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State Sues Youth Camp Operator

WAILUKU, Maui The state Office of Consumer Protection yesterday filed a lawsuit seeking restitution for 105 families who signed up for a Maui summer surf and photography camp run by a convicted sex offender.
It is unlikely any of the families will get their money back, because authorities do not know the whereabouts of Aloha Adventure Camps owner Raymond L. Thomas. Thomas, 49, is believed to have left Maui when the camp was closed July 7 for lack of liability insurance. State officials said he did not leave a forwarding address, and they do not know where he is.
Thomas, who used the name Llew Lazarus in connection with the camp, leased the Girl Scout Council of Hawai'i's Camp Pi'iholo in Makawao for the summer operation, which he had run for several years. He charged $1,150 a week for five weekly sessions from June 29 through Aug, 3.
Girl Scout officials closed the camp after its first week when it was discovered that Thomas had falsified insurance documents.
None of the campers, who ranged in age from 10 to 17, have alleged sexual abuse by Thomas, but their parents are still dealing with the loss of thousands of dollars in camp and airline fees, and the realization that Thomas was allowed to run the camp without regulation. As a specialty camp, it was exempt from state rules regarding child-care programs, including requirements for fingerprint and criminal background checks of staff.
Parent Diana Crew of Denver said yesterday she is still waiting to see if her credit card company will restore the $7,500 she paid to send her 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter to Aloha Adventure Camps.
"I'm not sure we'll ever see a dime, but the fact the state is doing something makes me feel better," Crew said.
Crew and dozens of other parents from around the country who signed up their kids for the Maui camp have formed a loosely knit advocacy group that keeps in contact via e-mail.
Several of the parents sent a letter to Gov. Linda Lingle last week urging her to strengthen state regulation of youth camps and to make Hawai'i's sex offender registry open to the public. The Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the information cannot be made public under the due process clause of the state Constitution unless offenders are given a chance to object.
The law has since been changed to address the court's concerns, and prosecutors just recently began filing petitions to make some sex offenders' names public again.
The parents also have been demanding that the American Camping Association take some responsibility for the Aloha Adventure Camps fiasco, because Thomas' operation was accredited by the nonprofit agency.
"Nobody can quite let it go. It was too much of a near-miss," Crew said.
The Office of Consumer Protection lawsuit accuses Thomas of deceptive and unfair business practices by failing to provide services that were paid for, misrepresenting his insurance coverage, and failing to disclose to parents that the camp had been closed. Executive Director Stephen Levins said that because Thomas "ran off without even trying to make good on what he owed," the state will ask the court to impose fines possibly totaling more than $1 million.
Mark Recktenwald, the director of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, also noted that some campers were left stranded and their families had to fly from the Mainland to take them home.
Sixteen campers were temporarily placed in the custody of Child Welfare Services when the camp closed. The state attempted to contact other parents to inform them of the situation, but not everyone got the news. Over the following week, four or five other youths showed up at Kahului Airport expecting to be greeted by camp counselors and were given temporary shelter, said Derick Dahilig of the state Department of Human Services.
Susan Goldberg of Sherman Oaks, Calif., who paid $3,780 for her 14-year-old daughter to attend the camp, said yesterday that she and other parents are angry that Maui police did not fully investigate Thomas when two complaints were filed against him before the camp closed. The complaints alleged unsafe conditions and that Thomas had made sexually inappropriate remarks about some of the female campers.
Lt. Glenn Cuomo of the Maui Police Department said yesterday there has been no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and that police are no longer investigating the camp owner.
Goldberg was one of the parents who wrote to Lingle last week. "(The state lawsuit) is great, but something needs to be done about Hawai'i's protection of pedophiles. I wouldn't send my kid to a program in Hawai'i again. Your camps are so unregulated," she said.
Court records from Victorville, Calif., show that Thomas has three convictions in California for sexual crimes involving children that occurred between 1988 and 1990, and that he was sentenced to prison for six years and eight months.
Both Crew and Goldberg were relieved to hear that steps are being taken to restore public access to the sex offender registry and that the state is scheduled to reopen its Web site listing at least some offenders.
The state's site, eHawaii.gov, has a link to the registry.

Honolulu Adevrtiser (19-8-2004)
Christie Wilson

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