. Those courses, says Kent, do cost money. "They can go from a few thousand dollars to in some cases, you know, $10,000 or so," he explains.
In 1979, Don and Elli achieved the state of spiritual advancement in the church called "Clear." Elli learned to operate the E-Meter and became a respected auditor herself. In the 1980s, the family briefly moved to California, where Elli had the privilege of working at one of the church's most prestigious facilities, the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles.
From the early years of the church, founder Hubbard made it official policy to recruit celebrities. "The hope is that the person will attribute, some would say misattribute, their success to the Scientology courses," Kent explains.
"I was a high level executive at the Celebrity Center. We'd go out and target certain celebrities," says Lawrence Wollersheim, a director of Factnet.org who spent 11 years in the church, and is now one of its most fierce and persistent critics.
Like Elli, Wollersheim climbed to higher states - beyond "Clear" - known in the church as "Operating Thetan" or "OT" levels. A Thetan is Scientology's equivalent of the spirit, and advanced members are taught that these Thetans were originally brought to earth by a space alien named Xenu, where he exploded them in volcanoes.
"I know this story sounds crazy. But Scientologists believe it to the death," says Wollersheim. "It's what the aliens did that is really screwing your life up. That's what the secret levels of Scientology are all about."
Professor Kent says Scientologists are told that at the higher OT levels, members receive special powers. "Ability to control matter, energy, space and time, to be free from serious illness, to be exempt from tragedies, and so on," he says.
Wollersheim claims that these secret, upper-level teachings pushed him over the edge. "At the OT3 level initiation you discover you're not one person. You're hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even a million aliens and they're fighting for control of the body. You no longer know who you are anymore," he says. "I went completely nuts."
Asked if he ended up getting psychiatric help, he says he eventually did.
Wollersheim sued the church. A California court found he had a bi-polar personality, and that the church "coerced Wollersheim into continuing 'auditing' although his sanity was repeatedly threatened by this practice." After decades of appeals and countersuits, the church paid $8.6 million to end the case.
"Scientology. They are the worst example of mind control in a religious setting that has ever existed," Wollersheim claims.
The church calls Wollersheim a liar and a fraud, and claims the vast majority of its members are happy and fulfilled.
Members like the Perkinses, who by the late 1980s were back in Buffalo. Jeremy eventually attended the respected Williamsville North High School.
Trey Johnson, a close friend and classmate, remembers him fondly. "He was quiet. I mean, nice kid, do anything for you," Johnson recalls.
But Gabrielle Carlson had a different impression. "I thought Jeremy Perkins was very weird," she says." He didn't seem like he could interact with anybody."
Gabrielle has always been suspicious of Scientology but her brother Jeff joined the Buffalo church. In 1996, Jeff married Danielle Perkins, Jeremy's sister.
Jeremy's behavior had not yet become a problem for the church but its handling of another member's mental health at Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Fla. would soon erupt in crisis.
Thirty-six-year-old Lisa McPherson had died after spending 17 days undergoing Scientology's treatment for a nervous breakdown.
"It's essentially - isolate them. Don't speak to them. Put them in a quiet environment," Kent says.
Autopsy photos showed Lisa's body emaciated, scratched and bruised. Investigators discovered she had been physically restrained.
"They were trying to force-feed her food and water. They were giving her different combinations of Scientology vitamins and so on," Kent says.
Lisa's aunt Dell Liebreich brought a suit against the church, in which Kent was a paid plaintiff's expert. The church settled that case without admitting wrongdoing, insisting that Lisa's death was triggered by an injury from a recent traffic accident.
Years after her death, Lisa was still making headlines in Florida. And in Buffalo, Scientologists were starting to wonder if they had a problem of their own.
Ever since he was a teenager, Jeremy's dream was to be a rock drummer.
Reagan Worling was close friends with Jeremy through the late 1990s, and the guitar player in their heavy metal band, the "Tenth Plague."
Worling says Jeremy was serious about his music and his religion. "He did everything based on the church," he says.
Jeremy was living at home, working for his father's contracting business, and helping his mother with her glass painting. He was clearly functional, but Worling says he was definitely strange. "When he was like 24, he had told me that he heard voices and that he told his father that he heard voices. And that his father told him to tell the voices to be quiet," Worling remembers.
Instead of sending Jeremy to a psychiatrist, the Perkins family sent him to California to join an elite group within Scientology known as the "Sea Org."
"In the late 1960s when Hubbard was running into difficulties with governments around the world, he established a small fleet of ships on the ocean and these were called - the Sea Organization, or Sea Org," explains Kent.
