LOS ANGELES, CA — Enrique Bravo's battle with alcohol ended with his death. Prosecutors contend it was an attempted cure that killed him — and perhaps others.

The idea was that he would later hate alcohol so much he'd stop drinking.

Four members of a storefront alcohol and drug recovery group were jailed on charges of manslaughter, accused of tying up the 32-year-old Bravo and force-feeding him alcohol in a misguided aversion therapy.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office has not determined the cause of death, but it was being investigated as a homicide, coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said.

Police are looking into the deaths of at least seven other men who may have died under similar circumstances in the county over the past two years, the Los Angeles Times reported today. Many victims were apparently forced to drink rubbing alcohol, a source told the newspaper.

Prosecutor Craig Renetzky told the Times this week that Bravo was fed "nothing but alcohol" and was kept restrained in a room with another man, who survived the same medically unsupervised treatment.

"The idea was that the guy would later hate alcohol so much he wouldn't drink anymore," Renetzky said. "But the guy died."

Bravo was pronounced dead at the clinic, Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza (Liberation and Strength Group) in the San Fernando Valley. The four suspects worked as volunteers and some had been through the same program, the prosecutor said.

Bravo may have turned to an unlicensed and unsupervised program because of a shortage of treatment facilities.

Alberto Saguache, 38; Armando Nestor Sakaqil, 29; Dante Rosillo Barrera, 32, and Jose Robert Rodriguez, 45, pleaded innocent to one count each of involuntary manslaughter and two counts each of false imprisonment.

A preliminary hearing was scheduled for today. Those familiar with alcohol treatment programs said what Bravo allegedly went through was neither common nor accepted.

"This is obviously some kind of bizarre notion of how you help people get clean and sober," said Bill Gallegos, chairman of the Los Angeles County Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Policy Coalition. Effectively dealing with alcoholism requires dealing with psychological, emotional and even genetic roots of the problem and requires patients to "commit their lives to a day-by-day process of staying clean," Gallegos said.

Experts said some alcohol programs use aversion therapy; some give patients a drug to make them nauseous after ingesting alcohol. However, all are medically supervised and never involve alcohol overdoses.

Bravo may have turned to an unlicensed and unsupervised program because of a widespread shortage of treatment facilities, Gallegos said. "And that's the sad thing," he said.

On Wednesday, a handful of people milled around outside the shabby, empty storefront of the self-help group. A sign taped to the window said the location was "temporarily closed due to a death" and asked anyone with information to contact homicide detectives.

A cofounder said some alcoholics were given liquor to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

Jose Luis Ramirez, a 27-year-old truck driver from North Hollywood, said he and others started the grassroots group in 1994 as a place to talk about their alcoholism — the kind of group encounters used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

As many as 50 people a day would gather to talk and counsel each other. Ramirez said the informal membership chipped in for rent and food, and some people were allowed to live in the place for weeks or even months until they found jobs.

Ramirez said he neither saw nor heard of aversion therapy being used, but said some alcoholics were given liquor to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

"We feel bad when we stop to drink, you know?" he said. "So we give them a little shot (of) alcohol to stop the shaking ... Nobody died from a little shot of alcohol."

Ramirez said he didn't believe his friends forced anyone to drink. As for Bravo, "I think he died because he was drinking for a long time ... before he came here."

He estimated as many as 3,000 people had been involved with the group. "We help a lot of people every day," he said. "We do a good job, I think."

AFTERWORD:

Regarding the other deaths being reinvestigated, The Times reported that each of the men was found lying on the sidewalk near one of several unlicensed treatment facilities across Los Angeles County and identification had been removed from some of the bodies.

Prado died from "positional asphyxia" after being forced to drink, hogtied, gagged and left face down.

The police investigation has focused on five unlicensed facilities where suspicious deaths have occurred. At Grupo Vida Nueva Alcoholicos Anonimos in Los Angeles, the death of Ariel Prado led to charges against three men.

Prado died Nov. 23 from "positional asphyxia" after he was forced to drink alcohol, hogtied, gagged and left face down.

The owner of the building out of which the program was run, John Sorrentino, said he has watched as drug addicts were brought in bound and gagged by frustrated family members. "That's the only way they can control them," he said.

But so impressed was Sorrentino with the results there that he reduced the group's rent to make it easier for the nonprofit center to make ends meet.

The Vida Nueva facility operated as a cooperative with no formal leadership, and was run jointly by its members, who had told investigators their program was completely voluntary. On the day this report hit the news, the facility closed its doors because of repeated visits by police officers.

UPDATE: Coroner Rules Out Alcohol
Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1998

A man who authorities alleged died after being tied up and force-fed alcohol at an unlicensed clinic in fact died of chronic liver disease and had no alcohol in his system, a coroner's report shows.

The finding is troublesome for prosecutors, who have charged four men with involuntary manslaughter and false imprisonment in Enrique Bravo's death in May at the Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza in North Hollywood, a clinic that allegedly used alcohol aversion therapy.

Bravo died of chronic liver disease and had no alcohol in his system.

The finding is troublesome for prosecutors, who have charged four men with involuntary manslaughter and false imprisonment in Enrique Bravo's death in May at the Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza in North Hollywood, a clinic that allegedly used alcohol aversion therapy.

In filing the charges in June, authorities alleged the four men tied Bravo up and force-fed him alcohol in an ill-fated attempt to cure him of his addiction to liquor.

After he died, the defendants, some of whom had just completed the program themselves, allegedly carried the victim out of the clinic and left him sitting in a chair on the sidewalk. They initially denied they had had anything to do with him, authorities said.

The case led to the closure of eight unlicensed alcohol rehabilitation centers suspected of force-feeding patients liquor to kill their desire to drink.

The coroner's report, obtained by The Times on Wednesday, showed that Bravo had ligature marks on his wrists and said that the lack of medical treatment "played a role in his death." Deputy Medical Examiner Thomas H. Gill listed "Alcoholic Liver Disease and other undetermined inflicted factors" as the reasons Bravo died.

"The cause of death was not alcohol poisoning. If he died of chronic liver disease, how can they say my client caused the death?" asked Deputy Public Defender Dror Toister, who represents Alberto Saguache, one of the four men charged in Bravo's death.

"If this guy did get medical care, would that have reversed the course of liver disease? It's not like a traumatic event."

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Renetzky said prosecution will continue. Not giving Bravo common medical treatment that licensed clinics give alcoholics during withdrawal "is negligent," he said. "And if you're negligent, you can still be held liable for manslaughter."

John Spillane, head prosecutor in Van Nuys, said it does not concern him that the actual cause of death was liver disease because the defendants "took the responsibility of the care and control of an obviously sick man, professing to give medical treatment, and none was provided and they prevented him from seeking medical treatment."