Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp - Rolling Stone
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Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp

A tragic accident exposes the dangers of an out-of-control billion-dollar industry

In the darkness of early morning, 16-year-old Bruce Staeger lay splayed across his mattress, sleeping soundly for once. Most nights, he would smoke a blunt and crash, but not this one. Lately, his mother had been watching him closely. She and Bruce’s stepdad had even installed a motion detector on the porch of their doublewide trailer to keep him from sneaking out at night. Around 4:30 a.m., his bedroom light suddenly flipped on. Bruce rolled over, blocking his eyes from the glare to find his mom sitting on the edge of the bed. “Bruce, do you remember what I told you a few days ago?” She said softly. “I would never make a decision that would hurt you.”

Over her shoulder, two men in cowboy hats and Wranglers hovered near his bedroom doorway. Other kids, he would later learn, freaked out in this moment. They yelled, they swore, they swung wildly at the two strangers. But Bruce did none of this. He quietly got dressed as instructed. “You’re going away with these men,” his mom told him. “This is for your own good.”

The cowboys nudged him out into the cold morning air and loaded his things into the bed of a pick up. They headed west, towards the Black Range, a rugged and remote stretch of mountains in southern New Mexico. After a few hours of driving, one of the men put a black pillowcase over Bruce’s head so he wouldn’t know where they were going. The truck lurched and heaved as the paved road turned dirt. Eventually, Bruce would come this way again and see it all—the dry creek beds and narrow slot canyons, the craggy ridgelines and low-lying mesas that glowed red in the sun—but for now, his head hooded in darkness, he could see nothing.

Bruce had been getting into trouble ever since his dad left six years earlier. A skinny kid with sloping shoulders, braces and a mild case of acne, he rarely went to school, spending his days smoking pot and skateboarding instead. A few months earlier, he had run away and holed up with some meth junkies. When he finally returned home, his mom said she didn’t know what else to do for him. Apparently, this was her answer.

Finally, they arrived at their destination: a camp known as Lockwood, a satellite location of Tierra Blanca Ranch, which for almost 20 years had reformed troubled youth. The camp’s owner and director, a man named Scott Chandler, emerged from the truck, bowlegged with a slight hitch in his step. He lifted the hood from Bruce’s head. “Hey guys,” Chandler called out. “Come meet the new kid!”

It took Bruce a minute to gain his bearings. He was in the mountains, above 5,000 feet, standing in a clearing surrounded by towering strands of pine. A thin plume of smoke rose from a cooking fire and two industrial grade Army tents loomed in the distance. Down by the creek, he could hear voices, high and reedy. 

Slowly, a dozen boys emerged, hard and lean, with haunted eyes. Their clothing was soiled and stained, their fingernails rimmed with dirt. The ones wearing orange, Bruce would soon learn, were trouble. The worst cases didn’t approach at all; they were firewalled, which usually meant they couldn’t speak to anyone except staff. Each looked Bruce dead in the eye and shook his hand firmly — something in their manner, though, both cocksure and skittish, unsettled him.

Bruce had no idea the terrors and torment that awaited him at Tierra Blanca, some of the worst of it at the hands of the boys who now surrounded him. And he could never have imagined the decision to send him here would result in his death.

A working cattle ranch spanning 30,000 acres in one of the most isolated regions of the country, Tierra Blanca promised to take unruly teenagers—drug users, drop outs, kids in and out of the court system—and reform them through “sound Biblical principles,” exercise, hard work and discipline. The program operates on the fringes of what’s known as the troubled teen industry, a booming business that generates as much as $1.2 billion a year and takes in 10,000 to 14,000 kids and teenagers at any given time. For around $100 a day, or the rough equivalent of prep school tuition, you could send your teen to Tierra Blanca to become the sort of raw-boned young man who answered “yes, sir” and didn’t complain when asked to do the dishes. 

Bruce Staeger

When Bruce arrived in October of 2011, he had little idea how the camp functioned, what it would take to leave, or how long he’d be there. “There was no program, there was no handbook, there wasn’t anything,” says Nathan Bailey, who was at the ranch with Bruce. “As you became more trusted, more things were explained to you by the other guys. The only way you learned about the place was just a trickle of information.”

