North Star Expeditions operators and counselors facing abuse charges in connection with the death of an Arizona teen will have to wait for a new judge to take the bench before getting a preliminary hearing.
North Star owners/operators Lance Jagger and Bill Henry and seven of their wilderness counselors appeared in court Thursday for the first time since charges were filed against them in October.A new court date should be set soon since Gov. Mike Leavitt announced Thursday the appointment of Kay L. McIff as the new 6th District judge.
Judge Don Tibbs, an institution in rural Utah courts, retires Jan. 1 after 22 years on the bench. With a predicted weeklong preliminary hearing, even the initial stages of the North Star case will require more than the two days available on Tibbs' calendar.
"You've just eliminated me," he told defense attorneys and prosecutors. "Love you all, but goodbye."
Tibbs offered to temporarily return to the assignment, if necessary, to allow his successor time to square up his or her own calendar.
"Just let me know so I don't go on a trip to the Orient," he said.
Jagger, Henry and counselors Brent Brewer, Georgette Costigan, Eric Henry, Jeff Hohenstein, Craig Fisher, Grinnell (Sonny) Duncan and Jeremy Ashlock each face charges of abuse or neglect of a disabled child, a third-degree felony, in connection with the March 31 death of 16-year-old Aaron Bacon.
Several members of the group face additional charges.
Costigan, 48, is charged with tampering with witnesses, also a third-degree felony. Jagger and Bill Henry are also charged with a state licensing violation, a class A misdemeanor. Hohenstein, Duncan, Fisher, Eric Henry and Ash-lock are charged with failure to report child abuse or neglect, a class B misdemeanor.
Bacon collapsed on the seat of a North Star pickup truck while awaiting transport to another program camp. He was taken by helicopter to Page, Ariz., where he was pronounced dead.
Almost since his enrollment on March 1, Bacon had complained of physical illness. An autopsy determined he died of acute peritonitis and a perforated ulcer.
The state alleges North Star counselors mistreated Bacon, ignoring his complaints of sickness and often calling him a "faker," the charges state.
North Star attorney Sheldon Wellins disputes charges that the North Star employees and operators contributed to the boy's death.
The Escalante-based company voluntarily closed its doors following the October charges.
Bacon's parents filed suit against North Star Expeditions in Arizona courts two months ago, accusing the company of gross negligence and seeking undisclosed compensation.
Parents of children who successfully completed the North Star program have contacted Utah media in past months, eager to share their stories. On Thursday, a Colorado woman and her daughter were in the courtroom to offer support to those charged.
"Either I put her in North Star, or I buried her," Peggy L. Houchens said of her daughter - one of three teens taken from the program in September. Houchens ordered a private psychologist's report and disputes claims that her daughter was depressed and possibly suicidal.
The girl and two others were taken into protective custody after a multi-agency task force including doctors, a psychologist, a nurse and representatives from state licensing and the attorney general's office convened in Garfield County to examine program participants.
Among the three teenagers was a girl who claimed one of the counselors had inappropriately touched her, said assistant Attorney General Rob Parrish. On Thursday, the state announced their investigation into the teen's allegations had concluded and no charges would be filed.