The rise and fall of Steve Cartisano
by Christopher Smith
"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
The number and variety of outdoor education programs has increased dramatically in the last 25 years.© High Country News