Cedar Ridge Academy (1996-2020) Roosevelt, UT

Therapeutic Boarding School

History and Background Information

Cedar Ridge Academy was a behavior-modification program that opened in 1996. It was marketed as a Therapeutic Boarding School for teenagers (13-17) dealing with issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, childhood trauma, school problems, relationship problems, mild to moderate substance abuse, ADD/ADHD, and anger-management problems. The program had a maximum enrollment of 70 teenagers, and the average length of stay was between 10 and 14 months.

The program was located at 4270 W 5625 N, Roosevelt, UT 84066. This property originally belonged to the founder of the program, Robert Nielson, who had lived on the property for many years.

According to a website created by survivors of Cedar Ridge Academy, “Cedar Ridge was founded by Robert Alexander Nielson in 1996, after he spent time working in Cross Creek Manor in La Verkin, Utah. He learned of the (now disbanded) WWASP model, and decided he could do it “better,” in Roosevelt, Utah. Robert (Rob) was unlicensed at the time. He brought some girls from Cross Creek Manor, and a boy to live in his single wide trailer in the desolate, isolated high desert of northeastern Utah. Cedar Ridge, which is now called Makana, is in Roosevelt: a boom and bust oil town in the middle of nowhere. The facility was far from town, on one long dusty, bone shattering, washboarded dirt road. Sage, cacti, and stunted pinyon pines were all that grew there. This was not the picturesque southern Utah multicolored, Mighty-5, over-instagrammed-desertscape, nor the greatest “snows on earth” of the Wasatch Front for which Utah is notorious (these images are being falsely featured on Makana’s deceptive marketing materials). Roosevelt is a small town, with a population of ~6,000. It is located in the land of abandoned or semi-functional oil wells, now the site of fracking. The region has recently gained notoriety for its abnormally high rates of infant mortality.”

Between 2010 and 2015, two employees of CRA were arrested for sexually abusing multiple minors in the program. Both of them pleaded guilty and were sented to prison. More information about these incidents can be viewed below.

In 2020, Robert Nielson sold CRA to new owners, who reopened the program under the name Makana Leadership Academy. Although Makana is now under new management, it appears that the “changes” they claim to have made to the program are merely cosmetic. The underlying structure of the program is identical to that of Cedar Ridge Academy. Makana Leadership Academy is confirmed to be the re-brand of Cedar Ridge Academy. Makana currently continues to operate in the same location with many of the same staff. Robert Nielson continues to live on Makana’s campus.

Founders and Notable Staff

Robert A. Nielson is one of the Founders of Cedar Ridge. He also worked as the Program Director and Clinical Director. He previously worked at the confirmedly abusive Cross Creek Manor, a notorious and violent WWASP program. It is reported that Cedar Ridge’s program structure and level-system was directly copied from Cross Creek’s. He is the father of Wes Nielson. It is reported that Robert sold the program in 2020 to the new owners of Makana Leadership Academy, but he continues to live on the property.

Wes Nielson is one of the Owners of Cedar Ridge, and the son of Robert Nielson. He also worked as the Executive Director of Cedar Ridge from 1996 until 2012. He was appointed to this position by his father, Robert Nielson.

Pamela Nielson is one of the Owners of Cedar Ridge. She also worked as a Counselor at the program.

Geary David Oakes worked as the Director of Student Services and as a Nurse at Cedar Ridge from 1999 until 2009. In 2009, it was discovered that he had been sexually abusing at least four boys at CRA, and illegally giving out prescription drugs to at least three other residents.

Sean Haggerty worked as the Director of Admissions at Cedar Ridge from 1996 until 2012. He currently works as the Director of Admissions at Daniels Academy.

Gregory L. Burnham worked as a Therapist at Cedar Ridge from 1999 until 2002. He is remembered by survivors for his “creative and cruel methodologies”, and calling the children “bud.” He has a long, sordid history in this industry. He began his career at Cedar Ridge, where he reportedly forced a girl to carry buckets full of pebbles for months on end. She also reportedly had to carry a log. It is also reported that all the children were required to clap whenever she spoke, in order to fulfill her “need for attention.” He left Cedar Ridge in 2002 (reportedly after a sexual abuse scandal involving one of the girls) and began working for the confirmedly abusive New Haven RTC from 2005 until 2013, eventually becoming the program’s Assisstant Clinical Director. He then went on to work as the Clinical Director of WinGate Wilderness until 2017, when he left to begin working as the Clinical Director of the reportedly abusive Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, an Aspen Education Group program.

Brent Crane: joined Cedar Ridge and stayed for some time. He tended to work with the young boys. He and Robert Neilson were cited by Utah’s Licensing Division in 2016 for failure to report sexual abuse at Cedar Ridge. This was by far not the only incident of abuse, but it was a case that they were caught for. Currently, Brent Crane resides in Texas where he offers “free therapy.” It is unclear whether he is licensed.

