WHERE IN THE WORLD IS STEVE CARTISANO?
SWASHBUCKLING CHILD THERAPIST DRAWS CRITICISM IN HIS VIRGIN ISLAND VENTURE
HIS VIRGIN ISLAND VENTURE DRAWS MORE CRITICISM
The Salt Lake Tribune
Stephen Cartisano, whose Challenger Utah wilderness-therapy program was outlawed after a girl under his care died in the desert, is back in business.
This time, he is sailing the Caribbean with wayward teens.
And true to past form, the latest adventures of the swashbuckling child therapist are fraught with allegations of abuse, neglect and fraud. He has left a trail of runaway teen-agers, upset parents, bounced checks and angry authorities in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Now he is running the program, known as HealthCare America, in the Central American country of Costa Rica.
Controversy seems to follow the 37-year-old Mapleton man, a Brigham Young University dropout who has little formal training in child psychology.
He has portrayed himself as a caring, but unorthodox reformer of troubled kids. And when cornered by authorities, Cartisano frequently claims that his hassles stem from vindictive bureaucrats whining about his treatment methods not meshing with their philosophies.
A tall, clean-cut man with a well-heeled circle of friends, Cartisano gained national attention last year during his negligent-homicide and child-abuse trial in Utah. He was acquitted May 27 in the death of Florida teen Kristen Chase, who apparently died of heatstroke in Kane County on her third day in the Challenger program.
Cartisano was declared innocent. Because he was investigated, however, his name was placed on a confidential child-abuse and neglect register maintained by the state Human Services Department. Being included on that register prohibits him from running a similar program in Utah again.
Authorities in Hawaii took similar steps against Cartisano after students in his program there were abandoned on Molokai Island, and had to be rescued by helicopter.
"The chances of Cartisano getting a license here are about as good as the chances it will snow in Waikiki," says Tom Farrell, deputy Hawaii attorney general.
Since there is no national registry of abuse reports in treatment programs, Cartisano's notoriety took some time to catch up with him in the Caribbean. He set up recruitment headquarters in Alexandria, Va., earlier this year and has been advertising in upscale national magazines. A HealthCare America ad in the latest issue of Southern Living touts a "powerful treatment program [that] stops self-destructive behavior and places parents back in control!"
HealthCare America representatives answering the phone in Alexandria refuse to give any information about the program over the phone, insisting instead that they will mail brochures to prospective customers.
While HealthCare America has been operating out of Alexandria since early this year, it did not have a city business license as of Friday. Alexandria City Hall has no record of a license issued to HealthCare America, Cartisano or HealthCare's executive director, Don H. Staheli.
And while HealthCare America began accepting troubled teens into its program in May, the company was not incorporated until July 2 of this year, according to records in the Delaware Department of State.
Because Delaware has the least-restrictive corporate laws in the United States, many companies choose to incorporate there.
While the first group of "patients" was being recruited in April, Cartisano traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands 1,000 miles south of Miami and began preparations for his trademark wilderness-survival-skills trip.
He found the perfect place: Lameshur Bay, a secluded cove on the southern shore of St. John, a maple-leaf-shaped island with half its 19-square miles inside a national park.
"Lameshur Bay is just about the end of the world," says St. John resident Linda Lohr. "You really can't get any more remote than that around here."
The only sign of civilization at Lameshur Bay is the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station, a rustic research facility operated by the University of Virgin Islands inside Virgin Islands National Park. Claiming he was training staff for the "International Center for Adolescent Recovery," Cartisano asked the university to let him use the facility.
"I was leery of Steve Cartisano from the moment I laid eyes on him," says facility supervisor Cynthia Grippaldi. "He misled me in a number of ways."
For instance, Grippaldi says:
-- Cartisano told her he only would use the facilities for training staff since it "wasn't quite appropriate" for treating youths. Shortly after the adult counselors arrived, however, the first teen-agers were brought May 10 to stay at Lameshur Bay, which became Cartisano's base of operations.
-- Cartisano told her his business was based in neighboring St. Thomas, qualifying him for a 50 percent price break offered to locals. Even with the discounts, though, many of Cartisano's checks bounced, Grippaldi says. She later learned Cartisano's St. Thomas address was a lawyer's office, and that HealthCare America was a stateside company.
-- Cartisano told her his program was for "island kids," the West Indies blacks who are native to the Virgins. The 10 youths who started the program, however, all were from the states. Most were from wealthy families, including the grandson of the late Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, an heir of one of America's biggest family fortunes. Grippaldi was told parents paid an average of $30,000 per child for 60 days of treatment.
-- Cartisano told her he had a business license, when in fact his venture never was licensed by island authorities and he was cited by Virgin Island officials for operating an unlicensed business.
Grippaldi says she learned of the licensing discrepancy when a health-department official showed up at Lameshur Bay to "inspect Cartisano's facility."
"I said, `Excuse me? Steve Cartisano is using this facility but it's not his -- this is a national park.' I couldn't believe Steve's nerve."
The Virgin Island Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs already was watching for Cartisano.
Crusade Begins: Cathy Sutton of Ripon, Calif., had alerted Virgin Island authorities of Cartisano's new operation. Sutton's daughter, Michelle, died in a wilderness-therapy program operated by one of Cartisano's former colleagues. Since the child's death, Sutton has become a crusader for federal legislation requiring registration of all child-treatment programs.
She was tipped off to Cartisano's tropical venture by a HealthCare America counselor who quit because she believed the program"s "tough-love" aspect went too far.
Once authorities learned of Cartisano's attempt to get a business license at Lameshur Bay, an investigation started.
