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tv   2020  ABC  July 19, 2013 10:00pm-11:01pm PDT

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with us any time, like us on facebook and follow us on twitter and don't go away, "20/20" starts right now. tonight on "20/20," "i escaped my life." sitcom star leah remini left the church of scientology so how far would you go to escape your religion, your marriage, even your kids? these moms escaped their problems in a puff of smoke. >> i was smiling and happy and i was like, this is really great. >> the self-proclaimed martha stewart of marijuana and she's not alone. >> there are people thinking, mothers who smoke pot are bad moms. >> gone to pot. and a husband and father of five, an heir to a fortune vanished. >> screaming that i wanted him back. >> was it amnesia? kidnapping or something even more sinister?
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>> it soups like he pulled off the great escape act of the century. >> into thin air. plus, a walled off world. >> just trying to find out what are you doing. >> excuse me. excuse me. >> where everything is regulated. but you leave and little kids are forced into hard labor so how did this 18-year-old escape the compound to a world of fun and fashion? >> ready for lilly? >> project runaway. here's david muir and elizabeth vargas. >> good evening, this week a stunning defection of sorts. sitcom actress leah remini leaving the church of scientology after some three decades as a member starting at the age of 9. it is making magazine covers and headlines and it made us wonder how hard is it to leave, in essence, to escape something that is at the very core of your being. >> so we start tonight with a twisted family story, a one-time
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cold case that is suddenly red hot again and heading to court this summer. in a mix a grieving family worth millions, forged identities and a death certificate, but no dead body. here's deborah roberts. >> people grow up thinking that magic is an illusion and that people can't disappear. and i grew up in a reality where people do disappear. >> reporter: it's easy to assume that under the unblinking arizona sun, no secret can stay hidden from the light of day. but on the morning of june 25th, 1991, when eric myers left home for work, he stepped right into a mystery that would haunt his family for decades. how could this guy just vanish? >> that's the question, do people just vanish without a trace? >> reporter: robert anglen, investigative reporter for "the arizona republic." >> in this case, that's what
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appears to have happened. a healthy, successful american man with a wife and kids fell off the face of the earth. >> reporter: our story begins with a one-way trip. eric departs from the phoenix airport, headed for a business conference in san diego. but days later, he's m.i.a. his daughter, kirsten, just 8 years old at the time, can't comprehend why daddy disappeared. >> i think probably because of my age, i think it's safe to say i took it the hardest. i was just really sad. >> reporter: did you cry yourself to sleep? did you -- >> every night. i remember screaming that i wanted him back every night for weeks. >> reporter: eric's parents, especially his mom joann, are dumbfounded. >> well, you know you have to
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keep going for your other children, and you have to survive and -- yeah, yeah, it was -- it was very hard and very hard. >> reporter: eric myers did not appear to be a magnet for trouble. a handsome real estate manager, he and wife anne were the picture of success. five children, two homes and five cars including a classic alpha romeo. >> eric appeared to have it all. and loved it. everybody who knew him thought that he was living the dream, living the american dream. >> reporter: and money was no concern. eric was an heir to his father's booming real estate business. >> he had every advantage, the best schools, the best neighborhoods, the best toys. >> reporter: and he was a fundamentalist christian who seemingly defined the term "family values." >> he became very religious so the church became a critical point in his life. >> eric always really wanted to do the right thing he wanted to be the best father and best
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father and best christian. >> so they began investigating in two states but remember it's the early '90s. ♪ come on vogue." >> reporter: with madonna ruling the pop charts, the smartphone is a thing of the future, and there is no social media or gps to help track missing people. what did they find out in those first few days of investigation? >> the rental car was abandoned. it was found in a seedy part of san diego. his wallet was found in an area where junkies would throw trash. and then a month after he disappeared, these three canceled checks surfaced. >> reporter: was eric myers murdered in a random mugging, or perhaps the real estate heir had been targeted for kidnapping. >> they find out that he checked out of his hotel on the first day of the conference but continued going. but nobody knows where he is. nobody knows where he went. >> reporter: police also consider an outlandish theory. >> the story goes that eric at some point had rescued a woman
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from a violent biker gang who was trying to flee that subculture, and he had taken her in and given her shelter, and that the bikers had threatened his life. >> reporter: but those leads all turn into dead ends, and the case goes cold. meanwhile, eric myers' family is in tatters. and was there any consoling? was there anything? >> oh, yeah. i mean, my mom did everything she could, but what was she going to do other than just hold me and tell me that it was going to be okay? >> reporter: weeks dissolve into months then years with no sign of daddy. so anne and her kids are forced to move on, celebrating birthdays, proms, graduations all without eric. anne myers declined our recent request for an interview, but once spoke with robert anglen. >> this case is cold, as cold as ice.
