KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A Knoxville lawyer who has successfully sued a private women's treatment center in Seymour vowed Thursday to seek an investigation by the Tennessee attorney general of the center's operations, finances and abrupt closure.
"I’ve been getting calls from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, some locally," Charmaine Nichols told 10News. "I have also gotten calls from some of the former employees. I’ve gotten calls from some of those who were professionals. And most of all I’ve gotten calls from some families who are outraged and disappointed at what has happened."
Operator Jacqueline Dawes informed employees Tuesday morning in a message that Brookhaven Retreat was closing by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Former employees told 10News they scrambled to pack up, lock up and ensure the five patients on the grounds could leave safely and get back to their homes -- out of state. The caretaker of two horses used in equine therapy found himself suddenly in possession of the animals.
Brookhaven is a long-term residential center that cost clients about $50,000 a month. The staff recommended and strongly pressed clients to stay three months, a former client and employees said.
Dawes can't be reached for comment. Nichols said she doesn't know Dawes' whereabouts but said it's possible she'd left for the United Kingdom, where she's from.
With Brookhaven's sudden closure, patients' medical records are now locked in a place where family and the patients themselves cannot get them. People who had already paid for their care have been forced out in the middle of treatment.
Employees are due several weeks' back pay, and they say Dawes closed the place down facing bills for unpaid goods and services. The retreat's website has been taken down and no one answers the main telephone line.
A group of employees met Thursday with a lawyer in Morristown to plan their next legal move.
Brookhaven had a reputation among some for offering first-class service to a clientele that included the very rich around the world. It discretely cared for well-known, upscale women in society, gaining attention a couple years ago when pop star Selena Gomez came to stay in 2016.
But the sudden closure also has exposed a long stream of complaints about Dawes, her honesty, and the care patients there received.
In Blount County, Nichols successfully sued Brookhaven, Dawes or both on behalf of two clients.
A Florida man accused Brookhaven of deceptive practices for trying to avoid paying back a month's residence fee after his daughter decided to leave the retreat. And a Memphis professional sued because he thought Dawes and the center had misrepresented what care would be available for a family member who had had two liver transplants, Nichols said.
Nichols said even though she won a judgment against Brookhaven on behalf of the Florida man last year, she's still trying to collect. She said she's filed what amounts to a garnishment on several bank accounts, which appear to have little money or no money.
Nichols said she wasn't surprised to watch as the retreat collapsed this week. She's been fighting Dawes for several years in court.
"I think that an investigation needs to be undertaken," she said. "I've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and my phone is still ringing off the hook."
The lawyer said she sees a pattern by Dawes of making lofty promises to clients about care that she couldn't or wouldn't deliver. Reviews posted on a public site called rehabreviews.com include several warnings about Brookhaven's business practices.
A New Jersey woman whose daughter last month finished four months of treatment at Brookhaven told 10News that Dawes exerted pressure on her to pay the full costs -- $200,000 -- up front when her daughter was only weeks into her treatment.
"I think that the more that I’ve learned recently, there is no doubt in my mind that these activities are criminal," Nichols said. "They are premeditated. The right people there were trained to aid and abet Ms. Dawes in her longtime goal, which wasn’t to help people. (It was) to look like she was helping people but was to get her money and get as much out of the United States as she could."
Dawes doesn't have formal medical or higher education degrees, said Nichols, based on what she learned during her recent court fight. She touted a treatment plan at Brookhaven called "The Lily Program".
"Based on her testimony at trial and her cross-examination and in her deposition, she conceded to me she did not finish high school," the lawyer said. "She got something in England sort of equivalent to a GED. She has no higher education than that. ...Sadly for her, she had lost a daughter to a drug overdose. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I think she read and studied a lot about that and she assembled what she would call a professional team.
"But she is not a licensed , she is not a clinical treater. She is not a psychiatrist. She is certainly not an MD, and she doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree -- what we would call an undergrad degree. She’s basically got a high school education."
Dawes was also known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. She built a home off Gov. John Sevier Highway on some 17 acres that's now listed for more than $8.4 million. She calls it Bellamont.
At work, she would take her staff to the nearby, exclusive Blackberry Farm resort for retreats and professional training events.
A spokesman for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told 10News that it only learned on Tuesday that Brookhaven would be closing that day. The center had been inspected last month and garnered no complaints or violations, according to Matthew Parriott.
A federal labor official was at the center Tuesday and spoke with some employees, according to employees.
"There is nothing right about what's happened in any of these cases," Nichols said.