Timberline Knolls is a 43-acre residential treatment program for girls and women in suburban Lemont. Prosecutors allege that counselor Mike Jacksa sexually assaulted or abused six female patients there in 2018. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)[/caption]
6 women sexually abused by counselor at women’s rehab center Timberline Knolls, prosecutors say
David Jackson Contact ReporterChicago Tribune
The women and girls who come to Timberline Knolls are in crisis. They arrive at the nationally recognized treatment center after suicide attempts, addicted to drugs, overwhelmed by mood and eating disorders.
But instead of finding safe harbor, some reported being traumatized in new and horrible ways.
Cook County prosecutors allege that a Timberline Knolls counselor, Mike Jacksa, sexually assaulted or abused six patients last year at the leafy 43-acre rehab center in suburban Lemont. Former patients told police that Jacksa subjected them to rape, forced oral sex, digital penetration and fondling beneath their clothes. He faces 62 felony charges.
The abuse allegations began to surface last summer, but Timberline officials waited at least three weeks to contact law enforcement, police reports show. In the meantime, Timberline staff conducted internal investigations, twice suspending and reinstating Jacksa, police records show.
In early July, when Timberline staff discovered journal entries by a patient that described her sexual encounters with Jacksa, they confronted the woman in his presence, police reports show. Afterward, the woman “went back to her lodge and broke a mirror, intending to hurt herself or commit suicide over the embarrassment and emotional distress the whole situation with Jacksa had caused,” a Lemont police report said. “She was transported to a hospital.”
Widely accepted treatment standards say people who report sex crimes should not be forced to give their accounts in front of their alleged attackers.
Timberline Knolls suspended Jacksa a third time in early August, after the police got involved, then fired him Aug. 10. His alleged sexual attacks on patients were “an isolated incident,” said Timberline spokesman Gary Mack. “Facility administrators were greatly saddened by this whole situation and believed they acted swiftly and certainly to take Jacksa off the street.”
But the Tribune also found the charges against Jacksa arose amid a surge of Lemont police reports about dangerous incidents at Timberline last year.
Apart from the Jacksa case, police responded to 14 allegations of patient-on-patient sex crimes or batteries at the facility last year, compared with a total of 12 such cases in the previous three years. Meanwhile, Timberline reported 10 missing persons or runaways to Lemont police in 2018, compared with seven reports total in the previous three years.
A program specialist for the U.S. State Department who ran marathons, organized book clubs and was active in her church, Cho “had a lot of positive energy and wanted to make the world a better place,” said Steve Park, who runs a charity called Little Lights. Cho volunteered there by teaching math in a Washington, D.C., housing project.
A month before her arrival at Timberline, Cho had been admitted to Washington, D.C.-area hospitals three times after separate suicide attempts, according to her family’s account in their pending wrongful-death lawsuit against the facility.
Timberline failed to diagnose Cho’s crisis-level mental instability and her warning signs for suicide, the Cho family lawsuit alleges. It also states that Timberline staff knew Cho had left via the Lyft car service yet did not call Lyft to determine where she went. Cho’s parents, who live in Wheaton, declined to comment for this story.
On the same freezing and overcast day Cho left Timberline — Jan. 24, 2018 — another client also disappeared into the light snow.
A 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, she left the facility with no money, credit card or cellphone, according to Lemont police records and national missing-person posts.
As she solicited rides from truck drivers, authorities used K-9 dogs and gathered travel plaza videos and confidential tips to trace her four days later to the home of a Bridgeview man who said he did not know she was a runaway. She was in his bedroom closet when authorities recovered her, Lemont police records show.
Mack said Timberline Knolls went above and beyond the call of duty to protect its patients in these and other cases. The Pennsylvania girl, and other runaway and missing-person reports represent a tiny fraction of the hundreds of clients Timberline served, Mack said.
He also said Cho’s disappearance and suicide do not reflect on Timberline Knolls because she left before completing patient admission forms.
“She was not a patient at Timberline — she was not in their charge and she had the free will to do whatever she wanted to do during the initial intake interview,” Mack said.
Following the revelations about Jacksa, Mack said, Timberline increased the frequency of staff checks on therapy rooms, installed larger windows on the therapy rooms so no corners were hidden from the line of sight, conducted fresh employee background checks, and retrained staff on how to spot and handle evidence of abuse.
