The prosecutor said it first: The government of Costa Rica does not have enough evidence to convict U.S. businessman Narvin Lichfield of abusing students at the nowdefunct DundeeRanchAcademy, a behavior-modification school for troubled youth.
Wednesday, at the conclusion of just two days of proceedings, the three judges presiding over the trial found Lichfield innocent of coercion, holding minors against their will and “international crimes” (crimes based on international treaties, in this case torture).
The court did, however, say it believes students at Dundee Ranch – a tough-love program for mostly U.S. teens – were abused and had their rights violated, but there is not sufficient proof that Lichfield, founder of the Costa Rica-based academy, is responsible for the abuse.
“We’re happy that the law and the system actually works,” Lichfield told The Tico Times after the trial in Alajuela, west of San José. He added, however, that he is “very unhappy that things that have never been proven” and “hearsay” were used by judges to affirm that abuse occurred at the camp. He strongly denies this is the case.
Surprisingly, it was the government prosecutor in charge of the case, Edgar Oviedo, who told the judges in his closing argument that the evidence and testimony provided by the Prosecutor’s Office is not enough to link the defendant to the alleged abuse.
“I do not have anything that effectively gives Narvin Lichfield responsibility for these crimes,” he told the judges, after presenting three witnesses and reams of documents intended to prove the contrary.
Oviedo told The Tico Times he did not realize the case was deficient “until now.”
Fernando Vargas, a former prosecutor who originally investigated Dundee Ranch and was later transferred, told The Tico Times late last year that he thought the case was being poorly handled and the Prosecutor’s Office ran “the risk of losing it.”While Oviedo said then that he was confident in the case, in his closing arguments Wednesday he openly criticized the Prosecutor’s Office for not providing better proof.
“The Prosecutor’s Office needed to investigate further,” he told the judges. Earlier that day, Oviedo also discovered that the written testimony of one of the two program participants – upon which his case was based, he told The Tico Times – had disappeared without explanation from the file. After the trial, he brushed off the loss, saying the testimony “was not key” to the case.
In his closing statement, Lichfield told Oviedo from across the small, fan-cooled courtroom, “In respect to señor prosecutor, muchas gracias. I think you are an honest man. All we ever tried to do was help people and we had our lives destroyed. I’m glad to see there’s justice.”
Lichfield, who founded and oversaw Dundee Ranch, described himself in testimony to the court as “just an investor” in the academy, and said the on-site directors and staff were in charge of running the day-today operations, based on a “certain set of standards and policies” shared by similar programs around the world, and had nothing to do with him. These programs are united under the umbrella organization World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP), founded in the U.S. state of Utah by Lichfield’s brother Robert Lichfield.
Prosecutor Oviedo told The Tico Times yesterday the government has not given up its pursuit of justice in this matter, and Costa Rican authorities are renewing their search for the socalled Jamaicans – a handful of former Dundee staff members from Jamaica who are formally accused in Costa Rica of having actually committed much of the abuse.
The harsh tactics used by WWASP programs have generated a movement of parents and self-described “survivors” of the schools – which are located in the United States and around the world – who say they or their children were abused and tortured during their stays. Other graduates of the programs, however, have credited them with turning around – even saving – their lives.
Dundee Ranch Academy, located in a rural area outside the Pacific-slope town of Orotina, was shut down in 2003 after a U.S. woman named Susan Flowers said her daughter was being held against her will at the academy, and a visit by Costa Rican authorities resulted in a student riot during which 35 teens escaped from the site.
Though it was later shown that the child’s father had legal custody, and not Flowers, and that the child told prosecutors – with the academy’s director acting as the translator, however – that she wished to stay at Dundee, Lichfield was arrested and briefly detained before being released (TT, May 23, 2003).
More than six months earlier, The Tico Times had reported that a U.S. mother, with the help of hired muscle, broke her twin sons out of the academy in a commando-like raid.At the time, there were other allegations of mistreatment (TT, Oct. 25, 2002).
Before the riot,many students, in anonymous surveys distributed by the Children’s Welfare Office (PANI), told authorities they were physically abused and punished by having their meals restricted, were made to stand in a small room with their faces against a wall for hours at a time or to sit and write 50,000 words or more.
At the time of the raid, Dundee Ranch did not have a valid health permit, or any other permits, except from the local municipality, according to government documents read during the trial. Reports by PANI and the Public Health Ministry described the center as being overcrowded, unsanitary and lacking the appropriate “professional services” to attend to the student’s needs, and the children were not allowed open communication with their parents.
In 2004, a new program called Pillars of Hope opened on the property, which is still owned by Lichfield. According to Lichfield and one of the co-owners of Pillars of Hope, the new program is very different as it is designed as a language school for students 16-18 that are already well behaved or advanced in other WWASP programs.
PANI toured the facilities last year and said everything was in order (TT, Dec. 14, 2006).