Loving Them to
"wilderness experience" at its most extreme--rehabilitation of
wayward teenagers delivered with the in-your-face discipline of a
boot camp. But in the past five years at least four young people
have died, the victims of alleged beatings, starvation, and
emotional abuse, and the so-called therapy is looking more like
By Jon Krakauer
long-distance connection was good, but as S.B. stood in her Phoenix
kitchen, she couldn't make sense of what she was hearing. A month
before, she'd sent her 16-year-old son, A.B., to a Utah wilderness
school called North Star Expeditions. Now a disembodied voice from
North Star was telling her, "A.B. is down. We can't get a pulse."
"What does that
mean, you can't get a pulse?"
airlifted to the hospital in Page, Arizona," came the reply. "Call
your husband. He's been given the hospital phone number." S.B.
frantically dialed B.B. at his office. Sounding numb, he repeated
what he knew: A.B. had collapsed in the desert. It was a freak
accident. There was nothing anyone could do. Their son was dead.
On March 1,
1994, the B.ís had enrolled A.B. in a 63-day North Star course
conducted in the sandstone badlands of southern Utah, near
Escalante. Tall and skinny, with shoulder-length hair, A.B. was a
funny, articulate kid who wrote prizewinning poetry and excelled
academically. But early in his sophomore year at Phoenix's Central High School, he started smoking pot every day and ditching classes. His grades
plummeted. In February of 1994, he was jumped in the school parking
lot by members of a gang known as the Crips. Although he vehemently
denied any gang involvement, witnesses reported that the Crips acted
like they knew him well.
scared us," says S.B., who worried that the beating involved a drug
deal. "A.B. seemed to be caught in a big downhill spiral."
From a friend
of a friend, S.B. had heard about a company called North Star
Expeditions, whose adolescent-treatment program was based on an
increasingly popular regimen known as wilderness therapy: a blend of
intensive counseling, enforced discipline, and spartan hikes through
the desert. "Students at North Star...learn that Mother Nature does
not make exceptions," explained the outfit's brochure. "They learn
responsibility, self-discipline, and motivation."
$13,900 for a 63-day course, plus another $775 to have A.B. forcibly
"escorted" to Escalante--something North Star strongly recommended.
B.B.'s architecture firm, once prosperous, had lately been teetering
on the brink of insolvency, and the B.ís no longer had that kind of
cash. But, says S.B., after talking to several parents whose kids
had been helped by the program, "We were given a lot of hope that
North Star was going to build A.B.'s self-esteem. I knew it would be
rigorous, but I pictured him out there with God and nature, hiking
all day, discussing his issues with therapists around the campfire
Still, the B.ís
had concerns, which they expressed during a long meeting at a Phoenix hotel with Lance and
Barbara Jaggar, two of North Star's owners. "I was worried because
A.B. was very, very thin," says S.B., "but Barbara assured me, 'Oh,
we would never let any of our students lose weight.'"
that A.B. didn't respond well to intimidation. "Don't worry,"
insisted Lance, a 280-pound former military policeman with a neck
like a fire hydrant. "I have a special gift for working with kids.
They really open up to me." Convinced, S.B. and B.B. took out a
second mortgage to pay the tuition and, without telling A.B., signed
At 6 a.m. on March 1, A.B. awoke to the sight of his father walking into his
bedroom with Lance Jaggar and Jaggar's brother-in-law, Don Burkhart.
Taking A.B.'s arm in his meaty grip, Jaggar announced, "You're
coming with me. If I detect any resistance, I'll assume you are
trying to get away, and I'll take the appropriate action. Do I make
As A.B. was led
out of the house barefoot, S.B. tried to hug her terrified son, but
Jaggar wouldn't release A.B.'s arms. Trying not to cry, she took his
face in her hands and declared, "I love you. I don't want you to be
afraid. This is what's best." Jaggar then hustled the boy outside,
drove to the airport, and flew him to Escalante in a single-engine
Over the next
month, S.B. called frequently to see how A.B. was doing. The news
wasn't encouraging. Her son, said North Star spokeswoman Daryl
Bartholomew, was "belligerent and a whiner," and the other kids
resented him. During a long conversation on March 30, Bartholomew
informed S.B. that A.B.'s attitude was so bad he'd probably have to
repeat the program.
hours later, A.B. was dead. According to the autopsy, the cause was
acute peritonitis resulting from a perforated ulcer. The contents of
A.B.'s gastrointestinal tract had leaked through two holes in his
small intestine, spreading a massive infection throughout his
abdominal cavity. North Star explained that the ailment had surfaced
so suddenly that heroic efforts by its field staff and an emergency
medical helicopter were futile. Preliminary reports from the
Garfield County sheriff's office seemed to confirm North Star's contention that the
death was an unavoidable accident.
The B.ís' grief
was compounded by guilt over the fact that they'd never had an
opportunity to explain to A.B. why they sent him to North Star.
"After A.B. died," says S.B., "all I wanted was to get his body
back. I wanted to hold him and say good-bye. I wanted a chance to
But with the
arrival of his remains at a Phoenix mortuary three days later, guilt
gave way to anger. Pulling the sheet from A.B.'s body, S.B. was
confronted with a battered, emaciated corpse. She started screaming
hysterically and had to cover her eyes. "His legs were like
toothpicks," S.B. recalls, breaking into sobs. "His hipbones stuck
way out, his ribs--he looked like a concentration-camp victim. There
were bruises from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, open
sores up and down the inside of his thighs. The only way we were
even able to recognize him was a childhood scar above his right
"Right then it
became obvious that A.B.'s death was not an accident," B.B. says.