He says that today the Sea Org is back on shore, its membership a sort of priesthood within the church.
"When they join Sea Org, they sign a billion-year contract," Kent says.
Jeremy's billion year contract didn't last one year. Dunning says Jeremy "got rejected for a reason which I am unaware of."
The abrupt termination of Jeremy's Sea Org contract may have been tied to what former Scientologist Rich Dunning saw for himself in 2001, as Jeremy's behavior was growing increasingly bizarre.
"Just that look in his eye, that you knew that somethin' was not right with him," Dunning recalls.
48 Hours has obtained court-ordered psychiatric evaluations of Jeremy, which were written after the murder of his mother in 2003. They indicate that Jeremy was showing symptoms of schizophrenia as early as 2001. But the Perkins family has long maintained that Jeremy's condition was somehow triggered by an accident which occurred in 2002 while working on his father's truck.
"Well, that's nonsense, of course," says Dr. Joseph, who treated Jeremy after his arrest. "People often think that if they bump their head, because your brain is in your head, then your brain is somehow affected, and that causes mental illness."
Jeremy's parents took him for a CAT scan on two separate occasions; no abnormalities were ever found.
"Of the numerous doctors that examined Jeremy, none ever thought that there was any significance with regard to the bumping of the head," says Jeremy's defense attorney John Nuchereno, who says his client continued to decline over the summer of 2002.
"The illness took over, to an extent, where his father noticed it in his work, and he had to relieve Jeremy of his employment," Nuchereno explains.
Jeremy was even banned from taking Scientology courses.
"The church did know that he was a troubled individual, that's why they put him PTS, which is 'Potential Trouble Source,' which is basically a label saying that you're sick and, you know, you need to get help before you become active again," Dunning says.
Jeremy was now suffering from serious hallucinations and delusions. But Elli frustrated her own doctor when she resisted advice to take Jeremy to a psychiatrist. The family did fill a prescription for the sleeping pill Sonata, but days later, things had only gotten worse.
On the morning of Aug. 14, Officer Mark Martinelli caught Jeremy trespassing at the University of Buffalo. He had been out wandering all night.
Then things got rough. "He just started fighting, punching, kicking," Martinelli recalls.
Jeremy was arrested. A court-ordered psychiatric exam confirmed Martinelli's suspicions: Jeremy was schizophrenic. He was remanded to a local hospital, but he didn't stay there long.
"His mother then convinced them to discharge Jeremy, I believe, to her. That she could take care of him," says assistant Erie County D.A. Ken Case, who prosecuted the Perkins murder.
"Did officials believe she's going to take him to a psychiatrist? She will get him on some sort of medication to control this problem?" Van Sant asked Case.
"That's my understanding, yes," he replied.
Asked whether Elli intentionally misled people, Case said, "The investigation revealed to us that she felt very strongly against further psychiatric treatment."
Jeremy was reportedly seen by a neurologist at a hospital, who also recommended anti-psychotic medication. But Nuchereno says the family didn't want that, because it would have been against their beliefs.
"Why would you put somebody like him in the hands of psychiatry, that admits it doesn't know how to actually solve the problems, and the only solution is to drug the person?" asks Jan Eastgate, who investigates psychiatric abuse for the Church of Scientology and aligns herself with other critics of institutional psychiatry, like Professor Jeffrey Schaler of American University, who say schizophrenia shouldn't even be called a disease.
"There is no disease that Jeremy had called schizophrenia. This is an attempt by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to explain why he did what he did," says Schaler.
Asked if he believes that drugs can treat mental illness, Schaler says, "Since there's not such thing as mental illness, there's no such thing as a medicine for mental illness. Now, can certain drugs change the way a person feels? Of course. But does that mean the person needed that drug?"
Jeremy did get a prescription for one other drug: Lorazepam, a mild anti-anxiety medication with rare instances of violent side-effects. But there is no evidence in the court records Jeremy ever took it and medical experts say that this is not an anti-psychotic drug that effectively treats paranoid schizophrenia.
In a letter to CBS News, an attorney for Don Perkins claimed that Jeremy's parents "repeatedly took Jeremy to both physicians and mental health practitioners" - including a psychiatrist - "who always released him [to] their care as not dangerous to himself or others." Jeremy "was prescribed and took psychotropic medications to no avail," so the "entire premise" of our story is "false."
But the court records repeatedly state that Jeremy did not receive formal psychiatric treatment, and his father refused to provide further documentation of his claims.
"Clearly there was some professional psychiatric care needed that didn't occur," says Case.
