Mar 13, 2016

His family asks: What really happened to Phil at the Elan School?

Kathryn Skelton and Lindsay Tice
Sun Journal
March 12, 2016

For 33 years, Pam Newell thought her brother died of a freak brain aneurysm while he was a student at the infamous Elan School in Poland.Two weeks ago, a stranger turned up and told her there's something she should know.

They'd had a turbulent childhood.

When Pam Newell was 6 and her brother Phil 9, their father went to prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Their mother, his ex-wife — the intended victim — survived the savage pipe attack, only to live the next 28 years nearly unresponsive in a nursing home.

The brother and sister from Auburn became wards of the state and were sent to a foster home in Rockland. At least they had each other.

By 1982, Phil had grown into a slight teenager with wild, curly hair and an easy, sweet-dimpled grin that drew people in.

"He was beautiful," said Pam Newell. "All the girls liked him, and I remember I used to get mad because that was my brother and I didn't want any girls around him. We were close, we were really close."

But Phil was also angry. He'd launch into fits of rage — banging his head on the walls, once swinging his foster brother by the ankles into a couch — seemingly triggered by intense migraines.

The 15-year-old was sent to the Maine Youth Center, then to the Elan School in Poland, to cool off.

Newell would never see her brother alive again.

"We were told (Elan) was a step up from the youth center because he got transferred, and that he was doing well, and that everything was going good, and he was going to come home," Newell said. "He came home in a box."

On the day of the funeral, it took both Newell's foster father and her father, released from prison for the day, to hold her back from climbing into Phil's coffin. Wherever he was going, she wanted to be with him, badly.

Newell, 12 at the time, was told her brother's "brain had an aneurysm and that it exploded, literally, inside his head."

For 33 years, that's what she believed.

Then, last month, Mark Babitz showed up.

Babitz, 56, lives outside Chicago, owns a construction company, and says he worked as a bounty hunter for 30 years. He also went to Elan. Two weeks ago, he tracked down Newell and put her on the phone with a witness who said Phil didn't just collapse one day as the family had been told.

He'd been forced into Elan's infamous "boxing ring" and beaten by other teenagers because he'd complained of a headache. The witness saw Phil collapse, spasm and turn blue. Eventually, staff took him away. He was dead within a day.

The Sun Journal spoke with that witness and one other. Although some details differ, their stories are essentially the same.

Newell and Babitz are now on a campaign to have police open an investigation into the events around Phil's death.

"Right now, I have every emotion you could possibly feel at once," said Newell, 45, now living in Lewiston. "I'm angry. I'm sad. I feel a little bit of relief because I'm going through this and I'm going to be his voice. It's the only voice my brother has."

'I was in shock'

There had been talk about Phil Williams Jr. on the Internet for a long time, if you knew where to look.

Elan, a private boarding school for troubled kids, had operated at a former camp in rural Poland from 1970 to 2011, until vocal former students and residents ran an online campaign to shut it down.

Its controversial tactics — screaming confrontations, physical punishments for even the most minor of infractions, forced fighting — were highlighted in Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel's murder trial; prosecutors alleged he confessed to fellow Elan students after a series of punishments, including being beaten up in a boxing ring.

Elan was founded by Gerald Davidson, a psychiatrist, and Joe Ricci, a former heroin addict who was familiar with drug treatment programs but never went to college. When it closed in 2011, the school wascharging nearly $55,000 a year per student.   

Thousands of teenagers went through Elan over the years. Some former students, many of whom consider themselves "survivors," have formed active online communities to keep in touch.

Matt Hoffman, at Elan from 1974 to 1976, remembers reading the first reference to Phil's death on a message board in 2003.

The online poster — who went by the name "davbetz" — wrote that Phil, a friend and fellow student, was forced on Christmas weekend to go three rounds in the boxing ring before he "went unconscious and started vomitting (sic) profusely." He said Phil lay on the floor for an hour before being removed for medical attention. He said students were later told by Elan staff that Phil had died from an embolism and probably would have died anyway.

