PANGUITCH, Utah - What gnaws at Sally Bacon is that she never hugged her son good-bye when he was pulled from his bed one March morning two years ago and hauled off to a southern Utah wilderness program for misbehaving teenagers.
Thirty days later, she got the chance.
It came at a funeral home in Page, Ariz., where Aaron Bacon lay on
a stainless steel table, a white sheet covering all but his
"I went into the room and his face was
unrecognizable," the Phoenix woman sobbed at a hearing in Utah last
year. "He had these sunken cheeks, and his eyes, he looked like a
skeleton, his hands were all bone. I ripped the sheet off." "'''He
was literally bruised, black and blue, from the tip of his toes to
the top of his head. He had sores between his legs, open sores. The
bottoms of his feet, I don't know how anyone could have walked or
hiked on them.
"I began screaming, because
something was terribly wrong."
Sally Bacon will
retell those memories to a rural Utah jury this fall, when the
trial begins for seven employees of North Star, the company that
led Aaron Bacon's last trip. The employees are charged with felony
counts of neglecting and abusing Aaron, who apparently died from
acute peritonitis - an ulcerous meltdown that gradually ate holes
in his lower intestine. At issue is whether North Star officials
should have recognized the boy's deteriorating health and could
have prevented his death. It also has raised the question whether a
federal crackdown is needed on so-called "wilderness therapy
Critics call them "hell camps;"
satisfied parents call them the best thing that ever happened to
their son or daughter. Companies take rebellious kids aged 12 to 18
into the backcountry for several weeks, teach them how to live off
the land, and overcome their bad habits and bad attitudes. The
assumption is, they then go home to Mom and Dad as responsible
Aaron Bacon's journey to North Star
began in Phoenix, where his parents had watched him spiral downward
into regular drug use, with slipping grades, conflicts with gang
members and bouts of depression. He smoked marijuana daily, and
experimented with LSD, speed and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Aaron
promised to quit drugs if he would be allowed to switch from
private to public school, and his parents agreed. But when his
grades and attitude continued to plummet, his parents showed him a
brochure for a wilderness camp run by North Star. He tore it up in
"I knew it would be rigorous, but he
loved the outdoors, and I pictured him sitting around a campfire
discussing issues with a therapist," Sally Bacon says. At wit's
end, she and her husband decided to sign the enrollment contract,
pay the $13,900 fee and send Aaron to North
Most wilderness camps for troubled teens
cost $13,000 to $20,000 for an average nine-week stay in the
sticks, with most of the fee payable by health insurance. In the
West, the camps tend to be short, adventure-based programs, says
Archie Buie, director of the National Association of Therapeutic
Wilderness Camps. But if the youth reverts to his or her defiant
ways after returning home, many programs offer a "parental
satisfaction guarantee" that allows return visits to the program at
no additional cost.
Buie estimates there are 115
organizations around the country offering outdoor education
experiences to troubled youths, either as private ventures,
adjuncts to hospitals or as nonprofit foundations. Licensed and
monitored by regulations that vary greatly from state to state - if
they exist at all - the programs use a variety of treatment
methods, from military boot-camp-style discipline to laissez-faire
Teens enrolled in these programs are
frequently taught basic outdoor survival skills, such as starting a
fire without matches or making snares to capture small animals.
Several companies adopt an American Indian theme, erecting "tipi
camps' and teaching students to make pseudo Native American crafts.
Employees of North Star Expeditions, for example, were only to be
referred to by "Indian names' such as Two Crows, Horsehair and Wall
Marketing their services in upscale
magazines such as Southern Living and Sunset, programs like North
Star cater to "troubled, defiant teenagers on a self-destructive
path." They are known as non-adjudicated programs, to distinguish
them from other private companies that are authorized to accept
teen criminal offenders. Most minors in state-run programs are
juvenile delinquents, whose care is paid for by
For desperate parents whose teens seem
out of control and "in with the wrong crowd," the concept of
wilderness therapy sounds like a miracle cure, worth any price. The
companies claim thousands of success stories of teens in turmoil
whose lives and outlooks were dramatically altered by spending
weeks trekking and soul-searching in rugged country, cut off from
TV, telephone, family and friends who are "a bad influence."