David Prior worked as a Therapist at Cedar Ridge from 2000 until 2002. He then went on to work as a Therapist, and later, as the Assistant Clinical Director of New Haven RTC from 2002 until 2006. He then worked as the Executive Director of Sunrise RTC from 2006 until 2015. He now works as the Chief Operations Officer of InnerChange (Embark Behavior Health).

Program Structure

Like other behavior-modification programs, Cedar Ridge Academy used a level system consisting of several “trust” levels (ranging from Level 0 to Level 900). New youth are placed on level 400 upon admission and could advance to level 500 as soon as they have mastered the student manual. They can move up or down, depending on behavior and attitude. Levels below 500 have restricted privileges such as not being allowed to watch the weekly movie. Cedar Ridge utilized a “daily point card” to track behaviors for all youth at the 500 level or below. Youth had to earn a sufficient number of points each day in order to earn privileges. Staff members then examined the point cards to ensure that the youth had a sufficient ratio (4 to 1) of “positive teaching interactions” to the number of times “attention is drawn to negative behaviors.” When the youth reached level 600, the point card was discontinued and the staff would then track target behaviors on a “daily rating sheet.”

  • Level 0: is also called “Watch Level”, and is assigned when a resident has broken a serious rule, threatened to run away, or harmed themselves. On this level, the resident is subjected 24/7 supervision by staff.
  • Level 100: no additional information
  • Level 200: no additional information
  • Level 300: no additional information
  • Level 400: When a resident arrived at Cedar Ridge, they were placed on Level 400. If they broke a rule, they were demoted to a level between 0 and 300.
  • Level 500: New residents can advance to this level as soon as they have mastered the student manual.
  • Level 600: On this level, residents were expected to: acknowledge existence of their problems, participate in group & individual counseling, accept being in the program, and follow the rules willingly.
  • Level 700: On this level, the residents were expected to: be honest about feelings & attitudes, be respectful toward staff and peers, show minimal negativity, show overall improvement, be willing to explore personal issues, be ‘real’ (genuine), demonstrate accountability, “settle down”, work cooperatively w/parents, and have mostly let go of “old image”. On levels 700 and above, residents were allowed to participate in Off-Campus activities.
  • Level 800: On this level, the residents were expected to: demonstrate awareness of own issues, accept feedback from peers undefensively, have a positive influence on others, handle problems assertively, avoid justifying or rationalizing, confronting peers appropriately, complete their “fears chart, cycles chart, and plan for the future” and have them approved by peers & therapist, show leadership, be honest/trustworthy, have “completely dropped old image”, demonstrate self-discipline, avoid power struggles, and work well with parents.
  • Level 900: On this level, the residents were expected to: function as powerful leader, be courageous and strives for excellence, demonstrate good problem-solving skills, not be out for others’ acceptance, show humility & willingness to learn, complete their “Home Contract” and have it approved by peers, therapist, and parents, be ready to transition home, be fully centered, be loving and caring, handle conflict calmly, avoid forming cliques, and demonstrate empathy.

Each youth had a biweekly individual therapy session. In addition, all youth must complete three specific assignments:

  • Fears Chart: a detailed description of the underlying fears that he/she has and a complete analysis of the ways in which individuals use defense mechanisms to avoid dealing with these fears. This includes an analysis of how their irrational thoughts and beliefs perpetuate these fears.
  • Cycles Chart: pinpoints which thoughts and moods are repeated and cause certain behaviors to recur.
  • Plan for the Future: a plan for avoiding negative behaviors that focuses on positive behaviors and a ‘map’ to help the youth accomplish future goals.

It appears that Karate was also a large part of the program. Many of the staff were trained in Karate and other martial arts.

Abuse, Lawsuits, and Closure

Cedar Ridge Academy was a confirmedly abusive program. Many survivors report that they experienced and witnessed many instances of abuse and neglect while in this program, and there have been multiple confirmed incidents of sexual abuse at Cedar Ridge.

On December 1st 2009, a Nurse at Cedar Ridge, Geary David Oakes, was arrested after reports were made that he had sexually abused two male residents at the program. He was initially charged with two counts of forcible sodomy, a first-degree felony; and forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony. The sergeant said the alleged abuse came to light in late November when one of the teens discussed it in a therapy session. Oakes had apparently forcibly performed “hernia checks” on the boys as many as three times per week. The charges in those cases indicated that the abuse took place at Cedar Ridge, at Oakes’ home and in the bathroom of a Roosevelt grocery store. A week later, he was additionally charged with sexually abusing two more teens and illegally providing prescription drugs to three others. In June of 2010, Oakes pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor — charges that were amended to second- and third-degree felonies in exchange for the guilty plea. He also pleaded guilty to an amended charge of one count of unlawful and unprofessional conduct, a class A misdemeanor. Duchesne County prosecutor Grant Charles said Oakes’ conduct included engaging in sexual activity with the victims, fondling them and showing them pornography. Oakes was also initially charged with providing the boys with drugs, however, those charges were dismissed as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors. In September of 2010, he was sentenced to up to five years in prison for each of the four unlawful sexual activity with a minor charges he pleaded guilty to in June. Judge George Harmond also ordered Oakes to serve a one-year sentence for his guilty plea to unprofessional conduct.

