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Monday, November 22, 1999




By Barry Markowitz, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Mekeli Ieremia, former head of Aloha Youth Academy in
Laie, owns this upscale home in Alafua, Samoa. It is
guarded by private security.



Scrutinized youth
camp chief ‘took off'

Mekeli Ieremia has disappeared,
a former Aloha Youth worker says

By Susan Kreifels
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

A controversial youth reform camp in Laie has shut down, and its owner, who handled as much as $4.7 million of missing workers' compensation funds in a case being investigated by Texas authorities, has disappeared, the former camp director said.

Mekeli Ieremia was chief executive officer of Aloha Youth Academy, which the state barred in September from serving more troubled teens until it received proper licensing from the Department of Health.

Jeff Pluemacher, the academy's former director, said he hasn't heard from Ieremia since early October and that no one knows Ieremia's whereabouts.

Pluemacher, who intends to open another academy in Laie, said Aloha Youth shut down because Ieremia was the sole owner and "he abandoned it." Ieremia could be in Samoa, where he owns a home, Pluemacher said.

The state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs has written to Ieremia about complaints from the parents of a teen who attended the camp earlier this year, and the Department of Labor has also contacted Aloha Youth about complaints from former employees who say they were not paid, Pluemacher said. "He (Ieremia) took off. It was his company, end of story."

In an October interview, Ieremia said he was suspended earlier this year from his job as director of risk management at the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, while officials looked into irregularities in the school district's funds.

Ieremia, a former Brigham Young University and pro football player who has family in Laie, stressed that he never came under investigation and that he voluntarily resigned on the advice of his attorney.

FBI looking into allegations

An El Paso Times report in April said unnamed school officials alleged that Ieremia siphoned district funds to a secret account while pretending to contract outside companies for background checks on prospective employees. The El Paso County Sheriff's Department and the FBI are investigating the allegations.

Ieremia's cell phone has been disconnected. A woman who answered the phone at his El Paso home said she could not give any information about Ieremia.

Controversy has followed Ieremia from Samoa to Socorro. At the same time he was working in El Paso, Ieremia opened a youth reform camp in Samoa called New Hope Academy. The U.S. government says that academy left five hungry teens stranded on the faraway island last February. New Hope denied that youths were abandoned and said disgruntled staff and parents orchestrated its demise.

In April, weeks after New Hope shut down, Aloha Youth Academy opened in Laie, serving a total of seven youths. Two were from Hawaii, and one was a state-funded, special-needs student. Aloha Youth charged $2,490 a month per child.

While some parents believe the program was effective, two mainland parents pulled their children out after a counselor called to tell them Aloha Youth was not providing the promised services.

One parent, Gladys Erwin of Aliso Viejo, Calif., has filed a complaint with the Office of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. "All I can say is I'm glad the boys are finally out of there," Erwin said. "It was an expensive lesson to learn."

Laie workers say they weren't paid

Former employees and others in Laie said the academy owes them thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, Pluemacher said he plans to open a similar camp in Laie for teens with drug abuse and other behavior problems. This business will have no connections to Ieremia.

Pluemacher is looking for a 10-bedroom house where he will open the Hawaii Pacific Youth Center, a residential treatment facility for teens with drug abuse and other behavior problems. He will apply for licensing that will allow him to serve up to eight youths, and he hopes to open the center in late January.

Teen-reform camps are a lucrative and growing market, with some parents seeing them as the last resort in trying to regain control of a child. Pluemacher will target mainland teens but also serve local special-needs youth who require state-funded services.

"There is really a need," Pluemacher said. "There are many kids in the mainland."



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