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anne meyers is moving through her career. the family never holds a memorial service for eric, but they do have him declared legally dead. >> reporter: with no body, no funeral, nothing except this death certificate to mark his passing, eric myers' life comes to an unceremonious close on june 30th, 1996. his family cashes out an insurance policy worth close to a million dollars. but now when there should finally be closure, there is not. troubling questions remain. >> anne never believed he was dead in the beginning, but as the years passed, what she told me was she wanted him to be dead. she wanted him to be dead, and she wanted him to die unmourned, unloved, and unsung. >> reporter: and as time went on? >> i stopped crying. >> reporter: did you assume that he'd died? >> no. the only logical conclusion that i could come to was, you know, it's a lot easier to find a dead body than it is to find a living one. and if a living body doesn't want to be found, then it means it doesn't want to be here. >> reporter: could it really be
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that eric myers wasn't murdered after all? that he'd simply walked out on his wife, his kids, his parents? and if so, why? it would take time, a trip to mexico and this nude model to explain everything. it sounds like he pulled off the great escape act of the century. >> yeah, he pulled off the great escape. >> reporter: stay with us. john, it's over. don't punish yourself, it's my fault. of course it's your fault and i'm not punishing myself. i'm having dannon oikos zero per cent fat yogurt; twice the protein of regular low fat yogurt. that's what makes it so thick, rich. oh,.. this is kate... already? my sister... and that was my mother. dannon oikos greek nonfat yogurt, too delicious to be so nutritious. and try new rich creamy dannon oikos dips. so dippin' good. ♪ dannon. geico's defensive driver,ke 13. good student and multi-policy discounts
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"20/20" continues. once again, deborah roberts. >> this woman was just 8, kirsten myers ruggiano was just 8 years old when her father eric, a devout christian and heir to a real estate fortune, disappeared without a trace. for years she blamed herself. so as you grew older, did you feel that dad just doesn't want to be with us, he left us? >> yeah. maybe i wasn't a good enough kid. >> reporter: with no father, she says her mother, anne became her world. >> my mother is one of the most selfless people i've ever met. if either my sister or i called her and said, "i need you here now," she would absolutely drop everything to be by our side as soon as she needed to.
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>> reporter: while anne was stitching together her frayed family together, a much different scene was playing out nearly a thousand miles south in cabo san lucas, mexico. with its warm sand and cold, colorful drinks, it's a great getaway or escape. and it was just that for a newcomer who called himself "roberto." he took odd jobs as a bouncer, a physical trainer with no i.d. required. no one got close enough to know who he was or why he was there. but "roberto" was actually eric myers. >> he says he's poverty stricken. he doesn't know where his next meal is going to come from. it's very dramatic. >> reporter: the mexican getaway goes on for four months without one phone call home. then "roberto" heads back stateside, not to phoenix, but to swinging palm springs, california. hollywood's ritzy desert playground. everyone from the rat pack to
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elvis to barbara streisand have had homes here. but why would a poverty-stricken eric, who's now calling himself "robert" land in such an expensive spot? tonight for the first time on camera, eric myers explains his bizarre odyssey. >> i just wanted it all to end. i wanted everything to end. >> reporter: he says it's a story of pain that came to a head during that business trip in san diego. you get to san diego, and you check into the hotel. >> mm-hmm. >> reporter: what do you remember about the hotel? >> i don't remember even checking in. i don't recall checking into any hotel, let alone the one i did, and i don't remember checking out. >> reporter: some would say that maybe you choose not to remember because you don't have to answer to anything. >> and i'd say it'd be much better for me to have my whole story spelled out than have these gaps. i'm answering honestly that i have gaps. >> reporter: eric says he had an emotional breakdown, and that's
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when things headed south literally to cabo. >> i just had to get away. you know, i'm going through justification things along the way 'cause i'm sitting there saying, you can do this and still go back. >> i wondered about him. i wondered if he'd ever come back. and at some point, it became clear to me that he was never coming back. and that i needed to just move on. >> reporter: how much are you thinking about your kids? >> i would try not to dwell or think down that road, because that would just take me into a very dark place, and again, this isn't a justification. >> reporter: but isn't that a selfish way to look at it? >> oh, horrible -- >> reporter: i mean, you're thinking about yourself and shutting down, and you've got children who are crying themselves to sleep, wondering
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what happened to their dad? >> i cannot say anything to deny that it is the most selfish thing in the world, and i will never be painted as a saint. but no one is all good, and no one is all bad. >> reporter: if he wasn't thinking about his kids, what was he thinking about? it was this man, sean lung. >> we were both alone. we felt alone, and we kind of connected because of that, and it was instant. >> reporter: you see, eric wasn't just hiding out, he was coming out. >> at 6 years old i knew i was attracted, drawn very heavily to other people my same sex. >> reporter: that's right. the once straight-laced, evangelical family man is gay. something that has tortured him since adolescence. >> that was when i started thinking, this isn't right. you know, i want to be with men.
