This is an archived article that was published on in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: This article on Ian August ran in The Salt Lake Tribune July 14, 2003.

FILLMORE -- As Ian August and a band of teens hiked over the steep hills that make up the Sawtooth Mountain area one year ago, Millard County prosecutor Brent Berkley was inside his air-conditioned Delta home.

Suffering through a searing heat wave that gripped Utah that weekend, Berkley didn't want to go outside.

"I was in my house and I was dying," he recalls. "It was just dry. We hadn't had any rain, and it had been hot for, like, two weeks before that. It was just awful."

Arriving at his office the following Monday, Berkley was surprised to learn a program promising to turn around so-called troubled youths had the teens trekking across the high-desert mountains to the west. He was even more shocked when the Millard County Sheriff's Office said an obese, 14-year-old boy from Austin, Texas, had mustered the strength to reach the top of one of those hills, stopped, sat down and baked to death as rescuers tried in vain to reach the site in time.

"My first thought was 'What were they doing out there in the first place?' " Berkley says.

He was not the only one wondering why.

"The area out there -- it's an arid, desolate place," said Millard County sheriff's Sgt. James Masner. "It's extremely hot, both day and night. We didn't even know the program was functioning out there."

As Berkley was being briefed on the case in Fillmore, one owner of the wilderness therapy program in which Ian died -- Skyline Journey -- sat down at a conference room table in St. George to give his version of events.

Surrounded by state regulators and owners of Utah's eight other wilderness programs, Mark Wardle blamed the tragedy on the response of the sheriff's rescue team. The crews, he said, wasted time by not following his directions, turning what Wardle said was a 40-minute drive from Delta into a two-hour trip.

"We're not a bunch of bumbling idiots out here, abusing kids," Wardle said. "When we say, 'This is where we're at,' this is where we are at."

The comment made Millard County Sheriff Ed Phillips livid. Phillips said the ambulance dispatched from Delta traveled 70 miles to reach the scene, nearly half of those miles on gravel and graded dirt roads. The crew had to backtrack because of Wardle's confusion about the best way to reach Ian.

Rescuers split into two groups, one following Wardle's directions to a road that proved impassable and the other hiking to Ian with a handheld GPS unit. The hikers reached him first and, on their arrival, pronounced him dead.

A medical helicopter never reached the scene -- something Phillips blames on a malfunctioning GPS unit in an ambulance giving directions. The helicopter also ran low on fuel and the pilot was forced to make a gas run to Richfield.

The investigation: Although shocked, Berkley still thought the death might have been accidental. His opinion would change as the Sheriff's Office investigation proceeded.

Each passing day, Sheriff Phillips became more convinced that Ian's death was preventable. Ian stopped hiking at 11:30 a.m., but Wardle did not contact the Sheriff's Office until 1:30 p.m. -- over an hour after his staff radioed him that Ian wouldn't hike.

"The whistle had been blown and rescue should have been called," Phillips says today.

But even by the time Wardle called 9-1-1, only an immediate ice bath might have saved Ian.

Within days of the teen's death, the state licensing investigator charged with overseeing the program, Kelly Husbands, determined that field counselors on the hike with Ian had done nothing wrong. Days later, licensing Director Ken Stettler dispatched a supervisor to reinvestigate the case -- a common safeguard Stettler says he takes in high-profile cases.

At the time, Utah prohibited wilderness programs such as Skyline's from hiking in temperatures above 95 degrees, but the initial efforts of Husbands and the supervisor to pin down the exact temperature at the scene failed.

When their three-week investigation ended, Husbands wrote in his final report that "there is no credible evidence or statement that indicates that Skyline Journey was out of compliance with Office of Licensing rules or their own policies in the death of Ian August. There is also no evidence that Ian was abused or that his needs were not met by the staff in the field."

But what the rescue team found as it arrived in the west desert alarmed Berkley.

