Debate over two of Utah's wilderness programs for troubled youth pitted parents, participants and program directors against each other during a national broadcast of a television talk show Tuesday.
The directors of Challenger and Summit Quest, Steve Cartisano and Gayle Palmer, faced off against the parents of Michelle Sutton on TV's "Geraldo" show. Sutton, a 15-year-old Pleasanton, Calif., girl, died in the Arizona desert during her first week in the Summit Quest program.Her May 9 death raised questions about wilderness programs. Those questions were repeated in June when Kristen Chase, 16, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., died during a day hike in Southern Utah while participating in Challenger.
Participants in the discussion leveled charges and countercharges. Cathy Sutton, Michelle's mother, said the program "pushed (Michelle) to death."
The preliminary autopsy showed that she died of dehydration through exposure, according to Sgt. Dale Lent, the Mohave County Sheriff's officer who is investigating the death. Results of a second autopsy are pending.
Palmer said there was no dehydration. Asked if she was saying the medical examiner erred, she said, "You bet I am."
"I was not told she would be denied food and water," a tearful Cathy Sutton said. "I could go on and on about things I was told . . . I would say we were mislead. You tell them your needs and they tell you whatever you need or want to hear.
The Suttons said they were especially upset by statements Palmer made about Michelle Sutton, particularly an interview where she implied the girl smuggled cocaine into the camp and had previously overdosed on LSD. In fact, they said, Michelle was enrolled to build her self-esteem, not because of drug-abuse problems.
Asked why there was no doctor on hand, Palmer said they are never out in the field with the youth. "It isn't necessary . . . It wouldn't have mattered. This child died the second she went down. There was CPR done on her for three and a half hours."
Lent said help didn't arrive until 20 hours after Michelle Sutton collapsed.
Sheila Hamilton, a KUTV reporter who was in the studio audience, said that in a survey of 30 children who were in the program at the same time, only eight believed Challenger helped them. More than 75 percent felt it "did not live up to expectations."
Other guests on the program included two former Challenger participants who said they had been abused in the program, and one who said that in the five months he was with Challenger, he saw no abuse or neglect. Cartisano and Challenger are charged with multiple counts of abuse and neglect, as well as one count of negligent homicide in Chase's death.
That insurance companies and Utah's licensing staff approved the program were deciding factors in sending Michelle to Summit Quest, Cathy Sutton said.
The licensing question may be moot. Challenger is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings and has signed a stipulation that it will not take a new group of youths into the field without permission, which state licensing officials say will not be granted.
The investigation by the Mohave County Sheriff's department is continuing. But Summit Quest's conditional license has expired and state officials are meeting with Palmer to determine whether the program should continue.