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Children in boot camp abuse investigation suffer lasting damage, lawyer says

The brochure struck a note with some parents:

Are you overwhelmed with frustration or fear over your teen's defiant behavior? Have you run out of ideas or strategies to get your teen on the right track? Have you tried it all and nothing seems to work?

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The solution, it declared, could be a police-sponsored boot camp for southeast Los Angeles County youth held at a military base in the mountains of San Luis Obispo. There, children would be inculcated with the three pillars of the LEAD program: Leadership, Empowerment and Discipline.

Instead, authorities contend that the camp became a breeding ground for vicious assaults and physical and emotional abuse. A two-month investigation that included searching the cellphones, computers, vehicles, photos and belongings of camp leaders led to the arrest of four officers from the South Gate and Huntington Park police departments earlier this week.

"When it involves a law enforcement agency, it gets a little awkward," said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, whose agency spearheaded the investigation. "The reality is that they're no different from anybody else. If they did it, they need to be held accountable."

The investigation's findings buttress earlier allegations by parents who say their children were kicked, slapped, beaten and handcuffed during the $400 boot camp held in May. A lawyer for 11 of the 15 victims identified by investigators said one boy suffered broken fingers when an officer stomped on his hand while he was doing push-ups. Another had bruises on his throat. Some of the attendees were ushered into a dark room to be beaten, then handed towels to swab off the blood, the lawyer said.

"They just started hitting me," said one male camper who spoke Thursday to The Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. He said he was beaten in a closed room by two instructors on two separate occasions. "Once I got out, it was smirks on their face," he said.

Attorney Greg Owen, who first spoke of the abuse allegations in June, said the children remain scared. "This sort of thing undoubtedly will affect these children forever."

The children, ages 12 to 17, at first kept quiet after attending the weeklong camp 200 miles away. But then one mother whose 13-year-old boy suffered bruises to his windpipe took him to the emergency room. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services was called and the boy spoke about his ordeal, Owen said.

Officials said that led to an investigation that involved interviewing three dozen participants and identifying 15 male and female victims who attended the program at Camp San Luis Obispo, an Army National Guard military base that serves as a training ground for local, state and federal agencies.

Authorities found it took time to build trust with the children, whose faith in law enforcement had been violated in part by their experiences at the camp, Parkinson said. The search warrants were sealed to protect the identities of the children. FBI investigators were also involved, but a spokeswoman for the agency declined to elaborate.

Brothers Edgar Gomez and Carlos Gomez-Marquez, both of South Gate's police force, were arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal threats, misdemeanor battery and abuse under the color of authority.

Marissa Larios of the Huntington Park Police Department was arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal conspiracy, misdemeanor battery and abuse under the color of authority. Patrick Nijland, also of the Huntington Park agency, was arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal battery and abuse under the color of authority.

All four have been released on $20,000 bond and are now on paid administrative leave. The district attorney is reviewing the sheriff's investigation to determine whether to file criminal charges.

According to his attorney, Gomez, a former Marine who has worked in South Gate for eight years, had "an abiding concern for trying to help kids."

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He, along with the three other suspects, had worked at the camp for several years.

"They all have very good track records in their department," said Michael D. Schwartz, an attorney for Larios. "The accusations are highly out of character."

Schwartz said parents had actually begged for their children to be accepted into the program.

"These aren't kids who refuse to clean up their rooms once or twice," he said. "You got kids with behavioral issues, some being drugged, some being violent. All of them have no respect for authority, not their parents, not others in their lives, or officers in the camp."

But some parents who convened Thursday at a hotel in Commerce told a different story.

Bridgit Salazar, 34, of Long Beach said she suspected her divorce had put a strain on her 13-year-old son, the eldest of three. She enrolled him in the camp, hoping he would gain the same "learning experience" she received as a child at a Navy Sea Cadet boot camp.

She said during one parent class held before the boot camp, a South Gate police officer whose name she couldn't recall introduced himself: "I'm going to be the one your kids will fear."

Salazar said she wished she had listened to her gut then. When her son returned from the camp, she sensed a disconnect. "I knew from the moment I saw him, something was wrong."

Now, she says, her son is not himself and often exhibits anger.

Police officials who run the camp have temporarily suspended the program.

Previously known as JAR, or Juveniles At Risk, the camp that began in 1998 was specifically for teen residents of cities in southeast Los Angeles County. Some officers volunteered their time, others were paid. In addition to the boot camp, the program included classroom lectures, community service and field trips on the weekends. Parents were also required to attend parenting classes once a week.

On the application, parents checked off descriptors such as "disrespectful," "runs away," "drug use," "gang," and "bad grades" to describe their child's behavior.

Photos on the Huntington Park Police Department's Facebook page showed last year's participants sitting in a classroom and lining up to do drills. One woman posted her support: "My son went to this program and he says nothing like [the alleged abuse] ever happened. It was educational and he has changed for the better."

Both police departments released statements on the recent allegations. "We pride ourselves in the success of this program for the past 18 years and the many young lives it has had a positive effect on," said Huntington Park Police Chief Cosme Lozano in a statement. "We also respect and honor the due process of the justice system," the statement added.

Correctional boot camps are not uncommon for frustrated parents. But there's a hard line officials shouldn't cross, says Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor with the UCLA Department of Social Welfare who has worked with juvenile probation camps.

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"There's no physical laying on of hands that can be reformative," Leap said, adding that there's little oversight of such camps, some of which can effectively run for months.

"Where boot camps break down is where you have the wrong kinds of personalities implementing them," she said.

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