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May 23 2020
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Just last week, Brant Lake Camp sent an e-mail explaining why the boys’ camp, unlike many of its equally expensive peer institutions, is hoping to open despite the risks of the coronavirus, citing, among other factors, its “highly-experienced key staff.” But it did not see fit to remind families that former longtime “key staff” member Dylan Stolz would be sitting out the pandemic not on the shores of Brant Lake but, rather, at Otisville Correctional Facilitythe result of an investigation and ensuing trial instigated by the letter a camper sent home that said, “Dylan touched my penis.”

Now, a middle-aged Brant Lake alum has come forward with allegations that he, too, was once molested by a beloved former “key staff” member—a Brant Lake nature counselor who worked with the youngest campers back in the 1970s and 1980s. For every parent who compartmentalized the Stolz affair as a one-time aberration—no easy feat to begin with given that Stolz worked at the camp for 33 summers—denial may have just become that much harder.

In his graphic opening statement at Stolz’s trial, in Warren County on February 6, 2019, Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Smith alleged that, in 2017, Stolz “put his hand between the cheeks of [an eight-year-old’s] buttocks.” The following summer, he said, Stolz did it again “and that time it went even deeper.” According to Smith, during that same summer of 2018, Stolz showed up at the bedside of another boy, a nine-year-old who was new at the camp and having a hard time falling asleep as he had gotten sand in his eye that day at the beach. Stolz, he claimed, “shines a light in [this boy’s] eye, tries to see if there’s any sand, if there’s any problem.... And then lays [him] down in the bed. He begins rubbing his body.... Then he puts his hands underneath [his] pajama bottoms.... Puts his hands on [the boy’s] buttocks and then he uses his hand to manipulate his penis under the clothing.”

Stolz’s lawyer, James Knox, painted a very different picture, claiming that the real predator was not Stolz but the Brant Lake boy whose letter to his parents set off the investigation. “Kids are pretty wise in these days of the Me Too movement and the hypervigilant society that we live in,” said Knox. “They know, ‘Hey I know a way I can get back home. I’ll say that somebody touched my penis.’ … Ironically, it doesn’t have the expected effect, but does it have the effect of getting attention, absolutely.” Knox also made much of the elevated economic status of the victims’ families. “These are elite families who have power and influence and they exercise that to set the wheels in motion of an all-out investigation,” he said. “And when they are asking these young and I will submit very suggestible … children out of concern, out of hypervigilance, they’re demanding to know and the answers are provided.”

Dylan Stolz enters Warren County Municipal Center, in Queensbury, New York, 2019.

The very next day, a mistrial was declared when, as Assistant D.A. Matthew Burin told the court, one of the victims “stated to us [this morning] that he was no longer certain that the allegations regarding his penis were true. He used the words ‘I think it was true.’ He used, ‘That it probably happened.’ And as we continued to speak with him … he started moving towards language of, ‘It probably happened but I don’t think it did.’” According to Burin, the boy was asked, “‘Why copy your friends? Why would you do that?’ And his response in sum and substance was, twofold: One was that he wanted to support his friends who had made similar allegations; and two, was that he wanted to be involved in the case.”

Stolz’s lawyer claimed that the real predator was not Stolz but the Brant Lake boy whose letter to his parents set off the investigation.

Of all the grand-jury testimonies, this boy’s had been among the most vivid, recalling not just Stolz’s touching his penis over his clothes but how Stolz would “come onto my bed and put his cheek up against my cheek,” and “if [Stolz’s hand] wasn’t over my penis it was on my head or on my knee.”

The boy’s parents declined to be interviewed, but a fellow victim’s parent, who was, together with this boy and his parents, awaiting his own son’s turn to testify in the same private room in the courthouse, said that the boy felt too intimidated to testify. He “got really nervous and started to have some reservations and some doubts about what exactly transpired,” the parent said.

A child’s anxiety about testifying face-to-face against his former counselor seemed understandable. But complicating matters further was the fact that Stolz’s lawyer had subpoenaed all the victims’ parents as witnesses, thereby prohibiting them from being in the courtroom except for when it was their own turn to testify.

