Want Your Kid to Disappear?
For $1,800, former Atlanta police officer Rick Strawn
will make that problem child someone else's problem. He
even makes house calls.
Louis Boussard has hired a professional to abduct his son.
On a late evening in early March, Rick Strawn of Strawn
Support Services flew from Atlanta to Tampa, Fla. He rented
a Ford Taurus with child-safety locks from Avis and set off
for the coastal town of St. Petersburg with his assistant,
Joshua Dalton, and me. An hour later, we were driving down a
street filled with one-story homes. We slowed down outside a
house with an American flag hanging from the eaves and a
Jaguar and a Grand Cherokee in the semicircular driveway. It
was 1:55 a.m., which meant we were early. Strawn parked in a
nearby lot to kill time. He went over the plan, emphasizing,
"We've got to leave by 3:15."
Flicking on the lights to look for Boussard's number, Strawn
dialed his cellphone. "Um, Louis. Hi. Does your house have a
circle driveway with a Jag in it?" he said. "If you're
ready, we'll come on in. Is he asleep?" The connection broke
up. Moments later, Strawn's phone rang. "Much better, yes.
No, don't wake him up. We're going to talk to you for about
an hour," he said. "I'm going to help you through all that.
We drove back to the house at a crawl and got out of the
car, easing the doors shut. Both men wore khaki pants and
dark blue shirts embossed with a globe logo and the website
address of Strawn's company. Strawn walked up the stone
pathway, peered in the window of the front door, and lightly
rapped. No one answered. "Maybe he said go around the back,"
Strawn said. "Wait here for a second." He began to walk
toward the back of the house when a light came on inside.
A Haitian-American man in his late 40s opened the front door
and beckoned us inside. Boussard (his name and the names of
his wife and son have been changed) guided us to a
dining-room table covered by a white tablecloth. It held a
white vase filled with artificial pink flowers and two fat
red candles in wrought iron stands. The matching white
cushions of the dining-room chairs were covered in plastic.
Boussard sat at the head of the table, flanked by his wife,
Sandra. In spite of the late hour, they were impeccably
dressed—he wore a beige linen suit and she wore a
scoop-necked sweater set off by a gold necklace and
bracelets. The couple's formality, however, soon gave way to
the urgency of the task at hand. Two rooms away on the other
side of the kitchen, their 16-year-old son, Louis, Jr., lay
asleep in his bedroom.
The Boussards had hired Strawn Support Services to transport
Louis, Jr. to Casa by the Sea, a school near Ensenada,
Mexico that seeks to "modify" the behavior of troublemaking
teens. Casa takes kids who parents have decided are out of
control, usually because the teens are talking back, getting
poor grades, staying out late, drinking, having sex too
soon, or taking drugs.
Louis, Jr.'s parents had not told him that he was going to
Mexico—nor how he would be taken there. They thought he
would run if he knew what was about to happen. Now they kept
glancing in the direction of the kitchen. "Louis is very
suspicious," Sandra whispered about her son as her husband
began a hurried account of the teen's misbehavior.
The troubles had begun a year earlier when Louis, Jr. was in
10th grade. His grades fell from A's and B's to C's and
below. He stopped playing basketball with his father. He
started talking back when his mother wouldn't let him go out
to clubs with his friends. He broke his curfew, which was
7:30 p.m. during the week and 9 p.m. on the weekends. Often
he left the house by his bedroom window. The Boussards
thought Louis, Jr. might be smoking pot. Then all of a
sudden, his report cards improved dramatically. "I thought,
something is not right," said Boussard, squinting at the
memory. He discovered a bad report card in his son's
backpack, and Louis admitted that he had faked the good
The Boussards enrolled their son in counseling; the
counselor said he was doing fine. They sent him to boot camp
for a day, where he got anger-management and drug
counseling. He behaved better for about a week. At around
the same time, Louis was told that he had to repeat 10th
grade. His parents transferred him to a vocational program
in carpentry at his high school with the hope that he would
find the schoolwork easier. Louis hated it.
Strawn listened to this litany of frustrations, nodding
sympathetically. Then, he took a breath and started the
spiel that he has honed over the course of six years and
some 300 transports. "Behavior is as addictive as any drug
or alcohol," he told the Boussards. Like all troubled kids,
Louis, Jr. needed to recover from his bad behavior. "The way
I look at it," Strawn continued, "any good recovery has
three components: breaking down old habits, building a
strong foundation, and building new habits." But Boussard
pére was not paying attention. He was still steamed
about the fake report cards. "I said 'Something is not
right,' " he repeated.
There was a slight noise, and he and his wife jumped.
"Do we need to have Josh go outside?" Strawn asked,
referring to his assistant.
"He's very suspicious," Sandra whispered, glancing over her
shoulder toward her son's room.
