Troubled American teenagers in Paradise!

Date: 2001-07-25

Editorial from the Samoan Observor

by Savea Sano Malifa (2/17/00)

First there was "Paradise Cove". Then "A Better Way" came along. Not long afterwards, "New Hope Academy" appeared. And now, there's "Pacific Coast Academy". But what have all these salvation-inspiring names which seem to have been plucked out of Jehovah's Witnesses' "Awake" magazine, have in common?

Well, they've all been competing for the thousands of dollars American parents have been forking out to rehabilitate their troubled teenagers in Samoa. Based originally somewhere in Utah or Arizona, these so-called "treatment programmes" have been set up in far-flung places such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Canadian wilderness, Hawaii, among others.

Then somewhere over the last several years, they made their way to Samoa. And as they did, they brought thousands of dollars into the Samoan economy, and some headaches as well.

It's a wonder therefore that this lucrative source of foreign revenue has not been featuring with any prominence in the government's annual budgets. And then perhaps it has been, but we have been looking at wrong places in the budget statements. However these revenues are being handled anyway, the bickering going on among opportunists fighting for larger slices of the pie is dragging the name of this country into the fray.

This has got to stop. It means the government should launch an investigation into what is going on, and appoint a body to ensure ventures of this nature are properly run so as not to tarnish the country's image abroad.

This body should be made up of qualified personnel who ensure that proper health and educational standards are insisted upon, require openness in the way these "treatment centres" operate, and do away completely with secretive methods that have been employed up to now. Over the years, rehabilitation treatment at these centres has seen a mixture both success and failure. Whereas some parents were happy with how their children had chucked their bad habits and were accepted back in society, others were not.

Some unsatisfied parents travelled over, pulled their kids out, and took them back to America. But as they went, others came. Such is the expanding market for rehabilitation among troubled American children. And judging by the speed life is moving, it is clear this market will continue to grow. And as it does, more swindlers will be drawn over.

This is why some sort of control should be put in place. Already, an American who is alleged to have been hounded by authorities in several US cities, has been to Samoa, cashed a string of dud cheques in a bank, then went back home where is said to be in hiding. But before he left, he reportedly created a corporation called "Youth Rehabilitation Administration Agency of Western Samoa" which nobody seems to know about.

The agency is supposed to issue licenses to overseas organisations applying to open youth treatment centres in Samoa. They do this after checking out the owners' facilities, compliance to regulations, education services, food and medical services, environmental safety, and so forth.

This information is then passed on to clients mainly parents of troubled children in America. In other words, there's a scam going on using Samoa in a fraudulent manner. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture has not heard of this organisation nor does it have a listing with the Telephone Directory.

The Americans involved are reportedly Steve Cartisano (aka Steve Michaels) of Arizona and Lonnie Fuller who is said to be still in samoa. Neither of them is on the telephone directory, nor is that other company they are supposed to represent, Pacific Coast Academy. And cropping up in this heap of unexplainables is one of Samoa's famous names which I will leave out at this stage since I could not get him to comment. It's understood he has rented a property of his to Pacific Coast Academy. All in all, there's a big scandal staring us in the eye. An investigation is very much warranted. Now. Stay tuned.

*****

"Old" Hope Academy

The American Steve Cartisano is not familiar to many Samoans. Perhaps only to people of Vavau, Aleipata. That was where he went in 1998 to help start the organization called New Hope Academy. Hired by American businessman, Dan Wakefield, Cartisano apparently promised to make $10.9 million from a $25,000 start-up investment. New Hope Academy was in the business of reforming defiant American teenagers and turning them into decent young people accepted by society.

But according to Wakefield who is in Apia this week, New Hope Academy no longer exists. It has been transformed into another organization called Pacific Coast Academy with Cartisano as boss.

The problem though is that Cartisano is no longer around. He has returned to the United States where he could not be reached for a comment. But before he left, he managed to cash a string of US bank cheques in a local bank totaling about $25,000 and using New Hope Academy as guarantor.

Issued by OSU Community Federal Credit Union of Oklahoma to "Stepehn Cartisano", all the cheques were returned as there were no funds to cover them. Wakefield said he had since paid the debt to the bank in installments "to protect the integrity of the bankers involved." Now he wants Cartisano to pay back the money so that he could pay his local creditors.

How was he planning to get him now? "I will locate him," vows Wakefiled. But although Cartisano is not well known in Samoa, he is famous in the US as someone the press has reported thoroughly about. Christopher Smith wrote about him in The Salt Lake Tribune on 8 August 1999. His story says:

Former Utah man Steve Cartisano transformed survival-style camping trips with troubled teens into a multimillion-dollar industry. But he was banned from working with kids in the state after a young girl in his care died. Now Cartisano is back in business.

