Parents Never Dreamed Sending Their Kid to Camp La Junta Would Turn into a Sexual Abuse Nightmare

An 11-year-old sent to summer camp returns to his family with a horrible secret.

He kept his name out of it to protect his son, but John (not his real name) lobbied and testified before the state legislature in support of such a law. After he'd spent four years meeting with politicians and negotiating with youth camp lobbyists in Austin, a law was passed. It wasn't much — counselors are now required to take a class and pass a 25-question test on appropriate and inappropriate interactions between counselors and campers. It's a relatively weak piece of legislation, but it makes Texas one of only a few states that have any laws at all covering summer camps.

But even the training isn't a surefire guard against abuse, said Britt Darwin-Looney, vice president of youth development services with Praesidium, a Dallas-based company that specializes in training organizations to guard against abuse. Summer camps appeal to predators because working at them can be the equivalent of a wolf being asked to guard the flock. If they're young, they're less likely to have a record that will come up in a background check, she said. There's no way guaranteed to keep them out, but training counselors to speak up when they see something and preventing situations in which a camper is alone with a counselor can help, she said. "It's better to report a creepy feeling about a counselor than to be sitting across from someone asking you why you said nothing," she said.
_____________________

From the moment Mark's family reported the abuse, they started living a double life. Kelly was boiling with anger. Blake Smith had assured her repeatedly that there was nothing to the letter Mark had sent home, and she and her husband believed him. She pulled out the letter and read it over night after night. "Please do something," the last line read. She couldn't change what had happened, but she could make sure justice was served.

Kelly didn't realize Mark was being watched by Blake Smith, the camp director, and Matthew Bovee, the counselor who was molesting him, when her son called her.
Illustration by Peter Ryan
Kelly didn't realize Mark was being watched by Blake Smith, the camp director, and Matthew Bovee, the counselor who was molesting him, when her son called her.
Bovee used shower checks to touch Mark in increasingly inappropriate ways. Mark didn't tell his parents about the abuse until months later.
Illustration by Peter Ryan
Bovee used shower checks to touch Mark in increasingly inappropriate ways. Mark didn't tell his parents about the abuse until months later.

Rumors started circulating among the parents. Kelly got very good at keeping a neutral expression on her face when a mother would tell her that she had it on good authority from Smith that there was nothing to the allegations of abuse. "I made a point of never lying, but I would just nod and tell them they might want to get their child checked out anyway," she says, remembering. "I would say things like, 'I just pray for that little boy, whoever he is,'" she said. Playing at his friends' houses, Mark overheard parents talking about the case, assuring each other that the child who had accused Bovee was a liar with emotional problems. He stopped hanging out with most of his camp friends.

Watching her son struggle to cope with what he'd been through, Kelly promised herself she would make things right. She had started doing research on Bovee, trying to get an idea of who the man was who had changed her family. Now she began digging into his past. Using the Freedom of Information Act, she obtained case files and court documents, and then she went even further, making calls across Texas and the rest of the country and sifting through social media to try to put the man together.

He was from a little town in Nebraska. That much was true, but almost everything else — his time as a Marine, the full scholarship for wrestling to the University of Nebraska — was a lie. Kelly learned he'd been fired in 2008 from Camp Rio Vista, located just five miles down the road from Camp La Junta.

Kelly put together a binder six inches thick, carefully organizing it with her notes, photos, printouts and everything else she could find. She has pages and pages of information on Bovee. When she starts talking about what happened to Mark, she turns the pages with a sharp flip, anger filling her normally gentle voice.

As the investigation unfolded, Bovee was indicted and charged with sexual assault of a child and endangerment to a child. As Kelly pieced together the picture, she realized that Smith had taken Bovee at face value. In fact, he had hired and vouched for Bovee while he was little more than a stranger. When Smith told her in July 2009 that Bovee was a senior counselor and a trusted member of the staff, he neglected to mention that he was considering letting Bovee out of his contract early because of his fights with other counselors and because Smith found out most of Bovee's backstory was a lie.

Although Smith told Kelly no one had reported any concerns about Bovee's shower checks, a counselor who worked with Bovee told police he had said something to Scott Fineske, the second-in-command at La Junta, questioning the shower checks. The counselor also mentioned that he'd noticed Bovee took four to six showers a day, so he and the other counselors figured that meant Bovee was masturbating.

