Unwatched, a sober home business boomed. Then they found the bones
Daniel Cleggett Jr. visited his expanding empire of sober homes in a shiny black Mercedes and spoke of salvation. God had lifted him from the pit of addiction, and now, he believed, it was his life’s purpose to lift others.
For the desperate, he prescribed a spiritual cure: Fill the hole in your heart with faith, not drugs. Cleggett, a South Shore tough guy in his early 30s who emerged from a wild youth covered neck to ankles in tattoos, had watched enough friends die. He was determined to save lives.
It was lucrative work.
At the fourth sober home he founded, Lakeshore Retreat in Wakefield, a bed started at $3,000 a month; some clients drained their 401(k)s or turned to grandparents for help. They paid because Cleggett promised hope: clean, beautiful homes; structured sober living; a community of lost souls finding each other.
Nothing seemed to slow him down. Not the overdose death in his first home. Not the allegations that he was part of a murky network recruiting young addicted people to send to Florida for treatment — two of whom died. Not the investigators from the Attorney General’s Office who began asking questions. Cleggett’s operation grew: He opened a women’s sober home. Then a home in Boston.
And then, on June 17, two landscapers working on the Lakeshore property spotted a pair of sneakers behind a shed, set back 20 feet or so from the swimming pool.
When they went to pick them up, they discovered the bones.
. . .
No one knows how many sober homes there are in Massachusetts, or where they are all located. Homes like Cleggett’s, which cater to the newly sober and offer drug testing, curfews, and peer support groups, are shielded from regulation by federal and state fair housing laws. They are not considered treatment facilities: They are residences for disabled people, and the state health department can’t, without changes to federal and state laws, require them to meet any standards.
Sober homes are in the business of housing some of society’s most fragile people as they navigate the delicate stages of early recovery. But no one is watching. Anyone can open a sober home — just hang a sign on your door and start collecting rent.
In this regulatory void, Cleggett and countless others have set up shop. Protected from prying eyes, Cleggett has opened one home in which, Boston officials say, clients are crammed into overcrowded, unsafe rooms, and another where clients say they were told by staff without medical licenses to stop taking psychiatric medications and, instead, to pray. Two people under his company’s watch have died.
“It’s a legal loophole that costs lives,” said Quincy City Councilor Brian Palmucci, who wrote an ordinance attempting to require sober homes in Quincy to register with the city after receiving complaints about homes in his district. “We have these charlatans who are taking advantage of the opioid crisis to get rich.”
Cleggett did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A Globe reporter sent him a list of questions and dropped off the list at two of his sober homes. At a home in Quincy, assistant director Nick Espinosa said Cleggett had received the questions and was consulting a lawyer.
“We do our best,” said Espinosa, who declined to answer specific questions. When dealing with so many people, he said, you’ll have 100 good experiences and five bad ones. “We are really about helping people.”
The problem of sober home regulation goes beyond Cleggett and has plagued the state for years. For more than a decade, prosecutors have been fighting abuse of Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for the poor, by sober homes and drug-testing labs making a fortune off urine tests. In 2012, several years before Cleggett opened his first home, the state was grappling with a rising chorus of complaints about dangerous sober homes beset by relapses of residents. Public health officials concluded in a report that they were legally powerless to impose regulation.
In 2016, with overdose deaths statewide at a historic high, the state approved rules that funded an independent agency, the Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing, or MASH, to certify sober homes. MASH certification requires homes to meet certain standards in order to receive referrals from state-funded agencies — but participation is optional. One of Cleggett’s homes is certified.
Advocates for the homes say the lack of regulation means that people struggling to overcome addiction will not be discriminated against when they seek safe housing. And many sober homes are well-run.
“If you and I want to try and help people, in theory, and open up a sober house, we should be allowed to do that,” said Richard Winant, former president of MASH and director of The Kelly House, a home serving 28 men in Wakefield. “We face tough enough opposition with NIMBY — even the best sober houses have to deal with that.”
Overregulation could push good people out of the sober home business altogether, Winant said, and some cities and towns already try to block sober housing.
But the money that can be made in an industry full of vulnerable people whose very survival depends on their ability to find a safe and substance-free place to live can poison the best of intentions. Operators who run one good house decide to open a second, then a third, and their standards can slip with each expansion.
“People lose their way,” said Winant. “They start to see dollar signs.”
. . .
Fourteen months before the landscapers discovered the bones, 53-year-old Clifford Bates arrived at Lakeshore Retreat a broken man. Once, his family said, he had been a proud father and husband; a self-taught carpenter who owned his business and flipped houses on the side; a world traveler who loved skiing and the Grateful Dead and telling tall tales. He was devoted to his two little girls. But gripped by addiction to crack, heroin, and alcohol, he found his marriage and his life unraveling.