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and so i'm assuming it's right around mid-12 to mid-13 i had three different suicide events. >> reporter: he says he considered taking his life once with a gun, another time perched on the edge of a cliff. >> i'm on that cliff -- [ snaps ] -- just like that. i'm looking at that gun just like that. and i think i'll go to my grave that way. i've let go of being ashamed and that there's anything wrong with it. but remembering the pain brings it back like it was yesterday, yesterday i was on the cliff. >> reporter: so young eric joined an evangelical church trying to pray it all away. you were trying to -- >> get rid of satan. i thought i was possessed. >> reporter: when that didn't work, he hoped marrying his friend anne and starting a family might help. but it wasn't until he ran away from that family and met sean, a canadian tourist, that he
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finally felt right. >> i remember thinking that i'm not going to be with sean that long, but at a two-week point of our being together, i turned around and said to him, i think i'm falling in love with you. >> reporter: and palm springs, with its sunny, gay lifestyle, was the perfect place for that love to flourish. ♪ when sean develops an interest in photography, eric even poses nude for him. images later exhibited at a local art gallery. but while he was baring all for the cameras, it would take a while for him to reveal his most private parts, for sean to learn the truth about his new love; eric myers. did he come across as a guy who was on the run? >> no. >> reporter: ditched his family? >> not at all, no. >> reporter: you weren't troubled by that? >> i didn't know that part. >> reporter: and eric doesn't know how much his family is hurting. how did you deal with the sadness? how did you cope with those
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feelings? >> badly. i think i was 11 when i first started, like, stealing wine and realized that it made me feel less sad. and then i think that was the beginning of experimenting with self-medicating behavior. >> reporter: kirsten says she struggled with addictions for years and thanks to her mom sobered up and began building a new life. meantime, her father is building a new life with that new love, sean. the years roll by with two worlds unfolding. eric is now finding comfort in his gay life. sean now knows him as a man of many secrets but accepts him anyway. they move to vancouver, canada, where eric creates yet another alias, calling himself "chaz," even claiming to have a phd. from princeton. why did you do that? >> well, i definitely believed that i knew how to market. and so i wanted the credentials,
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which wouldn't be checked out very well, and, in fact, in princeton they don't have a marketing degree. >> reporter: while eric is living a lofty ivy league fraud, his former family has a lowly reality back in the desert. remember, they had declared him legally dead and are trying to put their grief behind them. but anne myers has no clue that a grenade is about to blow her world apart. >> she says that her first reaction was, oh, my god, the anti-christ has returned. he got away clean, but he came back and destroyed everybody's life in the process. >> he's a sick, psychotic person who has only ever acted for himself. >> stay with us. [ male announcer ] monopoly's back at mcdonald's this summer and the food you love is serving up fantastic prizes. like red box movies... ♪ a chance to win a million dollar prize on a big mac...