The aim of the program, several boys told me, was to break you down so what Chandler called “real change” could begin. Each day began early, typically at 7 a.m., with breakfast and Bible study or reading about historical leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Tuesdays and Fridays a retired elementary school teacher known as Miss Allie came to the ranch and handed out assignments from teachers in the nearby town of Deming. Every other day, the 15 or so kids at the camp were put to work on the ranch, clearing land, chopping the firewood that Chandler sold in town, or building miles of fence to keep cattle from wandering off. To soften up the rocky ground for fence posts, the biggest kids ran the digger, an unwieldy contraption with sharp metal spikes, or they just used “ghetto dynamite,” bullet cartridges stuffed with gunpowder, to blow the rock apart.

“That’s what we did every day, shit like that,” says Gunnar Hatton, who was at Tierra Blanca with Bruce. “And then they’d say, ‘Everyone put your tools down, it’s time to run up and down the mountain, 10 fucking times with a 20 pound rock in your hands.’ And then it was back to work. That’s all we did, run and work.”

Exercises varied from grueling long distance runs to charging up a hill with a truck tire hoisted above their heads, a drill Chandler called “Halos.” In between, boys were made to do up-downs, scissor kicks, push-ups and wall sits until their legs burned and their lungs were on fire. “The bigger you were and the stronger you were and the more you liked fucking up the little guys, the more powerful you were,” says Hatton. Bruce tried to keep up, but he was out of shape. When he couldn’t do exercises, staff encouraged the other boys to “help” him, which was code for either dragging him or “just a punch to the gut,” another camper later told police.

“The bigger you were and the stronger you were and the more you liked fucking up the little guys, the more powerful you were.”

If Bruce did what staff asked, and didn’t give them any trouble, he could earn three points a day. Once he earned 60 points he could call home. Staff favorites who had accumulated enough points for good behavior were given “privileged status,” which meant they could also go home for a visit, rent a movie (as long as it wasn’t R-rated) or play on the Deming football team. Those who broke the rules or tried to run away were taken to a special closet full of orange clothing, assigned an outfit, and in some cases made to sleep, work and eat shackled and cuffed. (Chandler says this has only happened a “handful” of times when a boy was a danger to himself or others.)

I talked to several boys who said they spent weeks in shackles, and one showed me scars on his ankles and wrists from times the cuffs and shackles cut into his skin until he bled. “Sometimes kids would step on your shackles just to fuck with you,” he tells me. “I learned how to sleep with them on, do the dishes with them on, everything.”

To cope, some boys made a crude form of hooch out of canned fruit, bread and sugar, and tattooed themselves using ballpoint-pen ink and cactus needles. Others tried to run away. A boy named Jordan Almanza tried twice, once stealing a hacksaw to cut off his handcuffs and shackles, but every time Chandler and his staff hunted him down. “There was no way out,” Hatton says. “You could either run and fucking die of dehydration, or just end it yourself.”

At first, Bruce was so timid the other boys had to look at his homework packet from Miss Allie to figure out his name. “He was hard to read,” recalls Bruce’s fellow camper, Nathan Bailey. “At times he would just stare off. He could go from being completely stoic, like nothing was getting to him, and then he’d just break down.”

As the months passed, though, Bruce began to open up. Laying in his tent at night, careful to make sure staff weren’t listening, he talked about his ex girlfriends, the metal band he fronted back home and how much he missed his mom. “This shit really sucks,” Bruce often said. “But I deserve it.”

In the spring of 2012, Chandler took Bruce and a group of other boys three hours east into the Sacramento Mountains to build fence line and turn rugged terrain into a hunting camp for wealthy clients. Most of the boys, including Bruce, were in orange for breaking camp rules. Because they were in such a remote location, roughly 100 miles from ranch headquarters, there was limited electricity; much of the food was canned — “way past the expiration date,” Hatton says — and stored in a horse trailer with a leaky roof. Another camper later told police that “rain would get in the pancake mix and it would mold, but it was the only food that was there so you just cooked it and fried the crap out of it and just ate it.” (Chandler denies this. “I ate everything the boys ate and 90 percent of the time there were leftovers, which we fed to the dogs,” he says. “They got plenty to eat.”) 

