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Founder of Wilderness Survival Program Cleared in Teen’s Death

May 28, 1992

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) _ The founder of a wilderness survival program for troubled youths has been acquitted of negligent homicide in the death of a teen-ager who collapsed while hiking.

The jury deliberated nearly seven hours Wednesday before also acquitting 36-year-old Stephen Cartisano, founder of the Challenger program, of child abuse.

Prosecutors had contended that Kristen Chase, 16, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., died of heatstroke on a hike in the desert and that three other youths were hit, starved, tied to trees and forced to hike until they dropped.

Defense attorney Charles Brofman had argued that the three youths were liars and manipulators and that the cause of Chase’s death was in dispute.

″It was a terrible tragedy but nothing could have been done,″ Cartisano said.

The Challenger program was born in 1988 and was based on the idea that troubled youths could be helped by forcing them to cope, and triumph, in the wilderness. The cost of a 63-day program was $15,900.

Parents enrolled their children for problems ranging from smoking and promiscuity to depression and drug addiction, officials said.

The state medical examiner said that Chase died of exertional heatstroke in 1990 on her third day in the program.

Prosecutor Jim Scarth also contended that Cartisano had told his counselors that if they had problems with youngsters, ″take them behind a rock and thump on them. It’s your word against theirs.″

Defense experts testified that Chase did not exhibit the symptoms of heatstroke and that the medical examiner failed to perform some tests and did not investigate whether the girl was ill or on drugs.

″We will never know what she died from,″ Brofman said. ″Kristen Chase was going to die on June 27, even if she was in her own back yard.

Brofman also suggested that state regulators had targeted Cartisano because his methods ran counter to theirs.

″If Stephen Cartisano is guilty of anything, he is guilty of having a vision ... that (troubled youths) shouldn’t be thrown on the scrap heap,″ he said.

After Chase’s death, the state amended its regulations governing such wilderness programs, and Challenger’s license was pulled. The business went bankrupt.

The trial was Cartisano’s second in the case. The first, in September, ended in a mistrial when the judge acknowledged he had improperly instructed the jury.

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