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
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...