A Puzzling Death at Boys Ranch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day he died, Nicholaus Contreraz was awakened at 6:30 a.m. He had been sleeping on a mattress positioned halfway in the bathroom of Barracks 31. Staff at the Arizona Boys Ranch had placed the 16-year-old Sacramento youth on Yellow Shirt status for, among other reasons, persistently defecating and urinating on himself. They wanted him to be near the toilet.

Employees at the paramilitary-style camp, where hundreds of California youth offenders are sent, had already tried to deal with Nick's incontinence by making him sleep in soiled underwear, ordering him to drop his pants so that other boys could inspect them, requiring he finish whatever physical activity he was engaged in before using the restroom, making him eat dinner while sitting on the toilet and, near the end of his life, making him carry a yellow trash basket filled with his soiled clothes and his own vomit.

At times he was instructed to do push-ups that lowered his face into the foul-smelling basket.

On the day before he died, Nick collapsed several times during physical training. After he fell while running up a hill, staff bundled him into a wheelbarrow and made another boy push him around the camp. Nick was told to make the sound of an ambulance siren.

On the day he died, a staff member told Nick he deserved an Academy Award for faking.

Nick collapsed for the last time about 5:30 p.m. on March 2. Staff members, who had spent the day ordering more and more physical punishment, issued their last command. Get up, Nick was told. "No" was the last word he spoke.

Nick was pronounced dead two hours later, succumbing to a massive, undiagnosed infection that had conspired with other illnesses raging in his body.

The youth's death, which is being investigated by a host of Arizona and California agencies, raises several disquieting questions. How could a child die under such circumstances while under adult supervision? How has Arizona Boys Ranch--with nearly 100 child abuse claims lodged against it in the last five years--continued to operate? What was the Sacramento boy doing in the Arizona desert in the first place, at a camp that would not be legal to operate in California? And should California continue policies that make it economically advantageous to ship young criminals out of state?

Among the complaints against staffers at the ranch that licensing authorities have substantiated: A boy was hit on the head with a shovel, a boy's head was repeatedly dunked in water, a boy's feet were burned so severely in hot water that he required skin grafts, a boy's nose was broken after his head was slammed into a table.

Nick was one of more than 1,000 California juvenile offenders who have been shipped out of state and live, under court order, at facilities that would not meet standards to operate in the state. Such facilities violate, among other things, state prohibitions against physically restraining children.

The flow of California children is encouraged by the economics of juvenile placement and the skyrocketing cost of housing delinquents at the California Youth Authority. Their exodus means that both the state's children and millions of its tax dollars are ending up in private hands out of state.

The details of Nick's treatment in Arizona, as well as the testimony from staff and residents, are culled from a 1,000-page report of the Pinal County Sheriff's Department. That report is being reviewed by the county attorney, who is considering a criminal prosecution.

Even with the probe's conflicting statements, the medical facts of Case. No. 980300044, as Nick's death is known, are not in dispute.

Still to be determined is who was responsible. Four Arizona agencies have launched civil probes into Nick's death, including the Department of Economic Security, which licenses the Boys Ranch. In California, the Sacramento County Probation Department and the state Department of Social Services are investigating and an Assembly task force is looking into the whole issue of out-of-state placement of California children.

The number of children who have died while in the custody of tough-love programs nationwide is difficult to calculate. Such programs combine harsh discipline and physical punishment with confidence-building tasks in hopes of rehabilitating the most-hopeless teenagers. Cathy Sutton of Ripon, Calif., whose 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, died while in the Summit Quest wilderness program in Utah in 1990, has been on a crusade to document abuse in the programs.

She meticulously compiles a "death chart," tracking fatalities in wilderness therapy camps and paramilitary ranches. The deaths, which one program director calls "the window of loss," now number 25.

Nick Contreraz's is the latest headstone.

*

Nick began to show signs of illness two weeks before his death, the same time he was placed on Yellow Shirt status, a designation given to youths who are deemed defiant, or an escape or suicide risk.

The slender teenager was sent to the Arizona desert after stealing a car and failing rehab programs in Sacramento. His last resort before being sent to a California Youth Authority lockup was Arizona Boys Ranch, a facility for delinquent boys that recruits nationally for its seven rustic campuses.

