The rise and fall of Steve Cartisano

  • Cartisano at Challenger camp

    Salt Lake Tribune

"Break the kids down and build them back up."

That's the philosophy of Utah native Steve Cartisano, often called the godfather of wilderness therapy treatment. When the former military special forces officer and Brigham Young University dropout founded a company called Challenger in 1988, it took off like a rocket, grossing $3.2 million in its first year and spawning several imitators.

Cartisano apparently hit upon the idea of intimidating tough kids into submission through outdoor survival while studying communications at Brigham Young University in the mid-1980s. Some say he borrowed the concept from a former BYU professor, Larry Dean Olsen, who eventually left the BYU faculty in the 1970s to help start another therapy school, the nonprofit Anasazi Foundation.

But while Olsen gave teens choices in the wild so they could learn from mistakes, Cartisano applied what he liked to call "street smarts' to problem kids: Strip searches and military haircuts. He adopted a drill-sergeant style of speech which required "Yes sir!" answers. Rules were strict and heavily enforced - a girl caught saying "I'm sorry" instead of "I apologize" would be punished by carrying a football-sized chunk of cow manure all day in her backpack. A boy caught eating raw oatmeal instead of cooking it would have his oatmeal ration taken away. Good behavior for Challenger students was rewarded with canned peaches, raisins or cinnamon.

By many accounts, Cartisano got results. The rich and famous flocked to the school: Satisfied customers included the Winthrop Rockefeller family of Arkansas, who placed a daughter and later a son in Cartisano's programs. Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North visited a Challenger camp in southern Utah during the summer of 1989.

But the high-profile, big-profit days of Challenger ended in 1990 when Kristin Chase, a Florida teen on her fourth day in the program, stumbled during a hike on Utah's scorching Kaiparowits Plateau and collapsed. Revived once, she hallucinated, fell and died, according to authorities. Because of a partially inoperable radio, it took two hours before professional medical help arrived.

Cartisano and Challenger were charged with negligent homicide and nine misdemeanor counts of child abuse. The company soon filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy after falling more than $1 million into debt. While Cartisano was acquitted of all criminal charges in Chase's death in 1992, the national publicity spawned a slew of civil suits against his company. Seven federal suits alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and breach of contract were filed August 1989 and November 1993. All were settled out of court.

Cartisano was subsequently banned from operating any child treatment program in Utah and later in Hawaii, where another version of Challenger faltered in 1990. He later orchestrated similar programs in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. None were ever licensed; each left behind a trail of angry parents and unpaid bills.

Cartisano's latest venture was working as a supervisor of a dormitory for American Indian students on a reservation in Oklahoma. But late last year, when a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer read a magazine article about wilderness therapy that featured Cartisano's history and photograph, Cartisano was fired.

His philosophy has continued to flourish, however. Two former employees who testified against him in return for immunity from prosecution went on to found an outdoor survival school. Decrying Cartisano's allegedly abusive ways, Bill Henry and Lance Jaggar were licensed by Utah officials and began operating a teen wilderness program in 1992. Called North Star Expeditions, it's the same outfit that is now accused of negligence in the death of Aaron Bacon.

This story is a sidebar to the feature

Spreading the gospel: Outdoor education teaches people to know and care about the West

The number and variety of outdoor education programs has increased dramatically in the last 25 years.

Mar 19, 2007 11:41 AM

Although this article has some things right, the presentation and many of the basic facts are very wrong. Its insulting to hear other programs refered to as "immitators". Larry Olsen did not leave BYU to start Anasazi (that came years later). As far as Cartisano goes, it is pretty accurate. The author should stick to what he knows.

Apr 30, 2007 11:53 AM

I work in this industry and the schools and programs I work with are well equipped and staffed to meet the needs of their students, the admissions process involves careful screening to be sure that they can meet the needs of the children they accept...


I am sorrowed to read of such abuse and mistreatment of children already in pain and at risk. I believe there is abusive and greedy programs...but it does not represent all programs, just like reading about an abusive and corrupt policeman does not reflect negatively on the entire field.