“He was depressed; anyone would be depressed,” said his childhood friend and roommate at Lakeshore, 55-year-old Kevin, who credits Lakeshore with his sobriety and asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his privacy. “When you lose your children and your wife, and you come to the realization that you’re basically hopeless, that’s when you can get help — when you’re at your ultimate low.”
Bates’s wife said she and their daughters always hoped that, with the right treatment, he would return to the person he was before he became addicted.
Bates’s family had stumbled onto Lakeshore the same way so many families find treatment and sober housing for their loved ones: through a Google search. The website was lovely and the staff was professional, responding quickly to a phone call. Off Bates went.
In the 12 days Bates spent at Lakeshore, he was despondent. He barely showered or spoke during groups, said three people there with him. In his room with Kevin, he talked about his kids, how he wanted a relationship with them, how he thought nothing would work. One client, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bates was being taken off his insomnia medication by staff and was having trouble sleeping.
Early on the morning of April 28, 2018, Bates got a cup of coffee in the kitchen of Lakeshore. Around 7:30 a.m., he and Kevin smoked a cigarette outside, by the back door next to the pool, across from the shed. The sky began to sprinkle a light mist. Kevin finished his cigarette.
“I’ll see you inside,” Kevin said he told Bates.
By 8 a.m., when a daily group meeting started, Bates had vanished.
. . .
Daniel Cleggett, who at 33 now oversees five sober homes, was a Braintree kid who started getting in trouble with the police at 14 years old. He had been locked up, homeless, and addicted before finding a retreat based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program that turned his life around and inspired him to open his own facilities. He formally launched his companies, A Vision From God LLC and Brady’s Place LLC, in 2016.
He has a devoted following of people who say he gave them their lives back.
“No one’s perfect. They’ve saved a lot of people,” said Janice Dwyer, who said she spent a year at Lakeshore, first as a client and then as a volunteer. “My life stunk before that. Now, life is awesome and I’m happy.”
Even some who criticize Cleggett say the 12-step approach he taught could be transformative. He could be generous: Sober homes are not covered by insurance, they’re all private pay, and Cleggett sometimes gave “scholarships” or discounts to people who couldn’t afford beds. In the beginning, many say, he was doing good work.
But even in those early days, there were red flags.
In the first sober home Cleggett opened, Brady’s Place on Main Street in Weymouth, there were three overdoses — one of them fatal — in the first seven months of 2016, according to police and fire department reports. On July 9, 2016, a 19-year-old man overdosed on fentanyl in the bathroom of the home. Eight doses of Narcan couldn’t save him.
If the Department of Public Health regulated sober homes the way it does licensed addiction treatment facilities, Cleggett would have been required to report the death to the state. The state would then have conducted an analysis of contributing factors, suggested changes if any were necessary, and checked back later to ensure compliance.
But no one tracks deaths or overdoses at sober homes. No one knows how many sober homes have seen one death — or more. So when the 19-year-old died at Cleggett’s Weymouth home, there was no state analysis. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident. The case was closed. Within a few months, the home was MASH-certified.
As Cleggett built up his business, opening two more men’s sober homes in Quincy, allegations swirled around him about another endeavor: his role in a network of so-called “brokers” sending addicted people from Massachusetts to Florida for treatment. “Patient brokers” recruit and arrange transportation and insurance coverage for patients to travel out of state for treatment in centers that are sometimes run by disreputable operators and provide little in the way of actual services. The arrangement generates thousands of dollars in insurance payments. Two young men allegedly sent by Cleggett to Florida died there in 2016.
Cleggett has denied any involvement in patient brokering or making arrangements for the two men who died. But on May 28, 2017, the Globe and STAT News published an investigation into Cleggett’s role, talking to Cleggett’s associates and the men’s families and friends and excavating Facebook messages showing Cleggett’s involvement.
After that article ran, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating addiction treatment scams and taking a broader look at sober home operators. Investigators reached out to the family of Patrick Graney, according to a person with direct knowledge. Graney was one of the young men who died after Cleggett allegedly sent him south and his insurance was cancelled, stranding him far from home.
A spokeswoman said the AG’s office has an active and ongoing investigation into the addiction treatment scams but declined to confirm or deny the targets of the probe. She encouraged anyone who believes that their rights are being violated in a sober home to contact the office. For Graney’s mother, who wakes up every morning and remembers all over again that her son is dead, it’s not enough.
“[Cleggett] has never been accountable for making a profit off my son,” said Maureen Graney. “We buried our son and he moved on with his life.”
