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Attorney for Nye County boarding school operators calls charges ‘ridiculous’

Updated February 14, 2019 - 9:05 pm

The attorney for the operators of a private boarding school at the center of an ongoing abuse investigation on Thursday accused the Nye County Sheriff’s Office of harassing and wrongly targeting the couple.

Marcel Chappuis, 72, a psychologist who owns Northwest Academy, and his 66-year-old wife, Patricia, each face 43 counts of allowing child abuse or neglect. They operated the Amargosa Valley school for at-risk teens and adolescents.

Most of the counts stem from an investigation into the school’s tap water, which officials have said contains high levels of arsenic. But Patricia Chappuis also faces two felony counts of child abuse or neglect in connection with “previous physical altercations with students,” the sheriff’s office has said.

The couple were taken into custody late Tuesday at their son and daughter’s home on the 7600 block of Painted Dunes Drive in Las Vegas by the Metropolitan Police Department, which was assisting Nye County authorities.

During a bail hearing Thursday morning in Las Vegas Justice Court, Judge Telia U. Williams denied attorney Malcolm LaVergne’s request to reduce the couple’s bail, which was set Tuesday by a Beatty Justice Court judge at $100,000 for Marcel Chappuis and $40,000 for his wife.

It was not clear when the couple had retained LaVergne, who represented O.J. Simpson in his Las Vegas robbery case, as their attorney. Before Thursday, attorney Richard Schonfeld had been representing the couple and Northwest Academy.

The couple were extradited later Thursday and taken to the Nye County Detention Center in Pahrump, the Nye County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday night.

‘The charges are ridiculous’

In the Las Vegas court Thursday, LaVergne argued that the bail was “extraordinarily excessive” and later characterized the contaminated water as a “nonissue.”

“The charges are ridiculous, and probably every one of them will be thrown out. This is just a way to harass my clients. They’ve been harassing them for weeks now,” LaVergne said of the sheriff’s office outside the courtroom. “They have been doing anything they can to disrupt that facility.”

He said the couple and the school had become a target of the agency after a terminated employee reported abuse at the school. LaVergne said the couple believes the employee “has significant contact with the Nye County Sheriff’s (Office).”

Lt. David Boruchowitz, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Thursday, “This is an ongoing investigation, and the sheriff will not be releasing any additional comments at this time.”

During the hearing, LaVergne, addressing the additional felony child abuse or neglect charges against Patricia Chappuis, noted that the students in question “are not 7- (or) 8-year-olds.”

“These are adult-sized teenage children,” he said, adding that some students were taller than Patricia Chappuis.

Patricia Chappuis, wearing red plaid pajama pants and a dark top, sat in front of her husband, clad in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, as LaVergne addressed the court. She kept her face hidden with a piece of paper from reporters in the courtroom.

“It’s not just any kind of troubled youth. These youths have every type of mental health issue that you can think of: bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder,” LaVergne said. “A lot of them, unfortunately, were adopted children. … And this is what they have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Court date scheduled in Nye County

Williams set a status check for Feb. 21 before the couple was taken to the Nye County jail. The two will now appear in Beatty Justice Court at 10 a.m. Friday.

The first arrest in the case was made Jan. 29, one day after the sheriff’s office launched its investigation into the school. Caleb Hill, 29, was arrested on suspicion of child abuse after a former student reported being slammed to the ground by Hill on several occasions, the department has said.

Those allegations sparked the investigation that began Jan. 28. Officials said that the school was not complying with a state agency’s instructions to avoid exposing students to the contaminated water.

Investigators also determined that school officials had been limiting students to three small water bottles daily and often ran out of bottled water, sometimes going without it for up to three days.

“Even during the hot summer months, students were either required to drink the tap water or nothing at all,” Sgt. Adam Tippetts said Wednesday, adding that students also drank the contaminated water when they were given their medications.

After news broke of the abuse allegations and contaminated water late Jan. 31, the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health made the call to allow the school to stay open. Officials said a visit to the school that week showed steps were being taken to ensure students’ safety.

It wasn’t until the owners’ arrests late Tuesday that the division took steps to shut down the school after all of its students had been relocated. As of Thursday morning, a division spokeswoman said, nine students remained at the school but were expected to be relocated by 4 p.m., at which time the school would surrender its child care license.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writers Jessie Bekker and Katelyn Newberg contributed to this report.

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