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Teens taken from Samoa center

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APIA, Samoa — Allegations of sexual, physical and mental abuse reported to the U.S. Embassy led to the removal of 23 American and Canadian teenagers from a center for troubled youths run by an Arizona nonprofit group.

The Samoa Observer reported the rehabilitation center is owned by Steve Cartisano, who was banned from operating teen-reform survival camps in Utah following the death of a girl in his care at the Challenger Foundation.

Over the past three weeks, the allegations from the teens at the Pacific Coast Academy in Samoa "were very serious and were coherent, credible and consistent," said James A. Derrick, the charge d'affaires at the embassy.

"We were able to verify many to our satisfaction," Derrick said. "We are interviewing the students, and if we receive credible information of specific crimes, we will pass it on to the appropriate authorities of the Samoan government."

The attorney general's office said the "serious, credible complaints" were being investigated by police.

Specific allegations weren't disclosed by officials investigating the program.

According to its promotional material, the academy seeks to reform troubled youngsters through an isolated environment where they are encouraged to achieve at the private school, receive therapy from certified counselors, and work with the Samoans.

Most of the teens are from the southwestern part of the United States, Derrick said. Most were expected to arrive in Los Angeles Monday afternoon, Elliott said.

Embassy officials, along with officials from the High Commissioner of Australia, representing Canada, police officers, Health Department staff and a lawyer from the attorney general's office visited the Pacific Coast Academy Friday.

Cartisano gained notoriety after founding Challenger Foundation, an 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, Utah — closed the program.

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

Cartisano was also linked to another center for troubled American youths in Samoa.

He was hired by several Utah businessmen in 1998 to help start the New Hope Academy. In the two weeks Cartisano ran New Hope, company officials allege he wrote $23,000 in bad checks and ran up a $10,000 cellular-phone bill.

In 1999, New Hope closed its doors, reportedly stranding five youths in the South Pacific island nation, located 2,300 miles south of Hawaii.

Pam Elliott, Palm Desert, Calif., said her 16-year-old son, Chase, never received counseling at the Samoan center, was beaten and forced to carry rocks for hours a day without being fed and became seriously ill with a mosquito-borne infection of which she was never notified by camp organizers.

"It was represented to be this beautiful camp with excellent academics and therapy," she said. "These kids received very inhumane treatment."

Elliott's son, who had been at the center since April and was planning to spend a year, came home two weeks ago after a nurse called Elliott to tell her about the camp's conditions, Elliott said. She said she was paying $2,000 a month for her son to be in Samoa.