Elan students didn't believe it then and Hoffman didn't believe it afterward.

"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. Go to the FBI,'" Hoffman, in Virginia, said. "I was in shock."

Hoffman and Babitz, online friends, talked about Phil over the years. Like Hoffman, Babitz had attended Elan in 1975. Sent there as a ward of the state of Illinois — "I just had a full buffet of a rough childhood" — he was one of the children pulled out of Elan by Illinois officials after they became concerned about conditions at the school.

When Babitz made plans to head to Maine last month to raise awareness for an upcoming documentary about Elan, Hoffman convinced him: Dig into the Phil story.

"It's the thing that kind of lays up there in the rumor mill," Babitz said. "Is it believable? To all of us it is. Fifteen-year-old kids just don't die."

In Maine, Babitz found a copy of Phil's death certificate — curious for its incompleteness (see document) — found Phil's father's old trial records, found a phone number for him and then found Phil Williams Sr., long since released from prison and living in Auburn again.

Babitz called.

"We first thought maybe this guy was whacked. It could possibly be a scam. We didn't know what to believe," said Pam Newell, who in the decades since had reconnected with her now-elderly father after years of silence.

But Babitz had something more than a curious death certificate: He'd also found a witness.

The fight

Her name is Ann Bowen now. She was Ann Paschen then.

In late December 1982, she was a 15-year-old student at Elan. She was Phil's department head — students typically oversaw other students at the school — and he was on her cleaning crew in Elan 7, the house typically reserved for wards of the state.

In an interview last week with the Sun Journal, she remembered Phil as "a good kid, a fun kid."

"He was doing the program pretty well. Everyone liked Phil," said Bowen, who now lives in Des Plaines, Ill.

But one evening soon after Christmas, right after dinnertime, staff members ordered Phil to fight. It was a common tactic at the school, one publicly endorsed by co-founder Ricci.

"They thought he was manipulating the system because he said he didn't feel good. He had a headache," she said.

In the ring — a tight circle of other students, not an actual boxing ring — two or three teenagers took turns pummeling Phil. He did not fight back.

"He was defeated, he was getting the shit beat out of him," Bowen said.

It was so bad, she said, that she spent most of the fight looking away.

She remembered afterward that Phil was led into a dark office and told to have a seat. She was ordered to guard the door.

When Bowen looked inside, she found Phil scrunched down in the corner, hands over his head. She asked if he was OK.

She remembered he said, "No, I have a very bad headache and I don't feel so good.'"

Bowen left the post to tell staff that Phil needed something for his headache.

"He asked me what the hell was I doing getting up from the chair without permission and told me that he would take care of it when he got a chance to," she said. "This was a staff member, this was an adult. He continued joking around again and laughing. I went back down and sat down in the chair."

Less than five minutes later, Bowen said, she heard "a bunch of kicking around" from the dark office.

"So I opened the door and I said, 'Phil?' and he didn't answer and I see him flopping around on the floor, and I screamed out, 'Phil needs help!' twice."

Eventually, staff — not an ambulance — took him away. He never returned.

"After this happened, I didn't think about Phil — not that I'm a bad person," Bowen said. "I didn't think about Phil because I closed my mind off. It was so traumatic. I've never dealt with anything like this to this very day. That was like the worst day of my life."

Back then, she was scared. She didn't think to reach out to Phil's family. And, anyway, word was he didn't have one.

"We didn't know about Pam — another Elan secret," Bowen said.

Difficult memories

Bowen spoke to Phil's father and sister by phone at Babitz's request. Babitz and Hoffman also helped the Sun Journal locate others who were at Elan, including another student who was in House 7 that night.

Some of the witness details differ — including when Phil started convulsing, how long he lay on the floor before he was taken away and when, exactly, students were told that he'd died — but the basic events of that night are the same. 

