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December 20, 2002

Son Dies at Wilderness Camp, Parents Sue

By Charles Schumaker
Charleston Gazette

The parents of a Massachusetts teen who hanged himself at a Tucker County wilderness treatment center say counselors neglected their son when he killed himself, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Ryan Christopher Lewis hanged himself using a tent cord, one day after showing instructors at the Alldredge Academy a slash on his arm where he tried to kill himself.

"Take my knife before I hurt myself some more," the 14-year-old reportedly said.

Alldredge Academy, now called the Ayne Institute, and the two founders, L. Jay Mitchell and Lance Wells, are named in the suit filed Thursday in Kanawha Circuit Court.

Lewis' parents, Diana and Paul Lewis, brought him to West Virginia in early February 2001 for a three-month program to get him back into school. The Alldredge wilderness treatment program for youths offered therapy through outings like hiking and camping.

Ryan Lewis was dyslexic and was being treated for depression when his parents applied to the program. They noted on their application to the program that their son had attempted suicide twice before, the suit says.

A psychiatrist also noted that Ryan Lewis needed to be monitored for his depression.

During the first week, Ryan Lewis and several other youths ventured out for a month of camping and hiking, the lawsuit states.

A short time into that outing, Ryan Lewis allegedly went to instructors and showed them self-inflicted wounds. An instructor "exacted a promise" from Ryan Lewis that he wouldn't hurt himself again. The instructor returned the teen's program-supplied knife to him, the suit alleges.

Ryan Lewis then asked to call his mother so he could go home to Massachusetts. Instructors and counselors held a day of group and therapy sessions, but never addressed Ryan Lewis, the suit alleges.

On a trip to gather firewood later that evening, Ryan Lewis hanged himself.

Lewis' parents allege negligence and fraud in the suit, filed by Charleston attorneys Jim Lees and Stephen Jory.

The program promised their son a full-service therapy program that was innovative, comprehensive, therapeutically sophisticated and an effective therapy program, they allege. They are asking that a jury award punitive damages for their son's death.

After Ryan Lewis' death, Mitchell and counselor John Weston White were indicted on child-neglect charges. Those charges were dropped after the center was fined $5,000.

The program costs $18,900 for each teenager that enrolls. It is marketed to wealthy parents of troubled children throughout the country.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources ordered the program closed after Lewis' death. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom stopped that order when Alldredge officials fought it.

Alldredge closed in August, then reopened as the Ayne Institute. Ayne officials were ordered to follow more than two dozen DHHR rules and make regular reports on the program.