SALT LAKE CITY – The youth treatment center where police say a teenager brutally killed a staff member while trying to escape is a working cattle ranch in southern Utah that hasn't previously had any major violations with the state or violent incidents.
Police and officials at the Turn-About Ranch near the tiny town of Escalante, Utah, aren't saying what behavioral problems led the 17-year-old suspect from Arizona to the treatment center, but the website says they don't take kids who have shown aggressive, psychotic or suicidal behavior.
The center, does however, offer help to kids with anger issues. The center accepts boys and girls ages 13-17 for some 20 different diagnoses ranging from sleep disorder and diabetes to bipolar and personality disorder.
The ranch is in good standing with the state licensing office and hasn't had any major violations, said Department of Human Services spokeswoman Allie Jurkatis. She said it has been licensed for a number of years, but couldn't say exactly how long. The ranch's website says it's been in operation for 25 years.
Jurkatis said officials are investigating this week's incident to see if there were any violations, while also looking to see what the agency can learn from this to prevent future incidents.
The teenager is in police custody, but has not yet been charged, said Garfield County Sheriff James Perkins. He says the teen will likely be charged with murder and could be prosecuted as an adult because he is almost 18. His name has not been released because of his age.
Teens spend their days at the ranch in a highly supervised, closely structured program in which they do chores on the ranch while also doing school work and meeting with counselors, the website says. The juveniles usually stay for about 100 days. Pictures on the site show teens riding horses, herding cattle, chopping wood and milking cows.
Perkins said his agency has responded a few times over the years to reports of young people leaving the treatment center but said it is usually a peaceful place.
The violent incident happened Tuesday while a group of troubled teens sat around a campfire on a frigid Utah morning, Perkins said. Staff member Jimmy Woolsey had come to check on them when the suspect began attacking him with a weapon from behind, Perkins said.
The teen kept attacking him after Woolsey fell to the ground, said Perkins, who declined to identify the weapon used. Woolsey, a 60-year-old father and husband from Escalante known as a jovial man, died from blunt force injuries to the head.
The other teens rushed inside to a cabin nearby where they sleep and told another staffer, Alicia Keller. She came running out and the teen attacked her as well. A struggle ensued at the cabin door as the teen tried to force his way in and Keller kept him at. She was bleeding profusely after being struck in the head but held her ground, Perkins said.
The teen tried to flee in Woolsey's truck, but couldn't get it started. He came back threatening to break a cabin window, leading Keller to throw him her car keys. The teen was arrested after deputies on their way to the ranch spotted him driving Keller's stolen car into nearby Escalante, about 3 miles away from the ranch.
Perkins called Keller a hero whose actions likely prevented more injuries or death.
"If she wouldn't have done that, I'm as sure as I'm sitting here that something else bad would have happened," Perkins said.
Sheree Rechsteiner, Keller's mother, said by phone that her daughter is hurt and traumatized by the attack.
"She's calm, but she went through a whole lot of hell," said Rechsteiner, declining to discuss the incident in detail.
Woolsey is survived by his wife and a 10-year-old daughter, Perkins said, calling Woolsey a jovial, well-liked man. Program leaders said Woolsey was dedicated to young people in the program and had a positive impact on many of the ranch's students.
The ranch was featured in a 2010 Dr. Phil episode in which two unruly teenage girls were sent to the ranch. The Dr. Phil website has Turn-About Ranch on its list of recommended treatment centers.