"We knew that something horrible had been done to him."
Deep in a
ravine slicing into the parched uplands of central Arizona, an
alligator lizard scurries across a boulder in the withering sun.
With a lightning-quick lunge, a big, gawky 16-year-old plucks the
reptile from the rock and clutches it in his thick fingers. "This is
the tenth lizard I've caught," says C., beaming, his cherubic face
smudged with soot. Then he slices off its head, pops it into his
mouth, and gulps it down.
C. is enrolled
in a nine-week treatment program for troubled adolescents run by the
Anasazi Foundation, a nonprofit corporation based in Mesa, Arizona.
He's currently camped beside a rock-choked creek with three other
wayward teenagers and their three college-age counselors. Some 40
other Anasazi students and their keepers are sprinkled among the
As C. stokes
the fire, D., 15, and S., 14, hunker nearby, frowning silently as
they scribble in the journals they keep as part of their unorthodox
treatment. Suddenly the quiet is shattered by the deafening
whump-whump of a helicopter, which spirals down from the simmering
sky to alight behind a nearby ridge. A terse radio conversation
reveals that a student from another group, in the throes of
methamphetamine withdrawal, is being evacuated to a distant
hospital. As it turns out, the boy's condition isn't serious--he
apparently faked a seizure to get out of the program--but in the
wake of the "North Star incident," as Anasazi's counselors
distastefully refer to it, the people who run this program aren't
taking any chances.
winter, Lance Jaggar and seven other North Star employees, charged
with felony child abuse and neglect in A.B.'s death, will stand
trial in Panguitch, Utah. Though A.B.
wasn't the first teenager to die during wilderness
therapy--nationwide, more than a dozen other deaths have occurred
since such programs came into being in the seventies--the horror of
his last days, detailed in a personal journal, has stirred up a
storm of media attention. It has also generated unprecedented
concern about the multimillion-dollar wilderness-therapy industry,
which is poised for continued expansion during a time when the
number of out-of-control teenagers and dysfunctional families seems
to be rising steadily.
"There are a
lot of desperate parents out there," says Lewis Glenn, who oversees
safety for Outward Bound USA, which has adapted a relatively small
number of its courses for troubled adolescents and rejects the
tough-love approach. "And many of them are looking for a quick fix:
'Here's my money; take my messed-up kid for a month and make him
how the A.B. trial turns out, its long-term significance will rest
on the crucial questions it has raised about wilderness therapy. How
many boot camps exist, and who gets sent to them--serious
delinquents or kids like A.B., whose problems seem relatively minor?
Who sees to it that the camps offer "therapy" and not just clumsy
behavior modification? Above all, what safeguards are in place to
ensure that what happened to A.B. won't happen again?
As yet, none of
these questions has been adequately answered. Nationwide, more than
120 companies are in the business of wilderness therapy, and a small
but significant number of them--perhaps two dozen--employ harsh
methods. By definition, treatment conducted miles from the nearest
road isn't easy to monitor. If the B. case is any indication, a
flurry of vaunted regulations enacted five years ago by the state of
Utah (in reaction to two other fatalities in Utah-based programs)
accomplished little beyond giving the public a false sense of
how society should respond range widely. In Panguitch--where North
Star's lead defense attorney, Sheldon Wellins, is expected to argue
that A.B. was a faker whose genuine health problems were ignored
because he cried wolf too often--parents of other students in A.B.'s
group will maintain that North Star saved their kids from such evils
as drug abuse and satanism and should be allowed to resume business.
(Saying that it needed time to organize its defense, North Star
suspended operations after criminal charges were filed. Wellins and
Jaggar both declined to discuss the case with Outside.)
Others see the
tragedy as a clear sign that the industry warrants tighter controls.
"There has to be more government oversight," declares C.S. of Ripon, California, whose daughter M.
died in 1990 in a Utah wilderness program called Summit Quest.
"There is too much money to be made by duping parents, abusing
children, and risking lives." C.S. is using the $345,000 settlement
she received from Summit Quest's insurer to establish a watchdog
group, the M.S. Foundation for Camp Safety. Arguing that North Star
is by no means the only program flirting with disaster, S. mentions
Pathfinders, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based wilderness-therapy
camp run by a former Vietnam fighter-jet pilot named Michael Parr.
Despite documented charges of abuse and an ongoing state
investigation into its practices, Pathfinders continues to operate
at full clip.
disturbing is the story of the man who single-handedly made
tough-love wilderness therapy a high-revenue proposition: a military
veteran named Steve Cartisano, who many contend is motivated more by
greed than compassion. Significantly, the three most recent deaths
at wilderness-therapy camps occurred in programs run by Cartisano or
former Cartisano employees. And despite years of controversy,
criminal charges, and civil suits, Cartisano himself is still in
wilderness-therapy movement, various professionals maintain that the
industry can and should police itself. "All the bad press is the
result of a few bad programs," insists Doug Nelson, a professor of
outdoor education at Brigham Young University who spearheaded
the licensing reforms in Utah. Nelson says it's unfair to slam the
whole industry because of North Star, but he admits that the
potential for mishap is great and that no amount of reform or
oversight will take away the responsibility of parents who have to
decide--as the B.s had to decide--whether wilderness therapy is the
"When it's used
right," says Nelson, "the wilderness can be an incredibly powerful
tool for helping troubled kids. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands,
something that powerful can be very dangerous."