As juvenile delinquents go, Nick was strictly small-time. His personal history was likewise sadly familiar.

According to Nick's family, much of the rebellion that landed him at Oracle was rooted in the drive-by shooting death of his father three years ago, which Nick witnessed. After that, Nick was removed from his mother's home, placed in foster care and eventually placed in the custody of his uncle, Joe Contreraz.

There were other problems. According to the Pinal County Sheriff's report, on the day he died Nick confessed to ranch staff members that a family member had sexually abused him.

The family is now consumed with efforts to discover the truth of Nick's death. His mother, Julie Vega, has hired an attorney. Others simply want straight answers. Joe Contreraz said that Boys Ranch officials at first told the family that Nick had committed suicide by going on a hunger strike.

"It's unbelievable," Contreraz said from his Sacramento home. "I can't picture them treating a human being that way. You don't treat an animal that way. It tears me up. I can picture his face, saying, 'Help me, help me,' telling them he was sick and no one listening. How could they let that happen?"

Nick, who dreamed of being a firefighter, came into the program like anyone else, a Red Shirt hoping to make it through the tough 8 to 12 weeks of orientation. To become a Tan Shirt and enter the main camp, a boy must accept the core philosophy: work hard, follow orders, respect others and yourself or face the consequences.

Nick's asthma was reported to officials when he arrived and he was prescribed an inhaler, which he had to ask permission to use.

Upon his arrival in January and again a month later, Nick was examined by Dr. Virginia Rutz, an osteopath who served as the camp physician. At that time, Rutz was on probation by the Arizona Board of Osteopathic Examiners for unprofessional conduct. Rutz admitted to illegal distribution of narcotics, self-prescribing and inadequate maintenance of medical charts, according to board records. Her license was suspended, then reinstated after she entered a rehabilitation program.

Rutz never found anything wrong with Nick during her examinations, according to the sheriff's report.

The ranch also employed a registered nurse, Linda Babb. It was Babb who dealt with Nick in the last two weeks of his life, when he constantly complained of difficulty breathing, chest pain and overall weakness. Nick often asked to see the nurse several times a day.

Babb failed to note any illness, even as Nick rapidly lost weight--as much as 20 pounds--and began to vomit several times a day, ate little food and began defecating on himself. Nearly each time he saw the nurse, she cleared him for physical exercise, according to the sheriff's investigation.

Other boys reported that Nick's vomiting was so regular that staff would mock him, start a countdown and say: "He's gonna blow!"

According to one 16-year-old boy, everyone watched as Nick was daily belittled by staff when he was unable to do PT.

"They'd tell him, 'Keep going!' or 'get up off your knees!,' " the boy told investigators. "If he didn't keep doing the push-ups, then they'd pick him up and start pushin' him up and he'd start crying, he'd say, 'I can't do it.' They start mocking him, 'I can't, I can't,' like he was a little kid. They'd start pickin' him up and beatin' him against the ground. He would let out a series of yelps, like, 'OW!,' but they kept doin' it."

Staff members told investigators that they viewed Nick's complaints and collapses as a trick to get out of work. Andres Torres, Nick's Boys Ranch case manager, told sheriff's deputies that the boy never said anything to him about being sick.

In fact, Torres told investigators he believed the staff working with Nick had been "extremely compassionate."

The Pima County Medical Examiner, who handles autopsies for the smaller Pinal County, concluded Nick died of empyema, a buildup of fluid in the lining between his lungs and chest cavity. There were 2 1/2 quarts of pus in the lining of his chest, causing his left lung to partially collapse.

The coroner would note 71 cuts and bruises on his body. Some of those injuries, investigators note, came as a result of the resuscitation efforts. Others were most likely sustained during physical exercise. The camp nurse told sheriff's investigators that it was common for the boys to have bruises and cuts.

In addition, Nick was suffering from strep and staph infections, pneumonia and chronic bronchitis. A pathologist said that a massive infection had been incubating for some time and that Nick must have been visibly ill for weeks.

"If he was exhibiting those symptoms, I'd have to wonder what he was doing in that kind of program," said Dan MacAllair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Franciso, which has been monitoring the boot-camp controversy. "I've been working with high-risk kids for 15 years--no way can you make excuses for missing such obvious signs. . . . If that's what's going on at this place, it needs to be shut down."