In an attempt to circumvent this restriction, one victim’s parents even hired criminal-defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt—part of the team that negotiated Jeffrey Epstein’s secret non-prosecution agreement with the Florida U.S. attorney—to convince the judge either to quash their subpoenas or to allow them to be present in the courtroom for their child’s testimony in spite of them. But given the mistrial, the issue became moot.

For the remaining victims and their families, the mistrial resulted in fear and anger—fear that Stolz might ultimately go free, and anger that the boys who had not yet testified might now never get their day in court. (Only the boy whose letter home set off the investigation had testified.)

“This Challenging Situation”

A new trial was scheduled for May 6, before the start of camp season. But at the request of Stolz’s defense, the Warren County D.A. agreed to have the remaining alleged victims re-interviewed on video.

On camera, one boy, who had testified before the grand jury that Stolz had molested him in both 2017 and 2018, insisted that he told his parents of the abuse in 2017. But one of the boy’s parents says they never would have sent him back to camp if that were the case. “It wasn’t that ‘Dylan didn’t do this to me,’” the parent said. “His sequencing of events just didn’t make any sense.”

Rather than risk sowing doubt in the minds of jurors, and perhaps still chastened by the mistrial, the Warren County D.A. chose to dismiss the charges related to this boy. “The fact that our son didn’t end up testifying didn’t change our involvement [with the case],” said the parent. “We basically took one for the team.”

Another complicating issue for the prosecution arose when Mani Cadet, who had worked with Stolz for 24 years at Brant Lake Camp, refused to appear on the date he was supposed to re-testify, citing an acting commitment that he could not reschedule. While the prosecution declined to compel his appearance, Stolz’s lawyer asked for an adjournment until Cadet was available to testify, arguing that, though Cadet was in fact a witness for the prosecution, he was nonetheless “clearly a material eyewitness to the defense.”

“It wasn’t that ‘Dylan didn’t do this to me,’” the parent said. “His sequencing of events just didn’t make any sense.”

In the initial trial, Cadet had testified that he and Stolz were typically the only two adults in the shower house, and that he would only ever leave Stolz alone in there momentarily in order to “step out the door and yell around the corner.” But Cadet admitted that he did not pay attention to everything Stolz did when he washed a child because the shower house “is full of seven-, eight-, nine-year-old boys. So you have to pay attention to them.” When the prosecutor asked Cadet, “What did you observe Dylan doing in terms of washing kids?,” Cadet simply answered, “Same as me. Same as I did,” only later adding, “I mean, Dylan liked them to be a little cleaner.” Cadet also noted that cleaning went into high gear during the yearly Green and Gray competition due to the Brant Lake campers’ “extra spraying of their hair and painting of their face and arms” with non-water-based paint. “And how would you assist in getting that paint off?” the Warren County assistant D.A. asked. Cadet replied, “Um, in particular wear exfoliating gloves.” Cadet did not respond to a request for comment.

On May 6, just days after Stolz’s defense lawyer submitted the request to postpone the trial until June, when Cadet could come upstate to re-testify, Dylan Stolz took a plea deal. Having already turned down a previous offer from the government to serve between 7 and 12 years for 2 counts of his original 27-count indictment, this deal required him to serve just 4 1/2 years, with 10 years’ parole. According to the deal, Stolz was allowed to offer an “Alford plea,” meaning that he was legally able to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the evidence against him was sufficient to persuade a jury that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The day after Stolz took his plea deal, Brant Lake Camp sent an e-mail to its families sharing the news, noting, “We feel for and admire the way the boys and families most involved handled this challenging situation since last June, and hope that this result brings them relief, closure and a sense of justice. We look forward to seeing your boys’ smiling faces at BLC.”

“I can’t speak to what Richie [Gersten, the director of Brant Lake] did beforehand,” says a parent of one of the boys who testified and then returned to Brant Lake Camp, as eight of the nine boys did, “but afterwards, I think Richie did everything the best way he could.... Some of the new things they put in place, it’s impressive.” Richie Gersten declined to comment for this article.