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once again, here's deborah roberts with "i escaped my life." >> reporter: 16 years after escaping from or some might say abandoning his former life as a married father of five, eric myers decides to come back from the dead. >> there was never any plan to come back just like there was never any plan to leave, and it just happened. >> reporter: he reaches out to an old friend, who eventually arranges a meeting between eric and the one person likely to forgive him anything, his mother. >> i think we shared an energy of love that forgave everything. [ snaps ] like that. just that. it was all gone. my mother and i were pasted with
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hugs. >> a lot of people lose children, but they don't get 'em back, you know? i could think of nothing but gratitude about the whole thing. >> reporter: today, eric is reconnected to his brothers and sisters, most of whom have accepted him back without skipping a beat. >> i think the picture we took the first christmas card we sent after he came back was our five kids. and every friend wrote back and said, "that says it all." >> reporter: but his former wife, anne, didn't roll out the red carpet. >> her first reaction was, oh, my god, the anti-christ has returned. >> reporter: eric's resurrection dealt a seismic blow to his family and kids, especially kirsten, now a mom of two who had finally found happiness and peace in her life. when he came back from the dead, what was your overriding emotion? >> disbelief. it almost hurt more to have him come back than it did for him to go in the first place. >> reporter: what hurts most? discovering that you were abandoned by your dad or that he
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is gay? >> i don't care that he's gay. if he was, you know, a normal pers person, it wouldn't make any difference. it bothers me that he thinks that being gay is an excuse to abandon your family. that's what bothers me. >> reporter: she says the heartbroken little girl captured in an old family photograph still haunts her. >> and when i saw the picture of me as a child, it was really bizarre. i wanted to hug her, and i wanted to tell her that it would be okay, and i wanted to save her, even though it was me. >> reporter: but why come back now and risk opening old wounds? eric points out that he and sean moved in with his elderly parents caring for his father in the last few years of his life. but some wondered if he was motivated not by love, but by dollar signs, millions of them. [ chuckles ] >> it's not more money. it's not for inheerns.
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it's for healingle. i mean, there's a lot of pain and suffering having to do with all my coming back, but it's all been for healing, and the majority of people have healed. >> reporter: but certainly not kirsten, who has only glimpsed her father once in person since he returned. they've never spoken. do you ever envision anywhere years from now that you might want to? >> no, never. >> reporter: -- sit down with your dad and understand anything? >> there's nothing he can say. he's not -- he's not even a real person. >> reporter: and the big question remains, was eric's original disappearance all part of a master plan? were you fantasizing at all about leaving? >> never. >> reporter: getting out of here? escaping your life? >> i say that as god is my witness, never once. >> reporter: but the insurance company that paid out eric's death benefit doesn't buy it. with eric still alive, liberty
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life insurance is suing the myers family. >> they're saying he committed fraud. they're saying he disappeared knowing that his daughters would be provided for through a death benefit. >> reporter: robert anglen uncovered this explosive story while digging through court records. the myers family's battle made headlines. liberty life insurance company wants back its $800,000 paid to kirsten and her sister, plus interest. but who should pay? eric's ex-wife anne and her daughters say eric should. but he says there's no legal obligation. >> my life insurance policy wasn't mine very quickly after i left. a conservator was named after i disappeared. >> reporter: he says that conservator, his father, made decisions that take him out of the equation. it's a messy fight playing out in court right now. but despite the painful consequences, eric insists he made the right decision to return.
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>> to live in a disguise is a horrible prison. and then to take the disguise off, it might hurt some people, but did you do it to hurt people, or did you do it to be true? and once they see that disguise off, it's their choice to like it or hate it. >> reporter: his daughter has clearly made her choice. >> it's insulting to all the gay people that i know and love for him to say "well, i did it because i was gay." i know a lot of people who would never do this and absolutely never blame it on their homosexuality. i don't believe that he is capable of love. >> reporter: towards anyone? >> towards anyone but himself. >> if you were eric's daughter kirsten or his wife would you accept him back in his life. we're on twitter. let us know using the #abc2020.
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next, the latest thing for the real housewives of beverly hills. picture perfect moms smoking pot to escape stress. >> cannabis not only made me a better mom, cannabis made me a better human being. >> potluck with a whole different twist. >> oh, my. >> when we return. [ male announcer ] now we can all be at the corner of "just another prescription" and "sweet, something just for me." with walgreens balance rewards, everyday trips to the pharmacy earn you 500 points for each prescription you fill. and 500 more for immunizations. points you can redeem for, well, almost anything. get five dollars in rewards points when you fill 10 prescriptions, right here. at the corner of happy and healthy. [ female announcer ] some prescriptions not eligible to earn points. restrictions apply. see website for details. ♪ i'm sorry. [ male announcer ] at&t introduces the samsung galaxy s4 active.