Tierra Blanca

One night, after a week of work, the boys were loading up to return to Tierra Blanca headquarters when Chandler realized his wallet was missing. After hours of searching, he became convinced one of the kids stole it. One by one, he and another staffer took them under a tarp beside the horse trailer, and strip-searched them. When the wallet still didn’t turn up, he gathered them around his truck. “One of you stole my wallet,” he said. “And this is your one chance to come forward and admit you did it.” No one said anything.

The next morning, Chandler told the boys they’d stay at the camp until the wallet turned up. Suspicions quickly fell upon Bruce; he’d been one of the last ones in the truck with Chandler before the wallet went missing. But Bruce insisted he didn’t have it.

Chandler slowly upped daily exercise to extreme levels and cut rations down to just rice, canned beans and tortillas. To turn the boys against Bruce, the staff sat him in a lawn chair, gave him water and forced him to watch the other boys do “Halos” up and down a steep rocky slope. When that didn’t elicit a confession, Chandler and his staff started waking the boys up in the middle of the night to run. (Chandler says this only happened twice.) “We were already starving, and really the only thing we had left was sleep,” Hatton says. “When he took that from us, it felt like we were losing our minds.” 

The other boys tried to figure out why Bruce wouldn’t reveal the location of the wallet. Some of them guessed it was a final stand against Chandler, to show he wouldn’t break. But others began to wonder if he’d stolen it at all. At some point, Bruce reportedly told Chandler that he had taken the wallet and burned it. Either way, after a few weeks, several boys say that Chandler subtly suggested how to end the ordeal. As Hatton later told police, “He wanted Bruce beaten.”

Hatton says the beatings started off once or twice a week, but eventually escalated to every day. A group of four or five boys, usually the biggest, would take Bruce away from the camp and start interrogating him. “We’d tell him, ‘You know what’s about to happen,'” Hatton recalls. “And then we’d beat the shit out of him.”

Several boys say they’d beat Bruce in plain sight of ranch staff, something Chandler denies. The camp consisted of a cluster of tents near the mobile campers where Chandler and the staff slept. “They’d either just go in their trailers while it was happening or sit there right outside their trailers eating,” says one of the boys who participated in the beatings. “They never once intervened.”

When beatings alone didn’t work, the boys grew more inventive. They hung Bruce from the horse trailer from his handcuffs; lassoed him and dragged him across the dirt; and put him in a sleeping bag stuffed with cow shit and kneeled on his chest. The worst of it, one boy told me, was the day they hogtied him to a pole by his cuffs and shackles and paraded him around camp like a pig on a stick, while other boys beat him.

Eventually the boys decided the only way to end the ordeal was for one of them to die so authorities would shut down the camp. They drew lots to decide who would drink nightshade tea, derived from a poisonous plant, but staff discovered the plot before anyone could go through with it. Two weeks later, they met again. This time they decided they’d have to kill Bruce, but ultimately abandoned the plan.

And then one day a staffer found the wallet in a five-gallon bucket of electrical wires. While Bruce never confessed to putting the wallet there, Chandler says he has never doubted that Bruce did it. Not that it mattered to any of the boys. After six weeks, their trip to the Sacramento Mountains was finally over.

All the boys I talked to who participated in the beatings had trouble admitting what they had done to Bruce. “It’s something I have a really hard time forgiving myself over,” one former camper says. “I feel so guilty, not just for taking part in the beatings, but for wanting him to die. I still have nightmares from what we did to him.”

It’s hard to know how many programs like Tierra Blanca operate across the country, but conservative estimates put the number in the hundreds. Some are tough-love boot camps; others are wilderness-based programs whose philosophies can vary from meditation and yoga to the most extreme versions of fundamentalist Christianity. Many of the programs share an outright disdain for traditional therapy and try to fly under the radar of state regulators. 