The belief that
wilderness redeems the soul is as old as the Boy Scouts, as old as
the Old Testament. But only in the last half-century has the concept
of forging character on nature's anvil been packaged into a booming
was Outward Bound, founded in Wales during World War II to help
stiffen the sagging spine of the British Empire. In 1962, Outward
Bound transplanted its methods to the United States, opening a
school in the mountains of western Colorado. Its standard 26-day
course included rock climbing, bust-ass backpacking, and a three-day
"solo." Before long, scores of imitators materialized, and by the
seventies the United States was home to more than 200 programs
dedicated to self-improvement through outdoor adventure.
disproportionate number of the Outward Bound-inspired programs
originated in Provo, Utah, on the campus of Brigham
Young University. The spark was
provided by an Idaho farm boy named Larry Dean Olsen, who enrolled
at BYU in the midsixties. Olsen, a folksy, gregarious man in his
fifties who today heads the Anasazi Foundation, was a self-taught
survival buff who knew a lot about chipping arrow points and living
off the land. To help pay his way through college, he started
teaching backcountry survival to local hunters and fishermen.
In 1968, the
university asked Olsen to lead an experimental "expedition," based
loosely on the Outward Bound model, for a group of students who were
flunking out. The 30-day course, held in the Utah desert, was a
grueling physical trial, but most of the 26 kids who completed it
showed a striking improvement in academic performance the following
semester. The course ultimately became a centerpiece of the
university's Youth Leadership Department.
Olsen went on
to write a widely read book, Outdoor Survival Skills, which brought
him minor celebrity. Although he left BYU in the early seventies
following allegations of mismanagement and sexual
impropriety--"Larry liked the girls a little too much," explains a
former BYU colleague--the success of the university's outdoor
education curriculum continued to balloon.
BYU is closely
affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and
at the core of its wilderness programs was a spiritual component
that had no equivalent in Outward Bound. They were intended, first
and foremost, to be deeply religious experiences that promoted faith
in the Mormon ideal. As one result, graduates of BYU courses
established similar programs across the West with evangelistic zeal.
Most of these
operated uneventfully, but there were serious setbacks that presaged
what would happen to A.B.. In 1974, a 12-year-old boy became
dehydrated and died of heatstroke while enrolled in an Idaho State University program established under Olsen's guidance. The next year, a young woman
in a BYU course died while hiking across Utah's Burr Desert, also from dehydration.
In each case the staff was inexperienced and inadequately equipped;
both deaths could have been prevented with basic precautions.
days," says Larry Wells, a onetime BYU student who currently directs
an exemplary program called Wilderness ConQuest, "the staff at these
programs received almost no training in things like logistics or
safety. Because we were doing 'God's work,' there was a strong
belief that God would look after everybody." The deaths served as a
wake-up call. BYU brought Wells in to overhaul its program and
establish new safety standards.
reforms, deadly mishaps continued. In the mideighties, a 13-year-old
boy fell from a cliff to his death while enrolled in a course run by
the Idaho-based School for Urban and Wilderness Survival. Vision
Quest, a notorious Arizona-based program that is still in business,
began racking up accident deaths that to date reportedly total 16.
Many of the wilderness schools that proliferated in these years
specialized in the rehabilitation of wayward teenagers. By and
large, however, none of the commercial programs made much money
until Steve Cartisano burst onto the scene in 1987. Applying the
full brunt of his marketing genius, he transformed a marginally
solvent industry into a cash cow.
Cartisano was born to a cherokee mother and Italian-American father
who gave him chiseled features and piercing eyes. His childhood in
Modesto, California, he has
reported, was not happy: One parent was addicted to heroin; the
other beat him. He says his tormented youth motivated him to make a
career of helping troubled teens.
turned 40 in August, joined the air force in 1974 and was made an
instructor at the prestigious Fairchild Air Force Base Survival
School. Later he became a parajumper with the elite 129th Aerospace
Rescue and Recovery Group. While in the service, he became close
friends with a Mormon airman and converted to the faith. Soon
thereafter he moved to Utah and enrolled at BYU. There he studied
film and wrote a screenplay about the exploits of a crack air force
rescue squad whose hero was a part-Italian, part-Cherokee Mormon
adventurer named Steve Montana. Cartisano never made it to Hollywood, nor did he earn a BYU
degree, but while on campus he worked briefly as an instructor in
one of the school's wilderness courses and thereby found his
school, Cartisano decided to launch his own commercial
wilderness-therapy school. Toward that end he hired Doug Nelson--who
had directed the BYU wilderness programs for many years and founded
the Boulder Outdoor Survival School--as a consultant. "Steve told me he was going to charge $9,000 for a
two-month course," Nelson recalls. "At the time, most commercial
programs were charging something like $500 for a 30-day experience,
and I told Steve there was no way anyone was going to pay that kind
Cartisano christened his school the Challenger Foundation,
advertised a course in a remote corner of Hawaii, and had little
trouble finding parents willing to pay his price. In January 1988,
he moved Challenger to Escalante, Utah. Though he upped tuition
to $12,500 and then $15,900, enrollment continued to explode. By the
end of the year he had 50 employees and had taken in more than $3
million in gross revenues.
Bound, most Mormon-run wilderness schools offered kids tough
challenges but generally treated them with care and sensitivity.