In the past, Cartisano has worked for two Utah based companies that offered treatment outside the United States for wayward youth. Both companies now claim Cartisano bilked them out of thousands of dollars before they severed ties with him. Currently, Cartisano is encouraging parents to send their defiant sons and daughters to an expensive new behavior-modification programme in the South Pacific.

The former Mapleton resident gained notoriety after founding a successful "wilderness therapy" programme for adolescents in the late 1980s called Challenger Foundation, vaulting him to celebrity status as a savior of troubled teens. But charges of child abuse and negligent homicide - 16 year-old Kristeen Chase died of heat exhaustion in 1990 while on a forced hike in Kane county - led to the closure of the Utah programme.

Although Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges, several civil law-suits were brought against him and his name was placed on the Utah Department of Human Service registry of suspected abusers in 1992, preventing him from working in any capacity with a state-licenced child-treatment facility in Utah again.

Since then, Cartisano has left a trail of allegations of fraud and abuse around the Northern Hemisphere, and the various offshoots of his Challenger programme have been investigated in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

But the charismatic Brigham Young University dropout seems unsinkable. State officials say Cartisano's involvement last year with two Utah-based teen treatment programmes wasn't affected by the abuse registry because treatment facilities out-of-state are not monitored. "Anyone providing service to children in the state is checked against that registry database, but a lot of these programmes that may be based in Utah and conduct the treatment elsewhere, we have no jurisdiction over," said Ken Stettler of the Division of Youth Corrections, who investigated Cartisano's Challenger program extensively. "You can't prevent everything and Steve will play any card that will get him what he wants."

Adds Wayne Holland, a retired state child-care licensing official who also helped bring Cartisano to justice in Utah: "He's always got some sort of confidence scam going. At one time I thought Steve might be in a witness-protection program because everything he said never panned out."

Despite his past, Cartisano manages to convert skeptics into believers in his ability to operate a lucrative, legitimate treatment program for minors with discipline, academic or substance-abuse problems. "He told me, 'Dan, keep my enemies at bay and I'll make us millions,' said Dan Wakefield, one of a group of Utah County businessmen who last year hired Cartisano to help start Orem-based New Hope Academy in the island nation of Samoa. "But the whole time we were paying all his expenses, he was conducting a premeditated scheme to destroy the credibility and financial stability of our company."

Brought in as a consultant to help New Hope gain accreditation from various organizations that proclaim to monitor the loose knit industry, Cartisano quickly tried to become directly involved in founding the programme.

"You, Dan and I would be equal partners in putting this together and operating it," Cartisano wrote in a letter to a New Hope business partner in in early 1998.

For an investment of $25,000 each, Cartisano declared the Samoan programme would gross $10.9 million the first year alone. Wakefield and his partners were leery of Cartisano's finances or of him taking a management role. They attempted to keep him behind the scenes.

But when Wakefield, New Hope's "island manager," suddenly had to return to Provo to care for his ailing mother last August, he put Cartisano and another employee, Lonnie Fuller, temporarily in charge of New Hope's operations in Samoa. "Biggest mistake I ever made," Wakefield said.

In the two-week span that Wakefield was stateside and Cartisano was running New Hope, company officials allege Cartisano wrote more than $23,000 worth of insufficient checks drawn on his personal account to Pacific Commercial Bank.

The Samoan bank cashed the checks "in good faith on the understanding [New Hope' would make good any loss," according to banker Peter Langton. New Hope paid the bank for Cartisano's bounced checks and return fees, a financial hit from which the program never recovered. Cartisano allegedly also rang up a $10,000 cellular-phone bill, told parents New Hope was "going under" and began recruiting clients for a new teen-treatment program he was launching in Samoa.

When Wakefield discovered the coup, Cartisano was long gone. The programme's troubles were compounded when an official for the U.S. Consulate in Samoa visited New Hope and found youths with little supervision, shelter or food. By February, New Hope was out of business.

"As a new company, we made some mistakes. But Steve really did us in," said Wakefield, who still is trying to settle open accounts in Samoa. There's nobody in this world that knows how to ruin a kids' program faster than Steve Cartisano. At the same time Cartisano worked for New Hope Academy, he also worked for another Utah County venture to start a teen-treatment programme in Canada.

