A New York man was charged Friday with crimes alleging he sent emails to two Utah legislators threatening violence unless they investigated Provo Canyon School, a facility for “troubled teens” he attended two decades ago.
Aaron Ross told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that he had no intention of hurting anyone, but resorted to sending the emails after his attempts to report sexual abuse went nowhere.
“I’m not actually planning to go Utah and start fighting people,” he said. “I wanted to ruffle their feathers a little bit because they need to be alerted.”
Utah prosecutors charged Ross on Friday with two counts of second-degree felony terroristic threats. Each count carries a potential penalty of up to 15 years in prison, if convicted.
Charging documents allege Ross threatened two Utah legislators with kidnapping, sexual violence and death.
“Ross made the threats when his demands that the legislators cause investigations, prosecutions or other legal action against Provo Canyon School did not occur,” charging documents say.
The court papers include references to several threatening emails that Ross, 33, sent to Utah Reps. Adam Robertson and Paul Ray.
“I will strangle you with my bare hands,” Ross wrote to Robertson on Sept. 30, according to charges. “I will tie your legs up with a metal weight. And I will sink your body to the bottom of Utah Lake. Nobody will be able to find you.”
He ends the email by saying, “You better watch your back.”
In an email to Ray sent on Tuesday, Ross wrote that he was taken to Utah against his will, and threatened to take Ray’s children and subject them to the same treatment.
Ross told The Tribune he sent these emails after feeling ignored.
He was sent to Provo Canyon School in the early 2000s as a 13-year-old boy. But at the facility, he kept getting into trouble for small infractions. His punishment often included sitting on the floor with his legs crossed for hours, or having a meal withheld. Those punishments often included time spent in a cold, cement isolation room.
While inside that room, he said, he was sexually abused by a staff member on several occasions.
At the time, he tried to tell his therapist about what happened, he said, but she didn’t believe him.
He reported the crimes to Utah police several times over the years, but nothing came of it.
Ross said he recently became upset when he learned more about Utah’s light oversight of this industry, and that legislators haven’t significantly changed the laws surrounding the troubled-teen industry since the time he was there.
“I find it very appalling and upsetting,” he said. “I’ve been trying for a very long time to take action. And being polite and sending nice letters and making friendly, politically correct requests simply isn’t working. And so I decided to take somewhat of a more aggressive approach. Be a little bit more insulting. A little more confrontational or provocative to really get to them.”
Ross said he sent the emails to Robertson because he is a Utah County legislator and to Ray, because he has publicly said he is planning to bring a bill this session to increase oversight on the industry.
“I did what I felt was necessary,” Ross said, “to really bring their attention to this very serious problem.”
Management at Provo Canyon School denies Ross’ allegations of abuse and told The Tribune in a statement that they consider his “mischaracterizations to be detrimental to those seeking mental health care today.”
Ross is not the only former resident to allege they were overmedicated, mistreated and abused at Provo Canyon School. More than a dozen other former residents have told The Tribune about similar treatment from as far back as the 1980s to as recently as 2018.
Scrutiny of the school has intensified in recent months after celebrity Paris Hilton alleged in a documentary that she was abused at the facility when she was there in the 1990s.
Hilton led a protest outside of Provo Canyon in October, and has advocated for the school to close.
The reality star recently launched a website where hundreds of other former residents have shared stories of abuse they say they experience at troubled-teen facilities across the country.
There are youth residential treatment centers across the country, but Utah is known as a place where the troubled-teen industry has thrived. It’s home to nearly 100 youth treatment centers, which has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in government money.
Ross said he took the action he did because he worried that other 13-year-old boys like him at Provo Canyon School or elsewhere may also be abused.
“I had no intention of committing a violent crime,” he said. “I simply needed to get their attention.”