By Brooke Adams
Editor's Note: This article on Ian August ran in The Salt Lake Tribune July 13, 2003
This article is based on dozens of interviews in Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. Scenes and dialogue about the events leading to Ian August's death are taken from a transcript of the 9-1-1 call to the Millard County Sheriff's Office; a timeline constructed by Skyline Journey; a transcript of the preliminary hearing in Utah v. Mark Wardle, Leigh Hale and WOW Developments; Skyline Journey daily progress reports kept up to July 13, 2002; witness statements; incident reports filed by the Millard County Sheriff's Office; and a journal kept by Ian August.
First of two parts
FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Ian August set three simple goals last July 11 while camping with a wilderness therapy program in the Sawtooth Mountain area west of Delta.
Write a poem before dinner if at all possible, he wrote in his journal.
Do day hike without falling down and crying.
Go to bed very, very, very early.
Six days of sweltering heat in the west desert with the Skyline Journey program were taking a toll on the Austin, Texas, teen.
"We went on a day hike today, and I got dehidrated [sic] so I was the last one to to [sic] the little waterfalls," Ian wrote, adding, "I layed [sic] down and rested a lot there."
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune
Two days later, Ian August was dead -- though it would be hyperthermia, not dehydration, that killed him.
He became the fifth teen to die in a Utah wilderness therapy program, the third to perish from a heat illness.
Like most of those before him -- Michelle Sutton, Aaron Bacon and Kristen Chase -- Ian was judged to be "faking it" as he began to die.
As happened with the first death, 15-year-old Sutton on May 9, 1990, Ian's case triggered yet more rules for the state's wilderness therapy industry, which each year treats hundreds of troubled teens. It also renewed discussion over the benefits and risks of such programs, a debate captured in the opposing views of the two women who loved Ian -- his birth mom and his adoptive mom -- in the aftermath of his death and a failed prosecution.
One boy, two families: Susan Hatfield Pinson, then living in Broken Arrow, Okla., was 20 when she became pregnant with a child she knew she could not raise. She was young, single and emotionally immature. From the couples presented to her by Adoption Affiliates of Tulsa, Okla., she chose Judith August and Dale Whistler of Austin, Texas. Part of their appeal: The couple supported an open adoption, which would allow indirect contact between Susan and her child. An adoptee herself, Susan didn't want her child to be haunted about family roots or the circumstances of the birth.
And just like that, the lives of Judith August, then 44, and Susan Hatfield Pinson, became linked. Fate seemed to touch the choice from the beginning. On June 21, 1988, as the Austin couple arrived in Broken Arrow to meet Susan, she went into labor. Judith was present in the delivery room as the black-haired, blue-eyed, 8 pound, 13 1/2 ounce baby boy entered the world at 6:12 p.m. Susan kept Christopher Shawn, as she called him, for nearly a day as she made peace with her decision. Then she delivered him into the arms of his new parents, who would name him Ian Christopher August.
The two mothers went on to build distinctly different lives.
Susan, a nurse, married, had two sons and then divorced. In 2000, she remarried -- this time to her junior high sweetheart, Johnny Pinson. They are raising three boys. Their modest home in the small town of Drumright, Okla., where Johnny grew up and not far from Broken Arrow, is decorated with family photos and Elvis memorabilia. Much of the description of Ian and Judith's lives comes from Susan, acquaintances, friends and public records. Judith declined to be interviewed for this story.
Judith, a massage therapist for more than 20 years, is an instructor at The New Beginning School of Massage in Austin. A Web site for the school describes Judith as a "nurturer, enfolding people in conscious compassion." Friends say she is petite, lithe, lovely and warm. Judith and Dale, an artist, divorced when Ian was small. Dale now lives in Norway.
Over the years, with the adoption agency as go-between, the two mothers and their boy exchanged letters, schoolwork, photos and gifts. In 1994, Judith and Susan cut out the agency and began to deal directly with each other.
That November, Susan and her two young sons met 6-year-old Ian for the first time at a Dallas hotel. They went shopping, to the park and had photos made. Ian and Susan began to visit a couple times a year. Susan saw herself in her son -- from his giving nature to his bull-headedness and temper, struggles with weight and inability to make friends easily.
A search for help:
Susan had only an inkling of the struggles Judith was having with Ian, who by age 8 was "acting out" a lot.
Judith put him in counseling; he began taking drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar illness.
In 1999, friends urged Judith to move to a little community in the Texas Hill Country outside Austin that seemed a perfect refuge and expression of her values: Radiance. Neighbors say the close-knit community held appeal, too, as an extended family for Ian, then 11.
Radiance was founded in 1980 by practitioners of transcendental meditation interested in living "an ideal life."
Its 35 environmentally efficient homes are nestled down a long country road among tree-dotted grassy fields that are home to deer, foxes and other wildlife. There is a common pool and, just out of sight of the homes, the Maharishi Golden Dome of Pure Knowledge for daily meditation and community events. Judith and Ian moved into a limestone and wood duplex on Concord Circle. Ian was already a loner who preferred staying inside, whiling away the hours with video and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Bill Brock and his family befriended the Augusts, and Ian joined Brock and his son on annual spring canoe trips down the Guadalupe River. Brock describes Ianas an "old soul" who was straightforward and more comfortable with adults than kids. Their conversations ran to deep topics -- God, humanity. "We didn't just talk baseball," Brock said.
But it quickly became apparent to some neighbors that Ian was a troubled child, strong-willed and defiant. Within weeks of moving into Radiance, he led some boys in peeing on the community mailbox. Most neighbors felt sorry for him and for Judith, and reached out to help -- only to have such problems with Ian that he would end up banned from their homes. Ian seemed intent on destroying the very thing many say he longed for: to be part of their families. His antics were the subject of a community meeting that fall.
Roger Aker, who also lives in Radiance, said Judith once told him that Ian didn't like to be corrected. "He had established a pattern where he was defiant to any authority," Aker said. "I was afraid of him."
Neighbor Elena Michaelson offered to care for Ian one summer while Judith worked and taught classes. A month into it, she called the arrangement off after Ian and her son "got into a little scrape."
"Ian was a very beautiful person, but also very troubled," Michaelson said. "Judith was an extremely conscious person who tried her best with him but was overwhelmed by him." At Michaelson's suggestion, Judith and Ian sought help and a supportive community at The Church of Conscious Harmony in Austin. The church is centered around contemplative prayer and the works of the spiritual theorist G. I. Gurdjieff, but borrows from whatever philosophy works to help members deepen self-knowledge, focus on positive energy and bring a consciousness of God into their daily lives.
Among the sayings carved in paving stones leading to the church's entrance: "Life is happening in the only way it can."
While Judith joined other adults for services in the main sanctuary, Ian spent Sundays in the teen room, decorated with an Oriental rug and sage green pillow seats, learning to meditate and explore spirituality. "He loved it," Michaelson said. "It was the first time he felt a part of something." But elsewhere, Ian's difficulties continued. At Dripping Springs Middle School, Ian had few friends. "He kept to himself a whole lot," said Taylor Sessions, a schoolmate. Other kids say they avoided Ian because he was "mean." Aaron Joseph, who hung out with Ian for about 18 months, said "the only reason [Ian] was mean to other people is they'd say things to him they shouldn't have said."
About his weight, for instance. "He had a temper," acknowledges Aaron.
Several times, Ian threatened people seriously enough that police were called -- once for vowing to kill Aaron in front of some teachers. He piled up in-school suspensions and referrals to the school's alternative education program, where he finished eighth grade. As the year ended, he received six months probation for making a "terroristic threat" at the school.
Judith arranged for him to attend Katherine Anne Porter, an alternative high school in Wimberly, Texas, in the fall.
Utah via New Mexico:
Until then, Judith tried to keep Ian busy. There was a soccer camp in Albuquerque, N.M., and a weeklong retreat with The Church of Conscious Harmony's teen group at the Lama Foundation in Santa Fe, where Ian celebrated his 14th birthday.
On July 5, Ian boarded a plane bound for Utah and the Skyline Journey wilderness therapy program, recommended to Judith by an educational consulting firm in Austin. With its infusion of American Indian concepts, it's easy to imagine why Skyline Journey appealed to Judith as she struggled with her troubled son.
Skyline Journey, based in Nephi, is a family venture started 2 1/2 years ago by Austin Lee and Alberta Wardle and their four children. Lee Wardle, whose mother wrote the Ute dictionary, was raised on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Eastern Utah. He worked as police chief for the Ute Indian Tribe for 6 1/2 years and a criminal investigator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for three decades. Son Mark spent 14 1/2 years working for other outdoor therapy programs.
