Longform

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

Correction
(3-5-2015)

In the story below, we incorrectly state the charges to which Matthew Bovee pleaded guilty. Bovee pleaded guilty to injury to a child, a third-degree felony.

Mark smashed his ear to the phone. Even in the crowded cafeteria, he didn't want anyone else to hear what his mom was asking. Phone calls between parents and campers weren't allowed, but Mark had sent a letter to his mom saying he wanted to come home and she'd told Blake Smith, the owner of Camp La Junta, that she would speak to her son or he would be withdrawn immediately. On the other end of the line, Kelly tried to make out Mark's voice over the clatter in the Camp La Junta cafeteria. She was across the state in Houston, but she was ready to get in the car — she wouldn't even stop to pack a bag — if her 11-year-old son confirmed her suspicion.

"Don't say anything but yes or no," she said. "Just tell me, do you want to come home? Has that counselor been touching you? Are you okay?"

She rattled off questions while in the back of her mind the thought pulsed, "Please don't let it be true. He wasn't abused. He was only homesick like they said."

"No. I was just homesick," he said quickly. "Everything's okay, Mom. I want to stay."

Kelly felt relief rush through her like a tranquilizer dart. His letter home talked about shower checks and how camp wasn't fun anymore. "Please do something," the last line read.

"I have to go, Mom. I need to get off the phone," Mark said. Maybe he said it too fast. Maybe she should have listened harder, caught the blade of fear in his voice. She had no idea that Smith, the owner of the camp, who stood to lose a lot if Mark was being abused, was standing on one side of him.

Counselor Matthew Bovee stood on the other side of Mark. Mark knew the counselor had a knife in his pocket. Mark knew Bovee was zeroing in on every word he said. Mark was sure the man would reach out and stab him right there if he told his mother what Bovee was doing to him. So he told his mom he was fine.

In July 2009 they were a normal family. Kelly was a stay-at-home mom devoted to her children and to running their spacious, quietly expensive home in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Houston. Her husband, George, had a good job in a technical field, and they had the means to provide excellent private-school educations for their children. Mark, the oldest, was a bright, happy child, a boy who got good grades and loved playing with his friends.

Kelly and George had never done the summer camp thing as kids, but other parents in their circle were sending their boys to Camp La Junta in Hunt, Texas, just outside Kerrville, and Kelly and George decided Mark should go, too. The first year had been wonderful. Mark hadn't written a word home, but he'd come bouncing out to the car when they arrived to pick him up, full of stories about horseback riding and swimming and hanging out with all his friends. Kelly pulled her car past the well-manicured entrance to Camp La Junta the second year expecting to see her son come running out with a happy grin on his face.

All the kids were gathered at the front, waving to their parents like something out of a brochure. Mark sprinted to the car and darted into the backseat. A high-pitched animal moan filled the car. Looking over her shoulder, Kelly realized it was Mark.

Ten months later Mark found the courage to tell someone he had been sexually abused by counselor Bovee. Mark's family has filed a civil suit against Smith and the camp, contending that Smith was negligent and could have prevented the abuse. They also believe Smith spread rumors about Mark and his family to try to minimize the implications of a child being sexually abused under his care. Smith and his lawyer, Ken Adams, have declined to comment for this story. (Mark's name and the names of members of his family have been changed for this article.)

There are dozens of youth summer camps across Texas. Parents send their children to these camps expecting they'll have safe, memorable summers, never dreaming they could be sending their children into the path of sexual predators.

While the Texas Department of State Health Services — the government entity that oversees all licensed youth camps in Texas — will check to see if the food is properly prepared and the bathrooms are properly stocked with antibacterial soap, when it comes to child sexual abuse, you're pretty much on your own.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray