A year after 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen collapsed and died on a hike with a Redmond-based wilderness school — an incident one investigator labeled a homicide — prosecutors have not yet decided if they’ll file criminal charges.
In June, the State Medical Examiner’s Office completed its report on the case, citing hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature rises to abnormally high levels, as the Portland boy’s cause of death. In his report, Dr. James Olson, the deputy state medical examiner for Southern Oregon, wrote that the condition occurred “due to strenuous exertion in hot environmental temperatures.”
After months of investigation, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office completed its 5,000-page report last month and turned it over to the Lake County District Attorney’s Office. Now, that office is beginning its own review, as Blashchishen’s family waits for the results of a separate state investigation and considers filing a civil case.
Family ready to move forward
Gordon Gannicott, a Portland attorney representing the family, said family members are trying to remain patient — though they’re also ready to move forward with the case.
“They would obviously want and hope that everything would get resolved,” Gannicott said.
“They do understand that these things do take some time, and they are being very patient about things, though they obviously still have strong feelings about the situation and want to pursue their claims.”
Blashchishen’s parents signed him up for the school without his knowledge because they were worried about his behavior problems, according to a search warrant affidavit filed last year by Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Poré.
Sometime in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 2009, two people contracted by SageWalk woke the boy and put him in a vehicle, as Blashchishen’s parents watched from a neighbor’s house.
At 1 p.m., the teen was blindfolded and put in a van headed for a base camp in Lake County. He met with other students, ate a meal of rice and lentils, and wrote a poem: “squirrels/running around/blue skies/green bushes and trees/but I’m still hungry.”
The next morning, the students had breakfast and set out for a hike.
About an hour into the hike, Blashchishen, who was carrying a 40- to 50-pound backpack, began behaving oddly. As the hike continued, he reportedly fell several times and vomited before he collapsed, began to hyperventilate and eventually stopped breathing.
Poré wrote in his affidavit that staff members called for help from a school nurse only after the boy had stopped breathing.
In the document, Poré points to a number of actions by school staff members that he believes contributed to Blashchishen’s death. Among them: He may not have received enough food to make it through a grueling hike.
Oregon Department of Human Services regulations for wilderness schools require that all students be offered no less than 3,000 calories of food per day. Poré wrote that Blashchishen may have had as few as 400 calories.
When Poré arrived at the scene, nearly five hours after staff members had begun CPR on the boy, and nearly three hours after they had stopped life-saving efforts, he noted that Blashchishen’s skin was still hot to the touch.
In a written statement provided Friday, Kristen Hayes, a spokeswoman for SageWalk’s parent company, Aspen Education Group, said Blashchishen received proper care.
“SageWalk Wilderness School continues to be greatly saddened by the tragic death of one of our students,” she wrote.
“We do not intend to publicly discuss the specifics of the incident during the ongoing investigation nor do we release any staff or student information as a policy, however we can provide assurances that this student was well cared for, appropriately fed, and provided multiple water and rest breaks during the two-hour hike on the day of the accident.”
Hayes wrote that two staff members trained as EMTs were on the hike, including one who stayed with Blashchishen throughout the hike.
“We are confident that staff took every step possible to ensure the safety of this student, as we have done for every student over the course of our 12 year history,” she wrote.
After Blashchishen’s death, the DHS launched its own investigation and ordered the school to be shut down.
The school has remained closed, Hayes said.
The state tightened its rules on wilderness schools after a 2000 incident in which a 15-year-old student at the Bend-based Obsidian Trails school died while a counselor held him face-down on the ground during a hike.
The school closed several years later, and a civil suit filed against the school by the boy’s mother was settled for an undisclosed amount.
No criminal charges were filed in that case.
Keely West, a DHS spokeswoman, said her agency’s report should be finished in October.
Lake County District Attorney David Schutt said it’s hard to say when he’ll be ready to decide whether to file charges in the case, given the amount of paperwork he needs to review.
In the meantime, Blashchishen’s family is trying to stay out of the spotlight, Gannicott said.
“At this point, I think that they are just going to maintain a low profile and let these independent processes under way play themselves out,” he said.