Skyline targets the same youths as the rest of the troubled teen industry: kids 13 to 18 with drug, alcohol or behavioral problems. Skyline pledges to "put teens in touch with their potential" by taking them on 28- to 70-day treks in Utah's west desert.
The teens are taught Ute words, to make medicine bags and to learn outdoor skills. They complete four booklets called "Trails" that focus on introspection. A capstone of the program is a "naming ceremony" in which a teen receives an Earth name. Skyline Journey costs $250 a day -- $1,750 a week or $7,000 a month. Teens receive gear, paid for by parents, that includes a sleeping bag, backpack, foam pad, tarp, cooking pot, two water bottles, camp clothing, disposable camera, spiral notebook and personal hygiene items. While teens can be placed in the program within as little as a day, Judith called Skyline several times -- and Mark Wardle chatted briefly with Ian once. In another call, Judith told Mark Wardle that Ian wanted a photo of him -- the only time a teen has made that request.When Ian received the photo, he stared at it, and according to Wardle, said, "I know him." "I felt I'd met him before, too," said Wardle, who at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 240 pounds shares Ian's stout build. "We had a special bond."
Heat takes a toll:
Utah weather forecasters predicted a week of record-breaking heat as Ian traveled into the west desert to begin a 28-day trek with Skyline Journey. On his enrollment application, Judith listed Ian's troubles at school, his difficulty making friends and his increasingly threatening behavior. She had tried medication, special education, church programs, counseling and karate lessons to turn him around. Now, she looked to Skyline Journey to help Ian develop more "harmonious" relationships, assume responsibility for his actions, gain respect for authority and recognize his self-worth. She listed prescription drugs he took: Depakote and Topamax for bipolar disorder and Concerta for ADHD. On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the risks of hyperthermia associated with Topamax.
In response to a question about physical limitations, Judith wrote that Ian was overweight -- at 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches tall, he weighed 200 pounds -- and, with a low heat tolerance, was "easily overheated." His heat intolerance was well known.
Classmate Taylor Sessions remembers Ian wandering the halls all sweaty, his hair drenched. One summer, Ian wore a gizmo-type fan around his neck to keep himself cool. "He didn't want to be out in the heat at all," said neighbor Elena Michaelson. "He was pretty vocal about it." Said Susan: "He was not an outdoorsy person. He was a couch potato."
On June 13, a doctor at Texas Urgent Care cleared Ian to participate in Skyline Journey's program while noting the boy was "obese" and his physical ability was "fair." Ian arrived July 5 at the Bear Clan camp, which included two girls and three boys and three counselors. Mark Wardle, whom the teens call Red Feather, camped with Ian's group those first few days.
"He was hiking fine while I was there," Wardle said. Others in the group said Ian quickly established himself as lazy, given to lying and unenthusiastic about hiking. "He lies a lot but is real young, kind of big, very quiet but he is very lazy," one teen would later say of Ian. "He always tries to get out of stuff."
On July 6, a staff counselor noted in the daily progress report that Ian's first hike was "slow. Talks a lot about how to get out of the program. Not much help around camp. Have to ask a lot to help." Ian's days fell into a routine: wake soon after sunrise, eat breakfast, get the poem topic of the day, break camp and hike until lunch. Then, set up camp, eat, work on his booklets and journal and finish his daily poem. The day ended with dinner, poem readings and clean up.
Ian dreaded the hikes. "I barely made the hike '2' day. If I barely made it and it was only 1 mile how could I possibly make a two or three mile hike," he wrote about his July 7 trek. A day later, he mused about hiking "to a hotel."
After four days with the Bear Clan, Ian still plodded along, though staff saw some improvement. He had yet to finish his first self-improvement workbook, in part because he was distracted that Wednesday by a staff change as Leigh Hale, 24, Matt Gause, 22, and an intern arrived for their weekly stint in the field. Hale, who declined an interview, had worked for Skyline Journey for about seven months; Gause, who could not be reached for comment, had signed on about four weeks earlier.
That night, after a dinner of beef stew, the teens shared their poems about home. Ian had written: "Home makes me happy and so do my friends. I can't think of anymore so good bye till I write again."
The teens were up by 7:45 a.m. on Thursday, July 11. After a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, the clan received the day's poem topic -- love -- and broke camp. They hiked 45 minutes, stopping in North Canyon. Record-setting heat baked Utah that day; it reached an estimated 96.6 degrees that afternoon where Bear Clan made a new camp. The staff assigned Ian to dig a latrine, which took him four tries to get right, Hale noted in the progress log. In the afternoon, the group hiked to some waterfalls, the effort that so exhausted Ian, according to his journal.