As the team passed the intersection of Marjum Canyon and Long Ridge Reservoir roads (just east of where Ian died) shortly after 2 p.m. -- 2 1/2 hours after Ian had stopped hiking that day -- a thermometer measuring outside temperatures registered 110 degrees. As the crew drew closer to the scene, the gauge hit 106 degrees.

Wardle disputes sheriff's findings that the temperature was above 95 degrees while Ian was hiking. But Berkley says he is convinced that high temperatures, coupled with Ian's build and tendency to overheat as noted by his mother on his program enrollment application, should have kept the teen out of the program.

"Ian was a fat kid," Berkley says. "He pretty much ate Twinkies and played Nintendo all day . . . and he is doing stuff that his body couldn't handle. So that's why we figured that they shouldn't have been out there in the first place, and if he was out there, they should have taken a lot more care to keep him cool."

Berkley has been a prosecutor for four years. Once, while in private practice, he defended a youth rehabilitation program. He says Skyline Journey's employees were undertrained, its health-screening process was inadequate and its water supply insufficient. He doubts that Ian, accustomed to Austin's 540-foot elevation, had time to adjust to the 7,000-foot altitude of the Sawtooth area.

But Ian came to Utah straight from Santa Fe, N.M., which has a similar elevation.

"Basically we just thought the program was poorly run," Berkley says. In his opinion, Berkley characterizes the program as "designed to take money, throw these kids out on public lands where they don't have to pay anything for them, feed them tuna fish sandwiches for three months and change their lives. They caused the death of this kid [who] shouldn't have been in the program in the first place."

Still, deciding the type of criminal charge to file was not easy. Berkley eventually decided Skyline's conduct was so reckless it warranted charges of child-abuse homicide against Wardle and lead counselor Leigh Hale, a licensed emergency medical technician who Berkley said should have known Ian was overheating.

"It was a very difficult decision to make because we knew it was going to be a really, really hard case to prove," Berkley says. "It's easier to prove an intentional homicide than it is to prove these sorts of negligent reckless homicides because you have to convince somebody that it's more than just an unfortunate accident, or even just simple negligence."

The state: The criminal charges made Ken Stettler, the director of the state's Office of Licensing, take a harder look at the case.

"When the county filed charges we said, 'Crud, there's got to be something,' " Stettler says.

Stettler wondered whether his investigators had been too focused on the temperature at the scene. Once charges were filed, Stettler redirected them to refocus on other potential violations of state rules.

A detailed timeline put together by Stettler and his supervisor points to four alleged violations by Skyline Journey:

* Counselors failed to recognize Ian's symptoms and get him treatment quickly. "When they were sitting, they were sitting in the sun," Stettler says. "So, they weren't really cooling down."

* The program exceeded the limits of the weakest members -- Ian and another teen, who had motor skill problems, were lagging far behind the group.

* A Texas doctor who cleared Ian to participate in Skyline Journey did not receive a full description of its program.

* Ian's enrollment application was not screened by a licensed medical professional.

If that review had been done, Stettler says, Skyline's staff would have known Ian had "low heat tolerance and was taking medications that could have been a factor in exposure-related illness."

With those allegations in hand, Stettler moved to revoke Skyline Journey's license in November. That process was put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case against Wardle. The program continues to operate, but is no longer monitored by Husbands -- in part because Stettler learned Husbands and Wardle were members of the same LDS Church ward in Nephi. Wardle has since moved.

The prosecution: Knowing that the charges against Wardle would be difficult to prove, Berkley decided to bolster his case by offering a plea deal. In exchange for her testimony against her former employer, Berkley would divert prosecution of Hale and dismiss the charge against her in six months.

At a Jan. 6 preliminary hearing, Hale and five other witnesses took the stand before 4th District Judge Donald Eyre.

First up was Maureen Frikke of the state Medical Examiner's Office. Although not dehydrated, Ian had overheated, she said, explaining her finding of hyperthermia. The problem could have compounded over the course of several days, she testified, and even at lower temperatures than set in state regulations if the circumstances were right.