*

The Oracle campus is located five miles down a dusty road in a wooded canyon north of Tucson. The tidy 10-acre compound is bisected by a stream and sits 4,500 feet high in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Arizona Boys Ranch proudly embraces a paramilitary model. Many of the staff are former military personnel.

The camp has its own vernacular. According to staff and residents, the terminology includes:

Eyeballing: Looking a staff member in the eye. Not allowed.

Protect your environment: The practice of informing staff of the wrongdoing of other residents.

The outs: The world outside the ranch.

The rules are most stringent during orientation, when residents are forbidden to speak to one another.

Residents have adopted their own terminology, including "Wall to Wall Counseling," which means being thrown around the pool room by staffers, and "Texas sandstorm," in which residents exercise for two hours in a sealed and heated barracks.

Sheriff's investigators ran into a circle-the-wagons mentality when they questioned the staff about Nick's death. At one point, Detective M.C. Downing was losing his patience. He had been questioning Oscar Peru Jr., staff orientation lead, about what takes place at the camp and he got consistently similar answers.

Det. Downing: Mr. Peru, enough, OK? . . . you guys are driving me crazy. Every staff member I've talked [to] in here, they sugar coat everything. Do you see stupid on my forehead?

Peru: No, I don't.

Downing: All right. Let's get over this [expletive], OK? I'm tired of hearing the sugar coating. I basically know what goes on here. I was military . . . and you guys gonna sit here and tell me you're being polite? Ain't gonna happen. I know that, he knows that, everybody that has to deal with this place knows that . . .

Arizona officials say nearly 100 child abuse complaints have been lodged against the ranch or its employees in the last five years--nine since Nick died in March. Twenty-one of the abuse claims have been substantiated by state officials during licensing procedures and others are still under investigation.

The ranch is suing state regulators, charging that the investigations were shoddy and biased.

Still, the Boys Ranch record includes a number of blemishes:

* Nick is not the first boy to die while in the care of the ranch. In 1994 a Mississippi youth drowned in the Arizona Canal while fleeing Boys Ranch employees. The death was ruled accidental.

* In the wake of that death, the Arizona Supreme Court put a freeze on sending that state's teens to Boys Ranch but has since resumed placements. In 1995, Alameda County, Calif., withdrew 67 boys after half of them claimed abuse at the hands of ranch staff. The Alameda County Juvenile Court concluded there was "systematic abuse." But Alameda County, too, resumed sending boys to the ranch.

* In 1995, the ranch fired two employees who struck a 15-year-old California boy 25 to 30 times.

* Newly released Arizona Department of Economic Security records show that in a 1996 internal memo, five employees complained that Boys Ranch was hostile and uncooperative and "continues to abuse children, thwart regulations and use their political influence to combat noncompliance of licensing rules." The documents also show that DES agreed to give the ranch 48 hours' notice before undertaking any inspections.

* The ranch's license has been put on provisional status because of abuse three times. In the latest case, its license was renewed in 1996, with the stipulation that it enact more stringent reporting on ill or hurt children and increase staff training on the use of physical restraint and control.

After Nick's death, ranch officials responded quickly. They fired two employees and placed four on administrative leave, including the camp director. Ranch officials have acknowledged that some staff members acted in an unconscionable manner but insist that the problem was not systemic.

In addition, Boys Ranch recently announced that it was making staff changes at the Oracle campus, one of its seven facilities.

The Boys Ranch maintains that it has zero-tolerance for abuse by the staff. When Carl Prange was named in April as the new director at the Oracle campus, one of his first actions was to fire an employee for throwing a resident into a wall.

Prange, an 18-year Boys Ranch employee, has himself been the subject of abuse allegations at another campus. In 1987, Prange was transferred from his position, suspended for two weeks and placed on internal probation for six months after 11 boys claimed they he and others had choked, kicked, punched and stomped them.

A criminal investigation was dropped, even while Boys Ranch president Bob Thomas acknowledged Prange had made "open-hand contact" with the boy's heads while questioning them.

Prange says he has nothing to hide, notes that he was cleared of criminal charges and says the boys were lying about the incident.