Despite an alarming report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2007 that found “thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death” at residential treatment programs nationwide, the troubled teen industry has flourished in recent years, especially in states with religious exemption laws. In Florida, which bans the inspection of private, faith-based facilities, there have been at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect over the past decade. Children have complained of being pinned to the ground for hours, held in seclusion for days and made to stand until they wet themselves. Some have even been choked to unconsciousness. Girls have been forced to wave around their menstrual-stained underwear as chastisement for being “unclean.” Conversion therapy for gay teens is a common practice at many of the faith-based facilities as well.

Most troubling about the growth of the industry, advocates say, is that there’s no proof any of it works. In fact, research highlighted by the GAO report suggests that tough love programs are actually counterproductive. “If you want to teach a kid how to get along better in the outside world, it doesn’t make sense to completely isolate them and submerge them in this world with arbitrary rules and unpredictable and severe punishments and make them live in a constant state of fear,” says Julia Graff, of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. “Most kids are worse when they get out.”

“If you want to teach a kid how to get along better in the outside world, it doesn’t make sense to isolate them in this world with arbitrary rules — most kids are worse when they get out.”

In the past 15 years, as many as 86 kids have died in troubled teen programs. At least 10 kids have died at wilderness programs like Tierra Blanca, most of them because of starvation, exposure to the elements or pressing medical needs that went ignored. In one of the most highly publicized cases, a 16-year-old named Aaron Bacon was forced to hike without food for as many as 14 days and sleep for several nights in freezing temperatures in the canyons of southern Utah without a sleeping bag or blanket. When his body began to shut down, and he lost control of his bowels, the staff made him walk without pants. He died after just 20 days at the camp.

“These programs are based on the premise that today’s teens are so out of control and morally compromised that only the most extreme and harsh tactics can keep them in line,” says Maia Szalavitz, who interviewed hundreds of kids who had attended tough love programs for her 2006 book, Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. “And they think the answer is to isolate them, deprive them and eventually break them.”

The largest industry trade group—the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP)—says that tough love programs like Tierra Blanca are outliers and not representative of the industry as a whole. The group requires its 166 member programs — which serve an estimated 6,000 kids, or about half of those in the industry — to be licensed or accredited, something programs like Tierra Blanca are notorious for resisting.

“There’s a lot of frustration about these sorts of programs because it’s a black eye for the field as a whole,” says the NATSP’s spokesperson, Megan Stokes. “Programs using outdated tough love methods with no science, that’s absolutely not what we’re about.”

By the time Bruce arrived at Tierra Blanca, New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) had compiled a growing list of concerns about the ranch. In 2006, a father contacted CYFD to complain that his son had been kicked in the head by a staff member for “faking” a seizure. Two years later, a 16-year-old escaped with a satellite phone, until state police found him miles away trying to remove the shackles from his ankles. During visits, CYFD found that one staff member had no first aid training, another hadn’t undergone a criminal background check and there were no written policies or procedures to explain the ranch’s rules. 

There was also no working landline, meaning the only way anyone could communicate with the outside world was through Chandler’s cell phone. “This is not an acceptable safety situation,” a CYFD staffer wrote in an internal memo, “especially since [Tierra Blanca Ranch] is located in a very remote, rural area.” To make matters worse, calls were monitored and letters were screened. “If I wrote, ‘This shit is happening, they ran me until I was coughing up blood,’ they wouldn’t have sent it out,” says Ryan Houghton, who was a camper at Tierra Blanca the same time as Bruce. “There was really no way to tell anyone what was going on.”

Before their next visit, CYFD informed Chandler that, among other things, he’d need to ensure that any vehicle used to transport kids had a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and enough seat belts. Otherwise, CYFD warned, Chandler would be shut down. 