Parents should never settle for the word of a charismatic stranger, or a  flashy brochure to place their child in a treatment center...they need to do intensive research and walk a mile in the shoes that their child will walk make a good decision.


I have visited many schools and wilderness programs...they are not all the same...there are people who are in the industry to help children and programs that are responsble... 

Jul 30, 2007 05:00 PM

I was in this camp exactly at this time...It was as much as BS as they state - Yes they had newscasters follow us in as our "run in" was being watched by the Sheriff Dept.  but do you honestly think any kid at that time would say anything bad when they are finally letting you out?  Ask any kid now for the real story.


Jennifer Cullum Mackin 

Aug 10, 2007 11:10 AM

I worked for Challenger almost from beginning to end. As far as the program goes, it distresses me that all who worked for Challenger are dumped in the same category. I'm sure each student and staff who went through the program had their own unique experience. I've read and heard of some truly horrific things that may of happened. As for me, and the counselors and staff I worked with, you could not find a team more dedicated to helping the youth they worked with each day. Nothing was more fulfilling than to watch a student find out who they truly where within and the self esteem and strength that comes from finding yourself. I loved those children I worked with as much as I love my own children today. I still wonder where a lot of them are and certainly hope they are living happy, fulfilling lives. As for me personally, the time I spent there will forever be ingrained in my mind as one of the best growing experiences of my life.


Nov 05, 2007 11:15 AM

I will some what agree - the staff members that were good were good - now there were some harsh mean ones too...BUT for most part I really liked all the ones I was with most of all Steve and Valynn - I had some good times but it was not something I would ever wish upon any child ;-)

 I want everyone to know that not all counslers were bad like Steve and some other head honchos.

 I would love yo get in touch with people from then - I found some on myspace which has been kinda neat to catch up...


Sooooo if you read this you can find some of us on there. 



Nov 05, 2007 11:37 AM

I was also IN this program at this time. (i was the second group to go through)I wont say, looking back, that the entire expiereience was bad, but MUCH of it was. My parents still have no idea of some of the things that went on, because i dont want them to feel guilty for sending me there. In thier mind, It was a great thing, and i will keep that way. But i never told them everything. There were many counselors who had wonderful intentions and kind hearts, but there were others who were there, who were simply thrilled and and sadistically so, in the power they held over us. There was one counselor, i think his name was Robby and another who i think was named leslie ( Robby didnt like me much) but...  i truly believe that if he or she knew what some of the other counselors were doing, they would have turned them in, and protected us with their life. He was a good man. She was a good woman. 

 i still have many many journals, and deer hides, and "run-in" pants i sewed, bowls i made, and even some pictures of us kids and the landscape of my time at Challenger. Though, reading them, only i know, that much of what i wrote about how i felt about my family was untrue at the time.  Our journals were monitored, if we wrote anything negative, we were told we would not be allowed to go home. When i look back on these journals now, i wish i had written the truth about that stuff, and not just the truth about how that day was, or who was argueing..or what we DIDNT eat.  my books are filled with poems that i wrote, that when i read them, i can actually remember where i was when i wrote them. im shocked at the detail i put in for being only 15 at the time.

Though there were many things that never should have happened to us in Challenger, i do still have some fond memories of my time there. I will never forget the day i found a bottle of shampoo at lake Pal (powell?) would have thought i found a trunk containing 10 million dollars!!

i have searched over the web many times throughout the years for others who were with me in Challenger, but i have yet to find a single one.  Should any of you stumble on this, please look me up on MYSPACE under the email  or email me at (i dont check the mail on the aol account)

Jeff Glave
Jeff Glave
Apr 15, 2010 01:14 PM
I was there too. Trying to find other people that were there the same time. e mail is also on facebook.
May 29, 2008 01:36 PM

Most behavioral problems in teenagers stem directly from their family situations - shipping the kids off to wilderness boot camp isn't going to fix all your problems. Parents would be better suited to look at themselves and their own behavior, get their kids a full psychiatric evaluation, and consult a reputable family therapist than shipping the kids off to get "fixed" by some behavior modification program. Outward Bound is a great program - these boot camps are not Outward Bound. I find it extremely disturbing so many abusive and controversial programs, such as WWASP, are run by people who claim to be religious, and most often Mormon.