Whatever else they considered that summer, for the next six months the Perkinses desperately pursued a cure for their son, while abiding by the principles of their faith.
"Battlefield Earth," a popular movie among Scientologists based on an L. Ron Hubbard science fiction novel, stars John Travolta as an evil alien "psychlo" enslaving the human race.
But prosecutor Case says Jeremy came to believe that something like that movie was actually happening in his bedroom.
"He was sleeping in a chair outside of his parents' bedroom because he thought aliens were in his bedroom," Case says.
In the fall of 2002, the Perkinses drove their 27-year-old son to Dr. Conrad Maulfair, a Scientologist and osteopath in Pennsylvania who promotes natural, drug-free healing methods.
"They had to physically forcibly drag him in there. He didn't appreciate the treatment," says Case.
Nuchereno says Maulfair's clinic had an unusual explanation for Jeremy's symptoms. "They conclude that he was suffering from certain digestive problems, that he had certain chemical toxins in his body. And he needed to be purged of it. And he needed to be energized through vitamin therapy," he explains.
Asked if vitamin therapy for this profound mental illness is a treatment, Dr. Joseph says, "No, it's nonsense."
Dr. Maulfair declined to be interviewed for this report. Don Perkins' lawyer wrote CBS News explaining that Don and Elli "were concerned about the documented dangers of pharmaceutical substances." The church also provided research highlighting violent side effects of various psychotropic medications. But medical experts, including Dr. Joseph, say those side-effects are rare, and that scientific literature actually shows a decrease in violent behavior when schizophrenics take anti-psychotic drugs.
Still, Elli was desperate for a natural cure. She began feeding Jeremy more than a dozen vitamins and other supplements every day.
Asked whether she believes vitamins can treat or cure mental illness, Eastgate says, "You know, vitamins and minerals and so forth are one aspect of getting the body healthy, so that you're, you know, healthy body, healthy mind. But that's one option amongst many, many different things."
The vitamins did not improve Jeremy's condition. In fact, their only noticeable effect was to make Jeremy suspicious of his mother.
"I didn't know like what were, what the vitamins were for," Jeremy said in a recorded interview. Asked what concerns he had about the vitamins, he replied, "Well, concerns just that maybe she's trying to poison me or something."
Life inside the Perkins home was growing tense. Jeremy was getting aggressive, and Elli was getting worried.
Elli explained the situation to a self-taught "natural healer" named Albert Brown. "She talked to me about two incidences that were physical. There was some pushing. There was some struggling," Brown says.
Brown is not a Scientologist or a doctor. But he says he has helped people overcome mental problems with regimens of meditation and one-on-one counseling.
Asked whether Elli ever told him not to give anti-psychotic drugs to Jeremy, Brown says "She did tell me that she was not intending to give him any drugs. And that she would like to explore anything that doesn't include that."
In February 2003, Elli and Jeremy visited the country house where Brown did his counseling. Brown asked Jeremy an important question.
"I said, 'Do you think you have any problems?' And he was quiet. And then he looked me in the eye again and he said, 'Sometimes I think I'm Jesus Christ,'" Brown recalls of the exchange.
"Wasn't it your responsibility since you're not licensed to treat anyone, to say this is above my pay grade. You need to get him to a psychiatrist," Van Sant asked Brown.
"If I really believed that, I would say that. But I have dealt with that exact situation. At that same level. And have done it very successfully," he replied.
It was decided that Jeremy would come to stay at Brown's house the following month. But just a few days before the move, Elli was troubled by Jeremy's behavior. She called her son-in-law Jeff Carlson, now the executive director of the Buffalo Church of Scientology.
"His solution was for Elli to give Jeremy busy work to do, which could have been anything between yard work to house work," says Jeff's sister Gabrielle.
Gabrielle, and Jeff's deputy director Rich Dunning both found out about the conversation.
"The church's solution was just to make him clean, get him tired, so he would go to sleep," Dunning says.
On the morning of March 13, 2003 Jeremy was told to pack for his trip to Albert Brown's.
"His parents tell him that he is leaving. That he's gonna leave the safety and security of the only security that he knows - his home," says Nuchereno.
Don Perkins went to work, but returned briefly to settle an argument between Jeremy and Elli. After he left, Elli demanded that Jeremy take a shower. She was on the phone with a friend when the attack began.