Strawn went outside to make sure that Louis had not climbed
out of his bedroom window. The teen seemed to be asleep, but
Strawn left Dalton outside to stand guard. On the air
conditioner outside the window was a bottle of cologne,
which Strawn guessed Louis used to freshen up before his
Strawn squeaked back into his chair and rushed through his
usual script. Now was not the moment to dwell on his own
recovery from alcoholism, or to lead the prayer circle that
he often suggests before a trip. He ran through what his
clients should expect when he entered Louis's room. Strawn
advised them to introduce him to Louis, to give their son a
hug if Louis let them, and then to walk away. "The hardest
thing I ask a parent to do is to turn around and walk out,"
he said. "Don't come back, no matter what you see or hear."
The mother and father nodded, shifting in their seats.
Boussard got a black overnight bag from a closet and handed
it to Strawn, along with a check for $1,800. In return,
Strawn asked him to sign a notarized power-of-attorney that
authorized his company to take "any act or action" on the
parents' behalf during the transport to Casa. The document
also promised that the couple would not sue for any injuries
caused by "reasonable restraint." Strawn warned them that he
would take Louis away in handcuffs. The father signed the
release, then seemed to have a moment of buyer's remorse. He
said he'd been obsessively reading the catalogue for Casa.
"All of a sudden, the intensity just takes off," Boussard
said about sending his son away. "We feel like we failed."
"Let me help you out there," Strawn reassured him. "I go to
families all the time with four or five siblings. Only one
of them decided to take this path. If it had anything to do
with your parenting skills . . . " His voice trailed off.
"It isn't because of that."
"We don't want to see him go to prison or jail," said
Boussard, rubbing his hands over his face again and again.
"Will he understand what we're trying to do for him?"
Boussard got up from the table with a sigh. The rest of us
followed close behind. He walked into the kitchen and took a
dinner knife out of a drawer, explaining that he would use
it to pry open his son's locked door. Sliding the knife into
the crack between the door and the wall, he prepared to
RICK STRAWN IS AN EX-COP WHO STARTED HIS COMPANY in 1988 to
help police officers find off-duty work guarding
construction sites. Ten years later, he was asked by a
member of his United Methodist church to transport the
churchgoer's son to Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. The school
is run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs,
a company headquartered in Utah that owns eight schools in
the United States and abroad, including Louis, Jr.'s
Strawn said no to that first inquiry because he knew the boy
involved. But he had stumbled upon what he now believes is
his calling. In his first year of business, he escorted
eight teens to behavior modification schools. Since then,
his company has transported more than 700 kids between the
ages of 8 and 17. Strawn has gone on about half of the trips
himself; on the others he has sent agents. Either way, the
company generally uses two escorts for the part of a trip
that's on the road. Girls are escorted by coed teams; in the
early years, Strawn relied on his wife, mother, or older
daughter to help him on these trips. Now his wife, Susan,
runs the company's office from the family home in the
Atlanta suburb of Suwanee. After every trip, she sends the
client a card with the message: "Just a note to say thank
you for allowing us to assist your family."
Balding and slightly soft in the gut, Strawn is a reassuring
52-year-old. He speaks with a light drawl—he was born in
Lubbock, Tex.—and he seems to mean it when he drops
endearments like "hon." Strawn's easy manner has won over
many parents and school administrators. "He's one of the few
escorts who takes the time and effort to talk to the kids,"
said Karina Zurita, the admissions coordinator at Casa. "He
lets kids know that they'll be in good hands."
But if Strawn is decent and likable, he will also go to
almost any length to get his charges to do what their
parents want. He has chased kids down. He has dragged teens
to the car in their underwear. He has used a choke hold,
learned as a cop, to render a few others unconscious. He has
taken suicidal kids from hospital treatment to reform
Most of Strawn's clients are genuinely concerned about their
children's welfare. They believe their children are at risk
and want to save them. But these parents also revel in
forcing their kids to sit up, pay attention, and do what
they're told. Glenda Spaulding, who took out four loans to
send her 14-year-old daughter to a WWASP school in South
Carolina last November, had three words for Strawn before he
took the girl away: "Go get her."
Strawn's willingness to use force differentiates him from
other escorts. While no one tracks the teen transport
industry, those in the business estimate that more than 20
companies nationwide take kids to behavior modification
schools, residential treatment centers, and boot camps. Some
of the bigger companies are more selective than Strawn about
what they'll do. The Center for Safe Youth in Atlanta, for
example, doesn't use restraints to force a child to go
anywhere. And the center won't transport kids to WWASP
schools because educational consultants with whom the
company works don't recommend them. Its owner, John Villines,
would like to create a professional association to oversee
the transport industry. The standards he proposes are
rudimentary: no agents with felony convictions or histories
of irresponsible driving or drug and alcohol abuse. But they
set the bar higher than almost any state does.