"I was totally unaware of who Steve Cartisano was and his past but we were introduced to him as the greatest person in the world for setting up a good programme." said Mark Sudweeks of Alpine, Utah, who owns a fishing and hunting lodge in British Columbia. He wanted to use the lodge as a treatment center for youths during the off-season and hired Cartisano to develop a policy and procedure manual for his Chilanko Lodge, paying $6,000 up front.

"What I eventually got was a photocopy of somebody else's programme manual and their guidelines with my name written in red pencil over the top of it," said Sudweeks. "I read it and if that was the sort of procedures that his programmes used, well, we knew better than that how to treat kids."

Cartisano also allegedly convinced Sudweeks' wife to sign a contract paying him $3,000 monthly in return for a guaranteed $1 million profit the first year. Until the contract could be co-signed by her husband, Cartisano also allegedly convinced her to give him a $10,000 advance in the form of $1,000 cash and three, unsigned postdated checks for $3,000 each.

"We put stop-payments on the checks but he had already managed to cash one by forging my wife's signature," said Sudweeks. "Bank of America wanted us to take legal action against him, but we figured that would cost more than we lost and we just wanted to get this guy out of our lives."

Cartisano would take one more shot. He sent Sudweeks a certified letter demanding full payment of the partially signed contract under the threat of legal action.

"We haven't seen or heard from him since," said Sudweeks. Cartisano made contact with New Hope and Chilanko Lodge through the same person: Jacki Allred, a Tremonton resident and former Cartisano employee, who wrote a 1995 booklet advising how to pick a good wilderness therapy program.

"I have steered people to Steve for the specific purpose of writing manuals and, yes, that has back-fired and now my name gets dragged won with him," Allred said. "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 she last heard from Cartisano earlier this year when he called seeking a Web site designer for the latest teen-treatment programme he was working with: Pacific Coast Academy, based in Arizona with treatment facilities for teens in Samoa.

Although the programme's Web page lists a Mesa, Ariz, mailing address, Mesa city officials say they have no record of a business license for the academy, or Pacific Coast Foundation, a so-called "outdoor intervention referral service" using the same phone number as Pacific Coast Academy (PCA).

PCA bills itself as a nonprofit organization, and all non-profits in Arizona are required to register with the secretary of state's office. The state has no record of either the academy or foundation. The toll-free phone number for PCA rings through to an office in Stillwater, Okla, where Cartisano resides much of the year. However, a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune via e-mail maintains Cartisano has no involvement in the operation of PCA.

"Mr. Cartisano is not and never has been a employee of PCA nor does he have any long-term association in any capacity whatsoever with PCA; any allegations to the contrary are malicious lies and slander spread by a source with no credibility," reads the message signed by "Lonnie Fuller" but sent from the e-mail address steve@pacificcoastacademy.com. "Mr. Cartisano is a consultant to numerous programs and has been called upon for advice by PCA on two occasions in the past."

However, several individuals familiar with Cartisano say when they call the PCA phone, he answers. "I talked to him on the phone and he denied he even knew himself," said Cathy Sutton, who has lobbied for federal regulation of wilderness-therapy programmes ever since her daughter Michelle died in a Utah-based programme run by a former Cartisano employee in 1990. Another youth-programme reform advocate, Jeannie Colburn of Maine, said after she called PCA once to inquire about the programme, Cartisano began contacting her almost daily.

"I've seen videotapes of Cartisano and there's no doubt in my mind that the guy calling himself Steve Michaels is Steve Cartisano; it's the same voice, same smooth-talking routine," she said. "When I was talking to him from the start, I felt like I was talking with vermin." PCA claims it is a fully licensed and accredited child-treatment programme in Samoa. However, the company did not respond to requests from The Salt Lake Tribune to provide details on what agency if any in the Samoan government regulates such programmes.

Sutton filed a deceptive-advertising complaint with the Arizona attorney general's office against PCA last month, and the state attorney general's office said that it would look into the business. Meanwhile, she is lobbying Sunset magazine to stop running ads for Pacific Coast Foundation.

"How many other families have to be hurt before this guy is put out of business?" said Sutton, who has printed up T-shirts with Cartisano's picture and a logo saying "He's back." Holland, the retired Utah state employee who drafted the nation's first wilderness-therapy regulations in 1984, said no matter how tough state statutes are, they may never be able to stop an unscrupulous individual.

"If you're unethical, it's very easy to convince parents who are distraught and panicky over their kid's behavior that you can cure all their problems for the right price," said Holland. "And you can enact all the standards you want, but any licensing regulations are really only good on the day the monitor is there to see what's going on."