Teenagers alleges abuse at camp

Teenager alleges camp instruct at Restoration Youth Academy choked him

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. – A 16-year-old boy who attended a boot camp in Mobile, Ala., says the camp's dean choked him, punched him, and "stomped" him.

William Vargas, of Coconut Creek, attended the Restoration Youth Academy last year. His mother sent him there after he got out of control at home, he told Local 10's Bob Norman.

While there he says camp dean and drill instructor William Knott went too far with the military-style discipline taught at the Christian camp.

"He picked me up from the floor and started choking me," said Vargas. "After he choked me, he punched me on the side of my head. He started stomping on my back," he said. "I still have nightmares about it."

Knott denied the incident in a phone interview.  "I've never had a cause to stomp him or to punch him or anything else," he said. "That's just not true."

But others have complained of abuse at Knott's hands. One boy, 17-year-old Maddy Weltner, who attended the camp for over a year, claimed in a written statement that Knott choked him. He wrote that it began when he refused to do push-ups. 

"Mr. Will grabbed me by my belt and picked me up then slammed me on the ground again," he wrote. "Mr. Will yelled back at me to get up, but I still did not. After I said no, Mr. Will grabbed me again, picked me up, put me in a head lock, and started to choke me. Mr. Will kept me like that and I couldn't breathe for at least 15 seconds or so after he let go. When I finally calmed down Mr. Will grabbed handcuffs and handcuffed me, took me outside, and threw me down the school steps. I was made to stay in isolation for a while after that. I have seen Mr. Will slam so many of the cadets for little or no reason at all."

Knott said he remembered an incident with Weltner, but denied choking him and said Weltner was "completely out of control" at the time.

"I grabbed him by his belt and I placed him on the ground in a controlled situation," said Knott. "I straddled him, I put handcuffs on him. I've never placed him in a headlock at all."

Another former "cadet" at the camp, Lydia Honea, said she witnessed one instance of abuse while there.

"I witnessed a boy getting beat by William," said Lydia Honea. "The way they run the camp is really backwards and not honorable at all."

Honea is now staying in the home of former camp instructor Karin Peyregne, who wants to see the camp shut down. "I began to notice more and more abuse," said Peyregne. "They were treated in a very, very, very inappropriate manner."

There have been past abuse allegations made against the camp, which is owned by a preacher named John Young, but multiple investigations have led to no charges. 

"It's amazing these kids are saying all of this," said Knott. "I've never gone to jail for any of this. I've never been charged. It's unfair. I don't think I should be forced to defend myself."

Before coming to Restoration Youth Academy, Knott was a drill instructor at another boot camp called Bethel Boys Academy, which was shut down after multiple allegations of abuse. 

Multiple lawsuits alleged systematic abuse involving numerous teenagers at Bethel. Knott was named in one class-action lawsuit as having "planned, orchestrated, and directed" abuse at that camp included allegations torture involving the forced holding of electric fences and water submersion. He lost a default judgment in another case in which a former Bethel cadet alleged Knott had sicced a pit bull on him. 

But Knott said he left Bethel before the alleged abuse ever occurred. Camp owner Young said the repeat allegations against Knott didn't concern him.

"If you're in this business and kids want to go home, they'll say anything," said Young.

When it was noted that the kids making these most recent allegations were already out of the camp Young said, "I can tell you this, there is no abuse or mistreatment at this camp," replied Young.

Knott said the abuse often comes from the cadets themselves. "What about kids have punched me in the mouth?" he asked. "What about when kids have hit me in balls? What about when they spit in my face?"

Another concern for camp detractors is that its instructors, counselors and teachers don't have the license required at state-run boot camps. "Because we are a Christian-based program, we are not required to have a license with our program," said Young.

Former camp cadet Madison Litsky, who alleges that Young punched her while she was being taken from her home and transported to the camp, said that's only because authorities don't believe the troubled kids who populate the camp.

"They can do anything to you and you can tell someone but they can lie," said Litsky, of Plantation.

Vargas is now back in Coconut Creek with his mom. "I've seen kids choked, I've seen kids slapped, I've seen kids punched," he said. "That place needs to be shut down."