CARTISANO'S WAY: TOUGH-LOVE 'EM, THEN LEAVE 'EM
CARTISANO IS UP TO HIS OLD TRICKS: TOUGH-LOVE 'EM, THEN LEAVE 'EM
The Salt Lake Tribune
Stephen Cartisano's controversial teen-therapy program has been evicted from Utah, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now it's in trouble with Puerto Rico.
The unsinkable Cartisano, whose Challenger wilderness-treatment program was outlawed in Utah after a girl under his care died in 1990, has been floating the islands of the Caribbean with a new name and a new business.
But his latest venture, American Heritage Center, has foundered. Teens in the program were taken into custody by Puerto Rican authorities after police found them in the back of a car, dirty and hungry with their hands bound and ropes around their necks.
FBI agents have questioned counselors. Fraud complaints have been lodged with the U.S. Postal Service. Parents are mad. Insurance companies are leery.
And everybody is asking: Where in the world is Stephen Cartisano?
Try Arizona. That's where investigators believe Cartisano may be regrouping, planning to launch yet another incarnation of his "tough love'' program for wayward teens.
It was the Challenger program in Utah that launched Cartisano's notoriety and brief fortune. Founded in 1988, his Utah therapy program grossed $3.2 million its first year. Yet Cartisano declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy two years later. Two months before Challenger filed for protection from creditors, Cartisano paid himself his $265,000 annual salary.
National attention focused on his program when a Florida teen died of heatstroke while hiking in 100-degree heat in southern Utah's rugged Kane County. After a mistrial, Cartisano was found innocent of negligent homicide in the death of 16-year-old Kristen Chase.
After the charges and numerous civil suits claiming abuse of other youths in his charge, Cartisano's name has been placed on a confidential child-abuse and neglect blacklist maintained by the Utah Human Services Department. But nothing has deterred the Brigham Young University dropout from peddling his programs.
"Steve Cartisano has no conscience,'' says Kane County Sheriff Max Jackson, who helped shut down the Challenger boss in Utah and Hawaii. "He is a person who actually thrives on being on the fringes of the law and he enjoys manipulating people.''
Cartisano has continued to run child-therapy programs around the hemisphere. A year ago, U.S. Virgin Island authorities investigated a program called HealthCare America, which was operating without a license in the Caribbean, and discovered Cartisano was in charge. They ordered him off the islands.
After a November story by The Salt Lake Tribune recounted his Caribbean misadventures, Cartisano moved his business from Virginia to New York and changed the company's name to American Heritage Center. He also began using an alias.
"They said they were changing the company's name because the press was after Steve,'' says Jason Cobb. He and his wife, Hally, were hired in December as survival guides for Cartisano's program. "Call it intuition,'' Cobb adds, "but from the time we arrived, I had a weird feeling.''
The Cobbs joined Cartisano in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a friend of the family recommended the job opportunity. Cartisano was working out of the offices of Rios Tropicales, a guide service he hired to take teens hiking in the rain forests and kayaking in the rivers.
"We busted our asses to make the program successful, not just moneywise but for the kids because you could see in their faces they needed help,'' says Fernando Esquivel, owner of Rios Tropicales in San Jose. "The principle of the program was good because many of these kids came from broken homes.''
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New Name: After making a down payment for guide services, Cartisano was given office space and a phone at Rios Tropicales. He worked under the alias Scott Richards.
"In the beginning, I didn't ask too many questions,'' says Esquivel. "But after we started having troubles, I wondered what the hell was happening.''
After running up a bill of more than $30,000 with Rios Tropicales, Cartisano, his four employees and a dozen teens left Costa Rica. Esquivel is steaming.
"We gave this guy a silver platter and he left me with this big bill and I am still hurting from it,'' he says. "I would love to find him and give him what he deserves.''
After four months of chaos and only one partial paycheck, the Cobbs also quit. Jason Cobb calls the experience a "financial, physical and mental disaster. If proper steps are not taken with Steve, it will just be a matter of time before another kid gets killed.''
When the young couple arrived at American Heritage Center's camp in a Costa Rican cow pasture, they found approximately a dozen teens under the supervision of two "guides'' and a counselor who had been working only three weeks. A flood had contaminated the water supply and some teens had nothing to wear but dirty, ripped shorts.