Your "problem teen" won't, and doesn't need to be "fixed" in the first place. Teenagers have problems, especially in today's society. Teenagers are rebellious. They experiment with drugs. They have sex. They are often irresponsible and disobedient. They tend to act out the family's problems. Parents would be better suited taking a good look at themselves and divining the source of their child's behavior than wasting money on these things. One need only look for testimony from victims of these programs online (fornits) to realize they are selling you snake oil.

Psychiatric evaluation. Therapy. Look at your contribution to the situation. How could you be more loving and supportive as a parent? How could you be a friend to your child and help him/her deal with life? How might your own behavior contribute to that of your troubled teen? Problem teens come from problem parents, and the peace of mind (time without kids) these programs sell is not worth the psychological damage they wreak on your children.

Apr 27, 2009 10:22 AM
I'd have to disagree with you. I'm a psych major, going for my doctorate, and yet, I have to say that therapy doesn't work for kids who don't want it.

My brother was sent by my parents to a WTP (wilderness therapy program) when he was 15, against his will, and it positively changed his life forever.

My parents never did anything wrong-- they were, and still are, wonderful people who raised their kids right. My mom wrote parenting books, for God's sake! She and my father knew what they were doing, and it broke their hearts when they had to send my brother away.

WTPs are most often used in a "last resort" way, one step before a kid is about to be arrested for something or another. Sometimes, a court mandates it. The one written about wasn't a WTP-- it was boot camp. I'm glad that the people who have written about it are okay now and leading healthy lives, but studies have shown that those programs often do not work for kids with certain issues, the way WTPs do.

Do your research.
Defending Cortisano
Oct 22, 2009 05:47 AM
What a crock...not sure about the accusations prior to 1993 but I was in one of his programs from may 1993 until december 1993. Had it not been for him and the staff my life would have probably turned out quite different. I was there with Win Rockefeller and I can tell you he felt the same
What about Pacific Coast Academy?
Another Life Impacted
Another Life Impacted
Jan 15, 2010 09:20 PM
No one mentions PCA which was a behavior modification school Mr. Cartisano aka "Steven Michaels" ran in W. Samoa. I'll never forget the day that one of my partners in survival @ this school received a letter from her Mother with an article about another of his infamous schools where a death occurred. On the article she wrote, "Aren't you glad I didn't send you here? This man is a danger to children. You should be greatful for the fact you are in paradise." Little did that Mother know that the two men were one in the same. We knew. We had seen 'Cartisano' on some of his paperwork and at the time were confused. It all became very clear to us on that day. I had been involved in some very violent criminal activity stateside. I had seen some ruff streets, but on that day the fear of death became very real to me. The nightmare world of what I and my "school mates" were living on a daily basis became very real and I have never known terror like that I felt on that day. At one point we had stolen a cell phone and called the US embassy. They, like our parents, were convinced that this was just another of our very calculated manipulation tactics. How saddening for them, when they finally shut the school down, to realize that it was not we who were the manipulators at all. There is no question that I needed some type of intervention. I do not hold anger towards my family for attempting to save my life. I am sad for them. They are victims too. I am angry at the man who caused so many this pain. I struggle to trust a system (our government) who will lock up a drug addict and throw away the key but who will let an individual who has committed the atrocities against children and their families such as he has walk free. Who will be held accountable? Where is the justice for the Mothers who did not get to hold their children another day?
to Another Life posting on Pacific Academy
Jun 11, 2010 05:17 AM
In total agreement about the lack of justice and accountability in these situations.

As someone who's recently been dealing with our elder care situation in America and now seeing this. Atrocious abuse, neglect and death occuring to both our youth and our elders. No wonder we have such a high incidence of immune system disorders!

