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COVER STORY

Death and Denial at Herbalife

The Untold Story of Mark Hughes' public image, Secret Vice and Tragic Destiny

February 18, 2001|MATTHEW HELLER | Matthew Heller's last story for the magazine was a profile of St. John Knits' Kelly Gray

In a court declaration filed later as part of their divorce, Hartman alleged that Jo Ann's prescription Percodan habit in the early 1960s cost more than $2,000 a year. Because of her addiction, he said, she neglected her sons, even using money he gave her for groceries to buy drugs. "The children began to complain to me about being hungry," he recalled. And the house in Camarillo was "so filthy dirty it was on the verge of being unsanitary."

After Jo Ann suffered a seizure, she moved back to La Mirada in December 1969 to stay with her parents and be treated by a local doctor. On the pretext of taking 13-year-old Mark to visit his mother, Hartman alleged, Jo Ann's parents moved him from Camarillo into their own home. A few weeks later, Hartman returned home from work to find that Jo Ann had taken Guy, 12, and Kirk, 11, and cleaned out the closets. In February 1970, court documents show she filed for divorce.

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THE MARITAL BREAKUP COULD HARDLY HAVE COME AT A WORSE TIME for Mark, who, according to a childhood friend, already was experimenting with alcohol and drugs. The source, who asked not to be identified, recalls seeing him at a bus stop one morning before school. "He had a gallon of cheap red wine. He was guzzling the wine and eating a handful of [pills]. He was just out of control, completely out of control."

Experts say it wouldn't be surprising if Mark's mother had passed on her addictive streak. "Genetics is the single most important component [of substance abuse], especially when it begins manifesting early on," notes Dr. Joseph S. Haraszti, medical director of Pasadena's Las Encinas Hospital and an expert on addiction. Moreover, he adds, the parent's use of alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism becomes a model for the child.

In La Mirada, Jo Ann spent days in bed, abdicating almost all parental control. "We ran wild," Kirk Hartman admits. During that same period, Jo Ann was arrested for passing a bad check. Doctors declared her too ill to attend court hearings in the divorce case.

Hartman was awarded custody of Guy and Kirk, the younger boys, in December 1970; Mark remained with Jo Ann. There was no way Hartman could exert any influence over Mark, the two now completely estranged. "He blamed me for breaking up the family," Hartman says with a sigh.

Jo Ann was treated for addiction at the same Lynwood hospital where Mark was born. But on April 27, 1975, her father found her dead in her apartment. According to the autopsy report, several empty vials of prescription drugs were found beside her bed, and her doctor told the coroner she "was known to overingest her prescription drugs." Toxicological tests showed potentially lethal levels of propoxyphene in her system--its brand name is Darvon. Jo Ann Hartman died a drug addict, or, as the coroner put it more delicately, of acute drug intoxication.

Mark, then 19, was not with his mother when she died. Instead, having accumulated several drug busts, he was far away in the San Bernardino Mountains, at an institution that paved the way for his success at Herbalife.

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CEDU, AS THE DRUG INSTITUTE IS CALLED, WAS THE BRAINCHILD OF Mel Wasserman, a Palm Springs furniture store owner who had sponsored recovering addicts at Synanon, a drug rehab program, at its facility in Santa Monica. In the late '60s, as Synanon developed cult-like trappings, Wasserman founded his own center for troubled teens in bucolic Running Springs, west of Big Bear. Its goals included liberating the "spirit of the child" and creating "a safe and healthy environment for making new choices." Wasserman eschewed Synanon's confrontational approach to therapy.

"We were building character by instilling a strong work ethic," says Michael Rosen, a former CEDU staff member. "You would see what you were like through the eyes of other people. You really got strong feedback on how the world perceived you."

Rosen met Mark Hartman when the boy had been at CEDU for about six months. "He was the sweetest kid I ever met, but he had no skills," he recalls. "He was not sophisticated in any way." His style of dress was T-shirt and jeans. But Mark was interested in the fund-raising program that Rosen had started to supplement CEDU's meager public subsidies. He accompanied other CEDU students on fund- raising trips to upscale Southern California communities, dressed in a suit and armed with his pitch.

"You say, 'I have a story,' " Rosen explains. "You talk about who you are, who you've become. You try to inspire others. It would be no different at CEDU or Herbalife."

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