Longform

A Texas Boy's Summer Camp Nightmare

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Kelly and George chose Camp La Junta because it had received excellent reviews and because it was the camp that Mark's school friends attended. There are about 24 camps in Kerr County, right in the heart of the Hill Country, a bucolic place of rolling terrain where the grass, the Spanish oaks and the cypress trees are a concentrated, vibrant green, but there hadn't been much in the way of industry or money in those parts until the youth camps started popping up, most of them in the late 1920s.

It's a lucrative business, built on the idea of clean, safe summer fun. The youth camp world is very tight-knit, a place where reputation is everything and even the hint of a scandal can tarnish a camp's name and send parents running for the door. "We're just like any business. We live and die by our reputation," longtime Texas camp director Danny Dawdy said. Dawdy, the executive director of Highland Lakes Camp & Conference Center, a Baptist camp organization near Austin, argued that this means camps have a motivation to take every precaution to prevent abuse, making sure counselors are never alone with campers and that everyone is trained to notice red flags from other counselors.

From May to the end of July, families bring their children from the busy, smoggy cities in Texas and elsewhere around the country to spend a healthy summer here. It isn't a cheap endeavor — Mark's 10-day stay cost more than $2,000. The camps bring more than $24 million to the Kerr County economy, according to a 2007 study by the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau. That's not counting the spillover from spending on meals, hotels and shopping by parents when they come to drop off and pick up their children. It's high tide for the Kerr County tourism business.

There's evidence this may play a part in local legal decisions, as in the lawsuit involving nearby Camp Mystic. The Kerr County jury in that case ruled in favor of the owner, Richard Eastland, despite the evidence the state district judge believed clearly showed that Eastland had been skimming money off the rest of his family for years. The judge ordered a new trial, and the case was appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court before the family finally settled out of court.

Bob Wynne, the Houston lawyer representing Mark's family in a civil suit filed against Smith, Camp La Junta and CLF Management Systems LLC, a Texas limited liability company registered to Smith, was concerned enough about getting a fair trial that he made sure to file in Harris County instead of Kerr County. The suit, claiming defamation and negligence, is set to be tried in Harris County beginning next fall.

In 2009, Bovee was a 20-year-old with a mop of blond hair hanging over heavy-lidded blue eyes. He was small and wiry and looked like a surfer, but he had a rigid quality that seemed a little harsh to Kelly. He had grown up near Lincoln, Nebraska, and told parents he was a former Marine and had gone to school on a wrestling scholarship. Kelly thought he came across as stern — she and the other parents immediately nicknamed him "The Marine" — but maybe that was good for kids.

Bovee didn't get along well with the other counselors, but the boys in his cabin thought he was cool because he had a knife he always carried in his pocket — sometimes he'd take it out and pretend to stab one of the kids. They'd heard him talking to another counselor about the gun he said he kept in his car. He taught the Indian hour, and he said he could show them a war dance he'd taught at one of the neighboring camps.

Bovee was strict about showers. The counselors conducted shower checks to make sure the boys actually washed. The other counselors would lean over and sniff a boy's head for the presence of shampoo, but Bovee stood just outside the shower door to inspect each kid as he walked out. Bovee would smell the boys' hair, then put his hands under their arms and behind their knees.

Mark came back a different person. He refused to get off the couch, and fought with his siblings and all his friends. He only picked at his food during meals, and soon he was rail-thin with dark shadows under his eyes. He couldn't always sleep at night, and when he did he was plagued by nightmares and woke up in the dark convinced Bovee was there waiting for him and preparing to kill him and his entire family. For months he whispered the truth only in the ear of the family dog, late at night after he woke up from another bad dream.

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Dianna Wray
Contact: Dianna Wray