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Families sue founder of defunct reform camps in Samoa, Laie


By Susan Kreifels


A man who started a controversial youth-reform camp on Oahu's North Shore is being sued by 11 mainland families over a similar camp he began in Samoa, with allegations of child abuse, inadequate services and stolen tuition money.

The lawsuit names as a defendant Mekeli Ieremia, chief executive officer of the defunct New Hope Academy in Samoa.

Also named in the suit, filed Dec. 17 in U.S. District Court in Utah, are other academy officials and Ohio-based KeyBank, which provided student tuition loans to the families.

It claims the families paid from $20,000 to $60,000 in New Hope tuition and other expenses, none of which was reimbursed. New Hope Academy shut down in January, and the U.S. government says it left five hungry teens stranded on the Pacific island.

The lawsuit calls New Hope "nothing but a private prison which, after taking all of the plaintiffs' prepaid tuition, some of it bilked from them by KeyBank, closed down and left."

Ieremia also started the Aloha Youth Academy in Laie, which shut down in November after the state barred it from serving troubled teens until it received proper licensing.

Parents and staff complained that Aloha Youth did not provide promised services and lacked adequate facilities.

Jeff Pluemacher, former Aloha Youth Academy director, said Ieremia abandoned the academy and that he doesn't know his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Pluemacher is pursuing state licensing to open another academy in Laie.

In October, Ieremia -- a former Brigham Young University and professional football player with family in Laie -- said he was suspended from his job in El Paso, Texas, earlier this year after $4.7 million in workers' compensation funds under his supervision was discovered missing. The FBI and Texas authorities are investigating.

A spokesman for KeyBank said the company never comments on pending legal action..

Dan Wakefield, a Utah resident and a former New Hope official who also is named in the Utah lawsuit, said he had not seen the suit and would not comment on it. "Surely there was no abuse to kids," Wakefield said in a telephone interview.

The lawsuit alleges that the New Hope program was "boorish and brutal," and that teens suffered from poor sanitation and diet, lived in "primitive" facilities, and suffered from boils, jungle rot and other ailments.

It says illegal drugs were easily obtained in Samoa by teen-agers at New Hope and that promised education and therapy programs were nonexistent. Local staff members beat teens, and two adults sexually assaulted one boy, it alleges.

The lawsuit, which calls for unspecified damages, also alleges that KeyBank dispersed total loans directly to New Hope rather than to the parents, who believed New Hope would be paid on a monthly basis.

1999 Dec 28