When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far

“Richard has changed enormously in the three months he’s been here, but the world and our environment has stayed the way it always was,” he says.

“I wouldn’t go back to that,” Richard interjects. “I’ve caused so many people, and myself, pain. It would be dumb to do that again. I figured out that I would get more out of the program if I worked with the staff rather than against them. Something just clicked. I was taught different values I needed to learn. They were slowly being brought into my life.”

*  *  *

“Bruce had a heart of gold,” Carla Moffat says, crying. “He knew no stranger as a child. He would have done anything for anybody … but when he was older, he would come home rolling on X, bring pot into the house … it got to the point where I voluntarily put him into the juvenile probation program here. It was in this program that the counselor and I started looking at alternative placement … I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I was scared the next time he ran away, I wouldn’t get him back.”

In October 2011, Moffat decided to place her son, Bruce Staeger, at Tierra Blanca Ranch, a wilderness program in New Mexico. Owned by a man named Scott Chandler, Tierra Blanca made local headlines in 2013, when Bruce’s death from a car accident while at the ranch brought attention to allegations of abuse stretching back years. Steve Cowen, a San Diego lawyer whose son attended Tierra Blanca, compiled a comprehensive report of every recent alleged incident of abuse he could find. Cowen says he started looking into the ranch after seeing the way it had affected the behavior of his son, who had previously been enrolled in one of its programs.

“I got this creepy apology letter from my son about two months after he was in the program,” says Cowen. “It didn’t sound like him … then I didn’t hear from him for a while. So, I contacted this Chandler guy and said, ‘I’d like to visit him.’ I was told, ‘No, you can’t visit,’ so I just started asking questions like, “Are they licensed by the state? Who oversees it?’”

“I tried to get my son out, but I couldn’t do it because my ex-wife wouldn’t agree. When I did get to visit, he told me, ‘Dad, if there was a pile of dog crap over there and they told me to eat it, I would.’ So lots of red flags were going up.”

After learning of his quest, many former ranch residents contacted Cowen with stories of violence and psychological torture. Other incidents came to light—in 2006, a boy escaped from Tierra Blanca in shackles and called 911, only to be returned to the ranch by local police. Eventually, Cowen’s report was sent to New Mexico authorities, which set into motion an investigation that culminated in an attempt by the Children, Youth, and Families Department, in conjunction with state police, to rescue nine boys from the ranch. In response, Tierra Blanca filed a lawsuit against CYFD, which was settled in February with the stipulation that the state would be given “limited oversight” of the ranch. Since Tierra Blanca is officially designated a wilderness program, it’s not subject to CYFD licensure. Despite an inquiry into what CYFD called “significant evidence” of psychological and physical abuse, no criminal charges were ultimately filed against Chandler, and Tierra Blanca Ranch remains open for business. CYFD did not return emails or calls for comment.

In the months before Bruce’s death, former students say, he was subjected to sustained, long-term starvation and abuse, triggered by his alleged theft of Scott Chandler’s billfold, which had contained money and credit cards. Gunner Hatton, one of the boys who attended Tierra Blanca at the same time as Bruce, says that for three months after the billfold was stolen, Chandler punished all the boys with hours of brutal physical labor and drastically cut their food rations. According to Gunner, Chandler did this to encourage them to take their anger out on Bruce, a method other students claim was often used at Tierra Blanca. Multiple boys who also attended the ranch have corroborated Gunner’s story, according to Cowen.

“We would get up at five in the morning and run for an hour and a half, then go work, and throughout the day we’d do like two to three more hour-and-a-half running sessions and then we’d go back to work,” says Gunner. “We were all just getting super pissed off because the running was getting worse and worse. Circuits became unbearable … then we had to pick up tires and run with those. We were just beyond tired. And then he put us on white beans and rice. Then Scott takes Bruce out of running and attaches him to either a chair or a tree and makes him watch us run … and he puts him in shackles for the rest of the day. We’re just all super thin at this point.”

After experiencing weeks of this treatment, Gunner says, the boys finally snapped.

“I’m ashamed of it, but I’d lost who I am when I did that,” he says. “I will forever be sorry that I did to Bruce what I did. But all of us just started beating him. Just beating him with our fists, beating him with sticks and clubs, socks with a rock in it … so for the first couple of weeks after that started, we just—we’d beat the shit out of him like five or six times day.”

Bruce wasn’t the only boy who received this kind of treatment at Tierra Blanca, according to Gunner and other boys on the ranch at the time.

“I saw a 300-pound staff member just beat the tar out of this kid,” says Marc Fleming, another former Tierra Blanca student. “That was scary.”

Describing the same incident, Gunner recounts how Morgan, the boy who had been misbehaving, was made to squat against a wall for hours, and severely beaten by a staff member named Harold when he kept falling down.

“At that point, it was physically impossible for him to keep it up,” says Gunner. “Harold gets this little thing called a Kubaton off his keychain. It’s made out of titanium but long, probably eight inches long by two centimeters in diameter. Every time Morgan is not sitting flat on the post, he starts hitting him on the head with it.  This kid is getting beaten over the head with the baton for like an hour and a half. So we wake up in the morning and Morgan’s head is about twice the size as it was the day before. His eyes are swollen completely shut. He just looked like an alien. He couldn’t even walk without someone helping him.”

Another former Tierra Blanca student says he’s suffered permanent physiological damage as a result of his treatment at the program. Terryk Carlsen was 12 when he was admitted to the ranch. He still remembers exactly how long he was there—two years, two months, two weeks, and three days. Carlsen says he started having epileptic seizures while he was at Tierra Blanca, and instead of taking him to seek medical help, staff at the ranch insisted he was faking.

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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