NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
Parents spend thousands of dollars to send their children to summer camp. Their expectation is that the counselors are as wholesome as their children.
But many parents don't know that thousands of camp counselors are brought into the U.S. from overseas each summer in an Internet- intensive process which can fail to pin down defects.
Scott Zirus is now a convicted sexual predator serving 40 years for sexually abusing two boys at Camp Stewart near Kerrville, one of the oldest camps in Texas.
When Zirus started working at Camp Stewart in 2009, fresh off the plane from Australia on his first visit to the United States, he was described as one of the best counselor recruits ever.
A civil lawsuit resulted when Zirus confessed to sexually assaulting two boys at the camp. The parents of two other boys alleged their sons were also assaulted by Zirus and joined the lawsuit.
The core of the action: How could Scott Zirus have been hired to work at the camp?
The camp itself was cited for fraud and negligence in the case, and another company, Camp America, was also named.
Last week, the lawsuit was settled for $5.65 million.
Like 900 other camps in the U.S., Camp Stewart depends on a company called the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), which uses the trade name Camp America, to supply it with counselors from overseas.
Camp America attracts young people from all over the world. They pay a fee to apply to be counselors, and — if accepted — serve a summer at a camp and then spend a few months traveling the country.
Applicants submit a humorous video about themselves on the Internet as part of the hiring process. Camp America gives them advice on how to be appealing.
Scott Zirus, a soft-spoken, pudgy man now in his late 20s, told a Camp America interviewer he had left home at the age of 14 — perhaps a warning sign for some.
One of Zirus' three references was unsigned. Mike Sawicki, attorney for the boys, said another warning sign should have been where Zirus had been living just before he'd been hired.
"He was living below the poverty line in a tent, because he had no employment, which would have been a trigger and a warning sign," Sawicki said.
Court records show that the Camp America interviewer who talked to Zirus viewed the tent experience as valuable outdoor training.
Court records also show Zirus founded a religion called Shadoran, which advocated sex with anyone — regardless of age or gender.
Attorney Sawicki argues that Camp America should have found the information on Shadoran — as well as pictures of Zirus with young boys — on the Internet before he was hired. The information was available on several sites.
Camp America argues that it couldn't reasonably be expected to perform such a search.
In his recorded confession, Zirus — wearing Bermuda shorts and leg chains in the Kerr County Jail — softly told an interrogator he didn't know how many young boys he had ever molested. He admitted taking a prescription drug to suppress his sexual urge for young boys at an earlier point in his life.
Ultimately, Zirus told a deputy sheriff he had molested "five or six" boys back in Australia. He said he had only assaulted two boys at Camp Stewart.
But in diagramming the bed positions in the camp house where he slept with the boys at Camp Stewart, Zirus revealed his bed was a perfect place for molestation. It was hidden by two walls, and Zirus hung an Australian flag from the top end of his bunk bed, which obscured him and whoever was with him in the bed below from view.
Court records show Camp America's interviewer handbook recognizes the dangers and attractions of boys' camps for pedophiles.
In addition to Australia, agencies like Camp America provide counselors from the U.K., South Africa and Poland. There are a total of 23 agencies like Camp America bringing counselors into the United States.
"The duty for places like Camp America to do the simple checks that their own polices say they should do should be the minimum of what should be done to protect these kids," Sawicki said.
Neither Camp America nor Camp Stewart admitted guilt in settling the case. Neither responded to requests for comment from News 8.