. . .
The fourth facility Cleggett opened, Lakeshore Retreat in Wakefield, where Clifford Bates disappeared, was a stately brick colonial with two kitchens, four fireplaces, a swimming pool, and an entryway flanked by graceful white columns. It sat at the top of a cul-de-sac off Lake Quannapowitt, and it was billed not as a sober home, but as a “12 step, solution based, residential estate” where people struggling with addiction could find sobriety through spiritual awakening. Clients had their wallets, cellphones, and medications confiscated upon admission, and they were not allowed to leave without an escort.
Lakeshore was still regulated like a sober home — which is to say, not at all.
Cleggett began advertising Lakeshore in late 2016 and appointed his mother, Elizabeth Cleggett, who had fought her own battle against addiction, to run it. Elizabeth Cleggett did not respond to requests for comment.
Former clients say Lakeshore seemed to be driven primarily by a desire to make money.
Many sober homes charge around $150 to $200 a week. But at Lakeshore, most clients paid $3,000 a month, plus groceries. Six clients, who spoke to the Globe separately, said that at times there were up to around 30 people living in the house. One woman said she slept on a bed in the kitchen. Another said she and other clients used to make a game of adding up Lakeshore’s revenue for the month — which they regularly calculated at over $90,000. Espinosa, the sober home assistant director, disputed that Lakeshore was overcrowded, saying that at most he thought there were 24 people lodged there.
“It’s an easy scam,” said Thomas Richardson, 29, who spent six months in two stays at Lakeshore in late 2017 and early 2018. “You’re preying on people who wake up thinking, ‘My kid could die tomorrow.’”
Despite the high price tag, some people said the care they received at Lakeshore left them worse off than when they arrived.
Richardson and four other clients, plus three client family members, all said Lakeshore staff — who were not supposed to provide medical care — were pressuring clients to come off psychiatric medication and telling them to pray instead. Three former clients said they wound up in psychiatric hospitals as a result.
Espinosa said staff never denied clients medication.
“We’re not doctors,” he said.
Espinosa said he didn’t know why so many clients and their family members, some of whom liked Lakeshore, said in separate interviews that staff had told them to stop taking medication.
“They’re really big on the spiritual experience,” said a woman who spent four months at Lakeshore and came off her Zoloft and Trazodone, which she had taken for years to treat depression and anxiety. “Replace those meds with God. I started buying into it.”
The woman spoke on condition her name not be used to protect her privacy. Her parents, Joe and Kim of Mansfield, corroborated her story. All three said they felt that in some respects, she got good treatment and that the 12-step approach gave her back her sobriety and her life.
But when they ran out of money, everything changed. Lakeshore had given them a discount, but by February of 2018 they had nothing left. And so the woman was abruptly kicked out at 10:30 p.m., alone, with no transition plan.
“It’s like they’re trying to keep squeezing you for more money and more money,” said Joe. “Once the money isn’t there, they’re done with you.”
The woman was distraught and depressed, off the medication she had been on for years to stabilize her, and she relapsed in two days. A month later, she was suicidal. She wound up in McLean Hospital.
“I’ve never experienced the dark suicidal thoughts I had. I was gonna do it,” she said. “I realize now, people really do have chemical imbalances. You can’t replace that with God.”
Another man, who spoke on condition of anonymity and whose mother corroborated his account, said he was told to come off the medication he’d relied on for years to treat post-traumatic stress disorder: Prazosin for night terrors, Buspar for anxiety, and Seroquel, an antipsychotic. Before he arrived at Lakeshore, he said, Daniel Cleggett called him and told him he needed to “start fresh” without the medications. The man said he didn’t think that was a good idea. He said Cleggett replied: “You never know unless you try.”
The man ultimately relapsed, overdosed three times in 12 hours, and was involuntarily committed to BayRidge Hospital.
Another woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was told to stop taking her Gabapentin and later her Paxil, and wound up attempting suicide shortly after leaving Lakeshore. She was also hospitalized.
Staff at Lakeshore could be cavalier with residents’ safety in other ways, too, clients said.
The man taken off his medication for PTSD said that once when a woman overdosed at the house, staff did not call 911 and instead gave her a “sternum rub” — a hard knuckle into the sternum designed to awaken an unconscious person — and drove her to the hospital. The woman who overdosed declined to comment.
Some Wakefield town officials worried about the property but had no legal authority over what went on inside. The fire department didn’t even know it was a sober house until April 2018, according to Fire Chief Michael Sullivan, when they were summoned to tend to a client who said she’d been doing cocaine for five days. Firefighters found more than 20 people living in a home without what they believed were adequate fire detection systems.