The company said in a statement that it also conducted a thorough investigation into how Jacksa “manipulated Timberline Knolls’ policies, protocols and procedures, to assure it won’t happen again. We are committed to ensuring Timberline Knolls always meets our high standards so that every patient receives the quality of care that is worthy of the facility’s reputation as one of the world’s leading residential treatment centers.”
A ‘good-looking Christian dude’
The website for Timberline Knolls describes the facility as a private residential treatment center “for women and adolescent girls with eating disorders, addictions, mood disorders and trauma.” Its national reputation has been earned in part by treating celebrities including chart-topping songwriter Kesha and singer Demi Lovato, who both have spoken publicly about seeking help there in times of personal crisis.
The picturesque campus of lodges with wooden bridges and rustic, limestone cliffs has had a troubled history over years of ownership changes. Once called Rock Creek Center, it shuttered in 2002 amid a massive Medicare fraud scandal that involved serious harm to patients. It was reopened as Timberline Knolls four years later, but two of its directors resigned in 2010 after the Tribune revealed their ties to the previous illegal schemes and showed the facility made misleading claims about treatment successes.
Since 2012, the 122-bed facility has been owned by Acadia Healthcare, one of America’s biggest and fastest-growing behavioral treatment firms. Founded in 2005 by Chicago private-equity investor Reeve Waud, Acadia says it now operates 586 facilities holding 18,000 beds in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Mack called Acadia “a thought leader” in treating mental health disorders.
When Timberline hired Michael Anthony Jacksa in 2017 as a licensed clinical counselor, it brought on a therapist with a decade of experience in handling difficult cases of families in crisis and youths in detention.
“His performance here can be characterized as dedicated, with a sincere commitment to the community and its many underserved residents,” said one letter of recommendation for Jacksa from the Will County Health Department, where he worked for six years until leaving in 2013.
Muscular and charismatic, the married 39-year-old father of two also helped Timberline fulfill a special component of its program: counseling based on New Testament scriptures. Timberline is open to nonbelievers and people of all faiths, but it also has promoted a “Christian Treatment Path.”
“Hands-on activities help wounded women and girls release to God their feelings of shame, inadequacy, guilt, anger, or rage,” said one archived facility web post from 2018, when Jacksa worked there. “Christian-based therapy helps women of faith overcome emotional and spiritual obstacles that prevent them from experiencing God’s purpose and plan for life.”
One of Jacksa’s alleged victims described him in a Patch article as a “nicely dressed, good-looking Christian dude” who discussed “Christianity and sports” with the women under his care. “That’s why a lot of us chose (Timberline). I felt that Christianity was important in my treatment,” the woman told Patch. (This paragraph has been corrected from a previous version.)
The second sign of problems came July 16, when Timberline was contacted by administrators from a sister Acadia facility, The Refuge in Ocklawaha, Fla.
On that day, a patient stated during her Refuge intake interviews that she had been sexually assaulted by Jacksa while being treated at Timberline in May and June, according to records from the Marion County, Fla., sheriff and Lemont police. She told a Florida investigator she did everything she could to fend off Jacksa, even wearing jeans instead of leggings during therapy sessions so he couldn’t easily grope her. But “she felt he had power over her. He controlled everything” from her daily activity schedule to her insurance billings, she told Florida police.
A therapist from The Refuge later told Marion County, Fla., police that making this disclosure triggered a “dissociative trauma response” in the woman.
According to Florida and Lemont police reports, the Refuge patient also described how another woman had broken a mirror after staff read her diaries and questioned her in front of Jacksa. That indicates the diary was found prior to July 16.
Timberline did not call police after getting the call from The Refuge. Instead, Timberline administrators questioned Jacksa that same day and suspended him while they “investigated the allegation in-house,” according to a subsequent Lemont police report.
“Mike had denied anything happened and he was brought back to work under supervision” a week later, on July 23, another Lemont report said.
Eleven days later, on Aug. 3, Timberline received a call from a former patient who said she and several other patients had “experienced inappropriate sexual comments and advances by Mike Jacksa while in therapy sessions with him,” a Lemont police report said.
Timberline suspended Jacksa a second time, while administrators again “investigated in-house,” according to a Lemont police report.