Cartisano disdained this approach as too touchy-feely. Instead, he
ran Challenger with the in-your-face discipline of a boot camp.
nothing complicated about the Challenger philosophy," explains
Cartisano, who these days shuttles between Costa Rica, where he
still runs courses, and an undisclosed residence in Oklahoma. "It
was all about setting limits and sticking to them. Every other type
of treatment had failed for these kids. Many had been sent to us by
the courts. We showed them that their actions had immediate
consequences. And the results we got were phenomenal."
A videotape of
a 1989 Challenger course shows a vanload of new students looking
shocked and confused as they arrive in the desert in the middle of
the night to begin a 500-mile forced march. A hulking bull of a man
starts pounding on the windows and screams at the kids to assemble
around a bonfire. "Move it! Move it!" he bellows. "My name is
Horsehair. For the next 63 days you'll be under my care... Do you
"Yes, sir!" the
kids answer in unison.
"I can't hear
"I have a
phrase that I use," Horsehair explains impassively to the camera.
"I'm gonna love you till it hurts. You."
Lance Paul Jaggar, an air force vet who served as Cartisano's field
director. He and another devout Mormon, Bill Henry--an Idaho
acquaintance of Larry Dean Olsen's who had been active in
Scouting--supervised daily operations out of Escalante, allowing
Cartisano to concentrate on marketing from his Provo-area home, a
lavish residence that previously had been owned by golfer Billy
promoter, Cartisano persuaded his "good friend" Oliver North to put
in an appearance during his Iran-Contra notoriety and hired a
publicist who booked him on Donahue, S.B. Jesse Raphael, and
Geraldo. "All the big talk shows," Cartisano boasts. "They loved me.
I'd go on TV with kids who'd been through the program, these
beautiful 14- to 15-year-old girls who'd talk about how they'd been
out on the street stealing and doing drugs and turning tricks until
Challenger changed their ways."
appearances were a marketing gold mine," says a former associate of
Cartisano's who declined to be identified. "The phones were ringing
off the hook. Parents begged him to take their kids. An incredible
amount of money started rolling in. Unfortunately, Steve didn't know
how to handle it."
would go on the road to recruit customers, alleges the ex-associate,
"Sometimes he'd spend $2,000 a week to rent a Lamborghini. He'd run
up $1,000-a-night hotel bills." With such expenditures, despite all
the money coming in, Challenger had trouble paying its bills. Checks
bounced. The Internal Revenue Service inquired about $196,000 in
unpaid corporate taxes. By early 1990 Cartisano was embroiled in
numerous lawsuits filed by creditors and disgruntled clients, and
the state of Utah was investigating him on several fronts.
At the same
time, charges started flying that Challenger staff physically abused
their students. According to Max Jackson, former sheriff of Kane County (Challenger ran its
courses in Kane and adjacent Garfield County), "We pulled one kid from the program who was so bruised and scarred he
looked like he'd been at Auschwitz. When another kid tried
to run away, Cartisano got in a helicopter, found him, flew him up
to the top of a mesa, and slugged him in the gut a couple of times."
Cartisano was married and had four children, Jackson alleges that
"at one point he struck up a romance with the mother of one of his
students. He talked her into giving him her Visa Gold card with no
credit limit. He ran up $65,000 in charges before she realized she'd
"Steve is real
smooth, real slick," Jackson reflects. "He likes to hear himself
talk. But I'll tell you what: I went to the FBI Academy a couple years back, and
we studied the typology of sociopaths. Out of a list of 20
characteristics, Steve was a perfect match with about 19 of 'em."
Cartisano dismisses his legal problems, saying Jackson and the state
were "out to get me. The charges were all based on allegations of
messed-up kids who were pathological liars and master manipulators.
They knew that the fastest way out of the program was to accuse the
staff of abusing them." Unbowed, he still feels as defiant as he did
in 1989, when he proclaimed, "There's no way on this earth I'll ever
allow any petty bureaucrat to take over this program and turn it
from a survival camp into a summer camp. They're going to find out
they're messing with the wrong guy."
financial and legal difficulties mounted, the Challenger admissions
director, a woman named Gayle Palmer, quit to start her own
wilderness-therapy company, Summit Quest Inc. Palmer knew little
about the backcountry or therapy beyond what she'd gleaned from
pitching Challenger courses. "But Palmer got tired of working for
Steve," says Doug Nelson, "so she hung out her shingle."
were enrolled in the inaugural Summit Quest course, which cost
$13,900 for 63 days. Palmer sent the group to the arid Shivwits
Plateau, near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, supervised by two
young counselors who were paid minimum wage. During the first
several days, M.S. --a pretty 15-year-old who had enrolled
voluntarily to regain self-esteem after an alleged date
rape--complained repeatedly of exhaustion, sunburn, and nausea. As
the group hiked through the desert, she vomited up most of the water
she tried to drink and pleaded that she could not go on. According
to counselors' field reports gathered by state and federal
investigators, the lead counselor had been ordered to ignore such
talk as manipulative behavior. "You have been sloughing off," she
told M.S. "You are now being warned."
On May 9, 1990,
during an ascent of 7,072-foot Mount Dellenbaugh, M.S.ís speech
became slurred, she cried out that she couldn't see, and then she
lost consciousness and died. Palmer insisted to officials that M.S.
had succumbed to a drug overdose, but the coroner found no drugs in
her system and determined the cause of death to be dehydration.
Although no charges were filed, Cartisano was quick to lash out at
Palmer in the media, accusing her of criminal incompetence. "At
Challenger," he gloated, "a tragedy like the one that killed M.S.
could never happen."