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here are two words you think never should go together, mothers and marijuana, but our next story might have you seeing the combination in a whole new way. a group of put-together women, some who say their lives were falling apart with anxiety,
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until they started lighting up to escape the stress. and their children have said it's made them even better mothers. so start tweeting. you're not going to be on the fence about these soccer moms turned so-called stoner moms. on a recent evening at a home in beverly hills, a few moms gathered to enjoy food, friendship and a few laughs, >> i may not know how to cook you i do garnish incredibly well. >> reporter: but this was no ordinary potluck party. before the main course, a special hors d'oeuvre -- the hostess busts out a mason jar full of homegrown marijuana, grinds up a big bud and fires up a state-of-the-art device called a vaporizer and then passes around the balloon bag full of powerful pot to her dinner guests. >> vap adviser time. >> reporter: welcome to the beverly hills cannabis club. your hostess, the >> it has a little bit of
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cannabis infused olive oil. >> reporter: the hostess, the self-proclaimed "martha stewart of marijuana," cheryl shuman. >> cannabis not only made me a better mom. cannabis made me a better human being. >> reporter: cannabis made you a better mom? >> absolutely. >> yes. >> absolutely. >> reporter: so how did this all come to be? flash back ten years. cheryl was a married mother of two and a successful optician to the stars. not exactly a jeff spicoli wannabe. >> i'm so wasted. >> reporter: what was your attitude toward pot originally? >> i was one of those goody-two shoes girls. i thought they were all losers and stoners. >> reporter: but when her marriage fell apart, she says her entire life slipped out of focus. >> i was just completely disabled by a crippling depression, a crippling anxiety disorder. >> reporter: cheryl needed an escape. she tried prescription drugs, but popping prozac to get up and xanax to come down every day felt more like a prison than a
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panacea. >> i went from being a very active mom to pretty much being bedridden. so one day i was at my therapist's office, and i told him, i said, "please help me get my life back." and one day he said, "lady --" it was kind of like, "i'm tired of hearing about this." and he said, "you need to smoke a joint." >> reporter: are you serious? >> i'm dead serious. and i looked at him and -- >> reporter: you need to smoke a joint? [ laughter ] in utter disbelief, cheryl says she watched as her own shrink rolled her a joint. >> i felt kind of stupid 'cause i was 36 years old and never smoked a joint. i wasn't even sure how to do it, right. >> reporter: right. >> you know, so i took a hit off of it. and literally for the first time in probably eight, nine months i was smiling and happy, and i was like, "this is really great" but -- >> reporter: critics might say, "yes, you were high." >> i was definitely medicated. but i will tell you that i felt better having two puffs of cannabis at that time than i had ever had any kind of results with pharmaceuticals. >> reporter: cheryl's daughter, aimee, agrees.
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>> i felt like my mom was checked out on prescription pills. it was like living with a zombie. but when she would smoke, she was smiling. she was connecting with us. it felt like we had our mom back. >> reporter: so you didn't feel like you had your mom back, an impaired mom or -- >> no, no, no, no. uh-uh. >> reporter: now, cheryl has recruited fellow marijuana moms like simmi, diane and catherine to come out of the closet and help in her cannabis crusade. >> it's like out of the closet. it's my body, my choice, how i choose to medicate. >> reporter: but you guys aren't arguing that it's healthy. i mean it's not good for you to -- >> i disagree. >> absolutely it is. >> it's absolutely -- >> if it was discovered today, it would be a super food. >> reporter: before medical marijuana, they say they felt trapped in a fog of stress and anxiety. simmi dhillon says just one joint helped her escape a world of pain and pills. her husband, a police officer, was stunned, but not for the reason you might think. >> he's like, "oh, my god. my wife is back." i was a completely different human being for seven years.
