The Arizona teen had been at the Turn-About Ranch in Utah less than a week when he secretly shared his plan to escape.
He did not, according to authorities, tell anyone about the weapon — or an intention to kill.
Turn-About, a school and residential program for troubled teens, has been operating on a “real, working cattle ranch” for 25 years, according to its website. Students, age 13 to 17, live and work on the farm in Escalante, Utah, a rural town of 800 people located 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. These teens come from all over for a litany of reasons: depression, ADHD, substance abuse, poor grades, “defiance, rebellion, low-self esteem.”
At Turn-About Ranch, though, they endeavor to learn leadership and discipline.
Their schedule starts at dawn.
Participants have tried to run away before, Garfield County Sheriff James Perkins told CBS News. Despite past accusations of abuse, the sheriff said the place is mostly peaceful.
On Tuesday morning, it was not.
The Arizona teen, 17, woke up in his cabin with another resident and stepped outside to start their chores, Perkins told the Deseret News in an extensive interview. In the area known as “the circle,” the teens built a fire and prepared breakfast.
An hour later, at 7:30 a.m., staffer James “Jimmy” Woolsey, 61, stopped to check on them.
It was then that the Arizona teen — for reasons unknown to authorities — pulled out a hidden weapon. He hit Woolsey on the back of the head, Perkins told the Deseret News, and when the 61-year-old man fell to the ground, the teen hit him again and again.
“It was a brutal, vicious, violent, very violent attack,” the sheriff told the newspaper.
In an interview with CBS affiliate KUTV, Perkins called the assault “pre-meditated.”
He would not name the weapon.
Woolsey was later transported to a local hospital, where he died from blunt force trauma to the head.
Authorities have released little information about the Arizona teen, other than his home state. He was arrested and will be taken to a juvenile detention facility, reported KUTV, and his name has not been released because of his age. Charges are pending, the sheriff’s office told The Washington Post.
The sheriff told Deseret News that it didn’t appear the fatal attack was spawned by a personal vendetta. The Arizona teen had even spoken “very highly” of Woolsey, according to Perkins, who said the Turn-About staffer was a “jovial, easygoing” guy who had worked at the ranch for a decade and loved to hunt and fish.
“He was just simply unhappy to be there and he wanted to leave,” Perkins said of the teen, according to Deseret News. “Why he [did] what he did, I don’t know.”
What is clear, though, is that the teen wanted desperately to flee.
After he allegedly beat Woolsey, Perkins told the Deseret News, the Arizona teen took the man’s keys but couldn’t get the car to start. The 17-year-old then turned toward a cabin, where the other resident from “the circle” had fled for safety. Inside was a female staffer, identified as Alicia Keller in the Salt Lake Tribune, and four other residents.
The Arizona teen turned his weapon on Keller, the sheriff said, beating her in the head and hand and threatening to kill her if she didn’t relinquish her car keys. Keller tossed them on the sidewalk, reported the Tribune, then led the other teens to the nearby woods to safely wait for law enforcement.
Sheriff’s deputies responding to scene encountered the fleeing Arizona teen, who led authorities on a high-speed chase through Escalante that caused his getaway car to go “airborne,” hit gutters and nearly strike the mayor and his wife, who were out walking, reported the Deseret News. It came to an end when deputies conducted a special maneuver that caused the teen to crash, the sheriff’s office told The Washington Post. He was taken into custody and treated for minor injuries.
“Why he decided he needed to do this, even to get away, I don’t understand,” the sheriff told KUTV.
Keller’s quick response to the attack and instinct to intervene may have saved other lives, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Cheryl Church told TV station Fox 13.
“Her act really, really saved what could have been so much worse,” Church said.
After the attack Tuesday, Turn-About Ranch released a statement to local media thanking the community for its support and praising Keller’s bravery.
“Turn-About Ranch is deeply saddened by the loss of one of our family today,” the statement said. “… His caring personality and loyal dedication to helping the youth in our program will be greatly missed. His good nature and commitment to our students had a positive impact on those who attended and worked at Turn-About Ranch.”
The statement said the ranch was better because of “dedicated employees like these two wonderful people.”
“Working with troubled youth comes with certain risks, nevertheless, we wish to express our commitment to continue to provide outstanding values-based treatment for troubled youth as we have done for the last 25 years — something that has been and continues to be possible because of our great staff,” the statement said.
In interviews with the Salt Lake Tribune, friends and family described Woolsey as a loving husband to his wife of 13 years, Brenda Roundy, and father to his 11-year-old daughter.
Every afternoon he’d park his blue truck in the same spot outside the girl’s school, a teacher recalled, so she’d know where to find him.
“There were like sidekicks,” the teacher, Stacy Davis, told the Tribune. “They loved each other.”
He served as a father figure to his nieces and nephews, handed out fresh produce from his garden, and would deliver wood he hand-chopped to people around town. His niece, Sara Woolsey, told KUTV he’d always whisper in their ears: “You know, I sure do love ya.”
“I know he truly loved those kids, and that’s why this is just heartbreaking,” the niece told KUTV. “You know he was only there to help.”
The Turn-About Ranch was the birthplace of equine psychotherapy in the late 1990s, when social worker Lynn Thomas and self-described cowboy Greg Kersten began using horses to teach troubled teens, according to a New York Times story from 2008. It was featured years later in a British reality television show called Brat Camp, which forced unruly, privileged British children to live and learn at the Utah ranch — then followed their behavioral transformation. And in 2013, the ranch introduced a Christian track for students whose parents sought a faith-based approach to therapy.
But the facility has also been smacked by complaints of abuse and harsh treatment, recounted by some former residents on Reddit and Facebook and detailed in at least two formal complaints. One, made by a former staffer to management, state regulators and the Garfield County sheriff in 2004, alleged that the sexual assault of a female student by a ranch staffer was covered up and that, later, the girl was duct-taped and restrained by staff, Salon reported in a 2012 investigative story about the health-care companies associated with Turn-About. There were no resulting penalties for the ranch, according to Salon. In 2012, a disgruntled mother filed a lawsuit against the ranch, alleging that her daughter was subjected to “torture” as a program resident in 2005. The lawsuit was later dismissed because it was barred by the statute of limitations.
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