Bruce Staeger

Chandler said he was working to come into compliance with these requests when the state decided, in 2006, to re-classify Tierra Blanca as a wilderness camp. That meant the program would no longer fall under the state’s purview. “I don’t think anyone can explain why the state agreed to that,” says Liz McGrath, Executive Director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, in Albuquerque. “At that point, the state abdicated its responsibilities to oversee the ranch. There really was no one there to ensure the safety of these kids.” (CYFD didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)

By the time Bruce was in elementary school, his family was coming apart: his dad left them when Bruce was 10 and his mom worked long hours at a hospital in El Paso. Bruce spent afternoons alone, playing video games, or riding his bike aimlessly around the neighborhood. “The kid never met a stranger,” says his brother Eric, a 27-year-old at New Mexico State University. “He was a really fun, energetic kid, but he didn’t really have anybody. He was pretty lonely.”

Bruce started skipping school when he was 12, and then fell in with a group of friends who seemed dangerous to his mom. At one point, they robbed her house, and from there Bruce’s life unspooled in a classic archetype of teenage angst: black clothes, thrash metal, the musty odor of marijuana trailing him from his room. 

When the family moved to the trailer park outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a flyspeck of a town known for farming and meth, in 2010, things got worse. One night the following summer, Bruce came home rolling on ecstasy and shoved his mom. A few days later, he ran away from home; his mom and stepdad didn’t hear from him again for two weeks. “I was worried he was going to end up in jail, or even end up dead,” Carla Moffat says. “If he ran away one more time I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. People don’t understand how few options parents have in these situations.”

When Moffat heard about Tierra Blanca from a friend, she researched it online and found glowing testimonials from graduates. Even though she was already working 12-hour shifts, and paying for the program would require additional overtime, she felt like it was worth it. On the phone, Chandler explained how the program worked: she wouldn’t hear from Bruce for several months and she couldn’t visit without permission. “He told me, ‘You’re the parents, but we’re his family now.’ I asked him how we would reintegrate Bruce back into our family and he said, ‘You don’t. Because the problems that exist in the family will always exist in the family.’ That should have been a red flag right there.”

Despite the violent episode in the Sacramento Mountains, Bruce began to adjust to the strict regimen at Tierra Blanca. By the fall of 2012, just months after the wallet incident, he earned certain privileges for good behavior. In the bunkhouse at Tierra Blanca headquarters, he now ate cornbread, beef stew and the occasional steak that Chandler’s daughters cooked. His grades began to improve under Miss Allie too. All signs to Chandler that Bruce was on the path to “real change.”

“He was on my A team,” Chandler says. “If there was a job to do that had to be done right, he was one of the first kids I’d pick. And that was a real cool thing to see, just knowing some of the things he was dealing with when he came in, some of the things going on in his life.” 

When Bruce’s mom and stepdad visited him, in the winter of 2013, he seemed like a different person. He had gone in with big gauges in his ears, but now he wore a black cowboy hat everywhere. Bruce also started attending a Baptist church in nearby Hatch with some of the other boys, often lingering in the chapel to talk with the youth leaders who played guitar. Eventually he asked one to baptize him. “The program seemed to be working,” Carla Moffat says. “He looked happy. He was polite. He was calm. He had direction.” 

In the meantime, pressure to regulate the ranch was mounting at the governor’s office. In December of 2012, CYFD got a 27-page memo from the father of a boy who had gone to the ranch, alleging potential abuse and neglect. He included statements from boys who had contemplated suicide and at times felt like they were starving, along with details of an incident in which a staffer had allegedly beaten a 15 year old with a night stick for not completing exercises.

Six months later, Pegasus Legal Services for Children sent a letter to the governor and the then-director of CYFD, alerting them that former participants had told police that “children are routinely hit, shackled, and handcuffed, deprived of food…and threatened by staff at Tierra Blanca Ranch if they make disclosures about abuse.” Pegasus urged an investigation.

And then tragedy struck. On the night of Sept. 22, 2013, Bruce and a group of boys were coming back from Chandler’s parents’ house after watching a football game when the boy driving, a recent Tierra Blanca graduate, took a curve on a dirt road too fast and rolled the truck. Because there weren’t enough seats in the cab, Bruce had volunteered to sit in the bed of the pick up, and the crash ejected him. The remote location of the ranch and the spotty cell coverage delayed Bruce’s arrival at the hospital, in part because calls kept dropping. Not long after being airlifted to a Level 1 trauma center in El Paso, Bruce died of massive internal bleeding.

