Their speech littered with talk of sweltering desert hikes and eccentric staff monikers - Wallwalker, Horsehair and others - two former students of the North Star wilderness program recalled the days preceding a friend's death.
Their testimony came Monday during the first day of preliminary hearing proceedings, which are expected to last a week. Two operators of North Star Expeditions and six employees face charges of abuse and neglect in the March 1994 death of Aaron Bacon, a troubled Phoenix teen enrolled in the program by his parents.Bob and Sally Bacon sat on the front row of a 6th District courtroom in Panguitch on Monday, some-times crying, always listening and taking notes as other students described watching their son's physical stamina wane as program directors allegedly ignored his sickness.
Sally Bacon was among numerous witnesses expected to take the stand Tuesday.
Defense and prosecution questions focused mostly on Aaron Bacon's actions during the last days of his life: when he dropped his pack because his legs and feet hurt and his repeated comments about his failing health.
Bacon died of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer. Charges against the North Star group say Bacon was repeatedly called a "faker" for his complaints, which were frequently ignored, according to investigators.
Two teens who testified Monday told of strenuous desert walks and reprimands and punishment for not fulfilling course requirements.
One Los Angeles boy also admitted he initially believed Bacon was purposely not eating and perhaps fabricating his symptoms.
"I thought I would never see Aaron die," he later told investigators. "It just never occurred to me it could happen."
A 17-year-old Park City boy told of dropping his pack and the group returning with him later to get it. In a separate incident, after only a two-mile hike, Bacon collapsed and the group carried him. The boy recalled Bacon saying he could see "purple stars" at the time.
"He was getting skinnier, slower and complaining more," he said of Bacon. "The staff called him a faker, they got mad at him a lot . . . yelled at him."North Star operators Lance Jagger and Bill Henry sat quietly through most of the hearing Monday. The other defendants occasionally shook their heads, often whispering to the five defense attorneys present.
Bacon was scheduled to return to an acclimation camp the day he died, March 31, 1994. He lost consciousness as he waited in the back seat of the North Star pickup truck and was flown to Page, Ariz., where he was pronounced dead.
In the ensuing months, North Star repeatedly came under scrutiny by state investigators.