Just six weeks
later, it did. On June 27, 1990, four days after enrolling at
Challenger, a 16-year-old Florida girl named K.C. collapsed after a
five-mile hike in near-100-degree heat. Once again, her counselors
had thought she was faking when she complained. The coroner
attributed her death to hyperthermia and dehydration--the most basic
and preventable hazards of desert travel.
death, the state of Utah charged Cartisano and Lance Jaggar with
negligent homicide and nine counts of child abuse involving C. and
other Challenger students. Jaggar, however, cut a deal with the Kane County prosecutor: He agreed to
testify against Cartisano in return for having all charges against
The trial was
held in Kanab, Utah, in September 1991. Jaggar
and other Challenger employees testified under oath about beatings
and abusive treatment. But after five days of testimony, a mistrial
was called over a technicality. In a glaring mistake, the judge had
neglected to read the charges to the jury at the trial's outset.
The case was
retried eight months later in the Salt Lake City area. This time,
says Max Jackson, "Cartisano brought in a high-dollar attorney from
New York. And then, in the middle of everything, the prosecuting
attorney started drinking real heavy, and I had to arrest him for
DUI. The upshot was, Cartisano got off scot-free." Afterward, one
jury member explained the verdict: "We weren't saying Cartisano was
innocent, we were saying the prosecution didn't prove he was
guilty.... We all felt like the program had some real problems."
aftermath, the state of Utah resolved to monitor the
wilderness-therapy industry more closely. Many concerned
individuals, including Doug Nelson and Larry Wells, came forward to
help draft a set of strict regulations. Prominent among the would-be
reformers were Lance Jaggar and Bill Henry, who zealously decried
the abuses of their former employer. In short order, they submitted
the necessary paperwork to start their own wilderness-therapy
program and in October 1990 were granted a license to operate in
Utah. Three months after the death of K.C., the two individuals
considered by many to be most responsible for the tragedy were back
in business. They called their new enterprise North Star Expeditions
"That's a real
touchy subject around here," says a waitress at the Circle D
Restaurant in Escalante, when asked about A.B. "He was a drug
addict, his parents was drug addicts, and now that he's dead they
want to blame somebody, so they're trying to wreck the lives of the
folks who was trying to help him."
Rising from the
wind-scoured slickrock of southern Utah, Escalante (pronounced
"es-ka-LANT") is a characteristically insular Mormon outpost. Though
it's seen an influx of California retirees in recent years--raising
the population to about 800--townsfolk merely tolerate the
intruders; they don't welcome them. Likewise, when Steve Cartisano
brought Challenger to Escalante in 1988, locals were initially wary.
But it was a good Mormon enterprise, and field director Lance Jaggar
married a local girl, Barb Reynolds, from nearby Tropic. Eventually
it gained a measure of acceptance.
By the time
Challenger, minus Cartisano, had turned into North Star (the name
changed, but most of the key personnel remained the same), the
company was tightly woven into the civic fabric. When felony charges
were filed in connection with A.B.'s death, the local Mormon church
provided financial assistance to some of the defendants, and
Escalante closed ranks to support the beleaguered corporation.
A.B. arrived on
March 1, 1994, in the custody of Lance and Barbara Jaggar. He was
strip-searched, issued cheap boots and a backpack, and driven into
the desert to begin a ten-day acclimatization process. Escalante
lies 5,600 feet above sea level, and March here is harsh and wintry.
The first backcountry entry in A.B.'s journal reads, "I've been
shaking from the cold since I got here. My body being used to the
weather in Phoenix is going into shock. I feel like I'm going to
die.... I am scared. I don't know when I can talk or if I can."
After the 1990
deaths, Utah enacted strict regulations for wilderness therapy. A
student's backpack was not to weigh more than 30 percent of his or
her body weight. Hiking was never to exceed "the physical capability
of the weakest member of the group," and each student was to receive
a minimum of 1,800 calories per day. A single violation of these or
other rules was grounds to suspend an operator's license.
for enforcing the regulations, however, fell to a lone civil
servant, Ken Stettler, who was supposed to monitor more than 100
youth-treatment companies statewide. In practice, it was impossible
for him to ride herd on so many programs, and North Star was among
those that escaped close scrutiny. Stettler, a devoted Mormon, knew
Jaggar and Henry well and says that he trusted them, as fellow
Saints, implicitly. After A.B.'s death, Stettler's confidence in
Jaggar and Henry remained steadfast. He quickly cleared North Star
of any wrongdoing and allowed the program to stay in business--which
it did for six months, until the state of Utah filed criminal
charges in October 1994.
North Star operated as Challenger had. Food was strictly rationed.
Students were deprived of provisions, sleeping bags, and shelter as
a matter of course. The counselors were poorly paid and had little
training. There was one credentialed therapist on the payroll--David
Jensen, a clinical social worker--but A.B. saw him only once.
Therapy at North Star consisted almost exclusively of intimidation,
deprivation, and military-style discipline.
On March 7, A.B.
was driven into town, where his hair was sheared and he was examined
by a physician assistant. He weighed 131 pounds. Blood and urine
tests indicated that he'd been using nothing stronger than
marijuana. A day later, in a letter to his parents, A.B. wrote, "I'm
trying to work this program as well as I can, but...I can't believe
you want me believing this stuff.... I've been told that 'all
therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are
quacks.' I've been lectured on the stupidity of believing in
them.... I miss you mom, and you dad.... As I'm writing this and
thinking about you all at home I can't help but cry."