Instead of operating by rules, the escort industry runs on
trust—the trust that parents won't put their kids in harm's
way. But there is no trust between parents and kids in the
households that Strawn enters. It has broken down so
completely that parents think it's okay, and even
courageous, to send a stranger into their child's bedroom.
Strawn makes his living from that judgment and he is willing
to mislead a child for what he sees as the greater goal of
Once parents put their kids at Strawn's mercy, for a short
time he is in loco parentis—in the place of the parent—in
the fullest sense of the term. He has the authority to tell
a kid what to do and to punish him for failing to obey. At
the same time, he is the only person left to cling to when a
kid is on the threshold of a scary, unknown world.
Three years ago, Strawn escorted Valerie Ann Heron, a
17-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., to Tranquility Bay. The
school is the most hardcore in the WWASP system, the one to
which students are sent when they repeatedly cause trouble
at other schools. The trip went smoothly, according to
Heron's mother, Nell Orange, and Strawn played his role
well. "He made her feel comfortable with him. She trusted
him. He talked to her about what to expect, where she was
going," Orange said. "She gave him a hug when she left him."
The day after that hug, Valerie rushed out of a second-floor
classroom and jumped to her death off a 35-foot-high
The suicide didn't faze Strawn. He didn't ask himself
whether he should have taken Valerie to Tranquility Bay and
left her there, or whether she needed more help and
tenderness than the tough-love school provides. He doesn't
even acknowledge that she might have been upset or unhinged
enough to kill herself. "We had a really good trip. We were
laughing and cutting it up," Strawn recalled. "Was she
suicidal? Till the day I die, I won't believe that." Without
any evidence, Strawn says that Valerie must have jumped in
an effort to run away or in hopes of hurting herself so that
she would be sent home. She landed on her head instead of
her feet, he thinks, because one foot got caught in the
balcony. "My feeling is that the majority of kids who talk
about suicide, they're not suicidal," Strawn said. "What
they are is manipulative."
LOUIS, JR. SAT STRAIGHT UP IN HIS BED. He was surrounded by
three strangers and his parents. His chest was bare, and
white acne medicine stood out against the dark skin of his
forehead. He grabbed his wire-rimmed glasses from the
bedside table and blinked a few times. The basketball
posters of Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant were still there.
His childhood teddy bear sat in a low-slung armchair by the
"Do you have some underwear on?" Louis's father said.
"They're here to help us. They're here to take you to a
Louis shook his head to clear it.
"The only thing we want you to know is that we love you very
much," Boussard continued. He and his wife stepped forward
to hug Louis, but the gesture was forced and none of them
seemed to want the contact.
"Where am I going? When am I coming home?"
Louis's parents walked out the door.
Strawn broke the silence that followed their exit. He
launched into what he calls "the scenario," a three-minute
script that he instructs his employees to memorize and
deliver, right down to a required chuckle. "Personally, I
feel like I do it better than anyone else because I designed
it," Strawn had explained earlier. The scenario is the key
to a smooth escort, he believes. It gives teens time to cool
off, weigh their options, and realize that their best course
of action is to follow orders.
"I want you to know that we are not here to be bad guys and
bullies. We are not here to lecture you, or right-or-wrong
you to death," Strawn told Louis. "We are here to get you
safely to the school and we are going to do that. But we'll
absolutely give you as much respect as you allow us to give
Louis stared at him and drummed his leg against the bed.
"Quite frankly, cuffs do not embarrass us," Strawn
continued. "But if it goes there, it will be 100 percent
your choice." He concluded with the question that the
scenario is designed to set up. "I have an important
question for you. If you walk out of here cuffed, do you
understand that it's 100 percent your choice?"
"Uh-huh," Louis said. He looked around the room. His mind
was working but coming up empty. He asked if he could grab
his clothes. The answer was no. Instead he was allowed to
direct Dalton to hand him a gray t-shirt, a black-and-gray
Fubu jersey, and black mesh gym shorts.
"Am I coming home today?" Louis was trying not to cry. He
blinked rapidly behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.
"I will not lie to you," Strawn hedged. "I might not answer
your questions . . . "
"So when am I coming home?"
"I mean no disrespect, but I learned a long time ago that I
don't want to chase you," Strawn plowed on, ignoring Louis's
question. He explained that he would handcuff Louis to
Dalton. "And son, if you can drag this ugly sucker far and
fast enough to get away, well, God bless you, you weren't
meant to go." Strawn gave the scripted chuckle.
Louis was still trying to buy time and find a way out. "Can
I brush my teeth?" he asked.
Strawn shook his head, and cuffed Louis to Dalton. Strawn
wrote his script to give his charges the illusion of
control, but he often cuffs the kids, especially boys, no
matter what they say. He hustled Louis to the car, guiding
him into the back seat along with Dalton, to whom he was
still cuffed. Taking the wheel, Strawn explained to his
passenger that he would stop talking—"I consider it
disrespectful to talk to you in the rearview mirror," he
said—until he reached the airport.
