Teen reform school still open
Probes continue as lawsuit being considered
Several teens who have returned this summer from the Pacific Coast Academy, a rehabilitation program for troubled youth in Samoa, allege serious abuses at the school.
They claim some students at the school were subjected to beatings, neglect, and forced isolation for long periods.
Among the school"s founders are two men with Utah ties -- Lonnie Fuller and Steve Cartisano. Fuller, a former building contractor with family in Orem, still owns and operates the school. He founded the academy with Cartisano, who was founder of the Challenger program in Southern Utah. The program closed in 1990 after a teenaged girl died while hiking in Kane County.
The Pacific Coast Academy denies any abuse, but Robert DeLancy made a videotape documenting many charges. A storm of controversy now surrounds the school. Among allegations on the tape was testimony of one girl that she was tied to a post for two days because she resisted punishment.
DeLancy says camp officials threatened to have him arrested if he tried to take the tape out of the country. DeLancy did not know how seriously to take the threat, so he decided to seek help at the American embassy.
Tape gotten "illegally"?
Lonnie Fuller says the tape was made illegally and his staff had a right to threaten the arrest, although they did not follow through.
When DeLancy arrived at the embassy on June 30, the charge d"affaires, Jim Derrick, saw the tape and took it very seriously. Soon after, the embassy removed the students from the Pacific Coast Academy with help from local officials.
For a time, 23 students were staying on embassy grounds waiting for a Samoan court to decide their fate. The court eventually allowed the students to choose what they wanted. Eighteen opted to go home.
Among the students who remain at the school are the two sons of Allen Taylor, an Arizona parent who praises the school. Taylor"s sons, 16 and 18 years old, were involved with serious drug use and faced legal action. Taylor says he has taken out loans and even begged for money to afford the school where his sons have been since January.
Taylor said he spent the first two weeks of June visiting his sons in Samoa. He said he was allowed to visit the school whenever he wanted.
"I saw no indications of any of this stuff (accusations on the tape) while I was there," Taylor said.
"Do you think parents that were down there would allow us to tie a kid to a pole for two straight days?" Fuller said.
Taylor said he and his wife feel like the school has helped their sons. They had a positive experience in a family counseling session with the school"s psychologist.
But Taylor admits he never asked about the professional credentials of the psychologist or other staff working with his sons. Fuller said his teachers and counselors are trained, but he is unfamiliar with the specifics of that training.
The school is trying to remain open despite an ongoing Samoan police and health department investigation and potential legal action from parents, most of whom paid $2,000 a month for tuition and board.
Pamela Elliott"s son Chase returned from Samoa in July, saying he was beaten by camp counselors. Pamela Elliott is a criminal defense attorney and plans to travel back to Samoa to try and get criminal charges brought against Cartisano and Fuller there. She said she is also working to implement a class action lawsuit in the United States.
Both Cartisano and Fuller arrived in Samoa to help start the New Hope Academy, a beachside reform school run by a group of investors including Utahn Dan Wakefield. Wakefield now says it was a mistake to rely on Cartisano"s expertise to establish New Hope.
Wakefield says Cartisano was recommended by people who knew him and maintained he had changed many of the practices that had caused problems for him in Utah.
But Wakefield says that Cartisano and Fuller were not in Samoa for long before they began using the school"s reputation to obtain money by writing bad checks at a local bank.
Wakefield produced copies of 10 checks drawn on an account in the name of Steve Cartisano. The checks are written for cash to the Pacific Commercial Bank in Samoa and signed by Cartisano. Each was returned because of insufficient funds.
"In a ten-day period they"d pulled out about $27,000 or something like that," Wakefield said.
Fuller said writing such checks was the way Wakefield paid Cartisano and him. Fuller said Wakefield pulled funds out of the bank to make him look bad.
Cartisano could not be reached for comment.
Wakefield said he and his partners covered the Samoan bank"s losses, and hopes Cartisano and Fuller will be prosecuted.
"This was extremely disturbing to us partners, because we took a chance on a couple of guys," Wakefield said. "When lo and behold they were on their way to sabotaging what we had tried to put together so carefully."
Wakefield said that Cartisano and Fuller started asking parents to send checks to them rather than to New Hope.
"The village came to us and said, "these guys were trying to get us to cancel our agreement with you and give it to them,"" Wakefield said.
Wakefield says he confronted Cartisano about the allegations and they ended their partnership.
Soon after the New Hope Academy shut its doors. Wakefield said he and other investors ended up "taking a bath."
Pamela Elliott, DeLancy and Wakefield hope this will be Cartisano"s last program. Wakefield said it"s about time. "Where there"s stink there"s a garbage truck someplace."
And what happens to the Pacific Coast Academy? Fuller said he will move the school"s American office from Arizona to Utah now that Cartisano has been fired.
Max Roth grew up in Ogden and is currently a reporter/anchor for KMIR-6 television in Palm Springs, Calif.
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