Updated July 19, 2021 - 7:48 pm
BEATTY — A plea deal finalized on Monday in a seven-minute court hearing decimated a sweeping child abuse case that could have sent the married owners of Northwest Academy to prison for decades.
Together, Marcel and Patricia Chappuis faced more than 90 felony counts of child abuse or neglect — charges that largely stemmed from documented issues with the tap water at their rural Amargosa Valley boarding school for “troubled youth.”
But the deal, which comes after more than two years of stalled court proceedings, reduced their laundry list of felonies to a handful of charges typically reserved for minor crimes.
Marcel Chappuis, a 75-year-old psychologist who is no longer licensed to practice in the state, pleaded no contest on Monday to two misdemeanor counts of disturbing the peace. The crime is defined by Nevada law as “willfully” interrupting the peace and quiet of a neighborhood, person or family with “loud or unusual noises” or “tumultuous and offensive conduct.”
Meanwhile, his 68-year-old wife, Patricia, waived her right to a preliminary hearing on Monday. She will plead guilty to a gross misdemeanor count at a later date in Nye County District Court, according to Thomas Gibson, the couple’s attorney. As of Monday, the exact charge had not been determined.
“We never thought it was a righteous case to begin with,” Gibson later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal outside the courthouse. “But considering all the different charges and whatnot, it was in my clients’ best interests to try to negotiate.”
Through Gibson, the couple on Monday maintained that they are innocent.
Jackie Clay, a former Northwest Academy employee who in 2017 reported abuse at the school to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office, said on Monday that she is disappointed.
“The justice system failed all them kids,” she said. “It’s a slap in a lot of people’s faces.”
No comment from prosecutors
Under Nevada law, a misdemeanor carries a six-month jail sentence, and a gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail. But as part of the deal, prosecutors did not seek jail time or probation.
Instead, Marcel Chappuis was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine. His wife is expected to pay the same amount in District Court.
Felony child abuse carries a sentence of up to 20 years in a state prison, according to Nevada law.
Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia, who had the final say on the plea bargain, has not publicly explained his decision to extend a deal to the defendants.
After Monday’s hearing, the lead prosecutor on the case, John Friel, deferred questions about the deal to Arabia, who was not present for the hearing and did not respond to a request for comment.
Authorities have said the felony counts originally filed against the defendants represented each child enrolled at Northwest Academy in its final year of operation, between February 2018 and February 2019.
State officials shut down the private school for “troubled youth,” located along state Route 373 near Mecca Road, on Valentine’s Day 2019, a day after the couple were arrested in Las Vegas. They posted bail later that evening and have been out of custody since.
The boarding school first made headlines in January 2019, when the Nye County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had launched an investigation into reports of abuse at the academy.
Soon after, the Review-Journal launched its own investigation and in May 2019 published a four-part series titled “Deserted in the Desert.” The series uncovered multi-agency failures in Nevada that allowed problems at the school to go unaddressed for more than two years.
During that time, the newspaper’s investigation found, the school had racked up dozens of violations from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection after the couple had stopped treating its tap water in October 2016, leading to high levels of arsenic and fluoride.
Thousands of records examined by the Review-Journal for the series also showed a yearslong history of abuse and neglect allegations at Northwest Academy.
Yet divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services, which licensed the school as a child care institution and were responsible for investigating the abuse claims, found many of them to be unsubstantiated. But, the documents showed, even when problems with the school were validated, little if any action was taken to hold the owners accountable.
In late December 2018 — shortly before the Sheriff’s Office launched its abuse investigation — a school employee sent an email to Nye County officials seeking their help. The employee’s name was redacted in the records obtained by the Review-Journal.
“I just feel that it is something else the state will ignore or Patti will talk her way out of,” the employee wrote, referring to Patricia Chappuis. “I don’t know who else to contact because I feel like every time the state shows up, people close ranks and paperwork is lost and it all just gets swept under the rug.”