THOMPSON FALLS - A Sanders County jury listened to 2 1/2 weeks of testimony surrounding the 2004 suicide of a Colorado teenager at a school for troubled youth near here.

Then its members deliberated for less than two hours Wednesday before deciding an organization to which the school belonged and the group's founder were not negligent in her death.

"I thought the verdict was very decisive, and frankly I thought it was a vindication of the Spring Creek Lodge Academy and its directors," defense attorney William Kronenberg said Wednesday evening after the verdict.

Kronenberg, of San Francisco, represented the World Wide Association of Special Programs and Schools Inc. of Utah and its founder, Robert Lichfield. Spring Creek, which closed in 2008, was a member of WWASP.

Karlye Newman had been at Spring Creek six months when, just shy of her 17th birthday, she hanged herself with her sweatshirt in her dormitory bathroom.

In his closing argument Wednesday, Jim Manley of Polson argued for Newman's mother, Judith, that Karlye's life was worth at least $5 million - and that other damages could push the total more than

$1 million beyond that.

But the eight-woman, five-man jury found WWASP and Lichfield neither negligent nor deceitful in Newman's death.

"This case has been about money from the very beginning," Kronenberg told jurors in his closing argument.

Judith Newman's lawyers spent more time during the trial talking about WWASP's business plan than they did about Karlye Newman, he said. He pointed out Judith Newman's absence from the courtroom Wednesday.

"It doesn't surprise me," he said. "It doesn't shock me. I'm a little bit disappointed."

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Manley did indeed focus attention on the school's business plan, likening the company and Lichfield to billionaire swindler Bernie Madoff - and contending that, like Madoff, they should pay mightily for their misdeeds.

"The law doesn't allow the Bernie Madoffs to get away with it," he said.

Manley essentially blamed Karlye Newman's death on a business plan that he said siphoned off 40 percent of company profits into big salaries and bigger bonuses for employees, leaving schools staffed by "underqualified, undertrained, overworked, underpaid people."

That business model paid commissions to employees who signed up students to the expensive schools, he said. Karlye Newman's tuition was $3,000 per month. Per-student dividends could net as much as $18,000 per month for managers, he said.

He added that "the business plan wasn't designed specifically to harm (Karlye). The business plan didn't care."

But harm her it did, he contended, with a punitive system of "consequences" for behavior deemed inappropriate, punishments that kept the teenager from getting the therapy he said she desperately needed.

That made her six-month stay at Spring Creek "a descent into madness," he said, " ... until it got so unbearable that she would rather die than go through another day of it."

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Kronenberg took Manley's phrase, adjusted it somewhat, and repeated it over and over again during his own closing statement.

"He's referred to a descent into hell. How can that be?" Kronenberg asked jurors, reminding them that the Karlye Newman who arrived at Spring Creek in March 2004 already was seriously troubled, with at least two suicide attempts - one that resulted in her expulsion from a New Mexico boarding school - in her background.

In fact, he said, had Judith Newman been honest about the suicide attempt a day before she contacted the Teen Help group that led her to Spring Creek, the school never would have accepted Karlye Newman into a program that was not designed for such severely troubled youth, he said.

"Judith Newman is not the first mother who has lost a child either through suicide or other means," he said. And he asked, "Is someone always responsible when another person commits suicide? Is it ever the choice of the person?"

The case that jurors decided so quickly on Wednesday in Sanders County District Court, presided over by retired state Supreme Court Justice John Warner, was one of the longest in county history. It involved mountains of evidence, with attorneys' files and folders taking up three of the courtroom's 10 benches.

"I guess I was surprised it didn't take them (the jury) longer," Manley said after the verdict was announced. "I thought there would be more discussion about all these issues and all this evidence."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or at gwen.florio

@missoulian.com.

 

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