On March 11,
A.B.'s group of six students and two counselors headed into a
labyrinth of spectacular sandstone canyons for a three-week
backcountry trek. For the first two days the students were deprived
of food to "cleanse the toxins from their bodies," as North Star
literature put it. From a picture of the trip that emerges from his
journal, investigators' records, and testimony at a preliminary
hearing held last May in Panguitch, it's clear that A.B. quickly ran
into problems. His feet blistered, he fell repeatedly, and he had
great difficulty getting back on his feet under his 45-pound load.
While ascending an eerie, crepuscular defile called Little Death
Hollow, he slipped and bashed his chin on the slickrock. On March
15, too tired to carry his pack, he abandoned it. Because it held
all his rations, he was forced to go without food until he retrieved
the pack on the return trip two days later.
other counselors and students allegedly taunted A.B., asking if he
were "homosexual." On March 20, a counselor named Brent Brewer took
away A.B.'s sleeping bag as punishment and replaced it with a thin
blanket. The next day, A.B. wrote that he hadn't eaten in 24 hours:
"I feel like I am losing control of my body. I've peed my pants
every night for the past three nights and today when we started our
little hike I took a dump in my pants, I didn't even feel it coming,
it just happened.... All the other students started to laugh....
I've been telling [the staff] that I'm sick for a while and they say
I'm faking it."
when A.B. developed the ulcer that killed him, but by this point the
stress of the course had severely exacerbated the ailment. The next
evening he wrote, "The cold and the wind is making me freeze up....
All I can think about is cold and pain.... I miss my family so much.
My hands, my lips and face are dead."
ends there, on March 22, but his travails continued. By this time,
say witnesses, A.B. was too exhausted to keep up, and he abandoned
his pack a second time as the students commenced a grueling climb to
the summit of the Kaiparowits Plateau. He went without food, a
blanket, or a sleeping bag from March 22 to March 25 on the
7,000-foot mesa, where nightly temperatures dropped below 22 degrees
On the 25th,
Lance Jaggar and Bill Henry met A.B.'s group on the Kaiparowits.
According to witnesses, they gave him a blanket to replace his
sleeping bag but took his cup away because "he wasn't keeping it
clean." Jaggar also reiterated to the counselors that A.B. was "a
whiner and a faker."
A.B. had been
unable to control his bladder and bowels for many days, and on March
29 he was forced to hike without pants. The group descended from the
high country and retrieved A.B.'s pack, but A.B. was too weak to
carry it. "The counselor got mad," recalls John Kulluk, one of the
students, "and the rest of us had to carry it for him. Then, about a
mile from camp, A.B. fell and couldn't get up, so we had to carry
him, too. While we were carrying him he puked all over T. [another
student] and talked about seeing purple stars and a purple sky, like
he was delirious."
says Kulluk, A.B. complained again of being seriously ill, "but the
staff just kind of blew him off and called him a faker. They yelled,
'Get off your lazy butt and go collect wood.' The next morning Craig
[Fisher, a counselor] got really mad, grabbed A.B. by the shirt, and
pulled him to the latrine."
rock-strewn Arizona canyon 300 miles south of where A.B. died, a
teenage girl with unshaved legs and a dirty face kneels in the sand.
Using a crude bow drill to start a fire on a block of cottonwood,
she produces a tiny coal, which she quickly coaxes into a blaze.
"Nice fire, A.!" proclaims C., who crouches nearby kneading cornmeal
and water into a wretched pancake. "Too bad we don't have something
better to cook on it than this crap."
C., A, and
another teenager named A. are seven weeks into the $15,000
wilderness course run by the Anasazi Foundation. Like most kids who
wind up in such programs, they're here for the typical sins of
adolescence: drinking, drugs, sex, shoplifting. "To get me here, my
parents kidnapped me," complains C., a petite 16-year-old from
Boston. "It was sick."
about wilderness therapy in the abstract, I'm spending a few days
with Anasazi to see how it works in practice. Anasazi, of course,
isn't North Star. It has a reputation as one of the safest programs
in the nation, and its style couldn't be more different. The night
before, two boys from a nearby Anasazi group ran away. Counselors
discovered the escape half an hour later, picked up the kids' trail,
and caught up with them shortly after dawn. At North Star, the
fugitives might have received severe punishment. Anasazi's
counselors took another approach.
"Where you guys
headed?" they calmly inquired of the runners. After suggesting that
the kids return to the group, they added, "Of course, if you'd
rather keep going in this direction, that's cool. We'll just tag
along with you to make sure you're safe, OK?" The boys sheepishly
confessed that they were tired and hungry and wanted to go back.
methods are rooted in the Mormon principle of "agency," the idea
that "God will force no man to heaven." According to this precept,
righteous behavior cannot be coerced. It has to be a conscious
choice. "We don't lay a lot of rules on these kids," explains
Elizabeth Peterson, an irrepressibly upbeat 20-year-old counselor.
"If they insist on smuggling in contraband, they can, but we explain
that they won't start to make progress until they choose to turn
over their drugs. The whole program is based on trust. Without it,
there's really no point in even doing this."
works at Anasazi in part because Anasazi turns away students who
might not be disqualified from other programs: kids who exhibit
violent behavior, for example. Still, many of Anasazi's clients are
deeply troubled, and Anasazi is no holiday. Students march hard,
sleep on rocky ground, and once a week receive a 15-pound food bag
containing staples like cornmeal, flour, and lentils. The daily
ration of 2,000 calories is extremely lean, and if a kid consumes it
early in the week, he or she has to subsist on wild plants, lizards,
and bugs. The Anasazi students I met looked healthy, but food
monopolized their fantasies.