"The reason our program is so [popular] in California is because we offer a service that doesn't exist in California," Prange said. "What we offer is control over serious conduct-disordered kids. We are highly structured and highly disciplined. We do what no one in California is allowed to do: physically control kids. Truly, in California, if a kids says, 'F--- You,' starts swinging, breaking windows as he's going AWOL, you can't do a doggone thing except pick up the glass and call the police."

Critics, however, say these camps get away with treatment that should not be tolerated.

San Diego County Probation Officer Mike Anderson wrote a graphic report detailing the death of a 16-year-old Chula Vista boy, Mario Cano under similar circumstances in 1984 while in the custody of the Arizona-based VisionQuest program.

"A prison guard from San Quentin [who had read the report] called me," Anderson said. "He said, 'If I did that [treat an inmate in a similar fashion], I'd be terminated.'

"How do we justify sending California kids out of state to programs where staff employ techniques that if used in California would lead to their immediate suspension and prosecution for child abuse? I'm upset and angry that we are still sending kids to places where all the evidence tells us they are abusive."

*

California is a dependable and lucrative source of teenage delinquents for the paramilitary style camps in the West.

Said one California parole officer: "These places have got their hand in the California pot of gold and they are never going to let go."

Arizona Boys Ranch receives $1.45 million a month from California agencies. About 400 of the program's roughly 500 youths come from California.

With funding from five other states that also send juveniles to the ranch, the nonprofit organization operates on a 1998 budget of $26 million. So the financial incentive for the ranch is clear, but counties in California also have reason to send their delinquent teenagers out of state.

A sharp increase in outplacement of juveniles began last year when the California Youth Authority raised the fees it charges counties to place offenders in state facilities. The charge went from a flat rate of $25 a month per child to a sliding scale that could cost counties as much as $2,950 a month. The change was a reaction to overcrowding and a policy to reserve CYA for more serious criminals.

The sliding scale made it cheaper for counties to send murderers to CYA, but much more expensive to send petty criminals who would take up space needed for more serious offenders. The intent was to place lesser offenders in facilities in their own communities.

The effect of the fee change could not have been more different. Suddenly, the yearly cost to counties to incarcerate a juvenile went from $300 to as much as $35,000. So the counties sent more children to Arizona.

"We can't place kids in facilities that don't exist, any more than we can spend money we don't have," said Nick Warner, justice analyst for the California State Assn. of Counties. Warner said it is expected that by the end of the year the number of youths referred to CYA will drop 51%.

Facilities such as Arizona Boys Ranch are a bargain for California counties. The monthly charge is often higher than CYA, but large portions of the fees are underwritten by federal and state governments.

For example, if Los Angeles County needs to place a car thief whose family is on welfare, the cost will be $2,950 a month at CYA. If that same child is sent to Arizona Boys Ranch, the federal government picks up half the bill, the state pays 40% and the county just 10%. For the county, the out of pocket cost is $1,870 less to send a juvenile to Arizona.

The same fee-sharing formula applies to the few existing in-state ranches, but they are overcrowded too. Out-of-state placements have doubled in two years.

"We're a bargain," Prange said.

Beyond that, California is subsidizing the ranch by paying for some of its teachers. Because the juveniles are dispatched out of state under court order, California has an obligation to educate them. So the state pays the San Joaquin County (Calif.) Office of Education $2.3 million a year to send 12 teachers to augment the ranch's 40-member staff. However, the county spends $1.2 million of that; the county keeps the rest.

On top of that, the state pays about $5,900 per student for classroom instruction. San Joaquin County passes on about half of this $2.3 million a year to the ranch in return for the classroom space and materials it provides for California kids. The county keeps the rest.

Proponents of the boot camp concept cite statistics showing successful, permanent behavioral changes from juveniles who complete the programs. Boys Ranch says only 30% of its charges commit crimes after leaving the program, compared to a national rate of 50%. But the industry is under fire.

"It's important that we have standards with these programs," said Pete Ranalli, executive vice president of VisionQuest. "We do need licensing requirements. That protects the kids and the facilities. People have a tendency to lump us all together. We need to educate the public that there are good programs out there."

Last year San Quentin Prison shut down California's only adult boot camp after its recidivism rates were shown to be no lower than for the general prison population. CYA also disbanded its boot camp experiment.

