In 2003, a tough-love, “behavior-modification” school for troubled U.S. teens located near the Pacific-slope town of Orotina shut its doors amid allegations of abuse and torture. Its owner, U.S. citizen Narvin Lichfield, is facing trial in February on charges of false imprisonment, coercion, torture and “international crimes” (violating a law based on international treaties, in this case, torture).
Recently, a graduate of the school, DundeeRanchAcademy, told The Tico Times he lied in a statement written for Lichfield earlier this year that says he was never mistreated in the program.
“The statement that I wrote out stated that I was able to have open communication with my family anytime, I could leave anytime, especially after I turned 18, and that there was no mistreatment,” said Bill O’Donnell, 21, in a phone interview from Denver, in the U.S. state of Colorado. “I falsified all of those facts.”
Lichfield was arrested in May 2003 and briefly detained after a Costa Rican prosecutor raided Dundee Ranch, prompting many of the 200 students to riot and nearly three dozen to run away from the facility. Costa Rica’s Child Welfare Office (PANI) promptly closed the school, citing reports of abuse and saying the adolescents were being held against their will, which is illegal in Costa Rica (TT,May 23, 2003).
The trial, in which Lichfield is the only defendant, is scheduled for Feb. 20-23 of next year, delayed from last September because another trial at the same court was extended (TT, July 21). Following the school’s closure, Lichfield said he was not aware that there was any abuse at Dundee Ranch (TT, Sept. 5, 2003). He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
In the United States, Lichfield is also awaiting trial after being arrested Aug. 4 of this year in Hodges, in the U.S. state of South Carolina, on charges of domestic violence.
That court date has yet to be set, said court administrator Bonnie Scroggs with theAbbeville Country Magistrate Court
. No other details were provided.
According to some observers, the trial in Costa Rica could set a precedent for similar tough-love programs around the world, many of which are organized under the Utah-based World-Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), founded by Lichfield’s brother Robert Lichfield.
The programs’ harsh tactics have generated a movement of parents and self-described “survivors” of various WWASP-centers around the world who say they were abused and tortured.Many other graduates, however, credit the programs for turning around – even saving – their lives. Following the closure of Dundee Ranch, The Tico Times received a steady stream of letters both in support of the program and criticizing it.
A Visit Gone Sour?
The Tico Times spoke with O’Donnell and a second graduate, Nick Kempf, 20, who said they were invited to Costa Rica in July to visit Pillars of Hope, a new behavior-modification camp run out of the same buildings as Dundee Ranch, on the remote grounds of a former eco-hotel about 15 kilometers from Orotina. The program is owned by two former Dundee directors who lease the land from Lichfield, a consultant to the new program (see separate article).
O’Donnell said Lichfield paid for his plane ticket and that of another graduate, while Kempf said he paid his own way. Both said they were told they would get free room and board at Pillars of Hope, but were turned away when they arrived.
“The reasons that were stated were because Steve (the third graduate) had long hair, I had visible tattoos and Nick had earrings,” O’Donnell said.
They returned several days later to speak with Francisco Bustos – the former director of Dundee Ranch, current director of Pillars of Hope and a man Kempf described as Lichfield’s “right-hand man” – who asked them to write and sign statements about their experiences at Dundee.
“I thought maybe (signing the statement) would help me out and help out the school,” O’Donnell said, adding that he believed the statement was for promotional materials. “I thought, maybe if I write this out, maybe they’ll help me out.”
Kempf, of Lansing, Michigan, insists he didn’t make false statements.
“I’m not going to lie for anybody. I wrote one that was basically my opinion of the program,” he said.
The Tico Times was unable to clarify the purpose of the statements, and Lichfield, who is in the United States, did not return repeated messages left on his U.S. cell phone requesting an interview. Despite dozens of messages left for Bustos, a Costa Rican, on his cell phone and at Pillars of Hope, he could not be reached for comment.
Harold Dabel, a Spanish professor from South Carolina and co-owner of Pillars of Hope, questioned the students’ motives for sharing their story with The Tico Times.
Dabel said he was in the United States when the graduates visited, but acknowledged they were turned away because they did not measure up to the school’s standards of appearance.
The acting administrator at the time, Elaine Davis,“might have told them they had to get a haircut, or drug tested or get their grooming up.My understanding is that they were somehow offended by that,” Dabel told The Tico Times from his home in South Carolina. He added that Davis told them to come back, and would try to find a place for them, but they didn’t return.
“My understanding is that they were very positive and supportive of the program up until that point,” Dabel said.
Kempf and O’Donnell acknowledged they harbor resentment toward Lichfield after the recent trip. O’Donnell said he felt betrayed and deceived by the former Dundee Ranch owner, having had to get money wired to him after going broke paying for the food and lodgings he thought would be free.
He said he asked Lichfield to reimburse the expenses but was refused.
Graduates Describe Abuse
Both former students said that when they signed the statements they were not aware Lichfield was facing trial in Costa Rica, but they now believe the statements are intended for those proceedings. Both graduates claim physical abuse was common at Dundee Ranch.
Kempf describes himself as a supporter of the program that he credits for helping him turn his life around. While at Dundee he was one of the highest-level teens, responsible for watching over and punishing other students. Kempf said he did not lie in his statement, but admitted to The Tico Times that there was physical abuse at the camp.
“Kids got the shit beat out of them every once in a while…If anyone’s parents actually saw – if everything was videotaped, not one parent would have let that happen,” Kempf said. “I know one kid got his tooth knocked out because he went headfirst into the floor when they slammed him onto the ground…
I bled, honestly. I got hit in the face by a piece of wood and had to get stitches… I’ve literally seen kids shit and piss themselves. We were told, you don’t let them go to the bathroom, you don’t let them change. Sometimes you let them shower. Sometimes they have to sit there all day.”
O’Donnell said he was not allowed to speak to his parents for nine months after he was at Dundee Ranch, phone calls were monitored and e-mails and letters to his family were screened and occasionally “certain information was deleted.” “Physical abuse was a part of what went on,” O’Donnell added.
Trial on the Horizon
As Lichfield’s trial date in Costa Rica draws closer, former prosecutor Fernando Vargas – who led the raid on Dundee Ranch in 2003 – told The Tico Times he is concerned the prosecution’s case was damaged by its handling early on. When Vargas investigated Dundee, he was temporarily assigned to that region’s office. After he left, he explained, investigations that he had ordered were never carried out, evidence was lost and the preparations for the formal accusations were so weak, he was called in to have them redone.
“I feel the case has been handled with so little clarity that (prosecutors) run the risk of losing it,” he said.
However, the prosecutor handling the trial, Edgar Oviedo, told The Tico Times he feels confident in the case his office is preparing, based largely on testimony taken from Dundee Ranch students before they left the country in 2003, and testimony he hopes Vargas will provide during the trial.
He added that he believes many of the former Dundee students will come to Costa Rica for the proceedings, and could possibly be presented as witnesses.
Another option, he added, would be to take their testimony from the United States with videoconferencing technology. But, in the recent, high-profile trial of Eugenio Millot, and five codefendants, accused of planning and murdering business reporter Ivannia Mora, videoconference testimony was thrown out by the presiding judges (TT, Nov. 24). Now, Oviedo said, prosecutors are unsure whether judges will accept the method.