At least from
what I could see, the Anasazi staff manages to impose discipline
without making threats. Larry Dean Olsen, Anasazi's founder, calls
intimidation "Satan's tactic." There are, he says, "only two ways
you can help a kid. Love him and love him some more. You've got to
guide him gently and prayerfully to the right path." As Olsen's
words suggest, religious dogma is an integral part of the Anasazi
curriculum. While such indoctrination raises questions about the
program's effectiveness in treating kids from outside the Mormon
community, on the surface, at least, Anasazi appears to work.
"For the first
week, I couldn't stand being here," says C., who is not a Mormon, as
she warms her grimy hands by the fire. "I hated everything about
Anasazi. But now I'm grateful that my parents made me come. This is
the best thing that's ever happened to me. I've changed so much out
"It's true," A.
pipes in. "You should have seen C. when she first arrived. She cried
all the time. She was mean to everybody. Now look at her: She's
happy. The rest of us can actually stand to be around her. She's
really changed. All three of us have."
candidly and at length with four groups of Anasazi students out of
earshot of their counselors, it seemed to me that the program
changed many of the kids in dramatic ways. But I was less convinced
that the changes will stick. A 1991 survey of Anasazi graduates
found that 73 percent had managed to stay away from drugs and
alcohol a year after completing the program--an impressive number,
but as psychologists are quick to point out, this kind of
self-reporting results in notoriously unreliable data. Beyond such
isolated studies, no wilderness-therapy program has ever been the
subject of scientifically rigorous, long-term analysis.
All of which,
of course, makes a parent's decision to choose this method of
treatment a tough judgment call. During a long talk with a group of
parents who were on their way to meet their kids at the conclusion
of an Anasazi trip, I asked about motives. In part, their answers
and attitudes were a reminder that troubled kids often come from
troubled homes. (After hearing one parent, a self-important doctor
from Kansas, pontificate smugly for hours, I wondered whether dad,
not junior, should have been packed off to boot camp.) But while
listening to every parent in the vehicle recount tales of children
lost to drugs and crime, I wondered what I would do under similar
circumstances. Like as not, I'd scrape up the money and put my kid
in Anasazi. Given the alternative, what parent wouldn't at least
underscores one of the biggest problems with wilderness therapy:
Parents who choose it are too often in the grip of fear and guilt
and unfiltered emotion--poor conditions for making such a critical
choice. As the Anasazi van lurched down the road, the subject of
parental responsibility in these decisions--and A.B.'s death--came
up. "I would never intentionally send my boy to an abusive outfit
like North Star," offered one father, "but I realize that every
program has risks."
"I guess there
are some bad things that could happen out there in the desert," a
mother said. "But whatever my daughter is doing, I'm sure she's a
whole lot safer than she would be in town, drinking and taking drugs
with her friends."
This is what
S.B. believed, of course, but she warns today that matters aren't
quite so simple. "I am not an unsophisticated person," she says with
conviction during a long conversation about the decision to send
A.B. to North Star. "B.B. and I were careful. We asked all the
questions you're supposed to ask." Her eyes brim with tears. "Of all
the treatment centers in America, why did I pick this one? How could
I have been so wrong?"
"I think about
what happened to A.B. every day," Mike Hill whispers in a voice
still thick with regret more than a year after A.B.'s death. A
soft-spoken, baby-faced Apache raised on the San Carlos Indian
Reservation in Arizona, Hill will be a crucial witness for the state
of Utah in the A.B. case. The defense will attempt to discredit
Hill's testimony by attacking his character, pointing out that he
has a history of drug abuse and that, as a counselor at North Star,
he was investigated for having a sexual relationship with a
17-year-old student. Hill says that none of these old allegations
change what he saw and heard.
1993, Hill was 19 years old and "hanging out on the res" when he and
his best friend, Sonny Duncan, were offered employment at North
Star. "There was no job interview or anything," Hill recalls. "I
didn't really have any qualifications. They just hired us on the
spot and drove us up to Utah. I figured we would just chill out,
spend a lot of time sitting around the campfire. Then we got there
and learned different." In Escalante, Hill and Duncan were rushed
out to the field and, without training or supervision, left in
charge of five students.
"My third day
there," Hill says, "Horsehair [Lance Jaggar] came out and started
yelling, shoving kids around, grabbing them in the crotch, poking
them in the chest. He told one kid, 'Know what's gonna happen to you
if you keep smoking pot? You're going to wind up in prison where big
black bubbas like to fuck little white boys like you.' These same
people were trying to convert me to Mormonism, preaching about
righteousness--and here they were doing this kind of stuff?"
A.B. wasn't in
Hill's group, but they crossed paths now and then, and Hill says he
liked the skinny kid from Phoenix. After not seeing A.B. for a
couple of weeks, he encountered his group at the mouth of Right Hand Canyon on March 30 and was shocked by what he saw: "He looked anorexic-like,
with bones showing everywhere."
By this time
Sonny Duncan, who was assigned to A.B.'s group, was concerned enough
to radio the North Star office and request that Georgette Costigan,
a staffer and a certified emergency medical technician, come out and
look at him. She talked to A.B. briefly, gave him a piece of cheese,
and then drove back to town without checking any of his vital signs,
despite the fact that he weighed only 108 pounds.
On March 31,
because A.B. could no longer walk more than a dozen yards without
collapsing, it was decided that he should be taken into
Escalante--not for medical treatment, but to start the course over
again. Duncan radioed Hill, who was camped nearby, and asked him to
look after A.B. until a truck arrived to take him to town.
