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California and the West

Teen's Death at Arizona Youth Camp Probed

July 30, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI have launched a criminal investigation into the death of a Sacramento youth at the troubled Arizona Boys Ranch.

The Justice Department's civil rights division confirmed Wednesday that it has an open investigation into the circumstances surrounding the March 2 death of Nicholaus Contreraz at the paramilitary camp for juveniles at Oracle, Ariz.

Christine DiBartolo, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the case had been turned over to the FBI's field office in Phoenix. DiBartolo would not say what prompted the investigation. Jack Callahan, a spokesman for the FBI office here, said the inquiry has been underway for more than a week.

Callahan said the wide-ranging investigation would look at whether Boys Ranch or its employees violated the rights of Contreraz, who collapsed while being punished at the remote boot camp. The Justice Department has broad powers to delve into allegations of civil rights violations.

Boys Ranch, which has several sites around Arizona, acknowledged that Contreraz was mistreated and said that those who were involved were fired or placed on administrative leave.

The ranch already suffered a financial setback when the California Department of Social Services issued a scathing report earlier this month concluding that the 16-year-old suffered "substantial abuse and neglect." The department cut all state and federal funding to send juveniles to Boys Ranch--which received 80% of its residents from California.

Supporters of the program demonstrated against the funding cuts in Sacramento this week. Also in Sacramento, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) last week requested that the California attorney general's office investigate the death, but the state said it lacked jurisdiction.

The boy's death is still being investigated by a handful of state and local authorities. The Arizona state licensing agency put off renewing the ranch's operating license until September, saying it was bogged down researching new abuse allegations.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department has made more than 55 abuse allegations since Contreraz's death. The ranch's license has previously been placed on provisional status three times for abuse violations.

Meanwhile, the Pinal County district attorney's office said Wednesday that its criminal inquiry is continuing. The rural office is so swamped with work stemming from the case that it is seeking grant money to continue reviewing what a spokesman called "an extraordinary amount of paperwork."

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