When the case went to trial in May 2011 and it was Kelly's turn to testify, the then-­assistant district attorney for Kerr County, Brad McCullouch, warned her not to run down the camp when she got on the stand, because Smith had a lot of friends on the jury, which never finished its work because a plea agreement was reached during its deliberations. Bovee, dressed in a too-big suit, wouldn't look at her while she testified, but Kelly glared at him every moment she was in the courtroom.

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21 comments
mom2011
mom2011

I love my children very much, AND I send them to camp - THIS camp, for nine years in a row now.  As I type this, one of my sons is till there, and my other son recently returned from his first term there as a counselor, following seven great years of camp experience.  It's heart-breaking that this happened to this poor child, but to blame the entire institution of summer camp, and to label any parent that sends their child to camp as neglectful, uncaring, or insensitive, is absurd.  Sadly, abuse happens in schools, parks, churches, scout troops, and locker rooms too, but do we jump on parents and blame them for neglectfully and uncaringly putting their children in harm's way by sending them to any of those places?  Having had children at this camp when this incident happened, knowing what the camp's staff did in follow up for months afterwards to make sure it hadn't happened to other campers (one of my sons was in the same cabin as this child, with this same counselor), and knowing the precautions they have put in place to protect the campers and train the staff, I am confident that this may well be one of the SAFEST camps a child could attend at this point.  We will always have to be vigilant in protecting our children, and predators will always be out there.  Summer camp is one of many choices parents can make among potential activities for their children.  For mine, it has been one of the most valuable experiences they have had.  I don't insist that parents who chose not to send their children to camp are doing the wrong thing, and for readers to suggest that I am an unloving parent by choosing to send mine to camp is equally ignorant.  And, to suggest that this camp, which continues to provide great, and in some cases life-changing, experiences for more than 500 children each summer should be categorically "shut down" over the actions of one sick person is like suggesting that every school, church, activity center, youth athletic league, etc., in which a predator has managed to slip through the cracks, should be shut down. 

And BTW, the counselors, and senior-level campers, almost all have sporting/utility knives in their pockets or hooked on their belt, at all times.  It is a tool they are carefully trained to use, in their day to day responsibilities as outdoorsmen and ranch hands.  The campers see them in use throughout every day. To sensationalize that detail in this story is incredibly misleading.

myhealthtoo
myhealthtoo

don't send your kids to camp if you love them!!!!

over55phillips
over55phillips

What do we have to do keep kids from these kind of people! I don't have kids, but what I'm 

is a person who whose raped. And I get mad as hell when a child goes though the same 

thing that I went though. And I praise the parents who shows love & care for not just for they kids, but for other kids


sp91546
sp91546

Nice article. Well done. So does anybody know the status of the camp?

Thanks

Rodney Barnes
Rodney Barnes

I stopped after page 2. If children are not off-limits to these scum, then they shouldn't be off limits to the victims family.

Ken Cornelius
Ken Cornelius

read this on the bus this afternoon. Guy next to me saw the front page and asked to read it afterwards. All my youth was mad at my mom for not letting me go to camp. Now I completely understand why.

robinvtx
robinvtx

heart wrenching story of the evil that goes on every day in this ugly world. 

falcon130013
falcon130013

This sick person needs prison time this child needs help.

pgc77099
pgc77099

I feel so sorry for Mark. I pray he can get through this, and bless his loving mother who put herself in the middle to get this story public.

Jerise Harris-Henson
Jerise Harris-Henson

Ugh, how awful. I hope this family gets justice and this camp is shut down.

Elisa Flores
Elisa Flores

Very very sad...makes me thankful that I couldnt afford to send my son to camp when he was younger...plus being that far away for a week is just too much for me, i need to know and see for my own eyes that my son is ok.

sarahperry24
sarahperry24

Beautifully written. I'm glad someone wrote about this so that poor child can hopefully have justice. Well done, Houston Press and Dianna Wray.

Katy Parks
Katy Parks

Records are always clean until it happens. They have to be caught to have it show up in their record. Until they're caught it doesn't mean it's not happening. Scary and disgusting that people do this.

Kelley Jones Workman
Kelley Jones Workman

Camp Cho Yea in Livingston Tx has a very clean record. But this makes me think twice.

Daniel Rex
Daniel Rex

Trust me Boy Scouts and Christian camps are not innocent of these things happening either. Please guard your children

springs.vicki
springs.vicki

@sp91546 It seems as though the only thing allowed to print on here are negative opinions about the accuser, when I posted true facts about the case it was deleted.   

 
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