When the department sent a letter demanding a sprinkler system, an attorney cited Lakeshore’s protected status as a sober home and refused, offering to consider a new smoke detector system instead.
Problems swirling around Cleggett and his sober homes were not secret. But even agencies that wanted to address them found their hands were tied.
. . .
When Clifford Bates, the despondent father of two, didn’t show up for the 8 a.m. group meeting at Lakeshore on April 28, 2018, fellow client Thomas Richardson and Bates’s roommate, Kevin, were worried. Bates was deeply depressed. Both men separately said they approached staff and urged them to search thoroughly for Bates, because he had mental health issues and could be in trouble.
Richardson was already convinced that Bates needed a higher level of care. He’d watched with growing alarm, he said, as Bates dragged himself through his stay, his obvious and intense distress met with entreaties from staff to pray.
“Find a higher power,” Richardson said. “That’s what they told a severely depressed man.”
When Bates vanished, staff did not call police. They drove around the neighborhood looking for him, and packed his belongings into his suitcase and some trash bags and put them in the basement. They called Bates’s sister, who summoned police the next day. Another sister filed a missing person’s report two days later.
Pictures of Bates went out over local media. His family posted appeals on social media, seeking leads, seeking help. They called old friends and foreign embassies, hoping he had started a new life somewhere.
“CLIFFORD BATES WHERE ARE YOU?” his sister wrote on Facebook after two months had passed. “I recently read that a missing person usually follows the search from a safe distance. Sometimes this is how they are found. ... All we want to know is if he is alive.”
It is not clear where, exactly, staff or police searched for Bates — if they checked the property, the small backyard where clients smoked, or the partially-fenced area behind the shed, feet from the pool. Wakefield police declined to comment, citing an open investigation. Two Lakeshore clients said that early that summer, they thought they smelled hot, foul garbage — but there was a dumpster at the top of the driveway. Neighbors said they never smelled a thing.
The summer passed. Lakeshore’s rental lease in Wakefield was not renewed, and around November 2018, the Retreat operation moved to one of Cleggett’s other houses in Quincy, an elegant brick home on a quiet street. The estate on Lakeshore Drive was sold.
In late 2018, a new Brady’s Place sober house opened on Seaver Street in Boston, and, according to city inspectional reports, began packing clients into illegal basement bedrooms. Cleggett sailed on.
. . .
By the time the two landscapers found him, it had been more than 14 months since Clifford Bates was last seen, smoking a cigarette outside Lakeshore Retreat in the gentle rain. He lay less than 100 feet from where he stood that day, behind a yellow shed and a white fence, an incomplete collection of bones tangled in denim.
The spot was only partially fenced, set back from the brick surrounding the pool by mulch and a few shrubs. Leonardo Hernandez, one of the landscapers who found the body, said it was covered only by a light layer of leaves. When he stepped close, he saw the bones immediately. He shared pictures he took with the Globe, showing bare bones and jeans in a pile, a jaw bone on top, small fallen branches scattered nearby. There was a closed beach umbrella across the back of the body, he said, and an empty old trash bag nearby.
Police used dental records to identify the body. Officials have not said how, when, or where Bates died. They declined to comment on whether they think his body lay behind the shed for the entire time he was missing or if he had been placed there more recently. Someone tried to use Bates’s credit card at a Domino’s in Lynn in the days after his disappearance, but the attempt was denied, according to his family. The mystery of that transaction has not been solved.
Bates’s family has been gutted.
“While we accept his death, we never, ever thought he would be found at Lakeshore, a fenced-in property of less than half an acre!!” they wrote in a statement. “That part makes no sense. It makes us ill, angry, and we can’t shake it from our minds.”
For those who have watched Cleggett’s operation for years, the news that a client missing for more than a year turned up in the backyard of the very sober home he vanished from is at once horrifying and utterly unsurprising.
“People just continue to make money off of other people’s tragedies,” said Maureen Graney, whose son Patrick died in Florida. “One life matters. My son’s life matters. He shouldn’t have been able to continue to run these businesses.”
As police continue to investigate Bates’s death, Cleggett’s sober homes remain open. In Boston in mid-July, a city Inspectional Services car pulled up in front of Cleggett’s Seaver Street home, a dilapidated Victorian with weeds sprouting on the porch and broken Venetian blinds in the windows. City officials were responding to a complaint from a client.
The complaint unfurled a litany of grievances: bugs, mice, 48 beds and 4 bathrooms. The inspectors found illegal basement bedrooms, leaking ceilings, missing and broken smoke detectors, and rooms jammed with up to six beds.
“Please help me,” the client implored. “I don’t feel safe.”