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November 27, 2014

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Degrees were fake, but good enough

Truth about man who got referrals from judge, county contract comes as a shock

Image

Courtesy of Angie Silla

Raymond Giunta inspects an unidentified boy on a mission trip with Hope Baptist Church to Thailand in November.

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Raymond Giunta, who lacked any medical credentials, fills out paperwork on a mission trip with Hope Baptist Church to Thailand in November.

Raymond Giunta is a man of many titles. Some knew him to be a clinical psychologist. Others knew him simply as Dr. Ray. In reality, he was neither.

Everyone is learning this now — the judge who asked Giunta to profile juvenile arson suspects, the church that sent him on medical mission trips, the county officials who gave him a contract to provide drug and alcohol counseling to teens.

They are all astounded.

But the seemingly elaborate ruse did not require much to pull off — a Ph.D. that Giunta purchased online for a few hundred bucks, his winning personality and, occasionally, a lab coat on his shoulders and a stethoscope around his neck.

Giunta’s explanation for all this is simple. Although he never took a single class, he says he thought the Ph.D. was legitimate. And besides, he says, he’s been helping people for years through his nonprofit group, We Care Ministries.

Whether Giunta, 47, is a master manipulator, as his critics claim, or incredibly gullible, as he claims, his ability to so easily infiltrate the social care network reveals much about Las Vegas — a transient town that welcomes reinvention but lacks many basic service providers. In Giunta’s case, his credentials and their lack of legitimacy were overlooked amid a rabid hunger for such services.

•••

“Doctor” is only the most recent title by which Giunta has been known.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State University and, in 1987, founded We Care Ministries to serve people in crisis.

To help pay the bills, he took a job as the director of the California Cemetery Board in the mid-’90s. He led a hard-charging effort to clean up the industry, uncovering wide-scale reuse of grave plots.

Then Giunta became the accused.

A state audit found he illegally took more than $10,200 in cemetery trust funds intended for graveyard upkeep from the owner of a cemetery that he regulated. Giunta opened a bank account with the money and wrote more than $5,800 worth of checks to his wife, Cathy, credit card companies, a child care provider, a dry cleaner, the phone company and We Care Ministries, the audit said.

Giunta said the money was payment for repairs that We Care Ministries made at the cemetery. His mistake, he said, was commingling that money with personal funds.

•••

Giunta would appear again in the public spotlight under another title: chaplain.

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Giunta flew to New York City. For 68 days, “Chaplain Ray” ministered to firefighters at ground zero.

He wrote a memoir about it, titled “God @ Ground Zero.” The book foreshadows how Giunta would later operate in Las Vegas.

In the opening chapter Giunta and members of his ministry are on their way to New York.

“We were wearing our tactical, police-style blue uniforms, along with clerical collars that identified us as chaplains,” Giunta wrote. “I had gotten used to people calling me ‘father’ because of the collar, even though I wasn’t a priest. If I could help someone, they could call me anything they wanted, especially if it made me ‘safe’ to approach ... I had learned from experience how important such symbols are.”

Giunta’s use of “symbols” would play a key role in the new identity he would establish in Las Vegas.

•••

Giunta moved from Sacramento to Las Vegas in 2004 to become pastor of community care at Central Christian Church in Henderson, one of the valley’s largest churches.

In 2005, Giunta and his wife decided to get their master’s and doctoral degrees — social work and clinical psychology for him, social and behavioral science and psychology for her. Their school of choice: Rochville University.

Giunta’s transcripts say he earned his master’s in 2002 and his doctorate in 2005.

But students at Rochville University don’t actually take any classes. Applicants simply fill out a brief form online explaining their life experiences. They then pay a fee — $769 for the “master’s and doctorate degree package” — and receive a degree and transcripts in the mail within five days. Applicants can even choose their graduation date and, for an extra $60, bump up their GPA from the standard 3.0 to a 3.4 to 3.6.

Giunta earned a 3.5 and 3.52 for work on his master’s and doctorate, respectively.

•••

In 2005, Giunta started volunteering with the Youth Firesetting Intervention Program, sponsored by the Fire Prevention Association of Nevada. The program is targeted at the most dangerous young pyromaniacs.

“It’s everything from flicking matches and making pipe bombs to setting bathrooms and wilderness areas on fire,” said Kathryn Hooper, who supervises the program and works for the Henderson Fire Department.

Giunta came into the picture after the program called Central Christian Church. “We figured they would have licensed therapists because they were huge,” Hooper said.

Giunta was “phenomenal with children,” Hooper said. “He was getting kids to talk about stuff the law enforcement officers didn’t even know about.”

Giunta began taking appointments for counseling. “We gave parents the opportunity to make an appointment with Ray,” Hooper said. “They would go in for pastoral counseling.”

That might have been the understanding going in but documents Giunta submitted to the court went far beyond that to include assessments of the juveniles and recommendations about treatment options. In some cases, Giunta even diagnosed children with mental health disorders.

Giunta listed himself as the evaluator in the documents and placed “Psy.D.” after his name.

Family Court Judge William Voy said Giunta wrote the reports in a way that suggested he had performed the evaluations in conjunction with the fire setters program.