Laura Allemang, formerly Lori Tufts, lived at Elan from 1981 to 1985. The Ohio woman said she's blocked out all but about 10 memories of her time there.

Phil's death is one of those 10.

"I will always remember that name. When a kid goes into convulsions in front of you, " Allemang said, trailing off. "I remember Phil because I remember his curly hair and I remember he used to have headaches all the time. He always had his head down on the table."

She remembered Phil in the ring that night, wearing headgear and gloves, getting beaten for 5 to 10 minutes and not fighting back.

"He kept putting his hands up above his head. He was doing defensive moves," Allemang said. "If you didn't fight back, they'd keep you in there longer. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but eventually he hit the floor. I remember him going into convulsions, I remember him spasming, (asking), 'What's going on?' and they pushed everybody back at that time."

The Sun Journal also spoke with a former Elan staff member who knew Phil and was working for the school when Phil died. He asked to remain anonymous.

"I really don't want to be affiliated with the Elan School in any way," he said, calling the place "horrific" and his time there "unfortunate."

He remembered Phil as a "short fella" who'd gotten into enough trouble during his stay at Elan that he was forced to fight several times. The staff member wasn't in Elan 7 the night of Phil's last fight and didn't learn about his death until after the fact, but he said witness stories sound like the Elan he knew.

Even the way witnesses say Phil was taken to the hospital — quietly, without the lights-blazing entrance of an ambulance or rescue crew — rang true.

"It was uncommon (that students would go to the hospital), but it happened. Late at night, a house driver would take them," he said. "You have to understand that in the '80s, Elan was losing a lot of credibility and they were doing whatever they could to maintain revenue."

'The hardest decision ever'

Phil's family didn't know any of that.

His father, Philip Williams Sr., now 74, remembers a guard coming by his cell in Thomaston to tell him his son was in a coma and not expected to survive. A prison chaplain accompanied him on the hour-and-a-half-long trip to St. Mary's Regional Medical Center — then St. Mary's General Hospital — in Lewiston.

He found his boy on life support, face obscured by tubes and wires. A doctor told him Phil had suffered an aneurysm and was brain dead; he wanted permission to take Phil off life support and donate his organs.

Williams eventually agreed.

"Just looking at him and holding his hand, I could tell there was no hope," he said.

He spent his last moments with his son at his bedside, praying.

"It was the hardest decision I've ever made in my life," he said. 

An aneurysm made some kind of sense. Phil had been experiencing severe headaches and he had, Williams believed, an upcoming appointment to see a specialist. 

But still, there'd never been a family history. And Phil was only — barely — 15.

"He was so healthy and strong. I couldn't imagine it," he said.

Williams later heard there might have been a fight before Phil died. But he wasn't in a position to ask questions. And no one else was raising the alarm.

The short obituary that ran in newspapers at the time referenced Phil dying "after a brief illness."

On Phil's death certificate, the signing doctor — a Lewiston neurosurgeon named Bruce Chaffee — listed his immediate cause of death as "brain stem compression," due to "massive cerebral hemorrhage," due to a "probably ruptured aneurysm."

Heather Carpenter, an acute care nurse practitioner for neurosurgery at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, is not familiar with Phil's case, but she is familiar with those terms. She said the brain stem can be compressed when an aneurysm ruptures and the accumulated fluid presses down. A compressed brain stem shuts down the body's autonomic functions — including breathing.

Although burst aneurysms aren't common in 15-year-olds, she said, they can happen. They're more likely with a family history. 

Headaches may be a symptom.

Although an aneurysm can burst on its own, she said a blow to the head could also make it happen.

Dr. Edip Gurol, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, is also not familiar with Phil's case but agreed to talk generally about the findings listed on the death certificate. He said an aneurysm — a ballooning of a blood vessel — would have been very difficult to detect in 1982, and brain surgery, the only treatment at the time, would have been difficult and risky. 

