What Happened Out Here?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

What Happened Out Here?

A death in the wilderness raises disturbing questions about boot camps for troubled teens
By Christopher Smith

When a Utah judge raps his gavel on May 22 to begin a preliminary criminal hearing into the death of 16-year-old Aaron Bacon, the key evidence for the prosecution will come from the waifish, longhaired teen himself. A rebellious kid who smoked a little marijuana and brought home too many C's and D's, Bacon was enrolled last winter by his parents, Robert and Sally Bacon of Phoenix, Arizona, in a Utah-based wilderness therapy program called North Star Expeditions. The couple's hope, like that of thousands of parents in the United States who send their kids to the 115 or so such private boot camps--or "Hoods in the Woods" programs, as they're sometimes called--was that North Star would teach their son hard lessons about discipline and survival and that through the experience he'd grow in self-esteem, give up drugs, and return home a healthier and happier teenager.

Instead, after only a few days in the stark and beautiful Escalante River Basin, Bacon felt his life slipping away. He didn't know it, but he'd somehow developed a bleeding ulcer, and as the energy drained slowly from his body, the aspiring poet documented his final days with ever more faint and tortured scrawls in a notebook. They were days spent hiking and camping in the slickrock and scrub-pine backcountry, but they were also days spent in emotional and physical distress as North Star staff allegedly ignored his pleas for medical attention and continued to march him farther from civilization.

"I am in terrible condition here," Bacon wrote ten days before his death. "I feel like I'm losing control of my body."

The journal is heartrending, but exactly what happened and who is to blame are still unclear. In the upcoming proceedings, the state of Utah hopes to prove that North Star's two directors and seven of its employees should be tried on felony charges of abusing and neglecting a medically disabled child. Also, the Bacons have filed a civil suit against North Star, claiming wrongful death and seeking an unspecified sum; that suit is scheduled for trial later this summer.

Bacon is the third teenager to die in this country while participating in so-called wilderness therapy. The two other deaths also occurred in Utah, in 1990. In both cases Utah authorities concluded that neglect by program staff may have occurred, but there have been no criminal convictions. Meanwhile, a growing number of observers are left wondering whether something about these programs--some designed for hardened criminals-to-be, and others, like North Star Expeditions, for basically "good" kids with a few behavior problems--is inherently flawed.

Founded in 1990 by Bill Henry, a career camp counselor, and Lance Jagger, a former air force officer, North Star advertises itself as a tough-love solution to teens' problems. An 11-day "acclimation" period is followed by 52 days in the desert, during which the boys and girls make long hikes between caches of food and occasionally go without food for up to two days at a time. Hikes are supplemented with fervent lectures about getting one's life in order. By the winter of 1993-1994 the Bacons were ready for such radical steps, and after Sally Bacon made a few inquiring calls, Bob Bacon wrote a $13,900 check to the camp. Then one morning Jagger appeared at the Bacon home and took Aaron from his bed. It was the last time the Bacons saw their child alive.

Nevertheless, North Star's Henry, who has no college-level training in teen counseling, maintains that his staff had no way of detecting the ulcer. "The medical examiner said we would not have seen these symptoms," he says, adding that Bacon passed a physical exam on March 1. Indeed, state officials initially cleared North Star of any wrongdoing in Bacon's death. It wasn't until the diaries of Bacon and others in his group were made available to investigators last fall that the question of criminal neglect was raised.

According to affidavits filed in court by prosecutors, based on these journals and sworn testimony of some 50 witnesses, there's reason to believe that Bacon's death could have been prevented. The documents say that on March 11, Bacon, eight other teenagers, and three counselors, Jeff Hohenstein, Sonny Duncan, and Craig Fisher, set out from Escalante, Utah, on a six-week backcountry hike. On the second day Bacon became dizzy and fell. He fell again a few days later, striking his head on a rock. Soon thereafter, he began suffering from nosebleeds and wrote that he constantly felt cold. He told the counselors that he wasn't strong enough to lift his pack, but this, according to Bacon's diary, prompted counselor Brent Brewer to lecture the boy to work harder. As punishment for being uncooperative, Bacon's sleeping bag was taken away. As time went on, Bacon pleaded with his counselors that he needed a doctor, but they responded that he was "faking."

By March 31, Bacon was unable to take a step and had become incontinent. Finally, counselor Mike Hill, who has not been charged in the case, radioed base camp for someone to come get Bacon. A truck arrived and Bacon was helped into the cab. Soon after that, his heart stopped beating.

The ulcer had eaten a hole in Bacon's large intestine, leaking its contents into his abdominal cavity. According to his journals, he'd gone without food, except for prickly pear cactus and pine needle tea, for 11 of his last 20 days. In a month his weight had dropped from 135 pounds to 105. "He looked like a prisoner of war," says Sally Bacon, describing a photograph of Aaron taken two days before his death.

North Star has shut its doors temporarily. But even if the camp and its employees are cleared of charges, it may never lead another hike. The Utah Department of Human Services denies an operating license to any program targeted with significant allegations of abuse or neglect, regardless of criminal conviction, and that irks Henry. "The Bacons knew their boy was a heavy, heavy drug user," he says. "Their son died of natural causes, and now they're pissed off at us."

Meanwhile, the Bacons are crusading for tougher licensing of the multimillion-dollar wilderness therapy industry. Partly in response, 50 or so camps have joined to form a National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps and have written guidelines for members to follow. Still, things may get worse before they get better. "Besides parents looking for a place to put their kids, you've now got the government looking into government-run boot camps," says the association's founder, Archie Buie, of recent and much-publicized proposals in Congress. "But the whole idea could blow up in its face. As long as people have the urge to punish, some camps are going to fail."

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