Nine Years After Girl's Death, `Camp' Director Has Returned

Date: 1999-08-08

Cartisano is working again with programs for troubled teens; Cartisano Working Again With Teen-Agers

CHRISTOPHER SMITH
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

Former Utahn Steve Cartisano transformed survival-style camping trips with troubled teens into a multimillion-dollar industry. But he was banned from working with kids in the state after a young girl in his care died.

Now Cartisano is back in business.

In the past year, Cartisano has worked for two Utah-based companies that offered treatment outside the United States for wayward youth. Both companies now claim Cartisano bilked them out of thousands of dollars before they severed ties with him.

Currently, Cartisano is encouraging parents to send their defiant sons and daughters to an expensive new behavior-modification program in the South Pacific.

The former Mapleton resident gained notoriety after founding a successful "wilderness therapy" program for adolescents in the late 1980s called Challenger Foundation, vaulting him to celebrity status as a savior of troubled teens. But charges of child abuse and negligent homicide -- 16-year-old Kristen Chase died of heat exhaustion in 1990 while on a forced hike in Kane County -- led to the closure of the Utah program.

Although Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges, several civil lawsuits were brought against him and his name was placed on the Utah Department of Human Services' registry of suspected child abusers in 1992 -- preventing him from working in any capacity with a state-licensed child-treatment facility in Utah again.

Since then, Cartisano has left a trail of allegations of fraud and abuse around the Northern Hemisphere, and the various offshoots of his Challenger program have been investigated in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

But the charismatic Brigham Young University dropout seems unsinkable. State officials say Cartisano's involvement last year with two Utah-based teen-treatment programs wasn't affected by the abuse registry because treatment facilities out-of-state are not monitored.

"Anyone providing service to children in the state is checked against that registry database, but a lot of these programs that may be based in Utah and conduct the treatment elsewhere, we have no jurisdiction over," said Ken Stettler of the Division of Youth Corrections, who investigated Cartisano's Challenger program extensively. "You can't prevent everything and Steve will play any card that will get him what he wants."

Adds Wayne Holland, a retired state child-care licensing official who also helped bring Cartisano to justice in Utah: "He's always got some sort of confidence scam going. At one time I thought Steve might be in a witness-protection program because everything he said never panned out."

Despite his past, Cartisano manages to convert skeptics into believers in his ability to operate a lucrative, legitimate treatment program for minors with discipline, academic or substance-abuse problems.

"He told me, `Dan, keep my enemies at bay and I'll make us millions,' " said Dan Wakefield, one of a group of Utah County businessmen who last year hired Cartisano to help start Orem-based New Hope Academy in the island nation of Samoa. "But the whole time we were paying all his expenses, he was conducting a premeditated scheme to destroy the credibility and financial stability of our company."

Brought in as a consultant to help New Hope gain accreditation from various organizations that proclaim to monitor the loose-knit industry, Cartisano quickly tried to become directly involved in founding the program.

"You, Dan and I would be equal partners in putting this together and operating it," Cartisano wrote in a letter to a New Hope business partner in in early 1998. For an investment of $25,000 each, Cartisano declared the Samoan program would gross $10.9 million the first year alone.

Wakefield and his partners were leery of Cartisano's finances or of him taking a management role. They attempted to keep him behind the scenes.

But when Wakefield, New Hope's "island manager," suddenly had to return to Provo to care for his ailing mother last August, he put Cartisano and another employee, Lonnie Fuller, temporarily in charge of New Hope's operations in Samoa. "Biggest mistake I ever made," Wakefield said.

In the two-week span that Wakefield was stateside and Cartisano was running New Hope, company officials allege Cartisano wrote more than $23,000 worth of insufficient checks drawn on his personal account to Pacific Commercial Bank.

The Samoan bank cashed the checks "in good faith on the understanding [New Hope] would make good any loss," according to banker Peter Langton. New Hope paid the bank for Cartisano's bounced checks and return fees, a financial hit from which the program never recovered.

Cartisano allegedly also rang up a $10,000 cellular-phone bill, told parents New Hope was "going under" and began recruiting clients for a new teen-treatment program he was launching in Samoa.

When Wakefield discovered the coup, Cartisano was long gone. The program's troubles were compounded when an official for the U.S. Consulate in Samoa visited New Hope and found youths with little supervision, shelter or food. By February, New Hope was out of business.

"As a new company, we made some mistakes. But Steve really did us in," said Wakefield, who still is trying to settle open accounts in Samoa. "There's nobody in this world that knows how to ruin a kids' program faster than Steve Cartisano."

At the same time Cartisano worked for New Hope Academy, he also worked for another Utah County venture to start a teen-treatment program in Canada.

