Boot Camp Proponent Becomes Focus of Critics

America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association

New York Times/August 9, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Modesto, California -- Distraught over her 17-year-old son's rebellious attitude and drug use, Rebecca Humble, a single mother from San Diego, began looking for an outdoor therapy program for him. Finding a magazine advertisement for the Pacific Coast Academy, she called and reached the marketing consultant, "Stephen Michaels."

Mr. Michaels, she recalled, told her that her son would receive proper care as well as stern discipline at the academy's camp on the South Pacific island of Samoa. Persuaded by his promises, Ms. Humble enrolled her son, Christopher, in a one- year program for $20,000.

Christopher lasted six months. When he returned home in December 1999, Ms. Humble said, his weight had dropped to 118 pounds from 165; he had scars from beatings, and he could barely walk or talk.

Ms. Humble soon learned that Stephen Michaels was really Stephen A. Cartisano 3rd, one of the best-known figures in the therapy camp business, an industry that has grown from just a few operations 20 years ago to several hundred. Many of them, like Pacific Coast, use rugged outdoor settings to shock teenagers out of bad habits and bad behavior.

But as the programs have grown in number so have accusations from campers that they have been physically abused, denied food and medication and placed in the control of counselors who have little or no training for the special needs of troubled children.

While Mr. Cartisano has never been convicted of a crime, no one in the therapy camp industry has faced more accusations.

During his 12 years as an owner or employee of programs in Utah, Hawaii, the Caribbean and now Samoa, he has been the subject of accusations of abuse or fraud at every camp where he has worked, so often, he said in an interview here, that he began using aliases "just to stay in business and feed my family."

At Mr. Cartisano's latest venture, the three-year-old program in Samoa, which is owned by two Americans, more than a dozen American children recently complained of physical abuse and 23 of them quit the program. The father of one teenager said his son was sexually molested by several camp counselors.

The camp, which is still operating, is being investigated by Samoan authorities "for a number of allegations of assaults and harsh treatment of students," said Asi Blakelock, the police commissioner. Some of the youths were placed in the protective custody of the United States Embassy until their parents could arrange for them to fly home.

To Mr. Cartisano, 45, a charismatic and articulate father of four who once studied to become an actor, the accusations relating to the camp in Samoa, as well as those everywhere else he has worked, are false.

In two recent interviews here, he insisted that every accusation of abuse had been fueled by manipulative, deceitful youths who invented stories to escape the rigors of a program that places heavy emphasis on work details and militaristic discipline.

That includes claims of Christopher Humble, he said, insisting that Christopher lost weight because he refused to eat and suffered scars after an accidental fall. In addition, Mr. Cartisano produced an evaluation sheet that Ms. Humble completed before Christopher was sent to Samoa in which she described her son as a habitual liar.

He also said that some of the accusations against him were concocted by venal parents who "simply want refunds" of annual tuition costs that reach $30,000 and more.

Mr. Cartisano says he firmly believes that he - not the parents or their children - is the real victim, the result of a long and vengeful campaign arising out of one fatal event 11 years ago at a program he ran in southern Utah known as Challenger II: Kristen Chase, a 16-year- old girl from Florida, died of heatstroke after a long hike.

The authorities in Kane County charged Mr. Cartisano and the program with two counts of negligent homicide and nine counts of child abuse. After two trials, the first ending in a mistrial, a jury acquitted him of all charges.

Nonetheless, Mr. Cartisano said, Kristen's death, combined with the deaths in Utah of two other teenagers, Michelle Sutton six weeks earlier and Aaron Bacon in 1994, at programs run by former employees of Mr. Cartisano "made me a wonderful target" for accusations that have continued for nearly a decade. "Even though I was acquitted," he said, "people had everything they needed to start tearing my programs down."

At the very least, the deaths in Utah raised Mr. Cartisano's profile and alarmed local authorities wherever he went later. Camps he set up in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands and Costa Rica were all shut down by the authorities over licensing violations, and children returned home, claiming they had been physically abused by camp personnel or that the camps provided inadequate medical treatment.

The authorities in Utah revoked his license to operate in 1990 and despite his acquittal, he was banned from ever working with child treatment programs in the state. Later in 1990, after officials in Hawaii found him operating an unlicensed camp on the island of Molokai, a judge barred him from operating a camp anywhere in Hawaii.

Thomas D. Farrell, the deputy district attorney who sought the injunction to close the operation, said he interviewed the children who were removed from the Molokai program, and "every damn one of them," he said, told officials that camp counselors physically abused them.

In May 1993, the authorities on St. John in the Virgin Islands discovered Mr. Cartisano running a program without a license and closed it down. Months later in Costa Rica, two boys told the authorities there they had been abused and imprisoned in another Cartisano camp.

The next year, Puerto Rican officials found five boys bound in ropes in the back of a car and learned they had been attending a program run by Mr. Cartisano and were left there by camp counselors. Charges of child abuse and operating without a license were filed, but the camp closed before papers could be served.

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