Also on that day, the state Department of Human Services decided after a two-day review to renew Timberline’s license for only a year, instead of the usual three-year period. The department division that licenses the facility has limited jurisdiction to conduct monitoring, but a state reviewer sought personnel and patient records from the facility after two former patients called the state and alleged they had been sexually abused by Jacksa.
On Aug. 6, a former patient called Lemont police with her account of abuse by Jacksa, and police opened an investigation. The next day, Timberline independently “decided they needed to call the police afterward and did so on this date,” a police report said.
That day, a Lemont police detective asked a Timberline administrator why Timberline had waited at least the three weeks since July 16 to report Jacksa’s potential crimes.
The administrator explained to police that administrators of individual Acadia facilities “have to contact corporate with these matters and corporate tells them to investigate and investigate more before they are allowed to call police,” according to a Lemont police report released to the Tribune under open records laws.
The Lemont detective told the administrator that “delayed reporting can greatly affect the outcome of a criminal investigation,” according to his report. She “stated she understood but she was bound by corporate’s instructions and policies,” the Lemont police report said.
Mack said the statements made in the police report do not reflect Acadia’s corporate policies. “The corporate policy of the company is (that) the administrator of a facility has the authority to, and is expected to, contact police about any criminal matter,” Mack said.
Crossing the line
On Aug. 10, Timberline terminated Jacksa and made him available to police for an interview at the facility, according to Lemont police reports.
As Lemont detectives interviewed Jacksa, he became increasingly nervous, according to the written account of the Lemont detective.
Jacksa acknowledged developing feelings for one patient, but as police began to discuss her case, “Jacksa became so nervous that he stated he was going to be sick and began to dry heave. … After he regained his composure, Jacksa agreed that he crossed the line during therapy,” a Lemont police report said. He admitted to pulling down that woman’s pants and groping her with his fingers, the police report said.
Asked about another case, Jacksa did not deny the woman’s statements but said “he really didn’t remember and had ‘blocked it out.’ ” He said he thought everything he did with women at the facility was consensual.
Prosecutors have charged Jacksa with 62 felony counts of criminal sexual assault and criminal sexual abuse, as well as one misdemeanor battery charge for allegedly stroking a patient’s groin area during her treatment.
One woman told police Jacksa would compliment her on her looks when she was crying. He penetrated her from behind, she told police, and said something to the effect of: “That should make you feel better.” In her account, she described running back to her bedroom, pulling the covers over herself and breaking down.
Another woman told police Jacksa would look at her strangely and say, “Wow, just, wow.” He offered to massage her and told her he was a massage therapist, according to her account. He began to hug and kiss her at the end of sessions, she said, then forcefully pressed her against a wall, slid his hands down her pants and groped her.
As she protested and said no, he said: “It’s fine, it’s fine”; when she started shaking and trembling, he told her to calm down, she said, according to subsequent police reports. When she said she didn’t want to do this and asked him to “please stop,” he would just repeat, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” the reports state.
A third woman said she used an eraser to give herself friction burns so that she would be placed under “constant observation” by staff and not have therapy sessions with Jacksa.
Attorneys for Jacksa did not respond to requests for comment. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial in Cook County Jail.
As his case plays out, Timberline’s parent company, Acadia, has been under stress. Last year, a class-action lawsuit filed in Nashville federal court accused the company of misleading shareholders by concealing financial problems — a charge Acadia has denied.
Founder Waud has reduced his stake in the company significantly; since August 2015, he has sold Acadia shares worth nearly $560 million as Acadia’s stock value dropped from more than $70 per share to its current price of under $30, according to a Tribune analysis of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission disclosures of stock trades by company insiders.
In December, Waud and other board members forced out Acadia CEO Joey Jacobs for reasons not made public, according to news reports. Debra Osteen, a former president of the behavioral health division at Universal Health Services, was brought on to replace him.
A spokesman for Waud said it is “typical” for private equity managers to sell their stake in companies they have created and built, then move on to the next venture. “Reeve Waud remains a significant shareholder in Acadia,” the spokesman said.
In a statement to the Tribune, Waud said he recently resumed his former role as Acadia chairman to push the company back in the right direction.
“Together with our new CEO, we are driving improvements throughout the organization with an unrelenting focus on excellent patient care at all our facilities,” Waud’s statement said. “That is, and always will be, Acadia’s firm commitment to our patients, their families, our employees, our shareholders and to the public.”