And while Skyline maintains the group did not hike at temperatures above 95 degrees, the teens were exposed to high temperatures during other parts of the day.

Once in trouble, Frikke said, Ian needed to be cooled immediately, preferably with an ice bath.

The warm water poured over Ian's head that day, she said, would not have helped.

Next on the stand, field counselor Matthew R. Gause gave a history of his involvement with Skyline Journey, explaining he had no formal training as a counselor or as an outdoor guide beyond what he had learned in Boy Scouts. Once hired by Skyline, he had gone through two days of book training, three days of field training and a CPR class.

Gause said nothing about Ian's behavior seemed to be out of the ordinary and that he had felt sure the teen was faking it that day.

"There was nothing extreme. He wasn't flush red. There was no severe sweating. It just seemed normal, like nothing out of the ordinary," Gause testified in court.

Hale testified Ian appeared to be "a little bit defiant" when he stopped hiking that day.

Despite Berkley's hopes, little of what Hale said helped his case -- and some of her testimony conflicted with her own daily log of what happened during the days she led the group.

For instance, Hale testified that she made sure Ian ate all his meals because he was finicky. Hale wrote in a duty log, however, that Ian had skipped two meals in the days before the fatal hike.

Hale testified she did not take Ian's temperature.

Millard County sheriff's Sgt. James William Masner testified that despite gathering data from surrounding weather stations, it proved nearly impossible to determine an exact temperature where Ian had died.

Husbands took the stand last and told Eyre that Wardle's program was better than most. The program had adequate food and water, he said. Husbands told the court that by his rough estimation it would have been about 88 degrees at 12:30 p.m. on the day Ian died. Among other things, two days after Ian died, Husbands hung a pocket thermometer in a tree at a similar elevation.

The only rule violation he found, Husbands testified, was a failure by Skyline Journey to provide the doctor who performed Ian's physical exam a description of the program.

One month after the hearing ended, Eyre issued an eight-page ruling in which he refused to order a trial, saying Berkley had failed to show the program had acted recklessly.

Although Berkley mentioned during the hearing that the state was trying to revoke the program's license based on three other alleged violations, the judge wrote:

"Perhaps nothing in the state's allegations is more glaringly absent than the lack of evidence that [Wardle] had failed to comply with the state Office of Licensing regulations governing youth wilderness programs. Indeed, the evidence presented to the court only serves to establish that Skyline Journey took many more precautions than those provided in similar youth programs."

In a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Eyre said he did not think Skyline had "done things that would put a heavy burden on these youths to the point you would say it was reckless."

The judge cited the fact that employees had some training, participants were given "plenty of water," and that the group only hiked a short distance. In his ruling, Eyre wrote the hikes were "never of a greater distance than 1.26 miles," although Husbands' report, introduced at the hearing, said Ian hiked about 1.4 miles of a planned three-mile hike on the day he died.

Although Ian was overweight, he did get clearance from a doctor, Eyre said. And the state did not provide proof of the exact temperature, the judge said.

"I've had a lot of experience with troubled youths, and I know that parents when they have a child that is clearly self-destructive, they will do about anything to help them," said Eyre, a former Juab County attorney. "They looked like they were running a good program. They had a satellite phone, two radios, immediate contact with their home base. It clearly was an isolated location, and it took a long time for medical assistance, but they had trained individuals."

The aftermath: Berkley said he was surprised at the judge's decision to kill the case before it could get to trial, but he says there is not much he would have changed about his prosecution.

After the charges against Wardle were dismissed, Berkley had a lengthy conversation with Fred Voros, head of the Utah Attorney General's Appeals Division. Voros decided against taking the case.

"We analyzed the case very thoroughly and concluded that under the law and the facts an appeal was not warranted," Voros told The Tribune.

