Michelle is the third of eight children in our family. She loved everyone in her family and they loved her. Michelle loved to draw. We have a picture Michelle drew of a Flamingo hanging in our living room. I remember Michelle showing this picture to me before she received a grade on it. She asked me what I thought of her picture. I thought her picture was very good. “You’re my Mother, she said, so you have to say that.” I was not surprised when I learned that Michelle’s art teacher gave her a B+ for a grade. Michelle talked of being a pre-school teacher when she grew up. Another goal of Michelle's was to be an interior decorator. Michelle was somewhat of a perfectionist. I realized this when she was a little girl and I was putting barrettes in her hair. Standing in front of the mirror, she said, "they're crooked Mommy." Michelle loved to play the piano. I have a picture of Michelle and her baby sister Natalie (1 year old then) sitting side by side at the piano. Natalie loved to sit next to her big sister as she would play the piano. Michelle instigated the birth of our eighth child Natalie. She kept after us to have another baby. Michelle and her older sister Christina were at the hospital when I gave birth to Natalie. We had arranged for Michelle to help with the delivery of Natalie by cutting the cord and giving Natalie her first bath. But, due to complications during I ended up having a C-Section. We took our children fishing a lot while they were growing up. We didn't get much fishing done because we were constantly untangling their lines, but the kids had a lot of fun! Michelle loved to fish. I have a picture of Michelle with a big smile on her face while holding the first fish she caught. On one of our fishing trips Michelle slipped and fell into the river. I can still see the helpless, desperate look in her eyes as she was slipping into the water away from us. Her Dad reached out and pulled her up. On the day of Michelle’s eighth grade graduation her Dad prevented her from having a very embarrassing moment. Michelle was wearing a cream-colored dress. When she got up from her seat to walk up the isle to receive her diploma we noticed that she started her monthly. The back of Michelle's cream dress had a red stain on it. Michelle’s Dad walked up and escorted her to receive her diploma so the stain on her dress would not be visible. When Michelle was 15 she began hanging out with a group of kids that she met while in Summer School. She began skipping school and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Michelle had a crush on a boy who attended her high school. when she learned that this boy did not feel the same way and had told others she was a fat hippo, Michelle's spirit was crushed. Michelle suffered a date rape one evening after drinking and smoking pot with her peers and another boy. It was then that I became weak and desperate. I could feel her pain. In all the years of raising my eight children I never felt the need to reach outside my own home and resources for help with one of my children. However, this would soon change, and forever change my life!
By word of mouth we learned of a Wilderness Experiential program called Summit Quest. After many phone calls to the Director, Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff, and looking through the brochures sent to us, Michelle and her family were "SOLD" the Summit Quest Program. Michelle wanted desperately to get away from Pleasanton and the boy who raped her. Michelle was excited about her enrollment in the Summit Quest Progam and talked of coming home buffed and tan. Michelle was so anxious that she chose the month of May instead of June to enroll in the program. This meant Michelle would miss her sister Christina's wedding and the opportunity ot be a Bride's Maid in the line up as planned. Michelle writes of missing her sisters wedding in her Summit Quest journal. Michelle was also excited about the school credits she was supposed to receive upon completion of the program. I had made arrangements to have Michelle transferred to another school upon her return from the Summit Quest Program and made arrangements with Michelle's Driver's Traing Teacher to have her work sent out to her while in the program for completion.
Michelle died on May 9, 1990, while in the care of the Summit Quest Program, Utah. The program "SOLD" itself as a "FULL TIME RESIDENTIAL INPATIENT WILDERNESS THERAPY FACILITY," turned out to be a DO or DIE forced march through the desert. Michelle died on day 7 of what was to be a 63-day program. Michelle collapsed and died of dehydration due to exposure to the elements on a dirt road in Arizona. Our daughter layed on the dirt for 22 hours as the surviving children lit three fires to summon help. A sightseeing aircraft spotted the survivors and called for help. After Michelle died, we traveled to the place where she died. As I walked the dirt trail leading to the place Michelle died, I could feel the gentle wind blowing in my face and sucking the moisture right out of my body. I got thirsty just walking about a hundred yards. I can only imagine what my child suffered as she hiked up and over MT. Dellumbaugh that day. Michelle’s best friend in High School was Andrea Dawes. Andrea was in the Summit Quest Program along with Michelle. Andrea stuck up for Michelle as the female counselor kept saying Michelle’s symptoms were all in her head. This female counselor treated Michelle badly. Andrea tried to convince the counselors that Michelle was not faking. On the day Michelle died, the group had run out of water. Michelle was begging for water. She was having a lot of trouble with the hike up and over MT. Dellumbaugh. Andrea took the risk of having her own water poured out, or taken away, as she slipped capfuls of water to her dying friend Michelle. The program had a rule about sharing water. The kids could not share! The Summit Quest Program Director, Gayle Palmer, later claimed on national TV that this rule was for HEALTH REASONS! Andrea is married now and has children of her own. She named her first little girl after Michelle.
When Michelle died I made picture collages for everyone in our family. I noticed (not having noticed before) that Michelle was happy and smiling in EVERY picture. I found myself looking back on Michelle's life, remembering how we loved and protected our little girl. I found myself grieving over our great loss and that the people we trusted to protect our child DID NOT.
A few months after Michelle died her sister Lisa brought me a drawing tablet that Michelle had given to her. On one of the pages in this tablet had the name Natalie Lynn Michelle written all over the page. I later learned from Michelle’s sister Christina that she and Michelle had doodled on this tablet together one night. This made me realize Michelle had a secret wish that her baby sister Natalie be named after her. So, for Michelle’s “would be” sixteenth Birthday we had Natalie’s name changed from Natalie Renee, to Natalie Lynn Michelle.
When Michelle died Summit Quest Director Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff, spread a false rumor about our daughter, saying that Michelle smuggled cocaine into the program and died of an overdose. We silenced this rumor by requesting an extensive drug screen be performed on Michelle's lifeless body. NO cocaine was found in Michelle's system. The Program Director Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff chose to spread another false rumor claiming that Michelle lacked the will to live and was NOT a survivor. TRUTH as we learned it through talking to the surviving children and reading Michelle's journal is, the Highly Trained Survival Experts "SOLD" to us let our daughter die of dehydration. I believe that a little love, common sense, and respect for the gift of human life, could have saved our daughter.
I understand that former Director of the Summit Quest Program, Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff, is back in Utah and has worked at several programs involving children inspite of a personal promise given through the Department of Licensing, Utah, to Michelle's family after her death, that Gayle Palmer, AKA, DeGraff, would NEVER operate a program involving children in Utah again. I understand other parents were duped and another girl died in one of the programs Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff was allowed to operate. I understand that Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff, is currently working as a referral person in Utah. I understand Gayle Palmer, AKA, Gayle DeGraff, has helped referral persons such as P.U.R.E. with the placement of children in various programs.
I have often said, "I could not have done TO Michelle what was done TO her and walked away a free person." Why is it I ask, that the people running these programs continue to get away with neglect, abuse, molestation, rape, and murder? It is time to STOP the inhumane "treatment" of children. The time is NOW
Sincerely, Mother of Michelle Lynn Sutton, Catherine Sutton
Copyright 2010 by Michelle Sutton Memorial Catherine Sutton. All rights reserved
International Survivors Action Committee