Farmington Hills, Mich. - Recovery homes are supposed to be safe havens for addicts to heal after they get out of rehab.
But instead of helping addicts rebuild their lives, a local sobriety leader is accused by several women of preying on them.
He's been hailed as a saint in the recovery community. Just two months ago, Mark Burchell won the Michigan Drug Court Hero Award.
Burchell runs a program called Doorway to Recovery, but is this addiction guru really such a hero?
And are his "recovery homes" really just a doorway to vulnerable women?
It turns out in Michigan, there is no oversight for recovery homes, like Burchell's. That means there's really no one to go to for help if something goes wrong while you're living in a sobriety home.
"I was going there to make my life better, and it got worse," said Tiffany Hazel.
Tiffany is a 22-year-old recovering Xanax addict. Tiffany's mom helped her move into one of Doorway to Recovery's 18 sobriety homes in February – thinking Burchell's program would provide the structure she needed to stay clean.
"My mom's comment when we walked out the door was: 'he seems like he'd be a grandpa figure to you.' And I was like, I think so too," said Tiffany.
"Is that what he turned out to be," asked 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
"Definitely not," said Tiffany.
Tiffany says after only a week in the Livonia sobriety home she was assigned to, Burchell started sending her suggestive text messages--and then one night she says he drove her to this gas station.
He told her – he'd help her get a job there. Instead, inside his pickup truck – Tiffany says Burchell started touching her.
Tiffany did not resist – in fact, she says she felt obligated to sleep with Burchell, so he would help get her life back on track.
"He had made several promises, like I'm going to tell your parents how good you're doing on an every other day basis, I'm going to let your probation officer know that everything is going good," said Tiffany.
Tiffany's phone is full of extremely graphic text messages from Burchell's phone number, one of the tamer messages reads "My Baby. Love you!!!!!! My sexy woman."
Tiffany says Mark Burchell would come over to their women's sobriety home and take pictures with his phone of her and another resident while they were eating. Another past Doorway to Recovery resident tells me -- Burchell would take pictures of her, too.
They each say he made them extremely uncomfortable.
Tiffany says she soon wanted to end the relationship – but was scared of what Burchell might do. Plus her probation officer had already warned her that she would not be allowed to move again.
So, Tiffany reached out to Doorway to Recovery's Director of Operations, John Lomax for help. Lomax, too, is a recovering addict who spent nearly 2 years in the Doorway program, before deciding to work for his sobriety mentor – Mark Burchell.
"You trusted him," asked Catallo.
"Yeah, absolutely," said Lomax.
Lomax says when he found the explicit text messages between Tiffany and the 58-year-old Burchell, he didn't know what to do, so he confided in his mother--only to be shocked and devastated once again.
"And that was when [my mom] came to me and said, well I need to tell you something. I've told you that I've been dating this guy Mike for a year and a half, well that's actually Mark Burchell. And, that is when I knew that I had to do something about this," said Lomax.
Lomax started investigating and says he learned his mother isn't the only parent that Burchell pursued.
I spoke with another father who put his son in Doorway to Recovery. He did not want to talk to us on camera – but says Mark Burchell preyed on his wife too – starting a relationship when she was at her lowest point – desperate for someone to help her son.
"That is not a safe place for people to get well. That's using people," said Deborah Gough.
Gough has 31 years of experience in the recovery field. She says someone in a leadership or sponsor role who sleeps with either addicts or their parents is breaking an essential rule of recovery.
"Vulnerable people are going to react in a variety of ways, and for a chemically dependent person, the major way is to go back to using," said Gough.
The 7 Action News Investigators have learned that officials in both Oakland and Wayne Counties have stopped referring patients to Doorway to Recovery. Before his contract was severed in Wayne County – Burchell did receive more than $200,000 in public money for his program.
7 Action News has also learned that at least one local drug court has "blacklisted" Burchell – refusing to send him people needing addiction help because of allegations he gets sexually involved with his residents.
But no matter how many complaints there are – the state can't shut them down.
Once again, that's because unlike medical rehab treatment facilities, sobriety homes in Michigan are not licensed or regulated.
"There is no way for the state or other funding entities to determine who
is a quality run operation and who is just the person that throws out a shingle and wants to fill beds and charge money," said Kevin O'Hare, president of the Michigan Association of Recovery Residences.
O'Hare is pushing for more regulation to keep people like Tiffany safe. His voluntary organization does have a code of ethics which clearly states you cannot sleep with a resident or their family members.
"We're not talking about just bad behavior. We're talking about a person's life," said O'Hare.
O'Hare says Burchell has refused to join his group.
"Mark, these women are calling you a predator – how do you respond to that," asked 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
"My lawyer will talk to you, Evan Callanan," said Burchell. "And I have no other comment."
"He said he won't talk to us, so we'd like to get your side of the story," said Catallo.
"This was the best my life had been in a couple years. And things were getting so much better. And I was let down like that in the blink of an eye," said Tiffany Hazel.
Burchell's lawyer never did call us back.
As for John Lomax, he says he resigned from Doorway to Recovery as soon as learned what was happening.
It's hard to know how many recovery homes exist in Michigan, because they're not regulated.
Despite that lack of regulation, experts say sobriety homes on the whole can be a wonderful tool to help people in recovery.