The Aspen Education Group has come under fire for the deaths of two teens at its treatment camps -- and momlogic is on the scene.
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: momlogic's investigative reporting on the troubled-teen industry helped jumpstart a homicide investigation involving one of the nation's largest treatment providers for kids in crisis. The Lake County Sheriff's department has recommended that the District Attorney file manslaughter charges against an Oregon wilderness camp and its parent company, Aspen Education Group.
The pending charges stem from the death of 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen, who collapsed and died during his first day at SageWalk Wilderness Camp. Investigators say that the circumstances surrounding Sergey's death are strikingly similar to what happened to Matthew Meyer, who died at an Aspen Education-owned camp in Texas. momlogic covered Matthew's story last year, revealing how inadequately trained and ill-equipped counselors failed to recognize the teen's dire condition until it was too late.
The lead investigator -- who combed through evidence surrounding Sergey's death -- believes that momlogic's story helped connect the dots. "Matthew's case plays a very significant role in this investigation," says Sheriff's Deputy Chuck Pore. "The article initiated a process of researching what happened to Sergey."
The Sheriff's Department's investigation has revealed that while hiking in extreme heat, both Matthew and Sergey complained of exhaustion and feeling dizzy. Despite evidence of overheating, the boys' conditions were dismissed and brushed off by staff members. When each child passed out from heat exhaustion, the staff was slow to contact emergency medical personnel. Both teens died of a severe form of heatstroke known as "hyperthermia."
During the summer of 2009, Sergey had lost his way after dropping out of high school, experimenting with drugs and having a few run-ins with police. The son of Russian immigrants realized that he wanted more out of life, and hoped that a behavioral treatment program would prepare him for the military. The teen's mother, Lyudmila Blashchishena, found positive feedback online about SageWalk Wilderness Camp. The program had gained notoriety by being featured in the ABC reality show, "Brat Camp."
On August 27, Sergey left his Portland, Ore., home with two escorts, who transported him to the SageWalk compound. Sergey never got the chance to say goodbye to his family. According to investigators, what happened over the next 24 hours was a series of critical mistakes by staff members -- which led to Sergey's senseless death.
At 10:30 AM, in 80-degree temperatures, a group of staff and students began hiking in a wilderness area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As the newest student in the group, Sergey took the lead and was required to carry an 80-pound backpack that included water for the entire group. An hour into the hike, Sergey began acting strangely. At first he began staggering, then he drifted off course and eventually started falling down. It didn't occur to any of the staff members that this could be a telltale sign of a health emergency. Instead, the counselors assumed that Sergey was being disobedient and scolded him for his behavior. By 12:30 PM, Sergey appeared confused, started spitting and eventually reached the point of "shutdown." The staff monitored Sergey's fluctuating vital signs, but failed to call medical staff. Sergey vomited twice -- once with signs of blood. One staff member told investigators that he "wasn't overly concerned, because students in the program were always vomiting, though [he] didn't know why."
Eventually, the school nurse got involved and told the counselors to "keep doing what they [were] doing." Suddenly, Sergey began thrashing his arms around in the air and yelling. Sergey's breathing became shallow, rapidly dropping off. Then he no longer had a pulse. The staffers began CPR and called the nurse, who told a field manager to call 911. It took nearly an hour for medics to arrive. Twenty-five minutes later, Sergey was pronounced dead.
Deputy Pore contends that SageWalk and the Aspen Education Group approved or knowingly tolerated practices at the camp that allowed employees to ignore the physical complaints of students, and that resulted in the death of Sergey Blashchishen.
The Aspen Education Group denies any wrongdoing, and stands behind its staffing procedures. Mark Dorenfeld, Senior Vice President of the Western Division of Aspen Education Group, issued the following statement to momlogic:
"SageWalk Wilderness School strongly disagrees with the conclusions of the Sheriff's Office, particularly in the absence of a full report by the State Medical Examiner. We continue to be greatly saddened by this tragic accident and again wish to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of this young man. We continue to await the results of the State Medical Examiner's report. We expect that, once all the facts are known, they will demonstrate that we acted carefully and responsibly, and we will be fully vindicated."
News of the potential criminal charges is bittersweet for Matthew's mother, Crystal Manganaro, who received an out-of-court settlement in her civil lawsuit against Aspen Education. "The ripple-effect is working," says Manganaro. "There's going to be a big tidal wave on them. They have to be accountable for their actions."
Deputy Pore says that this case is the first of its kind in his 20-year law-enforcement career. "Making criminal charges against a corporation is new ground for me," he says. But he admits that it's unlikely that any individual employee will go to prison. A decision by the D.A.'s office is not expected for some time. "Although the entire issue is so sad for so many," says Deputy Pore, "I am hoping there will be some good to come from all of this."
|Gina Kaysen Fernandes is an award-winning documentary producer and a former TV news producer/writer. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.|