Editorial from the Samoan Observor
Troubled American teenagers in Paradise!
by Savea Sano Malifa (2/17/00)
First there was "Paradise Cove". Then "A Better Way" came along. Not long
afterwards, "New Hope Academy" appeared. And now, there's "Pacific Coast
Academy". But what have all these salvation-inspiring names which seem to
have been plucked out of Jehovah's Witnesses' "Awake" magazine, have in
Well, they've all been competing for the thousands of dollars American
parents have been forking out to rehabilitate their troubled teenagers in
Samoa. Based originally somewhere in Utah or Arizona, these so-called
"treatment programmes" have been set up in far-flung places such as the U.S.
Virgin Islands, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Canadian wilderness, Hawaii,
Then somewhere over the last several years, they made their way to Samoa.
And as they did, they brought thousands of dollars into the Samoan economy,
and some headaches as well.
It's a wonder therefore that this lucrative source of foreign revenue has
not been featuring with any prominence in the government's annual budgets.
And then perhaps it has been, but we have been looking at wrong places in
the budget statements. However these revenues are being handled anyway, the
bickering going on among opportunists fighting for larger slices of the pie
is dragging the name of this country into the fray.
This has got to stop. It means the government should launch an investigation
into what is going on, and appoint a body to ensure ventures of this nature
are properly run so as not to tarnish the country's image abroad.
This body should be made up of qualified personnel who ensure that proper
health and educational standards are insisted upon, require openness in the
way these "treatment centres" operate, and do away completely with secretive
methods that have been employed up to now. Over the years, rehabilitation
treatment at these centres has seen a mixture both success and failure.
Whereas some parents were happy with how their children had chucked their
bad habits and were accepted back in society, others were not.
Some unsatisfied parents travelled over, pulled their kids out, and took
them back to America. But as they went, others came. Such is the expanding
market for rehabilitation among troubled American children. And judging by
the speed life is moving, it is clear this market will continue to grow. And
as it does, more swindlers will be drawn over.
This is why some sort of control should be put in place. Already, an
American who is alleged to have been hounded by authorities in several US
cities, has been to Samoa, cashed a string of dud cheques in a bank, then
went back home where is said to be in hiding. But before he left, he
reportedly created a corporation called "Youth Rehabilitation Administration
Agency of Western Samoa" which nobody seems to know about.
The agency is supposed to issue licenses to overseas organisations applying
to open youth treatment centres in Samoa. They do this after checking out
the owners' facilities, compliance to regulations, education services, food
and medical services, environmental safety, and so forth.
This information is then passed on to clients mainly parents of troubled
children in America. In other words, there's a scam going on using Samoa in
a fraudulent manner. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and
Culture has not heard of this organisation nor does it have a listing with
the Telephone Directory.
The Americans involved are reportedly Steve Cartisano (aka Steve Michaels)
of Arizona and Lonnie Fuller who is said to be still in samoa. Neither of
them is on the telephone directory, nor is that other company they are
supposed to represent, Pacific Coast Academy. And cropping up in this heap
of unexplainables is one of Samoa's famous names which I will leave out at
this stage since I could not get him to comment. It's understood he has
rented a property of his to Pacific Coast Academy. All in all, there's a big
scandal staring us in the eye. An investigation is very much warranted. Now.
"Old" Hope Academy
The American Steve Cartisano is not familiar to many Samoans. Perhaps only
to people of Vavau, Aleipata. That was where he went in 1998 to help start
the organization called New Hope Academy. Hired by American businessman, Dan
Wakefield, Cartisano apparently promised to make $10.9 million from a
$25,000 start-up investment. New Hope Academy was in the business of
reforming defiant American teenagers and turning them into decent young
people accepted by society.
But according to Wakefield who is in Apia this week, New Hope Academy no
longer exists. It has been transformed into another organization called
Pacific Coast Academy with Cartisano as boss.
The problem though is that Cartisano is no longer around. He has returned to
the United States where he could not be reached for a comment. But before he
left, he managed to cash a string of US bank cheques in a local bank
totaling about $25,000 and using New Hope Academy as guarantor.
Issued by OSU Community Federal Credit Union of Oklahoma to "Stepehn
Cartisano", all the cheques were returned as there were no funds to cover
them. Wakefield said he had since paid the debt to the bank in installments
"to protect the integrity of the bankers involved." Now he wants Cartisano
to pay back the money so that he could pay his local creditors.
How was he planning to get him now? "I will locate him," vows Wakefiled. But
although Cartisano is not well known in Samoa, he is famous in the US as
someone the press has reported thoroughly about. Christopher Smith wrote
about him in The Salt Lake Tribune on 8 August 1999. His story says:
Former Utah man Steve Cartisano transformed survival-style camping trips
with troubled teens into a multimillion-dollar industry. But he was banned
from working with kids in the state after a young girl in his care died. Now
Cartisano is back in business.