At the mention of an airport, Louis said, "Oh, God."
When we arrived at the Tampa airport half an hour later,
Strawn took off Louis's handcuffs. As we walked to catch our
connecting flight to Atlanta, Dalton grabbed the waistband
of the boy's shorts, which rode low on his hips and might
have fallen off if Dalton hadn't held fast. The teen rolled
his eyes and cracked a piece of gum that Dalton had given
him. He was auditioning for the part of bad boy, but the
role didn't fit. He was too quick to say "Thank you" and too
eager to talk. He had spent the past year bottling those
impulses around his parents and chafing at the limits they
had set for him. His abduction struck him as the latest
outrage. "I don't listen to them, I don't like what they
say," he said. "I don't listen to the curfew. I'm not doing
that. It's too early."
When his parents bore down, Louis pushed back. He hung out
with a crowd they didn't like and he drank and smoked pot.
"I came home high once. My father said, 'I know you're
high,' " Louis remembered. "Then I went to a one-day boot
camp last August. You exercise and they talk to you. I came
home high again and he sent me to this juvenile rehab thing
that lasted two and a half days. It was pointless."
THERE COMES A POINT IN JUST ABOUT EVERY ONE OF STRAWN'S
TRANSPORTS, whether he's soothing a nervous parent or
bonding with an upset teen, when he will mention his
six-month stint in 1997 at a halfway house for alcoholics.
"Seven years ago, I entered recovery. My drug of choice was
alcohol. You know far more about where you're going than I
knew about myself," he told the 14-year-old girl he escorted
last November to a WWASP school in South Carolina. "In my
mind, I was kicking and screaming. But the loveliest day of
my life was when my wife and mom dropped me off at that
halfway house. I can tell you now that it's the best thing
that ever happened to me."
That's Strawn's version of the story, which starts a
generation earlier. Strawn joined the Atlanta police force
in 1973. He'd previously been in sales, but he knew that
being a cop would suit him better. "In sales, the customer
is always right," he explained. "But as a cop, I'm always
right." Strawn relished that authority. "It seems at times
he has to have the last word," one of his supervisors noted
in an evaluation early in his police career. That's a good
thing in a cop, and the reviews Strawn received during this
period were uniformly favorable.
Strawn worked many different beats, including patrol, drug
enforcement, and homicide. He earned the respect of his
colleagues for calming down troublemakers. "They have to
think that you might be the toughest guy," he said of the
suspects he arrested. "I was able to talk people into doing
what we wanted them to do."
Strawn was losing control of his own life, however. He was
drinking heavily and in 1992 he was briefly suspended for
disappearing from work without explanation. Strawn said that
he stayed sober on the job, but the smell of alcohol seeped
from his pores. His colleagues complained. Internal Affairs
investigated. Strawn tested clean.
Four years earlier, Strawn had married Susan Kyzer, a single
mother with a young daughter. Strawn didn't get along with
the girl. She had attention-deficit disorder and the Ritalin
she took wore off by the time she got home from school. "Her
behavior was like a needle point with Rick," Susan said. "He
was of the view that kids should be seen but not heard, and
this kid was always heard."
In 1996, the stepdaughter told a counselor that Strawn had
molested her two years earlier, when she was 12. She'd just
gotten home from a school football game, and she was still
wearing her green-and-white cheerleader's outfit. She fell
asleep on the living-room floor while watching TV with her
stepfather. She said that she woke to the feel of something
hard against her vagina and ran out of the room. Strawn was
arrested for molestation. During the police investigation,
he claimed that he'd fallen asleep after drinking, and in
his dreams had confused his stepdaughter with his wife. But
Susan told the investigators that just after the incident,
Strawn had told her that " 'it was just a weak moment.' . .
. He got turned on by her laying there with a short skirt on
and all, and lay down beside her and unzipped his pants
against her." Strawn grew depressed and began taking
medication. He also admitted to detectives that a year
earlier he had fondled the breasts of his niece on two
separate occasions, when she was 12 or 13.
The Atlanta police department suspended him for several
months. But Strawn's stepdaughter recanted her accusation,
leaving prosecutors little choice but to drop the
molestation charge. Strawn was taken out of the field,
however, and assigned to do desk work. He was no longer the
go-to officer. "I was being tolerated," he said. "And for
someone with my personality, being tolerated is enough to
make you want to get drunk."
One night in January 1997, Strawn went home drunk. After
arguing with Susan, he said he was going to shoot himself
and he got his .38 revolver out of the garage. "I've had all
I can take," he told Susan, his stepdaughter, and the
couple's 8-year-old son, Jared. But his threat was, to use
his word, manipulation. He fired into the air and left. When
he returned home later that evening, he passed out.