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looking back now, i should not have been driving. should not have been caring for my child. now i am completely connected to him. >> reporter: weed-smoking women have come a long way, baby, from the refer madness to dope-dealing housewives. now, medical marijuana is legal in 18 states. but parenting and pot? that's still taboo. so what would all of you say to people who think out there, "you've gotta be kiddin' me." i mean, you know, these ladies are -- >> i'm gonna tell it from the point of view of my 10-year-old child. i'm going to medicate. when i'm in pain, i'm in bed for days. i don't talk. i'm miserable. my son will come up to me and say, "mom, it's time to medicate." go get some cannabis. come back to us. that's what i tell you. if your 10-year-old child is okay with it, i think adults should be okay with it. >> reporter: but do the kids see them as role models? well, diane, has two boys, 20 and 22.
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one started using before she did. the other steers clear, but understands why she uses pot. aimee, 32, who has watched her mother medicate for the last decade just started hitting the vaporizer three weeks ago. but you've heard the arguments, which is that marijuana is the gateway drug. >> yes, i've heard that it's a gateway drug. but i define it as my exit drug, because compared to what i was doing before, wow. i'm a lot less stoned now. >> you know, i have to admit, i was a skeptic too. you know, i would have been one of those moms watching this right now and said, that woman's out of her mind. it's up to the person to be a responsible parent. >> reporter: being responsible also means being healthy. and many of these moms choose to grow their own marijuana. this is cheryl at her pot farm where she harvests her thc with tlc, right next to the tomatoes and the zucchini. you'll notice these moms use the phrase "medicate," not "get
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stoned." they claim they don't get so baked that they can't care for their children, drive safely, work a demanding job or function during, say, a network news interview. have any of you guys done any pot today? >> right before i sat down. >> coming over here i was really tense, really nervous and so literally just one inhale. >> reporter: just one inhale? >> just one -- >> it's instant. >> -- inhale. that was it. >> i mean as soon as she medicates, instant results. calm, cool, collected, smiling. >> reporter: we did witness a small case of the giggles later that evening at cheryl's home at that potluck party where chef david schanhals prepared a gourmet meal with the help of that special ingredient. but if this party were a bake sale, cheryl would be in big trouble. marijuana is still an illegal narcotic in the eyes of the federal government. are you ever afraid, given the
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fact that you grow it and it's legal in california but illegal federally. >> every single time i do an interview i get nervous because i wonder, "is this gonna be the day that the federal government is gonna make an example out of me and throw me in jail?" it's scary. >> reporter: super scary when she considers recent headlines. >> prosecutors say this mother of three is no different than a columbian drug lord. >> reporter: what do you hope to change about the way america looks at this plant? >> well, i remember thinking, you know, why are you going to go on national television and let everyone know that you smoke pot?" and then it's like, "you know what? it's because it's the right thing to do." i want to be able to do something that, you know, makes a difference in people's lives. >> so is it outrageous or their own businessment let us know on twitter using the #abc2020. we'll be right back. next, a one-of-a-kind campfire deep in the desert of utah. teenagers escaping their lives
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that normally look like this. shut off from the modern world. >> we are their property and you will burn in hell. >> so how did he make that great escape to become a male model? ♪ ♪ don't you wanna, wanna ♪ don't you ♪ don't you want to see me flaunt what i got? ♪ oh. ♪ don't you ♪ don't you wanna, wanna ♪ don't you ♪ don't you wanna, wanna stress sweat is different than heat and activity sweat -- it smells worse. secret clinical strength gives you four times the protection against stress sweat. live fearlessly with secret clinical strength. we throw out over $500 ziploin food every year.. heavmoreit with ziploc freezer bags featuring sm. edge to edgeionhear. [ ohns.
