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Northwest Academy owners strike tentative deal in child abuse case

Updated April 21, 2021 - 12:17 am

BEATTY — The married owners of a now-shuttered Amargosa Valley boarding school have reached a tentative plea deal with Nye County prosecutors that will allow the couple to skirt a combined 90 felony counts of child neglect.

In a brief court hearing Monday morning, defense attorney Thomas Gibson said Marcel Chappuis will plead no contest to four misdemeanor counts while his wife, Patricia, will plead no contest to one gross misdemeanor count, meaning the defendants accept a conviction without admitting guilt. In addition, Gibson said, each will pay a $2,000 fine.

The exact charges have not been nailed down.

“The final say has to come through the DA himself,” prosecutor John Friel said, adding that he had submitted proposed charges prior to Monday’s hearing for Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia’s review, “but they were not accepted.”

Marcel and Patricia Chappuis originally faced 45 felony counts each of child abuse or neglect — a felony that carries between two and 20 years in a state prison, according to Nevada law.

Meanwhile, under Nevada law, a gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail, and a misdemeanor carries a six-month jail sentence.

But Friel later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that jail time isn’t likely to be part of the deal.

The couple’s felony counts stem from a history of documented issues with contaminated tap water at Northwest Academy, their boarding school for at-risk youth, and represent each student enrolled at the academy in its final year of operation, between February 2018 and February 2019.

State officials shut down the school on Valentine’s Day 2019, a day after the couple was arrested in Las Vegas. They posted bail later that evening and have been out of custody since.

Northwest Academy first made headlines in January 2019, when the Nye County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had opened an investigation into reports of abuse at the academy.

In a brief phone call days after news broke of the investigation, Patrica Chappuis told a Review-Journal reporter: “There have been a multitude of inaccuracies and falsities reported. There have been no findings of abuse or neglect by Sheriff (Sharon) Wehrly or any of the licensing boards.”

She and her husband were arrested just weeks later.

The Review-Journal then launched its own investigation into the couple’s little-known school, and in May 2019 published a four-part series, titled “Deserted in the Desert,” which uncovered multi-agency failures in Nevada that allowed problems at the school to go unaddressed for more than two years, including claims of child abuse and issues with its tap water.

Over the years, the school had racked up dozens of violations from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection after the couple had stopped treating its tap water in October 2016, the newspaper’s investigation found, leading to high levels of arsenic and fluoride.

The former Northwest Academy campus, located along state Route 373 near Mecca Road, is now the site of Never Give Up, a youth residential psychiatric facility.

If the plea deal goes through, it would bring to an end a case that has moved slowly through the Nye County court system. The couple is due back in Beatty Justice Court next month.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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