The crash was the last straw for CYFD and the governor’s office. Less than three weeks later, state police raided the ranch, search warrant in hand, only to find no one there. State officials, believing Chandler had been tipped off and fled with the boys, issued an AMBER Alert. Chandler maintained that they were on a camping trip, and arranged to deliver 11 of the 13 teens to their parents (the other two were 18 and decided to return to the ranch with Chandler). A week later, Chandler and his wife, Colette, appeared on the Today show with Matt Lauer. “People don’t understand…the type of kids we end up dealing with,” Chandler told Lauer. “We care about kids. We want the kids to be safe. We want them to be successful.” 

Colette Chandler and Scott Chandler

When I visited Chandler this spring, he carried himself like a man under siege. He called the raid and what followed “the burn down,” and seemed convinced the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, had a personal vendetta against him. (The governor’s office declined to comment.) He said his critics fail to recognize that he deals with kids who have criminal records and were violent with him and his staff. “You’re only getting a part of the story,” Chandler told me. “Some of the things these kids are saying, they’re just flat out not true. You have to remember some of these kids are master manipulators, and a lot of them have some big credibility issues.” 

Chandler speaks with a slight drawl, which depending on his mood can come across as friendly or slightly intimidating. When we stopped at a local Mexican restaurant for lunch, nearly everyone there seemed to consider him a close friend. Many Tierra Blanca graduates speak of him fondly; some consider him a mentor or surrogate father and still keep in touch, sending wedding invitations and birth announcements.

Growing up in Central Texas, Chandler’s parents had taken in teens from “broken homes” and he’d seen the difference it made in the kids’ lives. After his dad allowed a wilderness program to operate on portions of his ranch in the late 90s, Chandler decided he could do it better, and cobbled together a “common sense” approach to reforming troubled teens. When I asked if a particular methodology governed the ranch, Chandler seemed amused. “People keep looking for a formula for our success, but it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “It’s not something that’s easy to replicate.”

Chandler says he doesn’t practice what he calls the “medical model” of treatment. And while he’s contracted with therapists in the past, he’s never hired one on staff. “Our philosophy is you can replace the things drugs are trying to do with just work, exercise, get the endorphins going, you know, try and teach,” he says. “We’ve become such a pill society, we mask our emotions. We don’t just learn how to resolve a conflict, they have to have something else to control their emotions up and down.”

Fiercely individualistic, Chandler subscribes to a sort of libertarian idealism common in the West. Spend a few minutes with him and he’s sure to bring up parental rights, which is his way of saying that the government has little to no business telling parents how to raise their kids. “People don’t understand what we do,” Chandler says. “We were trying to make productive citizens out of a group nobody cared about, and now we’re getting burned at the stake. My family has been through so many lies, distortions and mischaracterizations.”

During my visit, we drove out to Camp Lockwood with his wife and two of his daughters (all of them help on the ranch), and Chandler introduced me to several program graduates still there. All of them disputed the allegations made in the lawsuits: namely, that staff had encouraged boys to beat Bruce. “This is all based on hysteria,” a staffer and former camper named Tim Roberson told me. “If they had any evidence, why hasn’t a single charge been filed against anybody? I’ve known the Chandler family for about six years and they are the most amazing family I’ve ever met. They’ve tried to help every person that’s come through here, even those who are now trying to hurt them.” 

Bruce Staeger

That evening as we drove back towards town, I asked Chandler about some of the most troubling allegations against him. He didn’t deny subjecting kids to intense exercise or cuffing them. And when I asked if a former staffer had used a night stick to punish a boy, Chandler said, “It didn’t happen like that.” But he strongly rejects allegations that he encouraged his kids to beat each other. Those who did, he said, were immediately disciplined.

We drove in silence for a few moments, and then his wife spoke up from the back seat of the truck. “Let’s just say this,” she said of the incident. “Do you remember when you were a kid in the school yard and there was some kid out there who just drove everybody crazy and a few of the boys got together and just gave him a little dose of medicine?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Things like that happen sometimes,” she said.

