Most kids are forcibly sent to boot camps by their parents or government officials, but Michelle Sutton's case was different.
In May 1990, the 15-year-old from Pleasanton, Calif., chose to go to the Summit Quest program in Utah, hoping to build her confidence and "get tan and buff," says her mother, Cathy Sutton. "Michelle wanted to go to build her own self-esteem. She had suffered a date rape and wanted to get away from Pleasanton for the summer."
But Michelle soon found conditions unpleasant in the extreme. As early as May 4, she had filled five straight pages of her compulsory journal with the words "I hate this place." That same day, she sat down on her supplies and demanded to be allowed to call her mother. Counselors refused, despite Michelle's reasoning that she'd volunteered for the program and should be able to withdraw.
Michelle may not have realized that this was Summit Quest's first tour ever. Gayle Palmer, who had worked for another controversial "wilderness therapy" program in Utah, had branched off to form her own camp in 1990. Summit Quest charged $13,900 per child for a program nearly identical to the original one, and Palmer promised parents they'd be "thrilled and amazed" at the change in their children. Michelle could not have imagined what she was volunteering for. She collapsed and died of dehydration on May 9, 1990, her fourth day of hiking in the Arizona desert.
Andrea Dawes was Michelle's best friend. She was talked into accompanying Michelle on the Summit Quest program, where she saw counselors accuse Michelle of making up symptoms, even though she'd been throwing up water, falling down, and complaining of blurred vision the day she died. "They were telling all of us that she was just doing this for attention," says Andrea. "She had white stuff all around her mouth -- like cotton mouth real bad, I guess -- from the dehydration, and they would say stuff like, 'Oh, Michelle, you look like you ate marshmallows.'"
"I think that whole time toward the end, she was slowly dying. And that's when I got upset and started crying and stuff, and I couldn't watch," remembers Andrea, who was forced to finish the rest of the 19-week program after Michelle's death. "There was obviously something wrong with her. I don't see how they could have even thought she was faking that."
Michelle collapsed in the late afternoon, after hiking over a mountain. Summit Quest had no radios powerful enough to reach the camp base. Instead, the group set signal fires, and Michelle lay dead for at least 18 hours before a passing aircraft finally spotted the group. The Suttons settled a civil suit against Summit Quest out of court in 1992, but no criminal charges have ever been filed.
State officials refused to renew Palmer's license to operate after Michelle's death. But she simply moved across the border and reopened Summit Quest in Nevada, where authorities soon withdrew a group of teens from her program, citing inadequate medical and psychological care. Palmer violated a juvenile court order by placing the kids back in her program and hid them from state investigators -- an action that led an angry district court judge in Nevada to prohibit Summit Quest from operating in the state.
But Palmer was apparently undaunted. In July 1994, she surfaced yet again in southern Utah, operating a similar program without a license. Utah officials might never have known Palmer was back in business if a 14-year-old girl hadn't wandered into an archaeological dig near Zion National Park, saying she'd run away from a wilderness therapy program. Investigations indicated that the girl was in fact enrolled in Palmer's program, but state authorities could not find the other hikers.
Michelle's death, and that of Aaron Bacon in the North Star Expeditions program four years later, helped convince Utah officials to push through state legislation regulating the wilderness therapy and boot camp industry. Michelle's mother Cathy established the Michelle Sutton Memorial Fund with the settlement from the civil suit. She has devoted the past decade to tracking renegade boot camp operators and their activities, publishing information on the internet, and meeting with state and federal officials to convince them of the need to police privately run boot camps and to prosecute camp directors and counselors when abuses and deaths occur. She is working toward the day when no more camp diaries will come home as posthumous reminders of the teens who wrote them.
-- Paige Bierma, a regular contributor to Consumer Health Interactive, first covered wilderness boot camps for Vibe in March 1995. This piece is adapted from her original Vibe story.
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