We are a tribal's in our nature to commune with one another. We lack connection in America. Greed and pursuing the almighty dollar has replaced taking care of each other as our ancestors did.

The sandwich generation - Baby boomers. Stuck in the middle of kids in college and aging parents needing extra care.
Nov 09, 2010 03:59 PM
I went to PCA from 10/2000 to 05/2001. I witnessed sexual assaults, physical abuse and all kinds of different events that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
I was there too
Jan 17, 2011 07:47 PM
I was at Challenger when I was 15, in December 89 to February 90. Its interesting to see how many of us that were there still look up and read about Challenger after all this time. I was there for 63 days, many were there much longer. There was a lot of abuse, but the thing that mainly surprises me is I haven't read anything about the girl that died after rolling into the campfire in her sleeping bag on solo when I was there. Maybe she survived, but I was told she had died as I watched the ambulance slowly drive away. The whole time I was there, I just planned my escape. When I did get home, I acted like I was "fixed" and then ran away. I'm good now though. Anyone who remembers me, please write. Id love to catch up.
Holly Hoit
Holly Hoit
May 01, 2012 11:46 AM
In Spring of 1988, after finishing my Jr. year in social work at BYU, while rock climbing, I was recruited to work for Challenger foundation. I was 24 yrs old and I was the only one on our trip with any psychological training, and I didn't even have a bachelor's yet. The "counselors" consisted in mostly kids from 21 to 27 who like to camp. There was only one man in his early 30's with actually survival training (hey Bart!). I was the only one with an active first aid certificate. There were "three" groups there was a girls group, a boys group each with 12 students and the "fat girl group". The mother of the girl claimed this 13 year old girl was 'obese'. These families were charged $10,000. for the trip not including the middle of the night 'kidnapping' technique they used to get the kids to the starting point. I did not find out about the abduction used to get the kid there until the students told me. it caused some kids nightmares. So, back to the "fat girl group". Her mother claimed her caught was 60lbs over weight so Steve charged her mother $20,000 and assigned Bart and I to her. Each boy and each girl group had 12 students and 3 "counsels". They expected the 'fat' (this is how Steve actually talked about her) girl to be slow. he told her mother he didn't want slowing down the girl group, so he gave her her own group. I lost my journal and i do not remember the sweet girls name. Also we were given NO personal information about the children, so we didn't why there parents had sent them. I remember how shock I was that they didn't give us a medical, social,family or personal history or even a treatment plan for these kids. We were told to watch them closely and to "do whatever it takes" to keep them in line. This turned out to be only thirteen, and as far as i could tell, her only crime was being about 15-20lbs overweight and sassing her mother! We were dropped in the Escalante River bottom in the middle of the night. The kids were given a large can of peaches, (the can to be used to boil and purify water) 2 potatoes, a small bag of oatmeal and a small bag of wheat flour, an army blanket an a strap that had been used to make a makeshift backpack for there one change of clothes and the food for a week. When then began to break in the kids. Natilie could keep up just fine, but we had been give strict interaction to stay apart from the girls group as to justify that extra ten thousand! This was ridiculous idea as we all had to met up at the same place to get our food allotments. The first thing we noticed was that the three short wave radios we had been given were useless in the canyon! We had no way to contact anyone as we were in a part of the Escalante basin that could not be climbed out of (which was the point of placing as there, no escapees). We had to reach the cheach point. After a few days Bart and I decided that it was unsafe to travel alone. If something happened one of us, then there would be no one to stay with Natalie while the other went for help. So we followed the girls group only yards apart and sleep in the same place. i can not tell all of it but I will give you the highlights. There was a flash flood and it barely missed our campsites. But after the flood 3 teens and 2 counselors got giardia. We got it just as we met up with support crews on Lake Powell, but Steve refused to take us to a Doctor. I thought I was going to die. All they did is camp for a few days so the sick could get better. I was so dehydrated that the my hands looked my they were 80's years old. I have never been so sick in my life. That was the first time Steve risked student and staffs lives. Later, we had fallen behind, yet we knew we had to be at a check point to get our food. We were pulling 20 a day hikes in the 100 plus degree sun. At this point Bart, Natalie and I were behind the boys group on a pretty demanding trail. One of the boys collapsed. he was very thin when we started, but now he was emaciated. He started to have a asthma attack/allergic reaction to something. Not one of the 4 men knew what to do. As I watched this boy fingernails and lips turn blue as he gasped for breath, I went through the first aid kit and found the "bee sting allergic reaction pen." I saw it contained epinephrine, which I knew would help. While the boy choked and the men argued, I administered the epi pen. His breathing was better, but still labored and he could get up. Since we were all almost out of food, one male counselor ran to get help and the other counselors moved the kids on while I stayed with the sick boy and waited for help for three days. At this same time, a day later a girl fell and broke her arm. They left me with the two remaining epi pens and food for two days and a boy who was so sick that at times I though he was going to die. These are just the highlights of this trip. I did one more trip, but then I quit after a strong ethical disagreement with Mr. Cartisano. Strangely, due to the wonderful kids in this program, and in spite of the problems, I loved this job.
Brandy Gamblin
Brandy Gamblin
Jun 17, 2012 11:46 PM
Holly, I was there in July & August of 1988. My name is Brandy Gamblin. I remember Bart quite fondly! I remember him hiking in what looked like Tevas. I think of him every time I hike in them - they are all I hike in now. I think, if Bart could do it, then I can too! :-)