As for Bruce, most of what happened was “out of earshot” and the exercises he imposed as discipline during that period were roughly similar to “what guys do in the military,” he said. But he did acknowledge that sometimes “kids took matters into their own hands.” (In a subsequent interview he denied ever being aware of other kids beating Bruce.)

“If we had really done something wrong,” Chandler said. “Would we really be sitting here two years later without a single charge filed against me or any of my staff?”

Chandler’s supporters, and there are many, are intensely loyal (after the raid, he says, a petition he prepared got over a 1,000 signatures). A half dozen graduates Chandler put me in touch with said the program literally saved their lives. One of them, Pecos Cook, today a 28-year-old oil field worker in North Dakota with a wife and two kids, described similar experiences to those now suing Chandler: grueling physical exercise, being so hungry he ate grub worms and staffers who enforced strict rules. And yet, Cook says, those very tactics made the program work. “At times that place was hell,” Cook says. “But looking back on it, I needed it. There are certain types of kids where that’s the only thing that’s going to work.”

Other program graduates, now in adulthood, told me the same thing: that they went in adrift, with no work ethic or sense of purpose, and left with a sense they could do just about anything. “If somebody you love has a terminal illness, you’re going to do whatever it takes to get them treated, and that’s how I see the ranch,” says Matt Griffoul, who sent two of his kids to Tierra Blanca. “These parents who are complaining now, they knew exactly what they were getting into. So I think some of the blame has got to fall on them.”

Last year, Chandler reached a civil settlement with the state, allowing limited oversight for one year. But he still faces a lawsuit from parents who say their children were abused at the camp. A criminal investigation sparked by the raid is still under review by the state attorney general’s office. Their findings could determine the fate of the program. For now, however, Tierra Blanca is open for business.

A week after Bruce died, his family and friends gathered for a memorial service at the church were he had been baptized. Many of those in attendance came from Tierra Blanca, including Scott Chandler. Afterwards, the boys from the ranch approached Carla and Jim Moffat and presented them a baseball they had all signed, a small way to memorialize the good times they’d had playing games on the ranch. When Carla realized the boy who was driving the truck during the accident hadn’t signed the ball, she found him in the crowd and asked him to sign it.

“I hold no malice for these kids,” Carla says. “I see it as Animal Farm, or Lord of the Flies. It was that kind of environment where you had kids turned against kid. It wasn’t their fault.”

The long-term answer, Szalavitz and other advocates say, is federal legislation that would put the industry under a uniform standard. Former California congressman George Miller twice sponsored bills that would do just that, banning programs from withholding food, water and medical care “under the guise of discipline or therapy,” and reserving the use of handcuffs, shackles and other physical restraints for emergencies. The bill also would have created a national hotline for kids to report abuse, but it was never signed into law. A similar piece of bipartisan legislation, introduced in July, is currently in committee.

Earlier this year, I drove out to Truth or Consequences to meet with Bruce’s mom, Carla. We sat on the porch of their doublewide, and she showed me the last of Bruce’s possessions: the black cowboy hat he wore everywhere, the blue T-shirt he’d earned once he attained privileged status and the Bible he had marked up after his baptism. 

Bruce Staeger

Carla says the abuses Bruce suffered at the camp came out slowly, in emails and phone calls from different boys. Her husband Jim has asked her not to read some of the details. And while the incident that claimed her son’s life was an accident, Carla says it’s a direct reflection on the way Chandler runs the ranch, and his refusal to comply with safety guidelines suggested by the state years earlier. “It’s a wonder no one has died out there before,” Bruce’s stepdad, Jim Moffat said. “There are kids who attempted suicide, kids who ran away in the desert, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, kids who felt like they were starving to death. That place was an accident waiting to happen.”

Carla showed me the truck Bruce used to drive, and the horse Chandler had promised to give Bruce upon graduation. Instead, he gave her to the Moffat family, and Jim now makes a point of riding her as often as he can. “There’s nothing I can do to bring him back, and honestly, there are days I don’t know if I can go on,” Carla said. “But if it can result in some kind of lasting change, if it saves another kid’s life, maybe some good can come from all of this.”


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