Critics say there is little evidence to show
that wilderness therapy works. They cite one study in the
mid-1980s, where the city of San Diego tracked the first 100
delinquent boys it sent through the VisionQuest program. After one
year, 55 percent had been arrested again. After three years, 92
percent had been arrested again.
leaders like Buie insist that the concept works. "The job is to
make sure it's done right," he says. Now, an increasing chorus of
parents, civil rights attorneys and prosecutors say too many
companies are doing it wrong, and that for some, results have
The recently formed California
activist group, Voices Forever Silenced, contends that more than a
dozen youths have died nationwide since 1980 in various outdoor
treatment or adventure camps. Three teens, including Aaron Bacon,
died at teen camps in Utah between 1990 and 1994. The most recent
death occurred last June, when 18-year-old Dawnne Takeuchi was
thrown from a semi-truck near Pagosa Springs, Colo. Kimberly
Stafford, the VisionQuest counselor driving the supply vehicle, was
convicted of careless driving and was ordered to pay $270 in
"How many more lives are going to be
lost before we see the necessary changes needed?" asks Voices
Forever Silenced co-founder Cathy Sutton of Ripon, Calif. One of
the group's main fights has been to pressure Congress for federal
regulation. Sutton's 15-year-old daughter Michelle died of
dehydration six years ago while enrolled in the now-defunct Summit
Quest program in Utah.
So far, the group has had
little success in convincing Congress to impose national standards
on wilderness treatment programs. Buie and others in the industry
continue to resist federal regulation, arguing instead that
self-regulation is adequate. As one gesture toward that goal,
Buie's association recently pledged never to use force to treat
But as scandals continue to hound the
industry, some programs are disappearing. In Utah, for example, the
number of wilderness therapy schools has shrunk from 13 in 1990, to
Even some wilderness therapy
companies held up as model programs after Aaron Bacon's death have
had their troubles. In January, six youths enrolled in Utah's
nationally praised Aspen Achievement Academy bolted from their camp
in Garfield County after some teens allegedly beat a counselor.
They stole a walkie-talkie, which they used to fool authorities
into believing they had taken hostages. Deputies later found the
youths, but Garfield County Attorney Wallace Lee subsequently
determined there was not enough information or evidence to charge
the teens with any crime.
The incident has
raised concerns that future renegade youths from the Aspen
Achievement Academy may assault tourists, hikers and recreationists
who also frequent the public lands around Capitol Reef National
"There have been some concerns expressed
to us by folks who want to know what areas Aspen kids are using,"
says Gary Hall of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is now
considering whether to renew the academy's permit to use public
lands for the therapy and survival programs for at-risk teens.
"They are now on a six-month permit that runs through June, so we
are doing an environmental assessment on the program and presenting
that to the public for comment."
number of deaths and mishaps, there has yet to be a criminal
conviction against any operator of a teen wilderness therapy
program. But if prosecutors can prove neglect and abuse of Aaron
Bacon in a state district court this fall, employees of now-defunct
North Star could well be the first to be
The prosecution's evidence is stark:
Aaron Bacon, a 5-foot-11-inch teen, began the course weighing 131
pounds. When he died 30 days later, he weighed 108 pounds.
Investigators from the Garfield County Sheriff's Department and the
Utah attorney general's office have found that during the last 20
days of his life, Aaron went without food for at least 11 days. He
also went without a sleeping bag for 14 nights when the average
overnight temperature was 32 degrees.
worsening condition is chronicled in his journal as well as the
journals of other campers. He wrote about how his counselors
laughed at him for losing control of his bowel movements. Another
teen wrote that Aaron was starting to look "like a Jewish person in
the concentration camps."
Defense attorneys will
argue in court that what while their clients may have shown poor
judgment, they were not responsible for the death of Aaron Bacon.
Most of the counselors say they believed Aaron was faking his
illness to manipulate the group.
"This was a
tragedy," says defense attorney Floyd Holm. "Based on what we know
now, it should not have happened. But for every tragedy, it does
not follow there was a crime."
The real crime,
says Aaron's father, Bob Bacon, is that so many young people are
dead. And no one will take responsibility.
ignorance, arrogance, incompetence, callousness and greed of the
people running these programs is proving repeatedly to be
dangerous, abusive and even fatal," says Bacon. "The lessons are
not being learned."
Christopher Smith reports
for the Salt Lake Tribune.