The rise and fall of Steve Cartisano

  • Cartisano at Challenger camp

    Salt Lake Tribune
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Tough love proves too tough, in a special issue about outdoor education.

"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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.