When a staff member at Turn-About Ranch first touched her inappropriately, Hannah Archuleta didn’t tell anyone.
The Colorado woman, then 17, had been at the Utah ranch for “troubled-teens” for two weeks. She worried if she said anything, she’d get in trouble.
But then he touched her again. That same staffer, she said, grabbed her butt and vaginal area weeks later. This time, Archuleta confided in female staff members, hoping they would understand.
“Instead, I experienced retaliation from the ranch after I spoke up,” she said Wednesday. “In what appeared to me to be punishment for reporting my abuse, I was required to spend extra time picking up horse manure, walking in circles around a horse corral, and sitting at a desk facing a wall for hours. I also had to do forced labor outside in below-freezing temperatures, and sleep on a wooden plank with no pillow.”
Archuleta is now suing Turn-About Ranch, alleging the facility was negligent in hiring the male staffer who assaulted her, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her. She is represented by Gloria Allred, a well-known women’s rights attorney who represented women who say they were abused by famous men like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein.
Allred said at a Wednesday news conference that Archuleta was motivated to speak out after celebrity Paris Hilton revealed in a documentary released last year accusations that she was abused at another Utah facility, Provo Canyon School. Hilton has since become an advocate to reform the troubled-teen industry, and recently flew to Utah to testify in favor of legislation that would bring more oversight to the facilities here.
“There appears to be a major problem in Utah at some residential facilities,” Allred said.
Archuleta ended up at Turn-About Ranch after she appeared on the television show “Dr. Phil” during an October 2019 taping. She was taken from the studio, according to the lawsuit, to the rural Utah ranch located in Escalante.
Her parents trusted Turn-About Ranch, the lawsuit says, because Dr. Phil had recommended it. Archuleta said Wednesday that she had been struggling at the time after learning her mother was terminally ill with liver failure.
Tony Archuleta, the woman’s father, said Wednesday that he tried to report the abuse after he pulled her from the school two months later, but the investigation went nowhere and his daughter was never interviewed by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
Turn-About Ranch administrators said in a Thursday statement that they “took immediate action” after Archuleta accused the staff member.
“Unfortunately, her father removed her from our facility before we could conduct a full inquiry,” they said. “Both she and her father were unwilling to communicate with us from that time. We interviewed other students and staff members and were unable to corroborate her story. We fully cooperated with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, but without further contact with the accusing party, our options were limited.”
The administrators said they didn’t receive any more communication from Archuleta until Allred’s law firm contacted them to discuss the potential lawsuit and an out-of-court cash settlement.
“We would never take lightly an allegation of mistreatment to any of our students,” the statement reads. “Now that this incident is the subject of litigation, we must withhold our full response for a later date. But it is important to note that these allegations were fully investigated and that the account given by opposing legal counsel to the media was incomplete, to say the least.”
Allred said they filed the lawsuit this week as Utah legislators are expected to give a final vote on a bill that would greatly increase oversight and regulations for the troubled-teen industry. Both Allred and Archuleta said they supported SB127, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.
“There has been too much abuse in these private schools and programs where many so-called troubled teens have been sent by their parents with the hope that it would help them,” Archuleta said. “Instead, for a number of teens, it has only made their situation worse.”
Turn-About Ranch has a relatively high profile among the nearly 100 facilities operating in Utah because of frequent appearances on the “Dr. Phil” show.
It also is battling another lawsuit filed by the widow of a staff member who was brutally beaten to death by a 17-year-old boy in 2016.
Brenda Woolsey claims in her lawsuit that the 17-year-old, Clay Brewer, should never have been at the ranch and that it wasn’t the proper place to treat a teenager who was addicted to drugs and suicidal.
Brewer was both, and on Dec. 6, 2016, he beat to death 61-year-old staffer Jimmy Woolsey with a metal bar before leading police in a chase through the rural residential area.