In the wake of the Stolz investigation, Brant Lake Camp hired both the Sexual Misconduct consulting division of T&M Protection Resources and the Child Mind Institute to “evaluate all our policies and make appropriate suggestions and recommendations.” By the spring of 2019, Brant Lake Camp was ready to share its new “Code of Conduct,” whereby staff must not: “Be alone with a camper in a non-observable space.... Help campers shower or dry after showering.... Pat or touch the buttocks of a camper (even doing so in an athletic context is prohibited).” But other than its addition of a new anonymous tip line, these guidelines were fairly standard practice at accredited camps.

“As a token of our respect for what you have had to go through since last June, and in appreciation for your continued trust and support,” Gersten wrote to the parents whose sons had testified against Stolz and were returning to Brant Lake, “we, at BLC, wish to deduct $5,000 from this summer’s [2019] tuition.” One of the parents told me, “I’m in negotiation with them about that.... They’re not giving free camp for life, as they should be. They made some initial offer that was, like, a joke—‘We can cover his therapy.’”

“I’m trying not to file a lawsuit,” said the parent. “If I file a lawsuit, I would have to switch the camp. He had a great summer.”

At his sentencing, on June 21, just five days before Brant Lake opened for its 103rd season, Stolz declined to make a statement. However, one of the boys he molested and another boy’s parent were allowed to make victim-impact statements. “When I first realized what Dylan was doing,” said the 11-year-old boy, “I wouldn’t let myself believe it because I trusted him. My brother and I knew him for over five years and we all trusted him.... I didn’t say anything because I tried to convince myself it wasn’t happening.... I had and continue to have frequent nightmares about seeing him, about him coming near me.... I hate when my parents aren’t home with me. I just don’t feel safe anymore.... Even if I’m studying or playing soccer, I’m thinking about it. It’s impossible to get it out of my head.”

“They’re not giving free camp for life, as they should be,” said one parent. “They made some initial offer that was, like, a joke—‘We can cover his therapy.’”

“I hope over the next four and a half years [Stolz] experiences the fear he instilled in these young boys,” said the mother of another victim. “I’m sure over the past 30 years with access to thousands of boys there are many more victims who have not yet come forward.”

This past winter, the parent of an 11-year-old Brant Laker was taken by surprise when her son, who had attended camp there for three summers, suddenly told her that Stolz had molested him, and that he had reported this to a “key staff” member. “My kid reported,” she said, “and the camp didn’t tell me.... I’m sorry, I think I have a right to know.” She is now meeting with attorneys.

The visitors’ entrance at Brant Lake Camp, in the Adirondacks.

According to New York State Police investigator Justin Mootz, many Brant Lake families wanted to contribute to the Stolz investigation, but without directly getting involved. “I was getting phone calls every day—campers, parents. They’d be like, ‘My name is irrelevant, this does not involve myself and my children, but this has been going on for a long time.’”

“We would hear stories,” said the parent of a victim who was part of the Stolz case. “Boys who had aged out of the camp were not surprised about the allegations against Dylan. A lot of people had their own suspicions.”

Dylan Stolz is currently serving his four-and-a-half-year sentence at Otisville Correctional Facility, in Mount Hope, New York. This past February, I sent him a written request for an interview, but he has not responded, and the prison is not allowing visitors due to the coronavirus. I have also repeatedly called and e-mailed his attorney, James Knox, about the allegations in this story. Knox has not responded to requests for comment.

“It’s Haunted Him”

At a benefit for a social-justice organization in the fall of 2018, I happened to meet a Brant Lake alum, who told me that he first attended camp there at the age of nine, in the summer of 1977. When I asked him what he thought of the Stolz case, his face transformed, almost into a mask, with all emotion suddenly draining.

“Do you know someone who was abused there?,” I asked him. He waited quite a bit before answering. “I was,” he said.

More than a year later, this native Upper East Sider agreed to meet me on the far West Side of Manhattan to tell me his story.

