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Cartisano back in business outside U.S.

He urges parents to send teens to overseas camps

The Deseret News/Associated Press

After being banned from operating teen-reform survival camps following the death of a girl in his care, Steve Cartisano is back in business outside the United States.

After two failed relationships with Utah-based companies, Cartisano is urging parents to send their defiant children to a new program in the South Pacific.

The former Mapleton resident gained notoriety after founding Challenger Foundation, a successful adolescent "wilderness therapy" program in the late 1980s.

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 -- closed the program.

Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges, but was sued civilly. His name landed on the state's registry of suspected child abusers in 1992, barring him from working for any state-licensed child-treatment facility in Utah.

But state officials say they can't regulate Cartisano's offshoots in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

"You can't prevent everything and Steve will play any card that will get him what he wants," said Ken Stettler of the Division of Youth Corrections, who investigated Cartisano's program.

Dan Wakefield, one of several Utah County businessmen who hired Cartisano last year to help start the New Hope Academy in Samoa, said Cartisano promised the venture would make $10.9 million from a $25,000 start-up investment.

Wakefield says the company's partners tried to keep some distance between company operations and Cartisano. But when Wakefield returned to Utah to care for his ailing mother last August, he left Cartisano and another employee, Lonnie Fuller, in charge.

"Biggest mistake I ever made," Wakefield said.

In the two weeks Cartisano ran New Hope, company officials allege he wrote $23,000 in bad checks, rang up a $10,000 cellular-phone bill and began recruiting parents for another program he was launching.

By the time Wakefield discovered the coup, Cartisano was gone. By February, New Hope had gone under.

While working for New Hope Academy, Cartisano was helping Mark Sudweeks of Alpine launch a treatment program at Sudweeks' Canadian fishing lodge.

Sudweeks said he paid Cartisano $6,000 to develop a policy manual and got a photocopy of one from another program.

Cartisano also allegedly convinced Sudweeks' wife to sign a contract paying him $3,000 a month and a $10,000 advance. He cashed one $3,000 check before Sudweeks stopped payment. Sudweeks didn't sue, figuring it would cost more than it was worth.

Cartisano was introduced to Wakefield and Sudweeks by Jacki Allred, a Tremonton resident and former Cartisano employee who wrote a 1995 booklet on how to pick a wilderness-therapy program.

"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.

He said his last contact with Cartisano was earlier this year. Allred was setting up a new program, the Arizona-based Pacific Coast Academy with facilities in Samoa.

PCA is not registered in Arizona. Its toll-free phone number rings through to an Oklahoma office where Cartisano spends much of the year. Several individuals familiar with Cartisano say he answers PCA's phone. But a statement from PCA denies Cartisano's involvement.

"Any allegations to the contrary are malicious lies and slander spread by a source with no credibility," reads the e-mail signed by "Lonnie Fuller."

Cathy Sutton, who has lobbied for federal regulation of wilderness-therapy programs ever since her daughter Michelle died in 1990 in a Utah-based program run by a former Cartisano employee, wonders when something will be done about Cartisano's programs. "How many other families have to be hurt before this guy is put out of business?"

1999 Aug 10