"His big mistake was using his name on the application, because once we started digging we found out about his past experiences," says Assistant Commissioner Louis Penn. "We refused to issue him a license."
Virgin Island authorities ordered Cartisano to cease his operation in late May, and his vision began to fade.
"The concept was positive but they couldn't get the licensing worked out so I was relieved of my duties about two weeks after I arrived," says physician's assistant Craig Humes of Price, former vice president of HealthCare America.
As his license troubles mounted, Cartisano was ordered out of Lameshur Bay by the university. Cartisano's lawyer, David A. Bornn of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, responded with a letter threatening legal action against the university.
In an interview last week, Bornn said he last spoke to Cartisano in August and did not know his whereabouts.
This much is known: On May 31, Cartisano loaded his young charges onto a chartered sloop at Lameshur Bay and sailed away. The 10 teens and eight counselors cruised to Coral Bay on the eastern end of St. John, where they took up residence in a private home. A few weeks later, Cartisano and company boarded another boat and sailed to Hans Lollik, a tiny, uninhabited island off the northern coast of St. Thomas.
There, some of the teens say they were forced to sleep in the sand after dinners of Ramen noodles. They say they spent the days hiking, cleaning up the beach and swimming.
Given that the teens' parents placed them in HealthCare America because they had lied and misbehaved at home, their credibility may be suspect. Still, their stories echo claims made in court by youths enrolled in the Utah Challenger program.
Forced Marches: According to court testimony, kids in Utah were strip-searched and dragged through rocks and sand when they refused to participate in forced marches. They also said they had to carry heavy rocks in their backpacks and hike at night.
A girl in the defunct Utah program claims Challenger personnel poured sand in her mouth when she asked for water. Other kids testified they were punched by Cartisano for disobeying.
In telephone interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune, two of the teens in the Caribbean program claim they were roughed up by Cartisano and his staff.
"The first night I was in the program, I couldn't sleep so I sat up in my bed," says 17-year-old Preston Richards of Georgia, a self-acknowledged "problem child." "All of a sudden, the counselor starts yelling and comes over and slaps me around."
Richards, whose parents pulled him out of the Caribbean program Aug. 2, says several of the teens attempted escapes. Coast Guard officials were called in on at least two such incidents.
One allegedly occurred in July, when two students snuck out of camp on Hans Lollik and swam across the 1.5 mile channel to St. Thomas, the largest island in the chain.
"They wanted to get to the airport on St. Thomas. Win Rockefeller gave them his bank-account number and his wristwatch so they could get money to buy a plane ticket," Richards claims. "They almost got hit by a Coast Guard ship but they made it across the channel, then hiked across the island to the airport. But there were security guys waiting for them there."
Harry S. Truman Airport is on the opposite side of St. Thomas from Hans Lollik, and the youths apparently hiked barefoot over the mountains. Returned to Hans Lollik, the recaptured teens and their peers were herded onto a large sailboat owned by famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
The "patients" were put to work refurbishing the clipper ship as it sailed around the Caribbean. Some teens say they were placed in charge of supervising other youths in the program, with Cartisano threatening physical harm if any more escapes occurred.
But it was not long before there was another swim for freedom.
Hit the Beach: After a stop in Puerto Rico, the ship was anchored in international waters when two teens jumped overboard on Labor Day weekend.
Michael Schultz and Nicholas Wood swam to shore in Costa Rica, and were recovered by the Costa Rican Coast Guard from a beach campsite. The boys told authorities stories of abuse on the ship.
But few believed the boys' stories, including Michael Schultz's mother, Ingrid.
"You have to remember the kind of kids we're dealing with here," says Mrs. Schultz, who lives in a suburb outside Atlanta. "Michael was a pathological liar. He was into drugs, he stole my jewelry, he stole his sister's bike. We are an upper middle-class family and as bad as I was in my teens, he was doing things you wouldn't believe."
Michael Schultz still is in Cartisano's therapy program, which at last report was operating in Costa Rica. Schultz says she has not spoken to her 14-year-old son since she placed him in HealthCare America's program in May, more than five months ago.
During his escape attempt, she spoke only to Costa Rican authorities and HealthCare America representatives in Virginia. She never asked to speak to her son.
"My understanding was he would fare better in treatment if I did not talk to him," Schultz explains. "I assumed I couldn't get in touch with him."
She did receive letters from her son forwarded from HealthCare America's Virginia offices. Every two weeks, she speaks with one of Michael's counselors.
"Everything Michael's letters say is very similar to what the psychologists tell me," Schultz says. "From his letters, his whole personality has changed and it has been a real positive experience for him."
Her son will be released next month, she says, "so until I pick Mike up I really can't say for sure how well the program worked."
Bad Choice: Connie Richards can say for sure. She pulled her 17-year-old son, Preston, out of the program after he spent four months in the islands -- 60 days longer than she expected.
"This was another wrong choice for my son and I am going to pay for it both emotionally and financially," she says.
Desperate for help with her only child, Richards took out a $3,000 loan to cover the deposit she says HealthCare America officials demanded four days before his departure. She expects the remaining costs -- estimated at $15,000 -- to be picked up by her medical insurance.
The fine print in her HealthCare America contract says the $3,000 deposit would be returned upon her son's "graduation," Richards says. But three months later, she has not seen a dime.
"Unlike some of the other kids in this program, we're not wealthy," Richards says. "We would have put our whole house in hock to help straighten out our son. But this was money wasted, absolutely. He returned after four months and there wasn't any difference in his behavior."
Her son, Preston, agrees: "I'm off the drugs, but I'm still an a--."