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VisionQuest escapes make residents wary

October 05, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - A drive through the Coral Ridge Road neighborhood Sunday afternoon found young families and retired couples enjoying the warm fall day out in their yards, dogs and children playing, and some washing their cars in the peaceful community surrounded by trees just starting to change color.

But when it turns dark, the seemingly carefree people secure their vehicles in their driveways and retreat inside their homes, making sure all of the windows and doors are locked and their dogs are nearby.

"I keep everything locked up and I won't go outside at night. I never used to be like that," said Mary Lou Pukavige, who's lived on South Mountain all of her life.

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What has these residents losing sleep, looking over their shoulders and jumping when their telephones ring is a large group of juveniles who live just through the woods at VisionQuest, an environmental camp that houses troubled, but nonviolent youth.

Nine juveniles escaped from the camp last month and three more fled last Thursday, bringing the total to 38 escapes reported to Pennsylvania State Police this year.

Last year, according to police, 12 youths walked away.

Last Thursday, two juveniles and an 18-year-old stole a 1987 Oldsmobile Delta from a camp employee and headed east on U.S. 30. The three were apprehended in New Oxford, Pa., according to police.

Charged with escape, theft by unlawful taking, criminal conspiracy, and receiving stolen property, Perri McMiller, 18, was placed in Franklin County Prison and the two others, whose names were not released because they are juveniles, were placed in a secure juvenile facility, police said.

The recent escapes have many South Mountain residents on edge and angry.

Normally not outspoken, Pukavige said she was getting used to the late night calls from the facility reporting the escapes, a courtesy extended by VisionQuest to residents who want to be put on the calling list.

But it was the last straw when a low-flying Maryland State Police helicopter spotlighted the neighborhood on the night of Sept. 24, Pukavige said, when four VisionQuest youth escaped on foot through the woods.

"It's not fair that we as a community have to worry," she said. "We all want something done about the security. I understand they're trying to rehabilitate these kids, but it shouldn't be at the expense of normal people."

Two years ago, VisionQuest youths on the run stole Theresa Marisco's light blue 1988 Oldsmobile car parked in her driveway while she and her grandson were sitting in the living room watching television.

"We used to never lock our doors, but since I lost my car I don't leave anything unlocked," Marisco said.

The youths drove the vehicle until it ran out of gas in Harrisburg, Pa. The family had to pay more than $500 in repairs to the car and the impound fee, said Elwood Baker, Marisco's son.

VisionQuest reimbursed the family later and a staff member dropped off a bouquet of flowers and a note of apology after the incident, Baker said.

"It's just getting out of hand," Baker said. "With these young kids, you don't know what they're going to do."

VisionQuest Camps Operations Director Jake Devonshire said he and his staff are taking the recent escapes "very seriously."

Devonshire would only say that VisionQuest officials are doing some planning to "make some changes," though he wouldn't elaborate.

"We've heard that for years," said Patti Wagaman, a resident who's written letters and contacted nearly every local politician on up to state Gov. Tom Ridge about the situation.

Since VisionQuest was established in 1992, Wagaman has campaigned for more security at the facility. But she said the situation is out of control and she's planning to file a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"At first I wanted a fence, I wanted security. Now I want them out," Wagaman said.

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