In the past, Cartisano has worked for two Utah based companies that offered
treatment outside the United States for wayward youth. Both companies now
claim Cartisano bilked them out of thousands of dollars before they severed
ties with him. Currently, Cartisano is encouraging parents to send their
defiant sons and daughters to an expensive new behavior-modification
programme in the South Pacific.
The former Mapleton resident gained notoriety after founding a successful
"wilderness therapy" programme for adolescents in the late 1980s called
Challenger Foundation, vaulting him to celebrity status as a savior of
troubled teens. But charges of child abuse and negligent homicide - 16
year-old Kristeen Chase died of heat exhaustion in 1990 while on a forced
hike in Kane county - led to the closure of the Utah programme.
Although Cartisano was acquitted of criminal charges, several civil
law-suits were brought against him and his name was placed on the Utah
Department of Human Service registry of suspected abusers in 1992,
preventing him from working in any capacity with a state-licenced
child-treatment facility in Utah again.
Since then, Cartisano has left a trail of allegations of fraud and abuse
around the Northern Hemisphere, and the various offshoots of his Challenger
programme have been investigated in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and
But the charismatic Brigham Young University dropout seems unsinkable. State
officials say Cartisano's involvement last year with two Utah-based teen
treatment programmes wasn't affected by the abuse registry because treatment
facilities out-of-state are not monitored. "Anyone providing service to
children in the state is checked against that registry database, but a lot
of these programmes that may be based in Utah and conduct the treatment
elsewhere, we have no jurisdiction over," said Ken Stettler of the Division
of Youth Corrections, who investigated Cartisano's Challenger program
extensively. "You can't prevent everything and Steve will play any card that
will get him what he wants."
Adds Wayne Holland, a retired state child-care licensing official who also
helped bring Cartisano to justice in Utah: "He's always got some sort of
confidence scam going. At one time I thought Steve might be in a
witness-protection program because everything he said never panned out."
Despite his past, Cartisano manages to convert skeptics into believers in
his ability to operate a lucrative, legitimate treatment program for minors
with discipline, academic or substance-abuse problems. "He told me, 'Dan,
keep my enemies at bay and I'll make us millions,' said Dan Wakefield, one
of a group of Utah County businessmen who last year hired Cartisano to help
start Orem-based New Hope Academy in the island nation of Samoa. "But the
whole time we were paying all his expenses, he was conducting a premeditated
scheme to destroy the credibility and financial stability of our company."
Brought in as a consultant to help New Hope gain accreditation from various
organizations that proclaim to monitor the loose knit industry, Cartisano
quickly tried to become directly involved in founding the programme.
"You, Dan and I would be equal partners in putting this together and
operating it," Cartisano wrote in a letter to a New Hope business partner in
in early 1998.
For an investment of $25,000 each, Cartisano declared the Samoan programme
would gross $10.9 million the first year alone. Wakefield and his partners
were leery of Cartisano's finances or of him taking a management role. They
attempted to keep him behind the scenes.
But when Wakefield, New Hope's "island manager," suddenly had to return to
Provo to care for his ailing mother last August, he put Cartisano and
another employee, Lonnie Fuller, temporarily in charge of New Hope's
operations in Samoa. "Biggest mistake I ever made," Wakefield said.
In the two-week span that Wakefield was stateside and Cartisano was running
New Hope, company officials allege Cartisano wrote more than $23,000 worth
of insufficient checks drawn on his personal account to Pacific Commercial
The Samoan bank cashed the checks "in good faith on the understanding [New
Hope' would make good any loss," according to banker Peter Langton. New Hope
paid the bank for Cartisano's bounced checks and return fees, a financial
hit from which the program never recovered. Cartisano allegedly also rang up
a $10,000 cellular-phone bill, told parents New Hope was "going under" and
began recruiting clients for a new teen-treatment program he was launching
When Wakefield discovered the coup, Cartisano was long gone. The programme's
troubles were compounded when an official for the U.S. Consulate in Samoa
visited New Hope and found youths with little supervision, shelter or food.
By February, New Hope was out of business.
"As a new company, we made some mistakes. But Steve really did us in," said
Wakefield, who still is trying to settle open accounts in Samoa. There's
nobody in this world that knows how to ruin a kids' program faster than
Steve Cartisano. At the same time Cartisano worked for New Hope Academy, he
also worked for another Utah County venture to start a teen-treatment
programme in Canada.