The next day, Susan confronted Strawn about his alcoholism,
as she had many times in the past. His stepdaughter chimed
in that she had snapped a picture of Strawn in his stupor
the previous night so that he could see what he'd looked
like drunk. Strawn wanted to destroy the roll of film but
Susan and her daughter wouldn't let him, because it included
a photo of the family cat, which had since died. A struggle
ensued, and Strawn kicked the girl in the groin. He then
grabbed his wife by the throat, choking her while his
stepdaughter called 911.
Strawn left the house and drove to a nearby park, where he
continued drinking. Susan and her daughter found him there.
Susan tried to calm her husband down. Her daughter called
the police. Strawn was arrested and charged with family
violence, reckless conduct, and four counts of simple
battery—misdemeanor charges that in Georgia together carry a
maximum sentence of six years. Less than a month later, he
was arrested again when he was found drunk and nearly passed
out in his car. He avoided jail by pleading guilty to
reckless conduct and a DUI charge.
Strawn likes to say that his wife made him go to the Hickey
House Recovery Community. But a judge sent him there, as a
condition of his probation. He spent six months at the
halfway house while his family stayed away. Strawn hadn't
prayed for some time, but he started going to a small church
nearby. The defensive stance that he'd adopted slipped away.
"Things started loosening up," Strawn said. He felt closer
to God. When he got home, Strawn set to work on mending his
family. While he was drinking, Susan had considered leaving
him. Jared had withdrawn into video games. Now Strawn
reached out to them, and they responded. Jared gave his
father a cloth bracelet stenciled with the letters WWJD, for
"What Would Jesus Do?" Strawn never takes it off.
The Atlanta police department was not as forgiving. In May
1998, it determined that Strawn had "brought discredit" on
himself as a police officer, on 11 different counts. His
superiors decided to fire him. Strawn opted to retire
instead. He left the day before he was due to lose his job
after 25 years on the force.
Strawn doesn't try to reconcile his past and his present,
perhaps because he is afraid to find that traces of his old
self remain. It is safer for him to credit God as the way he
"got from there to here." The story of redemption that
Strawn spins persuades parents who don't know where to turn
that they can rely on him. Strawn was lost, just like the
kids he escorts, and it is both his reward and his
punishment to tell how he was found. "Working with these
kids is like working a 12-step," he said before a recent
transport. "Behavior is as addictive as any drugs or
alcohol. I plant the seed of recovery."
But Strawn knows that if he is to be trusted to plant that
seed, there is no room in his history for criminal lapses of
judgment. I spent hours talking to Strawn, and he never
mentioned the accusations involving his stepdaughter and
niece. Instead he told me about a 15-year-old girl who was
apparently discredited when she insinuated that he'd
molested her during a 26-hour drive from Indianapolis to a
WWASP school in Montana. Strawn said that an assistant was
with him and the girl for the entire transport, and that the
assistant backed Strawn up when he said he'd done nothing
wrong. The school believed them. "That was God watching over
me," Strawn said. Otherwise, he continued, "I would not be
working in this profession. The cloud of suspicion would
have been there." As for his stepdaughter, when I asked
Strawn about her accusation, he said that she'd made up the
charge to get him help for his alcoholism. She is now 21
and, along with Strawn's niece, works as an escort for
Strawn Support Services. But she will not team up with her
"WE'VE GOT SOMETHING DIFFERENT HERE," Strawn told the
ticketing agent at the checkout counter of Delta Airlines.
"We've got someone here we're escorting—not a prisoner, but
he doesn't want to go with us." Louis sat with Dalton off to
the side, rummaging through the overnight bag that his
parents had packed for him. The agent didn't pause. "That's
fine," he said with a smile.
Strawn won't board a plane with a kid who puts up too much
of a fight—hat's why he ended up on that 26-hour drive. But
when escorts do fly with protesting kids, airport officials
rarely ask questions. Amanda Krassin was taken by plane from
Washington to Oregon when she was 16. The escorts, who were
from the California company Guiding Hands, asked that she be
detained in an airport security area and handcuffed her on
the plane. "Everyone ignored me at the airport," Krassin
recalled. "I think they just thought I was a prisoner."
On the way to the gate for our flight to Atlanta, Strawn
skipped a long line by flashing an auxiliary Coast Guard
badge. (He's a member of the group's volunteer squad.)
Dalton took Louis to the bathroom. The assistant, who is 25,
is fairly new to the job. But Strawn likes to show off
Dalton to clients because he attended a WWASP school in
Western Samoa called Paradise Cove. The school shut down in
1998 after a State Department investigation into what it
determined to be "credible allegations" of abuse, but Strawn
doesn't mention that.
"I'm going to make two suggestions," he told Louis when the
teen emerged from the bathroom. "First, try to have an open
mind. I know it's hard to have an open mind when two ugly
guys come and take you from your bedroom at night to a
school that you don't want to be at. Second, you've got to
be gut-level honest with yourself. The bad part of that is
it's a 100 percent inside job."