That night, Hale noted that "everyone except Ian drank a lot of water." She wrote that Ian had refused to eat the last two meals because he "doesn't like what we are eating." He "doesn't do much and talks back every time he is asked to do something . . . Really slow hiker."
On July 12, Bear Clan laid low during the day. Ian finished a required autobiography -- detailing his adoption, his appended family, his troubles with other kids at school. At least, Hale recorded in her log, he was eating his meals without complaining. A staff nurse visited the camp and checked each teen; she advised Ian to "keep drinking water." He and the other teens took two-minute showers at a portable stall. And there was a treat: Popsicles. That afternoon, it reached an estimated 97.6 degrees in the Marjum Pass area where the group camped. About 70 miles away in Delta, the temperature reached a record 107 degrees. For dinner, Bear Clan had summer sausage, cheese, crackers, an apple and milk. At dusk, the clan packed up and began hiking in order to shorten the next day's trek. They walked until it was too dark to see and then bedded down for the night.
The fatal mile:
The sun rose at 6:08 a.m. on July 13 and began to broil Utah. The headline on a Page 1 story in The Salt Lake Tribune promised "No Break from Heat" as weather forecasters predicted all-time highs. In North Canyon, Bear Clan breakfasted on Toasty O's cereal, slices of bread spread with peanut butter and jelly, a piece of fruit and juice. The clan set out for what was supposed to be a 3-mile hike around 9 a.m. -- a little later than Hale had hoped in order to avoid the heat.
Ian hiked slower than usual on the strenuous route; he and another teen stopped every few minutes, moving at the rate of one city block an hour based on a reading from Hale's GPS unit. Soon, the group spread out, with the faster hikers ahead, Ian in the middle and Hale in the rear with the slowest boy. Ian finished his water, his supply already reduced during the previous night's hike, and began to complain of thirst. Some teens shared their water, and Hale gave him half of her quart at one point. Ian drank it in a gulp. The group crossed three ridges, one hill after another. Ian labored, at times stumbling. Two teens started urging him along.
"Come on, man, you can do it," one teen told Ian, according to a witness statement taken by the Millard County Sheriff's Office. But as Ian crested that final hill around 11:30 a.m., after hiking 1.4 miles, all he could see before him was more of the same: up, down, up and down, an undulating landscape of sagebrush, native grasses, broken shale and scattered junipers and pinyon trees. To his right spread the Sevier Desert, empty and browned under the summer sun. On the ridge, Ian stood still, his body already in the process of shutting down as his blood thickened in the heat and he became delirious. One teen noted Ian didn't seem to know what was going on.
"Come on, man." Ian didn't respond. "You can go down this hill willingly or we can put you down it," his hiking companion said. Gause, who had reached the crest of the next hill, watched the agitated teens as they spent approximately 20 minutes trying to get Ian moving.
"Come on, man, who dogs it on the downhill?" one frustrated teen asked Ian. Ian just stood there, dazed and sweating "like a pig." The teen grabbed him and began pulling him along. Ian finally responded. "Oh, I can do it," he said.
When Ian didn't move, the boys threatened to drag him to the next camp.
"No, I can do it," Ian said. And then he sat down. The two teens pulled off Ian's 29-pound backpack, and Ian lay against it.
One teen backtracked to Hale, who was about 20 yards away. She called out to him: "Ian, get your pack on and let's go."
When Hale reached Ian, he stood briefly and then sank back down to his pack.
"So do you need a break? Are you tired? What's the problem?" Hale asked Ian. He crossed his arms and stared at her. Hale tried to cajole Ian into moving for about 20 minutes. According to one teen's taped statement, Hale nudged Ian with her foot, shook him and slapped his face to try to rouse him from his stupor. Finally, she pulled out her radio and called Mark Wardle, who was in Delta.
"I can't convince Ian that he needs to continue hiking," she told Wardle. "What should I do?" Wardle told her to check Ian's consciousness by doing a "hand drop test" -- holding his arm above his face and letting it go to see how he reacted. It flushes out fakers, Hale would say later, because a conscious person will protect the face.
Ian's arm slipped to his side.
"I need to know if there's something wrong," Hale said to Ian. "Respond to me, tell me your name."
"Ian," he said. Hale called Wardle again. "He seems to be conscious," she reported. "I can't get him to hike. What should I do?"
Wardle, who already had begun driving toward Marjum Pass, told Hale to pour water over Ian and move him into the shade.
Hale beckoned to Gause to come assist her. Ian now lay on the ground, motionless, his eyes open and occasionally making contact although his breathing was "strange," a mixture of a moan and a cry. The counselors sat Ian up and tried to get him to drink water. It merely dribbled down his face. They poured warm water from their bottles over his head, chest and back.
The noon sun had burned down on the dying teen for more than an hour when Gause grabbed Ian's torso and Hale held his feet and "pulled" him 10 feet to a patch of shade under a pinyon tree.
Still convinced Ian was faking illness, the two counselors split up -- Hale running ahead to check on the rest of the clan and Gause moving 30 to 50 feet away so he could observe Ian from behind another tree. Gause noticed Ian's moans stopped minutes after Hale left -- proof, he figured, that Ian was acting. Gause waited about 10 minutes and then crept closer to Ian.
As Hale made her way back to the tree, Wardle called for an update.
"How is Ian doing?" Hale yelled over to Gause, who, figuring his cover was blown, hurried to the tree.
Ian had stopped breathing and lacked a pulse.
Sitting alone under the pinyon, Ian August had died.
As Gause began CPR, Hale called Wardle for help. The 9-1-1 call came into the Millard County Sheriff's Office at 1:30 p.m.; it would take two hours for the ambulance crew to reach Ian and in a series of errors, an AirMed helicopter dispatched from Salt Lake City, would never arrive after receiving incorrect GPS coordinates and running low on fuel.
The truth is, medical experts later concluded, it didn't matter. Only an immediate ice bath might have saved Ian.
Judith called Susan on July 14. "Are you sitting down," she began.
"Yes," Susan said.
"Our son is dead," Judith told her.
One boy, two views:
At The Church of Conscious Harmony, a small altar sits against a wall in the teen room. It holds three wooden crosses, candles and a framed photo of Ian. Memories of Ian remain strong. One teen who was in Santa Fe with Ian in the last weeks of his life, has said Ian "will forever be my symbol for my intent to change my selfish ways." Each of his mothers lives with the tough choices she made with Ian's best interests at heart. Judith has chosen to accept Ian's death and holds Skyline Journey blameless. When a state investigator vowed to learn why Ian died, Judith told him, "We may never know the reason."
The Church of Conscious Harmony held a memorial service for Ian on Aug. 11. When it was over, Judith gave Susan a porcelain box filled with half of Ian's ashes; now housed in a larger wooden box, it sits on a mantle over the fireplace in the Pinson's Drumright home. Judith's neighbors at Radiance learned only after his death that Ian had gone to Utah for wilderness therapy but understand her decision. "He needed real care," Elena Michaelson said. Most also understand Judith's decision to accept what happened to Ian in Utah as fate or karma, the work of larger forces.
Judith "did not want to be a victim at all in the situation or blame any one. Death, even an accidental death, is not always even accidental," Michaelson said. She has told friends that Ian was a "great teacher" in life, forcing people to be awake, aware and conscious of their own actions. "She always looked at him like he was her gift," Michaelson said.
In May, Judith returned to Utah with a stone tablet memorializing Ian made by members of Conscious Harmony. The tablet, along with a stone engraved with Ian's name, are buried near the tree where he died. But there is no peace for Susan and her husband, the whys tumbling over and over in their thoughts. Why did a criminal case against Skyline fail? Why did Skyline staff wait so long to help Ian, even if they believed he was faking his symptoms? Why didn't Judith turn to them for help?
"We had the resources to help and the willingness," Johnny Pinson said.
A judge's decision to dismiss criminal charges amounts to saying Ian's life "wasn't important enough to fight for," Susan said. The couple lacks legal standing to push the case in a civil lawsuit, so they share Ian's story with anyone who will listen. "I can best honor Ian by trying to make a difference by speaking out at every opportunity about programs like this and about the people that were involved," Susan said. The common ground Susan once shared with Judith is a chasm now.
"She is so forgiving of Skyline Journey," Susan said. "She doesn't think they did anything wrong. There is such a difference in our feelings and our opinions.
"We're just two different people, with very different beliefs. The bond we share is not there anymore. It died with Ian."
Tribune staff writers Elizabeth Neff and Jacob Santini contributed to this story.
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