"They looked like vagabonds,'' says Hally Cobb. "We were told that was the kids' fault. The kids weren't allowed to use bug spray, to keep the mosquitoes off. It wasn't anything like you see in their video or brochure.''
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Fraud? Like his past programs, Cartisano solicits customers through advertisements in magazines targeted to upper-middle-class families. Interested callers receive a slick video presentation, but teens, counselors, parents and child-welfare authorities claim the portrayal is misleading.
"I have been asking for four years that someone investigate his programs for fraud,'' says Cathy Sutton, a California mother who has become an activist for tighter federal regulation of wilderness-therapy programs. Her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, died from dehydration and heat exhaustion in June 1990 while enrolled in a program modeled after Cartisano's Challenger.
"Not only are parents being fooled, insurance companies [also] are paying these claims based on good faith,'' says Sutton. "Nobody visits or checks it out to see if the program is legitimate. These people like Steve Cartisano know they can get away with it.''
Phony claims, diagnosis and billing for services not rendered will cost U.S. insurance companies $31 billion to $53 billion this year, according to the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association.
The Travelers, one of the nation's largest insurance companies, is using high-tech equipment, special investigators and law-enforcement personnel to detect potentially fraudulent insurance claims.
"With health-care reform, the FBI has dedicated more agents to this project and every major company is doing more to stop this kind of abuse,'' says Dennis Milewski, a Travelers spokesman in Connecticut. "But obviously, you can't look into every single last claim and we don't catch them all.''
Even wary parents can be fooled. Florida insurance agent Jim Raynor, who enrolled his son in the American Heritage Center program, was warned about Cartisano from neighbors familiar with his troubles in Utah.
"We specifically asked them [Heritage employees] if Cartisano was involved and they said no, not in any way,'' Raynor recalls. "They mentioned several names of those in charge, including Scott Richards, which we now understand was an alias [for Cartisano].''
Raynor says the program failed to help his son, and actually exacerbated the teen's problems.
"He had never said a cuss word in his life and when he came back, every word out of his mouth was a swear word,'' adds Raynor, who serves as a bishop in his ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After going to court to retrieve his son from the program, Raynor received a partial refund from American Heritage Center.
Teens who entered Cartisano's latest program, based in New York, were charged as much as $20,000. Desperate parents are willing to pay.
"You want your child to be helped,'' says Judy Gilardi, a Florida mother who enrolled her unruly 15-year-old son in Cartisano's program last November.
"You have to do it. You don't have a choice, so you pay.''
But after spending two months under Cartisano's care, Andy Gilardi became discouraged by the living conditions and frustrated that he would not "graduate'' from treatment. He swiped a boat captain's credit card and escaped from Puerto Rico.
His parents did not know he was missing, however, until Andy showed up at their home in Florida -- days after leaving the program. Unconvinced of Andy's protests about Heritage, Judy Gilardi paid for plane tickets so Cartisano could return her son to the Caribbean.
"It was the worst day of my life,'' she says. "We had to call the sheriff to chase Andy down and they took him to the airport in handcuffs. He did not want to go back.''
When the youth was returned to the program, now housed in a 45-foot catamaran sailboat dubbed Once Upon a Time, he was handcuffed to a galley table. Andy was kept chained below deck for approximately three days, including passage during a storm that ripped the boat's mainsail.
"We're in this rough weather with no captain and they kept this poor kid handcuffed to the table in the galley,'' says Jason Cobb. "They said they were worried he would jump overboard. My problem was, if the boat capsized and we lost the keys, he was going down with the ship.''
After witnessing the lack of supervision and virtually no professional counseling, the Cobbs quit March 4 and returned to the United States. Two weeks ago, they were interviewed by the FBI. The couple reported their experiences to New York Department of Human Services officials, who have contacted Utah authorities for information on Cartisano.
"New York social services have requested copies of our files and court actions regarding Challenger, and we have provided those to them,'' says Ken Stettler, the Utah official in charge of licensing child-therapy programs.
New York authorities had no comment on their investigation. Phones at American Heritage Center in New York were disconnected this month. West Putnam County says the company obtained a business license in October and listed the company president as Jackie Allred. (Allred also was named by Hawaii Deputy Atty. Gen. Tom Farrell in an injunction and restraining order against Cartisano's failed Challenger program in Hawaii.)
