Facebook Twitter

CARTISANO’S LATEST PROJECT RUNS AFOUL IN PUERTO RICO

SHARE CARTISANO’S LATEST PROJECT RUNS AFOUL IN PUERTO RICO

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.

Officials report that several teenagers enrolled in the latest manifestation of Cartisano's Challenger wilderness-treatment program - the American Heritage Center - were taken into custody by Puerto Rican authorities earlier this spring after they were found in the back of a car with their hands tied and ropes around their necks.Former workers say they've been questioned by the FBI and the group is under investigation by New York human service officials, according to a copyright story in Sunday's Salt Lake Tribune.

Cartisano, meantime, apparently had taken to using aliases. He could not be reached for comment.

Cartisano began his career in Utah in 1988, when he formed the Challenger Foundation. For a fee of upward of $16,000 for a 63-day "wilderness experience," he and a group of counselors would hike teens through the southern Utah desert in an effort to force them to confront and overcome their problems. The company grossed more than $3.2 million in its first year.

Things went sour the following summer, however, when a 16-year-old Florida girl died of exhaustion and heat stroke while in the program. Other tales of abuse soon surfaced in which teens claimed they were hit and tied to trees overnight, or sent on forced marches in broiling temperatures with backpacks full of rocks.

Cartisano was charged with negligent homicide and child abuse but acquitted following a mistrial. Challenger was forced into bankruptcy in 1991, but not before Cartisano collected his $265,000 annual salary.

Since then, the former Brigham Young University dropout has continued to push wilderness therapy in other states. He organized briefly in Hawaii before authorities shut him down. A year ago, U.S. Virgin Islands 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.

The most recent incarnation was American Heritage Center, with offices in New York, which Cartisano has been reported as running using the name Scott Richards.

"They said they were changing the company's name because the press was after Steve," said Jason Cobb. He and his wife, Hally, were hired in December as survival guides for Cartisano's program.

The Cobbs joined Cartisano in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a friend 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.

Rios Tropicales owner Fernando Esquivel said the guides worked hard to make the program successful, "not just moneywise, but for the kids, because you could see in their faces they needed help."

Under the Richards alias, Cartisano worked out of the Rios Tropicales offices, where he ran up a bill of more than $30,000 - and then left, taking his four employees and a dozen teenagers with him.

"We gave this guy a silver platter and he left me with this big bill and I am still hurting from it," Esquivel said. "I would love to find him and give him what he deserves."

After four months of chaos and only one partial paycheck, the Cobbs quit March 4. 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."

The Cobbs left shortly after an incident in Jason Cobb said a boy who attempted to escape was handcuffed for three days to a galley table in a 45-foot catamaran.

Cobb said he was interviewed by the FBI two weeks ago. Utah child welfare officials have confirmed that New York human services investigators have requested copies of the Challenger Foundation files.

Shortly after the Cobbs quit, the program began to unravel. With only one remaining counselor and a boat captain in charge, five boys remaining staged numerous escape attempts.

The captain of the boat, who was not identified, reportedly tired of their antics and tied them hand and foot in the back of a car in San Juan. Nooses around their necks were tied to the car to keep them from running again.

The incident attracted passersby and later the police, who took the boys into custody. The captain and an unidentified counselor apparently fled, it was reported.

New York authorities had no comment on their investigation. Phones at American Heritage Center in West Putnam County were disconnected this month.