It was a cold,
windy morning. At 10:30, Hill walked over to Duncan's camp and found
A.B. sitting on a pit latrine. When he tried to stand, says Hill,
"he started staggering like a drunk." Duncan taunted and mocked A.B.
and told Hill that he had been starving himself because he wanted to
die. Hill pulled up the boy's pants and started leading him back to
his own camp, but A.B. couldn't walk, so Hill instructed other
students to carry him.
In camp, Hill
had A.B. lie down under a juniper and took two photographs of the
emaciated youth. "Since you're trying to starve yourself," he
admonished, "I'm going to show these pictures to your parents so
they'll know what you're up to."
that he couldn't hear Hill and that his vision had become a white
blur. "I don't want to die, sir," he protested, adding that he had
extreme pain in his lower abdomen. As it dawned on him that
something was seriously wrong, Hill tried to take A.B.'s
temperature, but the thermometer in the first-aid kit was broken. He
then pulled a pouch of ochre-colored Apache "medicine" powder from
his pocket, sprinkled it around A.B., and told the other students to
Dr. Todd Grey, the forensic pathologist who headed the state's
medical investigation of A.B.'s death, the contents of the boy's
intestine by this time had probably been leaking into his abdominal
cavity for 24 hours or more. "He would have had low blood pressure,
a fever, an elevated pulse rate, and exquisite tenderness of the
abdomen," Grey says. "Any reasonable person should have realized
that A.B. was in need of immediate medical attention."
But when Eric
Henry, Bill Henry's 20-year-old son, drove out that afternoon, North
Star still had no intention of taking A.B. to a doctor. A few
minutes before arriving, Henry radioed that Hill and the others
should "get the faker ready" to be transported to Escalante to join
a new group and start the course over. Unable to make it to the
North Star truck on his own, A.B. was picked up and placed in the
backseat by Henry. Then, for the next 20 minutes, Henry and the
other counselors stood outside the vehicle, chatting and making fun
of A.B.'s condition.
At 2:54 P.M., the counselors heard A.B. banging his head repeatedly against the
truck's rear window, so Hill went to check on him. The banging
stopped. A minute later, Hill recalls, "I went to the passenger side
of the truck to check again, and A.B. was just sitting there,
staring off into space. His eyes were blank. I got really scared
then. I checked his pulse and felt nothing."
A.B. was pulled
from the truck, and Hill began performing CPR while Henry
frantically radioed for medical assistance. "Everyone was freaking
out," says Hill. "Someone kept screaming, 'Oh, shit! Oh, shit!'"
Georgette Costigan arrived with her EMT kit about 30 minutes later, followed shortly by the Escalante ambulance
team and a medical helicopter from Page. They were all too late. A.B.
was already dead.
about the deaths at Challenger, North Star, and other programs,
Steve Cartisano calmly answers that because wilderness therapy saves
the lives of so many children, an occasional fatality is a
regrettable but justifiable cost of doing business. He calls it the
"window of loss."
Henry apparently share this view," muses B.B. A.B., "and I find that
despicable. Nobody from North Star has ever indicated to S.B. or me
that they are sorry for what they did to A.B.. Even now they seem
convinced that they were performing a benefit to society."
To be sure, not
all wilderness-therapy programs are run like boot camps, but
wilderness therapy remains an industry in which regulations are lax
and profit margins are extremely tantalizing. So long as a demand
exists, wilderness therapy is likely to attract more than its share
of shady operators and sociopaths. Thus far, there's no evidence
that society's chief means of protecting children from abusive
programs--oversight, law enforcement, and the courts--have had much
A few months
from now, Lance Jaggar, Bill Henry, Eric Henry, Sonny Duncan, Jeff
Hohenstein, Craig Fisher, Brent Brewer, and Georgette Costigan will
stand trial in Panguitch. If convicted, each could go to prison for
up to five years and face a $10,000 fine. If found innocent, they
will be free to return to the field of youth treatment.
the founder of Summit Quest, was not charged with any crime after
the death of M.S. Although she was subsequently denied a license by
the Utah Department of Human Services, Palmer brazenly resumed
operations. Last year, near Zion National Park, a scruffy,
frightened, 14-year-old girl wandered into a remote archaeology camp
begging for help. It turned out that she was fleeing from a course
Palmer had been running illegally out of St. George, Utah, the same town where she
had based Summit Quest.
In the years
since Steve Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges stemming
from the death of K.C., he has directed wilderness programs in a
succession of Caribbean locales, sometimes under the alias Scott
Richards, generating allegations of abuse and fraud wherever he has
landed. In 1993, police in San Juan, Puerto Rico, discovered five
boys hog-tied in a car with nooses around their necks. Their keeper
explained that the kids were enrolled in one of Cartisano's courses
and had been bound to keep them from escaping.
Cartisano is being investigated for insurance fraud and other
swindles, his precise whereabouts are a sensitive matter that he
prefers not to divulge. In a recent phone interview, however, he
couldn't resist boasting that he's "running pretty much the same
kind of program I've always run." At last report, he had raised
tuition to $20,000 and didn't lack customers.
Cartisano says plenty of parents still applaud his style of
treatment. "Our clients come from all over the United States," he
says of his current program, based in Costa Rica. "I take kids
sailing. We don't have to put up with any ridiculous regulations or
inspections down there. Things are going really well."
Jon Krakauer is
a contributing editor of Outside. His book about the wilderness
death of the vagabond backpacker Chris McCandless, Into the Wild,
will be published in January by Villard.