More than 90 percent of the appeals handled by the division are defense appeals where it is believed a judge misinterpreted a rule of law or applied a wrong legal standard in arriving at his decision, Voros said.

"We don't usually take appeals when it was a judgment call on the part of the trial court and we simply disagree with the trial court's judgment call," he said.

Ian's death on that hot July afternoon continues to trouble Berkley.

"It worries me that [Skyline is] still out operating," Berkley says. "I think they are still doing the same thing."

The day-to-day operations of Skyline remain the same since Ian's death.

"We haven't changed anything because we were safe at the time," Wardle says.

But Skyline, like the state's other wilderness programs, must meet new requirements put in place after Ian's death.

Stettler banned wilderness hikes in temperatures above 90 degrees, dropping the ceiling by 5 degrees. Today, on Wardle's suggestion, physical exams cannot be conducted more than 15 days before a teen enters a wilderness program. The former regulation allowed month-old exams.

Wilderness programs are now required to contact emergency agencies every six months to ensure future rescue operations are better coordinated.

Sheriff's officials in Millard and Juab counties say they haven't been told where Skyline Journey is operating these days, although Wardle says the program has filed its operating location with both offices.

Medical complaints must now be promptly checked by a medical professional -- regardless of whether field staff believe a teen is faking.

"When [Ian was] saying, 'I'm not feeling well. I'm going to pass out.' They thought he was faking," Stettler says. "When he was moaning when he exhaled they they thought he was playing it to the hilt.

"The problem of it is, out of the last five [wilderness therapy] deaths dating back to 1990, we can actually attribute four of them to this very same mind-set that these kids are faking. They can't be believed. They are liars and are manipulators."

Stettler's office will make its case for shutting down Wardle's outfit in mid-August in front of an administrative law judge.

Assistant Attorney General Carol Verdoia will represent the state in the hearing on Aug. 18. She has represented the state Office of Licensing for about 12 years but declined to comment on the case.

Stettler says the licensing case is critical because there has to be a consequence for Ian's death.

"I don't feel like we have a strong enough guarantee that nothing's going to happen again," Stettler says. "If we don't level a consequence in this case it sends a message to other programs that the Office of Licensing is nothing. They need to know there are rules and there is a consequence for violating those rules, especially when the violations result in a similar thing like this death."

At the hearing, officials from the state and the program will call witnesses to testify about alleged rule violations. Wardle can appeal the judge's decision to state district court if Skyline loses its license.

In the past few weeks, temperatures around Utah have eclipsed 100 degrees -- nearing and equaling the records set in the days surrounding Ian's death. Stettler's office has contacted Utah's six active wilderness programs (eight are licensed) to remind them to not take teens hiking in temperatures above 90 degrees.

Although Wardle describes what happened in his program as "sad and tragic," he says he will continue to fight to keep Skyline open.

"It is important to me to keep helping kids. Losing Ian was like losing a little brother."

Berkley, too, still feels the impact of Ian's death, although he never met the teen. One year later, a small black and white photo of Ian hangs among the scribbled notes on a peg board next to the 33-year-old prosecutor's desk.

"Some things are important to remind you of why you are doing your job," he says. "That's one of them."


Tribune reporter Brooke Adams contributed to this story.

Regulation changes

Following Ian August's death in a wilderness therapy program last July, the state's Office of Licensing changed how such programs must operate. Changes include:

Temperature: No hiking in temperatures above 90 degrees. Prior to Ian's death, wilderness programs could hike in temperatures up to 95 degrees.

Emergency Response: Wilderness programs must contact emergency agencies every six months, an exercise designed to better coordinate rescue responses.

Medical Care: Complaints by teens must be promptly checked out by a medical professional, regardless if the field staff members believe the youth is faking.

Physicals: Exams must be conducted within 15 days of a teen entering a wilderness program. Former rules required such exams within 30 days.

Equipment: Wilderness field staff are required to have working watches and thermometers.

Source: Office of Licensing