The doctor who certified Phil's death certificate could not be located for comment. In 1982, he did not fill out some key portions of the certificate, including whether an autopsy was performed.

An official at the Maine Medical Examiner's Office said its records show it was notified of Phil's death — likely because of his age — but the attending doctor said he died from natural causes and no autopsy was done.

Today, the sudden death of anyone under 18 would trigger either an autopsy or a request for all of the medical records documenting a natural illness, according to Administrator Mark Belserene.

Newell wonders if an exhumation and autopsy today would provide any extra insight.

Phil was buried in an unmarked grave near a crucifix in Coughlin Memorial Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Rockland, according to an official at St. Brendan the Navigator Parish, which oversees those burial records.

Unanswered questions

After more than 30 years, many key players, including Elan's founders, have died. Others, like the doctor who signed Phil's death certificate, can't be found. Records are incomplete or missing. 

Reached this week, Ed MacColl, the longtime Elan School lawyer, said he didn't work for the school in 1982. State Sen. Bill Diamond, Elan's former superintendent and director of governmental relations, said he didn't either.

Although they had worked for the school for years, both said they had never heard of Phil or his death.

Sharon Terry worked at Elan and became its owner after the 2001 death of her husband, Elan co-founder Ricci. Staff at her racetrack business, Scarborough Downs, said she wasn't available for comment.

A spokeswoman at the Maine Department of Education, which licensed Elan and investigated allegations of abuse there over the years, said she could not answer most questions about the school or Phil: "Because of the decades-plus that have gone by ... answers are not readily available."

Although the department looked into Elan over the years, she could not provide any details about when it was investigated or what the findings were. She could confirm, however, that the department never investigated Elan as a result of Phil's death.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which was responsible for Phil as a ward of the state, said all information about him is confidential, including whether it ever launched an investigation into his death.

As a family member, Newell has the right to seek her brother's DHHS records. She made that formal request last week and received a swift email reply from a child welfare program administrator who said she would research the archive but needed Newell's date of birth along with Phil's.

Newell responded promptly.

When Newell followed up this week, she received the same response from the same administrator — she would need birth dates first — and Newell reminded her that she'd already provided them.

"I'm wondering why I'm being put off. Are records going to change? Are they going to disappear?" she said.

As of Friday, no records had been released.

"Honestly, I believe he was murdered," Newell said. "If you had asked me this a week ago, I would have said absolutely not, he died of natural causes. Today, I believe he was murdered, and that nobody said anything. Even worse than being murdered — if you can even find something worse than being murdered — is that nobody said anything."

She wants police to investigate Phil's death and give it a hard look.

So does Babitz, the former Elan school student who connected Newell with a witness. His motivation for getting involved: "finding justice," he said. "I could have been that kid."

When in Maine recently, he sought out every law enforcement department that could even remotely be involved in opening a case on Phil's death, including Maine State Police.  

Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland confirmed that Babitz met with him and several others.

"I passed it on to our detective division," McCausland said. "We would likely do a limited follow-up on it. I do not have an update on where that stands."

Babitz claims he's been contacted by a member of the state's new cold case squad at the Attorney General's Office. Citing state statute, AG spokesman Tim Feeley said he could neither confirm nor deny an active investigation.

Holding out hope

After her brother's death, Pam Newell says she "went to heck." She was angry. She started stealing and doing drugs. Anything to rebel.

At 17, pregnant and terrified, she turned her life around with help from two organizations for teen mothers.   

Over the years she's worked several jobs, including as a truck driver. She now spends a chunk of her days caring for her father. 

Sometimes they talk about Phil.

"He's 74 years old; he's lost hope," Newell said. "He doesn't have any hope that there's going to be anything done for my brother. I said, 'You know what, Dad, it's OK, because I have enough hope for both of us. And I'm not going to stop now.'" 

She wants answers, whatever those answers are. 

"I want to know," she said. "If he was murdered, my brother deserved justice."

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