A girl, Sky, broke her arm the summer I was there. But I only remember a girls group & two boys groups. I don't remember a "fat girls group." There was also a flash flood that came close to where we camped. I remember it as exciting, but I was not aware of how close to danger we really were. I just remember the water being sandy for quite a long time.

Speaking of sandy, one of the counselors may have been named Sandy(???). I don't remember your name though. Were you in the summer 88 group? Do you have Bart's contact information? Anyone related to Challenger can feel free to contact me at I would enthusiastically welcome contact. I feel like we should create a survivors of (or memories of) Challenger facebook page or something. Love to everyone!
steve cromwell
steve cromwell
Dec 27, 2012 12:30 PM
wow i grew up with stephen cortisano. im 56 yrs old and havent seen or heard from him for about 40 years. we lived in the same neighborhood and ran around together daily. i heard about him about 20 years ago. very little.his father tony was mean as hell and stephen was quiet and very well mannored. until tony would keep pushing him. i only saw it a few times but steve got fire in his eyes.u could see the rage. to read this article i can see exactly how it affected him... steve if u read this, this is steve c. from the next street over. long time no see. comment back if u read this. fyi because of tony. mary was cool
Nadine Guerrera
Nadine Guerrera
Jun 13, 2013 07:43 PM
I was in Challenger the summer of 1989 and met Steve a few times while in the program. Now I am blogging the experience base on my journals and in the process of raising funds to make the documentary of those who where involved or attended the program. Please check out my blog!
Stephen garton
Stephen garton
Mar 18, 2014 09:15 PM
Pacific Coast Academy was one of the worst places I have ever been. I would have to say that my time there definitely helped to numb me so when I went into combat in the USMC I could continue my mission without falling apart. The forced isolation, the beatings, the starvation, it was all horrible. I still miss the people I was there with, not under.
Temira Lital
Temira Lital
Jun 13, 2014 08:29 PM
I was sent to Challenger in the summer of 1989 and was imprisoned there for 83 days. My parents were physically abusive, and things were horrendous at home for me. My folks sent me there because they could afford to, but the truth of the matter was they were the problem children. I was a straight-A student, never did drugs, was celibate, played sports every season... I was a dream kid with nightmare parents. Challenger never asked about what was happening in my home - they just happily took my folks' money and blamed the problems on me. Challenger destroyed me. It left me broken, hopeless, and depressed with no self-esteem and no ability to connect to other people. Twenty years later, I'm just starting to get a grip on the C-PTSD caused by my summer there. If anyone wants to talk to a fellow Challenger / North Star prisoner about the time they spent there, feel free to email me.