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Teens Say They Were Abused in Disbanded Wilderness Program

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Participants in a character-building wilderness program for troubled teenagers say they were punched in the face and slammed into trees, among other abuse.

The camp in remote northwestern Colorado was disbanded Monday after two of the 30 teenagers contracted a tissue-destroying infection.

Lauren Lee Wittman, 13, of St. Louis said she and other campers were forced to carry their own excrement in their pockets. When investigators expressed surprise at the allegation, “I pulled it out,” she said Thursday.

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Rio Blanco County Sheriff Phil Stubblefield is investigating the allegations of abuse at the Flat Tops Wilderness Area camp, operated by the Pathfinders Wilderness Program.

No arrests have been made, but Stubblefield said the teens’ stories are too consistent to dismiss.

“From a lot of the evidence, I think we have a good case,” he said at a news conference. He declined to make additional comments.

The teens said counselors spit in their faces, screamed at them and challenged them to fight. They said they were ordered to tell friends and family that they were OK.

An investigator’s report quoted teens as saying that the staff “would make them wrestle before they could eat.”

Pathfinders Wilderness Program, based in Corrales, N.M., has refused to comment.

The 30 teens, ages 14 to 17, were sent to the camp about 45 miles west of Meeker for a two- to 12-week stint to resolve disciplinary problems. They are from 17 states and Canada. A six-week session cost parents $12,500.

A 15-year-old girl was evacuated from the camp by horseback, and a 14-year-old boy was also removed. Colorado health officials said they contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection.

Both were hospitalized. The girl was in fair condition with severe, infectious wounds on her left hand, but officials said the infection was under control.

The boy was in fair condition with infectious wounds on a hand, knee and foot, said his father, who asked not to be identified.

Stubblefield said his deputies evacuated the remaining teens for medical examinations. One suffered from trench foot, and another had a range of problems, from infections to boot-related injuries, he said.


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