Such language overstated Giunta’s role with the fire setters program, Hooper said.

“He went way outside our scope,” she said. “Pretty much on our coattails, he went in deeper.”

The fire setters program stopped using Giunta after referring five or six children to him because he was unreliable, she said.

But Giunta’s credibility had been established in the court system. Voy continued to send juveniles to him for arson risk assessments that Giunta provided for free.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Voy said. “Here you’ve got Firesetters using him for psychological testing, he’s got a Ph.D. after his name — what am I supposed to assume?”

Voy said he sent Giunta about five more cases, but stopped in early 2007 when Giunta sent a bill to the county. Giunta, though, would be accepting referrals from the county again within a few months.

•••

In spring 2006 Giunta left Central Christian Church and began attending Hope Baptist Church, another large church in the southeast part of the Las Vegas Valley. The church badly needed a pastoral counselor and Giunta stepped into the gap, head pastor Vance Pittman said.

Giunta quickly became known as “Dr. Ray” at the church.

He began accepting counseling referrals from the church. In return, it contributed $300 a month to his ministry.

At Hope, Giunta turned again to symbols. He wore a doctor’s lab coat with the word “Doc” on its lapel while teaching and counseling, Pittman said. Giunta even wore a stethoscope during a church-sponsored mission trip to Africa, Pittman said. His license plate said: CAREDOC.

“There is no doubt that he, with his appearance, presented himself as a doctor,” Pittman said. Giunta was, however, helping many in the church, Pittman said. In 2006, Giunta ministered to scores of Metro Police officers mourning the death of Sgt. Henry Prendes, who was gunned down while responding to a domestic dispute. Two Metro detectives even joined We Care’s board of directors.

But some church members saw a different side of Giunta.

During a medical mission to Thailand in November, Giunta wore a stethoscope as he examined children, said Angie Silla, a Las Vegas nurse who went on the trip. In one case, Giunta provided a liver cleanse to a Thai woman who had hepatitis, Silla said. That’s a medical no-no, she said, and the woman turned up later with severe abdominal pain.

Giunta denied doing anything improper, insisting he was simply following the orders of a medical doctor on the trip.

After returning from Thailand, Silla became determined to expose Giunta. She checked state licensing agencies and found that neither Giunta nor his wife had any kind of license to practice medicine, psychology, marriage and family therapy, social work or drug and alcohol counseling.

Silla’s concerns alarmed another church member, who asked Giunta for copies of his degrees. In March, Giunta obliged. A quick Google search revealed the degrees were worthless.

That moved church leaders to take action. They sent out an April 30 letter to all congregants saying the church would stop making referrals to Giunta because of concerns about his credentials.

At that point, however, county officials had struck a new deal with Giunta.

•••

In August 2007, Voy agreed to meet Giunta for lunch at Desert Pines Golf Club, not far from the family courthouse.

Giunta showed up at the lunch with a woman named Kim Johnson and three We Care board members, including the two Metro detectives. They proposed an outpatient drug and alcohol addiction recovery program based in the Henderson-Green Valley area.

The program struck a chord with Voy because there was only one such counseling program in town, just west of downtown. That’s a problem, especially for juveniles in Boulder City.

The presence of Metro detectives helped ease Voy’s previous concerns.

The group told Voy that Johnson was certified and would manage the program, he said. He liked the program, but told them to get approval from the county’s juvenile justice services department.

An Aug. 14 letter from We Care to the county listed four staff members, including Giunta and his wife. The county signed the deal Aug. 23 and referred 29 juveniles to the program at a cost of $9,500.

State licensing officials have since expressed concerns.

Wendy Lay, executive director of the state board of drug and alcohol counselors, said such a program would require the provider to be licensed by her agency. None of the staff members listed in We Care’s letter is licensed, she said. Neither is Kim Johnson.

In March, the county got a call from Johnson saying she had left We Care. The county investigated and found that interns from UNLV were running the program without any oversight. It canceled Giunta’s contract and later discovered Johnson was not licensed, either.

Giunta insists the program was strictly educational in nature and did not require licensed personnel.

•••

During an interview last week, Giunta and his wife said they thought their degrees were legitimate.

“I had heard of other pastors getting honorary degrees for their life work,” Giunta said. “I thought, ‘That will just make the ministry go further.’ ”

He said he submitted two books he had written, the 9/11 memoir and a grief recovery workbook he wrote with his wife. One served as his master’s thesis, the other as his doctoral dissertation, he said.

Giunta said he and his wife didn’t know the degrees were bogus until church leaders confronted them in March.

“We are not defending any of this,” Giunta said. “We are not defending the pain, hurt and confusion that came from those degrees.”

He has since gotten rid of his CARE-

DOC license plate and no longer uses the salutation “doctor.”

“I think our mistake is that we never should have stopped being just Ray and Cathy,” he said.

During the interview at We Care’s new offices at Paradise Baptist Church, Giunta teared up as he thought about the children he would no longer be able to help.

Meanwhile, two staffers in medical-style smocks kept themselves busy around the office.

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