VERMONTVILLE - Anna Owens got up to go to work at 6 a.m. one day last week, went out to her car and found it had been stolen.
Eventually, she found out the car had been taken by a 16-year-old South Carolina boy who ran away from Adirondack Leadership Expeditions, a camp for troubled teens in Onchiota.
Owens was shaken up enough that she and about 10 other residents of the area went to the Wednesday night Franklin town board meeting to ask their town councilors if they could do anything.
"I lost a lot of trust," Owens said. "I'm just infuriated with this. ... They're not doing their job. They're supposed to be watching the children."
ALE Executive Director Tracy Edwards sent the Enterprise a written statement this morning confirming that two boys ran away from the camp last week and saying that state troopers were notified about the incident immediately, "as safety is our utmost priority." Edwards was not available this morning to give further comment about the camp's policies in general or to address the concerns brought up at the Franklin town board meeting.
Onchiota resident Janine Taylor told board members that she thinks everyone in the community is concerned for their safety and the safety of their children. She said she doesn't believe the teens in the camp are getting adequate oversight, noting that the teen who stole Owens' car and a boy who ran away with him had from 10 p.m. till about 6 a.m. before anyone noticed.
"I think everyone has been concerned for some time what the safety risk is," Taylor said.
She said people in Onchiota have reported having teens from ALE knock on their doors at all hours of the night, saying they lost their camping party and asking to use a phone.
"It just happens again and again and again," Taylor said.
She said she wants to know how often teens run away from the camp and whether it's reported to the police each time it happens.
"Who knows what these kids are really up to?" Taylor said. "The community just needs to know what we're dealing with."
She noted that the land the ALE runs the camp on in Onchiota is rented to the company by Paul Smith's College, so it might be worthwhile to complain to the college as well.
Several people referred to the camp as "hoods in the woods." While other Adirondack programs get criminal teens from the court system, ALE isn't one of those.
Town Supervisor Art Willman said he's spent some time in the last week researching the camp, and he found that parents of the teens who attend the camp spend a good chunk of money to send them there. So the parents of a teen who runs away and ends up charged with a crime could have a strong case for a lawsuit, Willman noted.
He said he's been in contact with the state police investigator who has been working the case, Tim Woodruff. Woodruff told him he's looking into the number of runaways who have been reported to state police by the camp, and he wants to compare that to the number that haven't been reported.
"They might have one or two every week, and we don't find out about it," Willman said. "That's unacceptable."
He said he plans to do more research, then put together a strongly worded letter of complaint to the local ALE leaders, plus the heads of the company that runs it, based in California. He also wants to send a letter to Paul Smith's College President John Mills explaining the situation, because he said Mills probably isn't aware of the issues.
Willman said he also plans to invite ALE leaders to the next town board meeting. He said he wants there to be a procedure set up to notify everyone in town each and every time there is a runaway from the camp.
He also noted that people in town need to start encouraging guests to take their keys out of their cars and lock their car and house doors at night.
Town Clerk Sandy Oliver said the last time problems with the ALE came up, in 2006, ALE workers talked with the town and set up a phone tree to notify residents about runaways, but three months later, all of the staff in the phone tree were transferred out of the state.
"It's sad that this is occurring" said Mildred Vorrath. "People are beginning to load their guns."