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Did a "Troubled Teen" Rehab Create Murderers?

In a string of horrific crimes, one "tough-love" rehab is the common denominator.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Scott Richardson

 
 
 
 

This article originally appeard on The Fix.

The crimes are heinous: murdering a pizza deliveryman for his uniform, then wearing it to shoot down Colorado’s state prison chief; hiring a hit man to kill your parents; stabbing both of your grandfathers to death. Besides the horror, these recent homicides share a surprising common element: In each case, the alleged or convicted perpetrator had been sent to an unregulated tough-love camp known as Paradise Cove.

Evan Ebel, the 28-year-old ex-con who is now notorious for the Colorado killings and the high-speed Texas car chase and shootout that ultimately led to his own death in March, attended at least two such programs, including Paradise Cove. His parents apparently sent him there around age 12 because they were concerned about his destructive behavior and suspicious that he was using  hard drugs and alcohol

But Paradise Cove was anything but paradise for the boys who attended. The Samoa-based camp was part of a “troubled teen” chain—variously known as the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP), Teen Revitalization Inc., and Youth Foundation Inc.—that has had over a dozen of its programs (including Paradise Cove) closed down following reports of abuse. Former participants link at least 11 suicide or overdose deaths as well as three homicides to this particular camp—and many more to the network overall. Although apparently not using the  WWASP name these days, the same high-level management is still involved in residential youth programs today, mainly in Utah.

The boys at Paradise Cove slept in straw-roofed huts on mats on a concrete floor. To prevent escapes, fluorescent lights burned all night, attracting mosquitos. Flip-flops were the only shoes permitted—another security measure—but these were rapidly destroyed by the sharp coral beaches where the boys exercised and worked. The cuts that resulted attracted flies and infections. “They’d just swarm on you,” Paul Richards, who attended Paradise Cove in 1997, told me for my book on troubled teen programs,  Help at Any Cost.

Breaking any of the program’s strict rules—for example, sitting in the wrong position or talking out of turn—resulted in severe, escalating punishment. Beatings by staff were common. But the worst consequence was “The Box,” a three-foot-square windowless, wooden hut with a concrete floor, where teens were made to stay for days to months, subsisting on rice and water. Sometimes, they were thrown in hog-tied and left for hours. Other times, they were made to kneel or sit in stress positions, which rapidly became agonizing.

“You’d have to sit cross-legged with your hands on top of your head with your elbows sticking out,” says Bill Boyles, who attended Paradise Cove from 1997 through 1999 and is now an activist with the Coalition for the Safe and Ethical Treatment of Youth. “It’s ridiculously uncomfortable on concrete in the hot summer sun in the tropics and they wouldn’t let you take a shower.” (A website called WWASP Survivors advocates for people who attended WWASP-related camps and serves as a watchdog over the "troubled teen" industry in general. Bill Boyles runs the  Paradise Cove Survivorswebsite, which vividly details the brutal, squalid conditions at the camp.)

Unlike Ebel, Boyles had not been sent because of aggressive behavior—he was moody and had refused to go to school, but did not take drugs or commit crime. Paul Richards, who attended at the same time as Boyles, had been a straight-A student and star high school basketball player. In both cases, their main problem had been not getting along with their parents, but Paradise Cove accepted any child a parent labeled as troubled, so long as the tuition was paid.