Updated April 19, 2021 - 5:57 pm
BEATTY — The married owners of a now-shuttered Amargosa Valley boarding school have reached a tentative plea deal with Nye County prosecutors that will allow the couple to skirt a combined 90 felony counts of child neglect.
In a brief court hearing Monday, defense attorney Thomas Gibson said Marcel Chappuis will plead no contest to four misdemeanor counts, while his wife, Patricia, will plead no contest to one gross misdemeanor, meaning the defendants accept a conviction without admitting guilt. In addition, Gibson said, each will pay a $2,000 fine.
Under Nevada law, a gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail, and a misdemeanor carries a six-month jail sentence. But prosecutor John Friel told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that jail time isn’t likely to be part of the deal “due to their ages.”
Marcel Chappuis, 75, and his 68-year-old wife originally were charged with 45 felony counts each of child neglect — a felony that carries up to 20 years in a state prison, according to Nevada law.
The charges stem from a history of documented issues with contaminated tap water at Northwest Academy, their boarding school for at-risk youth, and represent each student enrolled at the academy in its final year of operation, between February 2018 and February 2019.
In a separate case, Patricia Chappuis also had been charged with two counts of felony child abuse in connection with what authorities have described as “previous physical altercations with students.”
The plea deal will settle all pending cases against the couple, though as of Monday, the exact charges had not been nailed down.
“The final say has to come through the DA himself,” Friel said, adding that he had submitted proposed charges prior to Monday’s hearing for Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia’s review, “but they were not accepted.”
State officials shut down Northwest Academy, 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 made headlines in January 2019, when the Nye County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had opened an investigation into reports of abuse at the academy.
Days after news broke of the investigation, Patrica Chappuis told a Review-Journal reporter: “There have been a multitude of inaccuracies and falsities reported. There have been no findings of abuse or neglect by Sheriff (Sharon) Wehrly or any of the licensing boards.”
She and her husband were arrested weeks later.
Soon after, the Review-Journal launched its own investigation into the couple’s little-known private school, and in May 2019 published a four-part series, titled “Deserted in the Desert,” that uncovered multi-agency failures in Nevada that allowed problems at the school to go unaddressed for more than two years, including claims of child abuse and issues with its tap water.
Over the years, 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, the newspaper’s investigation found, leading to high levels of arsenic and fluoride.
If the plea deal goes through, it will bring to an end a case that has moved slowly through the Nye County court system for nearly two years. The couple is due back in Beatty Justice Court next month.