Several aspects of the Arizona Boys Ranch philosophy render it unable to operate under California law. Among them: the use of physical restraint, barracks-style housing, communal bathrooms and allowing public humiliation of the children.

Since Nick's death, some California officials have begun to openly question the whole premise of shipping planeloads of the state's children to places that would be unlawful here.

"It's become too easy for us to send kids out of state," said Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), a former social worker and chairwoman of the Assembly's Human Services Committee, which is assessing the effectiveness of paramilitary camps. "It's so simple to be able to say, 'Out of state, out of mind.' We have a significant problem in California--'not in my backyard."'

Even with all these concerns, some make the argument that Boys Ranch is the only viable alternative. California officials are reluctant to place certain juveniles in CYA out of concern that the facility does not rehabilitate, and in fact may produce a worse criminal.

"If we send a kid to Youth Authority, we know what we're getting out," said Nick's former probation officer, Don Berg. "They're learning how to be a criminal. No matter what happened at Boys Ranch, the fact is that kids stand a better chance to get their stuff together there than at CYA."

It's the juvenile court and its judges, not probation officers, that send children out of state. Aroner said California judges "have been enamored of these camps for years."

Others in the system have been fighting the judges. According to Joe Estrada, director of juvenile placement for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, the philosophy of his department is to keep Los Angeles juveniles in the county or nearby because of the availability of adequate facilities and the social benefits of staying near family.

He said the department never recommends to a judge that a child be placed out of state. "Every out-of-state placement we have, [originally] went to the judge with a recommendation of CYA," Estrada said.

Asked what he thought about his department's recommendations being consistently ignored, Estrada demurred: "We are officers of the court and are required to respect the court's orders."

Los Angeles County judges favor paramilitary-style programs. According to state records, of the 144 county boys in out-of-state placement at the time of Contreraz's death, 140 were ordered either to the Arizona Boys Ranch or to the Nevada-based Rite of Passage.

One California probation officer had a different perspective on the judges' enthusiasm about the programs: "They [judges] are [being] suckered."

They are certainly being wooed. Arizona Boys Ranch has four offices in California and others around the country. Boys Ranch employees meet with juvenile judges--and even children in jail--to recruit them to the program. The ranch has been working for years to gain a license to operate in California and its representatives meet regularly with state legislators to plead their case.

In at least one case the schmoozing paid off. G. Dennis Adams, the former presiding judge of the San Diego Juvenile Court was so taken with VisionQuest's wilderness camp model that he wrote a book praising the program in which at least 11 juveniles have died since 1980. The book, "Path of Honor--The Story of VisionQuest," was published in 1987 by a subsidiary of the company.

Adams had previously been investigated by the U.S. attorney's office for failing to claim on state disclosure forms money paid to him by VisionQuest for travel and speaking fees. He filed an amended statement and no charges were brought.

He was instrumental in sending San Diego County teens to the program, even convincing the Board of Supervisors to ignore probation department recommendations against it.

*

A San Diego boy told sheriff investigators that Nick was caught in an awful spiral. As he grew more physically unable to perform physical exercise, he was punished by being made to do more.

"They try and make him work harder than anybody else here, they make him do PT and he throw up all over the place," he said. "They don't even make him clean up. [They] make him keep going and going and going. He'll throw up like three times a day but they keep making him do PT."

Boys Ranch officials do not fully accept the horror stories the children tell. They await the conclusion of the state investigation on whether to renew the ranch license, which expires June 30. The ranch is hoping its reserve of political will within the state will sustain it through its worst ordeal.

Up until now, ranch officials' explanation of how Nick Contreraz was allowed to die while in their care has not satisfied investigators.

An exchange, from the report, between Nick's case manager and the investigator:

Det. Downing: Something was wrong with him the last two weeks of his life.

Torres: I disagree with that, Det. Downing. [It was] his ruse to [get] out of the program, I don't feel [it] had anything to do with his health. I looked at it as his way to get out of the program. . . . His way of lying and making up, you know, a fictitious story.

Downing: Obviously there was a problem. He died.

Torres: Yes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* NOTE TO READERS:

Due to a production error, some issues of Saturday's Valley Edition did not contain this complete Column One story about out-of-state programs for juvenile offenders. The entire story is reprinted here today.

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