The world according to Strawn is based on choices and
consequences. The world according to WWASP is designed to
reinforce the same principle. Students enter Casa by the Sea
at the first of six levels. To advance, they have to earn
points through good behavior and schoolwork. Until they
reach level three, which takes an average of three months,
they can communicate with the outside world only through
letters to their parents, which the school monitors. After
that, they can talk on the phone to their parents but no one
Casa costs nearly $30,000 for a year—as much as a year's
tuition at Harvard—but offers no traditional academic
instruction. Instead the schoolwork is self-paced; the
students sit at tables with a workbook and take a test on a
section when they decide they're ready. They can retake the
same test as many times as necessary to achieve an 80
percent passing grade. According to the Casa parent
handbook, the school does not ensure that "the student will
even receive any credits" or that the teachers who monitor
the study sessions will have U.S. credentials. The school
does not track how many of its students go on to high school
or college. "You're not going to have a teacher riding your
back," Dalton told Louis. "It's all independent study. I
just read the module, and did the test. I finished class in
a week. That's how easy it is."
Students spend more time studying themselves than any other
subject. They write daily reflections in response to
self-help tapes and videos such as Tony Robbins's
Personal Power, You Can Choose, and
Price Tag of Sex. They answer questions like
"What feelings/emotions did I experience today and how did I
choose to respond?"
Students also attend, and eventually staff, self-help
seminars. The entry-level seminar, called Discovery,
encourages participants to "learn to interrupt unconscious
mental and emotional cycles which tend to sabotage results."
Kelly Lauritsen participated in Discovery at Casa in 2000
and said she was encouraged to hit the walls with rolled
towels to release her anger. The price of tuition includes
versions of these seminars for parents. Like Oprah on
speed, sessions run nonstop from morning until midnight.
Many parents and kids say they benefit from the
self-analysis. "I didn't realize that I had so much anger
inside," the 14-year-old girl whom Strawn transported in
November wrote to her mother.
WWASP also pays for Strawn and his employees to attend the
seminars, and Strawn has done Discovery. He enrolled in the
seminar so that he could better sell parents on hiring him,
but its talk-until-you're-cured approach forced him to
confront buried wounds, such as his father's death a decade
earlier. "God had a reason to put me there and it had
nothing to do with the business," he said of the experience.
Strawn told Louis that the hardest thing about Casa would be
abiding by the school's intricate system of discipline.
"It's not the big rules that get you. It's all the little
rules," Strawn said. Casa docks students, according to its
handbook, for telling "war stories" about inappropriate
experiences, for being unkind to each other, and for making
"negative statements about the School, the staff, the
country, or other students."
"There's a whole page of rules," said Shannon Eierman, who
attended Casa last year. "That page is divided into sections
of categories, into different codes, and a million
subcategories. You could be there forever and the next day
and learn a new rule."
Students at Casa who commit "Category 5 infractions" can be
punished with an "intervention," for example, which is
defined as being left alone in a room. Students say that the
punishment can last for weeks, though Casa insists that the
maximum penalty is three days. "I had to sit with crossed
legs in a closet for three days," said Kaori Gutierrez, who
left Casa in 2001. Interventions may be used to punish
out-of-control behavior, drug use, and escape attempts. But
they're also the way the school handles "self-inflicted
injuries," which can range from cracked knuckles to
self-mutilation with pens or paper clips to an attempted
At the root of this long list of punishable violations is
"manipulation," which includes lying or exaggerating. Strawn
repeatedly uses the word to dismiss a kid's behavior—it's
the way he said Valerie Heron acted the day before her
suicide. In the WWASP universe that he inhabits,
manipulation is a term of art that refers to just about
anything a teen does or says that the staff doesn't like.
Still, the schools' intensive monitoring has helped some
students turn their lives around. Richard King of Atlanta
believes that going to Tranquility Bay in 1997, when he was
17, taught him to be accountable for his actions. The
experience saved him from ending up "either dead or in
jail," he said. Before he went to the school, King drank,
smoked pot, and battled with his parents. When he returned,
he could sit down and talk to them.
CALIFORNIA IS THE ONLY STATE WITH A SEMBLANCE OF OVERSIGHT
FOR ESCORTS. In response to news accounts in 1997 of a
teenage boy from Oakland, Calif., who was transported
against his will to Tranquility Bay, the state's legislature
developed a bill to protect kids like him. The legislation
would have barred escorts from using restraints that
interfere with a child's "ability to see, hear, or move
freely." By the time it passed, however, the bill had been
amended into a toothless licensing scheme.
Nor are there federal controls. In 1923, the Supreme Court
announced that parents have a "right of control" that allows
them to direct their children's upbringing and education.