Dr. Joseph read Jeremy's statement to the police. "I tried to slit my wrists after the shower. But I wouldn't die, so I decided to do my mom instead," Dr. Joseph read. "She was screaming, 'No, Jeremy, don't.' I stabbed her about four to five times before she fell down. … I then stabbed her about ten more times in the stomach after she fell to the ground. I knew she was a goner. … I believe that I have lived different lives for the past thousand years, and wished I was in another life now."
What was the church's reaction to all of this?
"At the time, it was a panic," Dunning says. He says high-ranking church officials flew into town and told everyone to stay quiet.
Asked whether there was a cover-up, Dunning says, "Yes, there was." The purpose, according to Dunning was "to distance the church as far as away they could from Jeremy Perkins."
Dunning says the murder was a PR nightmare for the church for two reasons: first, it exposed the danger of Scientology's ban on psychiatry; but equally important, it punctured the church's promises that by reaching higher "OT" levels, true believers achieved special powers.
"Because you know, an OT is a super being. Nothing bad should happen to an OT," Dunning explains.
Gabrielle Carlson hoped the shock of the tragedy would finally force her brother to question the church. But her hopes were in vain. "Absolutely nothing, nothing changed. It's kind of brushed over, hushed hush, move on, don't talk about it," she explains.
But the Perkins family tragedy could not simply be brushed over. Now, Jeremy was facing the charge of murdering his mother.
Eight months after the murder of Elli, the Church of Scientology threw a gala opening for its new building in Buffalo. Jeremy was unable to attend the party - he was behind the barbed wire at the Rochester Psychiatric Center.
"I didn't think it was wrong for why I did it," Jeremy said in a taped conversation. Asked why not, he replied, "'Cause I thought she was evil at the time."
Within days of his arrest, Jeremy was put on anti-psychotic medication. Dr. Joseph says the drugs did not cure Jeremy, but at least they stabilized him. "The change was dramatic. It was remarkable," he says.
"I firmly believe, as his doctor, in those days had he received psychotropic medication, perhaps been in a mental hospital for a period of time, I don't think this would have happened," Dr. Joseph argues.
But Scientologist Jan Eastgate disagrees. "That's just a hackneyed response by psychiatrists. It's typical of what they will say. Because there is no evidence that a psychotropic drug is going to prevent an act of violence."
She believes all psychiatrists are corrupted by connections to the pharmaceutical industry.
But curiously, John Nuchereno says Jeremy has his own opinion. "Jeremy himself told me that he firmly believes that had he been taking these medications that it would not have happened," he says.
Ken Case's prosecution of Jeremy effectively ended when the state's own psychiatrist concluded that he was not responsible for the murder.
The court sent Jeremy to the secure Rochester facility. Nuchereno says there have been no incidents involving Jeremy at the institution and that he is a "perfect patient to people that are there."
Jeremy has never blamed the church for what happened, but he has complained about Scientology's effect on his life.
He told a doctor he might have been pushed too much into the church by his parents. "'Cause at any time there was a problem they said they could handle it in Scientology. Which is good. But I lost, 'cause I tried to help out too much there when I could have been with my friends."
The Perkins tragedy did not seem to alter the church's position on psychiatry. In 2005, Tom Cruise made his now-famous denunciation on national television, telling Today Show host Matt Lauer "I know that psychiatry is - is a pseudo-science."
"What do you say to the millions of people who believe that they are benefiting from these drugs, people who may be watching this broadcast tonight?" Van Sant asks Eastgate.
"You know, they need to get thoroughly informed," she replies. "They're playing a game of Russian Roulette with their lives, and these drugs are very dangerous."
Don Perkins and his daughter Danielle remain devoted to Scientology. After Nuchereno spoke with 48 Hours, Jeremy was paid a visit from a senior church staffer. Nuchereno was then dismissed, and replaced by Richard Griffin, whose firm has worked for the Church of Scientology in the past. No one in the Perkins family agreed to 48 Hours' requests for on-camera interviews.
Don Perkins' attorney explained in a letter that Mr. Perkins was "wary" of our program, because it had a "pre-existing agenda" in favor of psychiatric drugs.
For everyone touched by the murder of Elli, there is a palpable sense of loss and regret.
"It's just an unnecessary, tragic, horrific, violent crime that happened to a very decent woman," says Gabrielle Carlson.
Both Gretchen Clark, who knew Elli and her family back in the 1970s, and Dawn mourn the loss of their friend, and worry what will become of the son she loved so dearly.
"He has to live the rest of his life knowing what he did to a mother that he loved very much," Gretchen says.
"The sad truth is Elli would have done anything for him," Dawn adds. "Elli would have died for him. And she did."
Produced By Miguel Sancho
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