"I was totally unaware of who Steve Cartisano was and his past but we were introduced to him as the greatest person in the world for setting up a good program," said Mark Sudweeks of Alpine, Utah, who owns a fishing and hunting lodge in British Columbia. He wanted to use the lodge as a treatment center for youths during the off-season and hired Cartisano to develop a policy and procedure manual for his Chilanko Lodge, paying $6,000 upfront.

"What I eventually got was a photocopy of somebody else's program manual and their guidelines with my name written in red pencil over the top of it," said Sudweeks. "I read it and if that was the sort of procedures that his programs used, well, we knew better than that how to treat kids."

Cartisano also allegedly convinced Sudweeks' wife to sign a contract paying him $3,000 monthly in return for a guaranteed $1 million profit the first year. Until the contract could be co-signed by her husband, Cartisano also allegedly convinced her to give him a $10,000 advance in the form of $1,000 cash and three, unsigned post-dated checks for $3,000 each.

"We put stop-payments on the checks but he had already managed to cash one by forging my wife's signature," said Sudweeks. "Bank of America wanted us to take legal action against him, but we figured that would cost more than we lost and we just wanted to get this guy out of our lives."

Cartisano would take one more shot: He sent Sudweeks a certified letter demanding full payment of the partially signed contract under the threat of legal action.

"We haven't seen or heard from him since," said Sudweeks.

Cartisano made contact with New Hope and Chilanko Lodge through the same person: Jacki Allred, a Tremonton resident and former Cartisano employee, who wrote a 1995 booklet advising how to pick a good wilderness-therapy program.

"I have steered people to Steve for the specific purpose of writing manuals and, yes, that has backfired and now my name gets dragged down with him," Allred said. "I hate that I have contributed in any negative way to the image of these programs. It was stupid and I'm paying the price."

Allred said she last heard from Cartisano earlier this year when he called seeking a Web site designer for the latest teen-treatment program he was working with: Pacific Coast Academy, based in Arizona with treatment facilities for teens in Samoa.

Although the program's Web page lists a Mesa, Ariz., mailing address, Mesa city officials say they have no record of a business license for the academy, or Pacific Coast Foundation, a so-called "outdoor intervention referral service" using the same phone number as Pacific Coast Academy (PCA).

PCA bills itself as a nonprofit organization, and all nonprofits in Arizona are required to register with the secretary of state's office. The state has no record of either the academy or foundation.

The toll-free phone number for PCA rings through to an office in Stillwater, Okla., where Cartisano resides much of the year. However, a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune via e-mail maintains Cartisano has no involvement in the operation of PCA.

"Mr. Cartisano is not and never has been a employee of PCA nor does he have any long-term association in any capacity whatsoever with PCA; any allegations to the contrary are malicious lies and slander spread by a source with no credibility," reads the message signed by "Lonnie Fuller" but sent from the e-mail address steve(AT)pacificcoastacademy.com. "Mr. Cartisano is a consultant to numerous programs and has been called upon for advice by PCA on two occasions in the past."

However, several individuals familiar with Cartisano say when they call the PCA phone, he answers.

"I talked to him on the phone and he denied he even knew himself," said Cathy Sutton, who has lobbied for federal regulation of wilderness-therapy programs ever since her daughter Michelle died in a Utah-based program run by a former Cartisano employee in 1990.

Another youth-program reform advocate, Jeannie Colburn of Maine, said after she called PCA once to inquire about the program, Cartisano began contacting her almost daily.

"I've seen videotapes of Cartisano and there's no doubt in my mind that the guy calling himself Steve Michaels is Steve Cartisano; it's the same voice, same smooth-talking routine," she said. "When I was talking to him from the start, I felt like I was talking with vermin."

PCA claims it is a fully licensed and accredited child-treatment program in Samoa. However, the company did not respond to requests from The Salt Lake Tribune to provide details on what agency if any in the Samoan government regulates such programs.

Sutton filed a deceptive-advertising complaint with the Arizona attorney general's office against PCA last month, and the state attorney general's office said that it would look into the business. Meanwhile, she is lobbying Sunset magazine to stop running ads for Pacific Coast Foundation.

"How many other families have to be hurt before this guy is put out of business?" said Sutton, who has printed up T-shirts with Cartisano's picture and a logo saying "He's Back."

Holland, the retired Utah state employee who drafted the nation's first wilderness-therapy regulations in 1984, said no matter how tough state statutes are, they may never be able to stop an unscrupulous individual.

"If you're unethical, it's very easy to convince parents who are distraught and panicky over their kid's behavior that you can cure all their problems for the right price," said Holland. "And you can enact all the standards you want, but any licensing regulations are really only good on the day the monitor is there to see what's going on."

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