The court has not budged from this stance since, and, for
obvious reasons, it is not listening to the voices of kids
who rebel against their parents' dictates. Few people want
children—or, for that matter, anyone else—to have veto power
over the decisions that parents make. Even the states that
permit teenagers to be emancipated from their parents,
allowing them to be treated legally as adults, ordinarily
mandate that the parents must agree.
As many a frustrated teen knows, the legal framework means
that parents get to call the shots. While teenagers can't be
jailed by the state without a judge's approval, parents can
confine minors against their will for reasons including
their mental health. (It's harder to take away the freedom
of mentally ill adults.) The Constitution has been
interpreted to allow teens effectively to be imprisoned by
private companies like Strawn's and private schools like
Casa by the Sea—as long as their parents sign off. "If these
were state schools or state police, the children would have
constitutional protections," said Barbara Bennett Woodhouse,
the director of the Center on Children & the Law at the
University of Florida. "But because it is parents who are
delegating their own authority, it has been very difficult
to open the door to protection of the child."
It's even more difficult to open that door once kids have
been taken to foreign schools like Casa by the Sea that lie
beyond the reach of U.S. courts. "The problem is that when
Americans are in another country, they are subject to the
laws of that country," said Stewart Patt, a spokesman for
the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department.
"Whether it's a violation of American law is not going to
matter to local authorities."
There is one limit on parents: They cannot harm their
children. Every state allows the government to intervene if
a child or teenager is at risk. The agencies charged with
protecting kids get involved if someone reports that a child
is being abused. Yet by the time friends and relatives learn
of a teen's disappearance and think to make a report, the
escort is gone. What matters is getting the kid back from
the school that's holding him. It's a nearly impossible
A few determined do-gooders have managed it, however. In
1998, 17-year-old Justin Goen was able to call his
girlfriend before being taken by escorts to Tranquility Bay.
The girlfriend's parents then called the child welfare
agency in Justin's hometown of Worthington, Ohio. That set a
local judge named Yvette Brown in motion. She heard evidence
in juvenile court about spartan conditions, sleep
deprivation, and emotional abuse at the school—and ordered
The Goens ignored Brown's order, though, and the community
cheered them on. "I hope parents are horrified that a public
agency can be so intrusive into family life," one reader
wrote in a letter to The Columbus Dispatch. After
weeks of negotiations, the parents agreed to transfer their
son to a WWASP school in Utah. Justin did not thank the
state for its troubles. He insisted that his most severe
punishment at Tranquility Bay was being told to write two
Jonathan Tyler Mitchell was also sprung from Tranquility
Bay. Tyler (he goes by his middle name) had lost his mother
when he was young and had never gotten along with his
father, Bill Mitchell. In February 2002, Mitchell married
his girlfriend of eight months and Tyler moved in with his
brother. Mitchell soon asked Tyler to come over for dinner.
When the 12-year-old arrived, there were two strangers at
the table. They worked for Strawn. Later, they roused Tyler
from bed and took him to Jamaica.
What had Tyler done to deserve this wake-up call? According
to his father, he had been disrespectful in class, kicked a
school locker, talked about suicide, and refused to go to
counseling. Tyler's account was different. "I suffer a lot
of beatings from my dad," he told a psychologist who
evaluated him. "The future is not looking good for me."
Tyler had several relatives, however, who were not willing
to leave the boy's future in his father's hands. Gini Farmer
Remines, an adult cousin on his mother's side, petitioned a
local juvenile court to order his return. When the judge
refused, Remines appealed her decision to a circuit court.
At a hearing that followed, three former Tranquility Bay
students testified on Tyler's behalf, and what they
described was a Caribbean purgatory. The food, they claimed,
sometimes contained pubic hair and bugs. Raw sewage spilled
over into the boys' shower area and "visible layers of dirt,
grime, filth, mildew on the sides of the shower stalls" led
to outbreaks of scabies. Students who broke a rule against
looking out the window were placed in "observation
placement"—forced to lie on the floor, sometimes for weeks
at a time, and allowed to sit up only for food or a punitive
round of 5,000 jumping jacks.
One of the witnesses, Aaron Kravig, reported that he was at
Tranquility Bay in August 2001, the month Valerie Heron
died, and that he'd been forced to use a towel that had been
used to clean up her remains. The unwashed towel "had a spot
of blood about, somewhere about the size of a dinner plate,"
Kravig testified. "There was some of her hair on it. They
used it to pick her head up; I'm pretty sure. I told the
staff about it and nothing was done . . . . I had to dry off
with that towel for about three weeks."
Mitchell visited the school with his wife after he sent
Tyler there and testified that he'd seen kids playing tennis
and shooting hoops. But the judge ordered Tyler home.