As a boy, the alum’s first Brant Lake counselor was a man who he said was well liked around camp. He remembered that when he arrived at his bunk, this counselor had already folded all of his and his bunkmates’ clothes and tucked away all their belongings, while the other campers had had to do these tasks themselves.

The molesting, the alum said, happened at night. “He was coming to me when we were in bed, almost sleeping.... He would take his hand and try to get me to touch him plus he would touch me.... Luckily, I was on the top bunk.” The alum says that he would pretend to be asleep in order to avoid his counselor’s probing hands, and that he can still remember the “bizarre smell” that this man had from frequently putting on body powder. After that summer, he begged his parents not to send him back to Brant Lake, though he didn’t say why, and his parents re-enrolled him.

The next summer, the alum avoided his former counselor, who had poor vision and wore thick glasses, whenever he saw him, an experience that a close friend and fellow Brant Laker still vividly remembers. The counselor would say to the alum, “‘Come close, I can’t see you,’” the friend recalled. “There was a rationale for [the counselor] to get close to people. It gave him more of a license.” According to the friend, whenever this happened, the alum would hide, or go off in a different direction, a reaction he had to no one else. Years later, the friend said, the alum told him that the counselor had molested him.

According to another Brant Laker, who arrived at the camp in the early 1980s and had the same counselor, “He would always come over to all of us and rub our backs at night…. He definitely laid on the bed with some kids. I think he was trying to soothe us. It almost pains me to hear an allegation, because everyone liked him. He was different from any other counselor. He wasn’t young and athletic.”

He begged his parents not to send him back to Brant Lake, though he didn’t say why, and his parents re-enrolled him.

In the 1980s, when the alum was a teenager, he was finally able to articulate to his parents the sexual abuse that he says he suffered at Brant Lake Camp. In response, he says, his father wrote a letter detailing his abuse to Richie Gersten’s father, Bobby, then the camp’s executive director. According to the alum, Bobby Gersten wrote back “a five- or six-page letter in scribble script,” saying that he didn’t believe the allegation, that the counselor in question was great at his job, and that he wasn’t going to fire him. The only concession Bobby Gersten made, says the alum, was that this counselor would no longer be a bunk counselor, although he was still permitted to do camp overnights. The alum’s family no longer has Gersten’s letter, and this was before camp directors were added into Section 413 of the New York Social Services Law as “mandated reporters” of “suspected incidents of child abuse or maltreatment.”

Bobby Gersten and the alum’s father are now both deceased, and, despite extensive efforts, the counselor could not be located.

The alum’s mother, who is now in her 80s, said she does not remember her husband sending the letter that her son describes.

What she does remember is sharing the details of her son’s allegation with Karen Gerstenzang Meltzer—the daughter of Brant Lake’s founder—who was then a director of the camp, at a social gathering that Meltzer and her husband, Laurence, hosted in the 1980s. According to the alum’s mother, Meltzer’s reply was very dismissive: “‘Oh, no, that couldn’t be. [That counselor’s] been with us forever and he’s wonderful and he’s loved.’ That made me feel like a fool.” These allegations were shared with the Meltzers, who did not respond.

What is very clear to the alum’s mother is the profound effect that the sexual abuse her son says he experienced at Brant Lake has had on his life. “It’s haunted him,” she tells me. “I don’t think he ever forgets it.... Maybe this other thing,” she says, referring to Stolz’s abuse of Brant Lake campers in the 2010s, “wouldn’t have happened if I got the other parents involved, and got their camp closed.”

In these last several weeks, Richie Gersten, together with his two fellow Brant Lake Camp directors—his son, Max, who is a coach at the Dalton School, and Andy Berlin, who is a retired Great Neck Public Schools gym teacher—has been sending impassioned e-mails to the Brant Lake Camp community about his determination to open for a shortened session come July. “In our 104-year history, Brant Lake has been open through two World Wars, the Depression, the Polio epidemic and more,” he wrote. “We will do everything we can to continue that streak with the safety and care of your children being, as always, of paramount importance.... We cherish our relationship with you and your boys and are humbled by the trust you place in us. We will not violate that trust.”

Johanna Berkman is a writer based in New York

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