In 2015, another employee of Cedar Ridge, Russell Robb, was arrested after he groped two teenage female residents at the program, one of whom he was supposed to be supervising after she was put on “watch level” because she threatened to run away/harm herself. He admitted to the crimes and was also sentenced to prison.

On February 24th of 2020, three teenager girls ran away from Cedar Ridge Academy. They were all located on February 25th and booked into the Split Mountain Youth Detention Center. They were reportedly breaking into a motorhome late on Feb. 24, allowing them to remain hidden from law enforcement. They left sometime around noon on Tues. the 25, where they left the motorhome and walked to a house next door and asked the homeowner for transportation. The homeowner then reported the contact to the Duchesne County Sheriff’s Office where the girls were detained shortly after.

Shortly after this, Robert Nielson sold CRA to new owners, who reopened the program under the name Makana Leadership Academy. Although Makana is now under new management, it appears that the “changes” they claim to have made to the program are merely cosmetic. The underlying structure of the program is identical to that of Cedar Ridge Academy. Makana Leadership Academy is confirmed to be the re-brand of Cedar Ridge Academy. Makana currently continues to operate in the same location with many of the same staff. Robert Nielson continues to live on Makana’s campus.

Survivor/Parent Testimonials

9/14/2018: (SURVIVOR) Link to Interview with Mel Grrster – Survivor of Cedar Ridge

Unknown Date: (SURVIVORS) “As children detained at Cedar Ridge (the site of what we’ve been informed is renamed Makana Leadership Academy), we were unable to call our parents, or talk to them without supervision of staff members or “therapists” (some of whom we have learned operated without a license). Frequently, our parents were told that we were manipulative liars. “Why trust a troubled teen? They tend to exaggerate things.” As a result, while living in the residential facility, once called Cedar Ridge, we were surrounded by strangers. These strangers often abused us. Given the isolated and insulated nature of this facility, such abuses were common. There was nowhere to run and no one to call for help. We couldn’t share information with each other either, as conversations and relationships with our peers and parents were intensely policed. We wish relationships between students and staff had been subjected to the same level of scrutiny. There were no boundaries at Cedar Ridge. According to sources, the owners of Cedar Ridge are still physically adjacent to Makana, despite selling the property to a new company. This is cause for concern. While the program was administered by Wes Neilson and Robert Alexander Neilson, we were watched by adult staff 24/7, until making it to the upper levels when we were allowed to walk from one building to another without asking for permission. Thus, for the majority of time we were incarcerated at Cedar Ridge, we were watched by adults while we were in the bathroom, as we took our 3 minute showers, while we slept, ate, spoke, breathed, and as we endlessly completed menial chores. They were our captors. Group therapy, when supervised by Robert Alexander Nielson, was often a time of forced confessions, many of them centering sexual themes, of an inappropriate nature. The Nielsons often spoke about their own marital and sexual relationships. We were forced to admit to things we did not do. We were berated for being who we were (especially the LGBTQ kids). We were unable to develop age-appropriate relationships with one another, due to the ongoing influence of staff. Over the last week, we have been alerted to multiple counts of unreported child sexual abuse while in-residence at Cedar Ridge Academy, now rebranded as Makana. From unwanted genital touching, the sharing of illicit photos, and outright sexual assault, we have uncovered a serial pattern of the Nielsons failing to report sexual misconduct on their facility. It has become clear that staff members routinely had intimate and extremely inappropriate sexual relationships with the children in their care. One of our former teachers, the daughter of Rob, Christine Nielson, is now purportedly an author of erotic fiction (most likely self-published?), has had known romantic relationships with former inmates twenty+ years her junior.” – Cedar Academy Truth Website

Unknown Date: (SURVIVOR) Link to Mary’s Survivor Testimony

Unknown Date: (SURVIVOR) Link to Jason’s Survivor Testimony

Related Media

Cedar Ridge Academy Website Homepage (archived, 2000)

Cedar Ridge Academy Website Homepage (archived, 2004)

HEAL Program Information – Cedar Ridge Academy

Truth about Cedar Ridge/Makana (Website made by survivors)

Secret Prisons for Teens – Cedar Ridge Academy

1000 Places You Don’t Want to be as a Teenager – Cedar Ridge Academy

Makana/Cedar Ridge Survivors – Instagram

Cedar Ridge Survivors – Facebook

Ex-school nurse faces additional charges in Duchesne County (Deseret News, 12/15/2009)

Ex-school nurse pleads guilty in sex abuse case (Deseret News, 6/8/2010)

Former boarding school employee sentenced to prison (Salt Lake Tribune, 9/2/2010)

Former nurse sent to prison for abusing teen students (Deseret News, 9/2/2010)

Former Students at Utah troubled-teen centers say their reports of sex abuse were ignored (Salt Lake Tribune, 12/27/2020)