Shortly after his return, the boys' relatives heard that
Mitchell had threatened to send Tyler back. Seven of them
filed for custody. Gini Remines said that Mitchell gave up
and turned Tyler over to her. "Tyler doesn't talk about what
happened at Tranquility Bay," Remines said recently. "All
he'll say was that it was a hellhole and he might have died
"THE SCHOOL IS IN MEXICO?" Louis said when he noticed the
highway signs on our drive south from San Diego. "I thought
it was in California."
"I said we were coming to California, not that the school
was there," Strawn said. "I was spoon-feeding you until we
Louis fell silent.
Ten minutes later, Strawn drove past a sign that looked like
a middle-school art project, with "Mexico" written in green,
red, and white. It was now nearly noon. A Mexican flag
flapped over a ramshackle collection of buildings, and a
film of dust and grit seemed to cloud the bright blue day.
Like a tour guide on autopilot, Strawn kept up a running
commentary about the sights while his passenger stewed in
the back seat. "That's a serious fence," Strawn said,
pointing to a 14-foot-high barrier of sheet metal topped
with electrical wires which marked the border. "The school
is just north of a town called Ensenada. That's your primary
On the dashboard of the Buick LeSabre he had rented for this
leg of the journey, Strawn had installed a portable GPS
system that Susan had given him for Christmas. But it wasn't
working. About a mile past the Mexican border, Strawn missed
the Scenic Road exit to Ensenada and drove through Tijuana
instead. We passed palm trees and squat bushes with fire-red
flowers. Strawn braked at a stop sign that read "Alto,"
muttering to himself as he tried to find his way back to the
We were back on course and heading through a purple and
yellow tollbooth by the time Louis spoke.
"What's the name of the school I'm going to?" he asked as
the ocean crashed against the shore near the passenger side
of the car.
"Casa. Casa by the Sea," Strawn answered, and hummed the
lyrics "down by the sea," from the song "Under the
"Mi casa es su casa," Dalton ad-libbed.
Strawn told Louis that the Casa grounds used to house a
resort. "The nice thing about resorts," he mused, "they
usually have walls around them. They keep you from getting
involved with the nuts around here, and keep them from you."
A huge half-finished bust of Jesus loomed on a mountain
outside the car. Dalton began reminiscing about his time at
Paradise Cove. He mentioned that he used to hunt for octopus
in the ocean. Strawn pointed to the beach and said that
students at Casa hung out there. Louis asked why it was
Strawn answered by changing the subject. "You ought to get
there about lunchtime," he said with determined cheer. "And
I can tell you, those chubby Mexican women can do a number
on some Mexican food."
When a trip is winding down and a kid has been scared into
compliance, there is a moment when Strawn likes to wax
philosophical. He cribs liberally from Stephen Covey, the
author of the bestselling business guide
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He
begins with a question: "Have you heard of counting from one
to ten if you're mad? Did that ever make sense to you?"
Whatever the teen's answer, Strawn says that it didn't make
sense to him—until he came across Covey's idea that there is
a "space" between stimulus and reaction. To Strawn, that
space is the difference between lashing out and maintaining
control. "I've learned to spend time in that space when I
get mad," Strawn told Louis. "And in the last seven years, I
haven't slapped one person upside the head."
The talk works best when Strawn has something tangible to
move to—like the letters that parents often give him for
their children. The kids used to tear up the letters. But
they haven't since Strawn started telling them to spend more
time in Covey's "space" before doing anything rash.
The Boussards hadn't written their son a letter, so Strawn
did his best on his own to bring Louis around to their way
of seeing things. He told the boy not to be angry with his
folks. "It's absolutely a sign of love for them to take the
chance on what they believe will be the best for you," said
Strawn. "When you grow up and have your own family—you have
to excuse me—I hope you have the balls to do what your
parents are doing for you."
The off-white stucco walls and red shutters of Casa came
into view, and a Mexican guard opened a red iron gate. A
line of teenagers wearing khaki pants and navy blue jackets
walked across the courtyard in single file. A few girls
carried baskets full of laundry. The smell of fried chicken
wafted through the air. A man in a white turtleneck pointed
to Louis and said to Strawn, "This is the kid?" The man
directed Louis to grab his bag.
Strawn handed a woman Louis's paperwork—his birth
certificate, passport, and the contract with Casa that his
parents had signed. When Louis turned and walked away with
the man in the white turtleneck, Strawn didn't say goodbye.
Then I asked if it was time for us to go and he rushed to
catch up with the boy and gave him a hug. Louis looked taken
aback by the embrace and there was a moment of awkwardness.
Then he hugged back, hard. Strawn collects those hugs. They
help him believe that he is saving, not savaging, the kids
he steals away with in the night.
When we were back in the car, Strawn put on his sunglasses
and lit a cigar, as he likes to do at the end of a trip. He
leaned forward in anticipation of the next stops along his
journey—a Cuban cigar shop in Tijuana and then a Mexican
restaurant in San Diego. He blew out a ring of smoke, and it
was as if Louis had never been with us.