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over the up isser most teenagers are out having a good time with their friend, three whole months of freedom but for the teenager you're about to meet, that kind of freedom was very rare so how did he make a daring great escape to a world of facebook and tv shows? for over a year our amy robach has been following a story and is back with a very modern makeover. >> let's go get the keg. >> reporter: this may look like an ordinary teenage rite of passage. drinking and flirting by the light of a summer bonfire. but these teens are members of a radical religious sect. and attending this secret party
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is their only escape from the strict rules of their church. >> there's a reason the young boys go out at night and the young girls go to those parties. it's because they can drink. they can be themselves, and they can put away all that stress. the more beer they drink, the further away the stress goes. >> reporter: to attend this party is to become what's called a "son of perdition." >> son of perdition means you are satan's property and that you will burn in hell when you leave this life for what you have done. >> i love you guys. >> reporter: for these teenagers, this is only a temporary refuge. but 18-year-old willy steed was determined to escape from the home he says was more like a prison. >> i realized that i was in the wrong spot and the wrong place and that i needed to get out and be who i was and not who everyone wanted me to be. >> reporter: his journey to becoming the confident young man
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he is today is a remarkable and dramatic transformation. this story of courage begins in a secretive world few outsiders have entered a tiny desert town in arizona called colorado city. it's a hidden world within modern america. to live here is to turn back the clock 100 years. no internet. no television. no contact with the outside world. willy was once part of a radical splinter group of the mainstream mormon church that practices polygamy. it's called the fundamentalist latter day saints or "flds." on the surface, life seems almost normal. boys roughhousing along a dusty trail, children cooling off on a hot summer day. a father coaching his children on the finer points of an all american sport. but behind this façade of normalcy is something you can't see. every aspect of this family's
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life, what they wear, what they eat, even who they marry is controlled by the man they call their prophet, warren jeffs. >> obey the prophet when he speaks, and you'll be blessed. disobey him, it is death. >> reporter: even after being imprisoned for life for the sexual abuse of young girls, a "20/20" investigation revealed that jeffs still controls every aspect of his people's lives from behind prison walls. it started when he ordered his followers to destroy all their children's toys. >> at home you couldn't have any toys. you couldn't ride bikes either. i didn't even get a chance to ride mine before i gave it away. >> reporter: over the past two years, he's issued hundreds of increasingly bizarre edicts to his followers. >> now it is down that you cannot eat corn. >> no sex between husband and wife. >> reporter: he selected 15 men to father all the children in the community.
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>> if a woman wants to have a baby or whatever, she has to go to 1 of those 15 men. but then she has to have two other men with the one of the 15 men in the room to witness. >> reporter: willy agreed to be our guide through the strange and clandestine world that was once his home. everywhere around us there was stony silence. is warren jeffs in charge even children are taught to distrust outsiders. no one would answer any questions. just a simple question. just trying to find out what are you doing? excuse me, excuse me. hello. willy knew there was no way for him except the flds way, no way out except to run away. >> it's like -- it's like you're under a wall that's just toppling on top of you but you can't hold it. and just and the church and everything is just feeding that
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wall with weight. >> reporter: he escaped with the help of a group called "holding out help" a kind of underground railroad for those leaving from polygamist groups. they find him a home with pam and ron jenson. >> the very first thing we start with. >> reporter: while helping him write his first resume, pam discovers something shocking. >> do you want me to write it down? i'll write it down. >> reporter: willy can't read. like most boys in the flds, he was pulled out of grade school to work. did you realize how little you knew? >> yes, i did. being in that religion i knew that i was i was going nowhere. i wasn't growing in life. i couldn't change, because for instance i didn't know how to change. >> reporter: but change doesn't come easy. when he starts his first reading lesson, the going is tough. >> "d." dodge? >> close. >> dog?
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no, no. >> no, that's right dog and then. >> dogs. >> good. >> reporter: willy's reading level is that of a 6-year-old child. >> i should have learned this when i was in first grade. >> this is good speed, you're doing good. >> reporter: despite that frustration, it's been a year of so many firsts. >> whoo! >> reporter: the thrill of his first ride on a roller coaster. the triumph of balancing on a wakeboard. the brave new world of facebook. and he's made some new friends who've opened new doors of possibility. just last month, a photographer spotted his potential and brought him in for a photo shoot. ♪ i'm sexy and i know it >> reporter: now for the first time he dances to the pop songs that were once forbidden by the flds. is there a new career on his horizon? >> someone saw me for who i was and singled me out and picked me because of that.
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i all my life never believed in myself. it's so easy for me to get lost in the crowd of family, but out here it's so easy to be seen in a crowd and not get lost. >> presents for the birthday boy. >> reporter: as he celebrates his 19th birthday, he knows he's come so far. >> okay, so you have to read that. >> okay, happy birthday soon. >> son. >> son. >> reporter: what have you learned about yourself since leaving the flds? >> i've learned that i have the guts to stand up for myself, and i learned that i can walk away from life, and i can leave everything behind. [ applause ] >> if you would like to help boys like willy and other families fleeing the oppression of the flds, go to our web page at abcnew
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and a driver who did not
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stop where it happened next. >> and was there any trouble

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