"I was totally unaware of who Steve Cartisano was and his past but we were
introduced to him as the greatest person in the world for setting up a good
programme." said Mark Sudweeks of Alpine, Utah, who owns a fishing and
hunting lodge in British Columbia. He wanted to use the lodge as a treatment
center for youths during the off-season and hired Cartisano to develop a
policy and procedure manual for his Chilanko Lodge, paying $6,000 up front.
"What I eventually got was a photocopy of somebody else's programme manual
and their guidelines with my name written in red pencil over the top of it,"
said Sudweeks. "I read it and if that was the sort of procedures that his
programmes used, well, we knew better than that how to treat kids."
Cartisano also allegedly convinced Sudweeks' wife to sign a contract paying
him $3,000 monthly in return for a guaranteed $1 million profit the first
year. Until the contract could be co-signed by her husband, Cartisano also
allegedly convinced her to give him a $10,000 advance in the form of $1,000
cash and three, unsigned postdated checks for $3,000 each.
"We put stop-payments on the checks but he had already managed to cash one
by forging my wife's signature," said Sudweeks. "Bank of America wanted us
to take legal action against him, but we figured that would cost more than
we lost and we just wanted to get this guy out of our lives."
Cartisano would take one more shot. He sent Sudweeks a certified letter
demanding full payment of the partially signed contract under the threat of
"We haven't seen or heard from him since," said Sudweeks. Cartisano made
contact with New Hope and Chilanko Lodge through the same person: Jacki
Allred, a Tremonton resident and former Cartisano employee, who wrote a 1995
booklet advising how to pick a good wilderness therapy program.
"I have steered people to Steve for the specific purpose of writing manuals
and, yes, that has back-fired and now my name gets dragged won with him,"
Allred said. "I hate that I have contributed in any negative way to the
image of these programs. It was stupid and I'm paying the price."
Allred said she last heard from Cartisano earlier this year when he called
seeking a Web site designer for the latest teen-treatment programme he was
working with: Pacific Coast Academy, based in Arizona with treatment
facilities for teens in Samoa.
Although the programme's Web page lists a Mesa, Ariz, mailing address, Mesa
city officials say they have no record of a business license for the
academy, or Pacific Coast Foundation, a so-called "outdoor intervention
referral service" using the same phone number as Pacific Coast Academy
PCA bills itself as a nonprofit organization, and all non-profits in Arizona
are required to register with the secretary of state's office. The state has
no record of either the academy or foundation. The toll-free phone number
for PCA rings through to an office in Stillwater, Okla, where Cartisano
resides much of the year. However, a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune
via e-mail maintains Cartisano has no involvement in the operation of PCA.
"Mr. Cartisano is not and never has been a employee of PCA nor does he have
any long-term association in any capacity whatsoever with PCA; any
allegations to the contrary are malicious lies and slander spread by a
source with no credibility," reads the message signed by "Lonnie Fuller" but
sent from the e-mail address email@example.com. "Mr. Cartisano
is a consultant to numerous programs and has been called upon for advice by
PCA on two occasions in the past."
However, several individuals familiar with Cartisano say when they call the
PCA phone, he answers. "I talked to him on the phone and he denied he even
knew himself," said Cathy Sutton, who has lobbied for federal regulation of
wilderness-therapy programmes ever since her daughter Michelle died in a
Utah-based programme run by a former Cartisano employee in 1990. Another
youth-programme reform advocate, Jeannie Colburn of Maine, said after she
called PCA once to inquire about the programme, Cartisano began contacting
her almost daily.
"I've seen videotapes of Cartisano and there's no doubt in my mind that the
guy calling himself Steve Michaels is Steve Cartisano; it's the same voice,
same smooth-talking routine," she said. "When I was talking to him from the
start, I felt like I was talking with vermin." PCA claims it is a fully
licensed and accredited child-treatment programme in Samoa. However, the
company did not respond to requests from The Salt Lake Tribune to provide
details on what agency if any in the Samoan government regulates such
Sutton filed a deceptive-advertising complaint with the Arizona attorney
general's office against PCA last month, and the state attorney general's
office said that it would look into the business. Meanwhile, she is lobbying
Sunset magazine to stop running ads for Pacific Coast Foundation.
"How many other families have to be hurt before this guy is put out of
business?" said Sutton, who has printed up T-shirts with Cartisano's picture
and a logo saying "He's back." Holland, the retired Utah state employee who
drafted the nation's first wilderness-therapy regulations in 1984, said no
matter how tough state statutes are, they may never be able to stop an
"If you're unethical, it's very easy to convince parents who are distraught
and panicky over their kid's behavior that you can cure all their problems
for the right price," said Holland. "And you can enact all the standards you
want, but any licensing regulations are really only good on the day the
monitor is there to see what's going on."