After the Cobbs quit, the American Heritage Center program quickly unraveled. With only one remaining counselor and a boat captain in charge, the five boys remaining staged numerous escapes.
One morning, Judy Gilardi got a phone call from her son after he and the other boys hijacked the sailboat. Using a ship-to-shore phone, he called to tell her they were trying to escape again.
"He said they were in the middle of the Atlantic and he wanted me to come get him, that the Coast Guard was closing in with guns,'' she says. "I called [the American Heritage Center in] New York and they didn't know anything about it. They said they'd call me back in 10 minutes.''
Nearly seven hours later, Gilardi finally heard back from the New York office of Cartisano's program. She was frantic, after repeatedly calling only to get busy signals.
"They told me their phones weren't working,'' she says. "I don't know if my kid is dead or alive, if the boat sunk or blew up. They made me wait until that evening until I found out that Andy was OK. I wouldn't do that to my worst enemy.''
Jim Raynor got a similar call from the seafaring runaways. He decided to pay a personal visit to determine if his son, Joshua, was in good hands.
"I got the ideal treatment,'' says Raynor. "While I didn't feel all was well, I decided my son wasn't ready to come home yet.''
Raynor returned home to Florida, but was on his way back to Puerto Rico the next day. The kids had made another break and their subsequent capture caught the attention of Puerto Rican authorities.
The captain of the boat had rounded up the runaway teens in San Juan. Angry about their numerous bolts, he tied their hands and feet and put nooses around their necks. The nooses were then tied to the car to prevent the teens from fleeing again.
Passers-by noticed the odd sight. In Puerto Rico, organized-crime leaders sometimes hang their victims. Police, suspecting a lynching, swooped in with guns drawn.
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Tattered Teens: Later that day Judy Gilardi's phone rang. On the other end of the line was the Territorial District Attorney's office in San Juan, trying to figure out what was going on.
"These social workers are telling me this is a very bad program,'' Gilardi recalls. "They found these kids in very bad shape, dirty, thin, hungry and all tied up. But the people in New York [at the American Heritage Center], were telling me not to worry, it's not true.''
Gilardi and parents of the other youths rushed to San Juan. But a territorial judge required the parents to produce proof they were fit mothers and fathers before regaining custody of the children. Parents had to call relatives and neighbors for letters of endorsement, and each parent and child took the stand in a courtroom.
For some, the process took more than a week. Raynor, however, sprung his son in a day.
"I guess I went in there as kind of a combination Perry Mason and Rambo,'' he says. "I told them the reason my son was in the program was because he was from a good home that cares about him, not a bad home.''
* * *
A Bad Soap Opera: American Heritage Center officials were scarce during the proceedings. The counselor and a boat captain were summoned to court, but apparently had left the country. A woman who was called the program's psychologist was on hand in an attempt to have the teens returned to American Heritage Center's custody.
Where in the world was Stephen Cartisano?
"Even if he was there, I wouldn't know him if I stepped on him,'' says Gilardi. "The whole thing was a real horror. The social service people were very upset, this program had no license. The psychiatrist was trying to pretty everything up. It was like a bad soap opera.''
Madeline Texita of Puerto Rico's Department Health and Human Services says while American Heritage Center was investigated, territorial law prevents disclosure of investigations stemming from child-abuse allegations.
After days in court, the kids went home with their parents -- wearing new clothes and shoes provided by Puerto Rican authorities.
American Heritage Center apparently has dissolved. But there still are reminders. This month, Gilardi discovered her medical insurance had been billed $1,100 by Cartisano's program for X-rays and blood tests she says never were performed on her son. She doesn't expect to get a refund of the $20,000 she wired Cartisano to pay for her son's treatment.
Meanwhile, authorities in Arizona are on the lookout for Cartisano.
Attempts by The Tribune to locate him for comments were unsuccessful. An attorney who had once represented Cartisano had not heard from him for several months. An inquiry made to another lawyer who counted Cartisano as a client went unanswered.
Cartisano's former competitors in the wilderness-therapy business also want to find him. They say the Utah man's reputation is smearing their good names.
"We need to protect this industry and bring this guy to justice,'' says Larry Olsen, chairman and founder of the Anasazi program in Arizona, considered one of the most respected wilderness-treatment businesses. "What bothers me is we have to go through so many hoops with licensing and insurance that this guy ignores. Why does he keep getting away with it?''