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California and the West

5 Indicted in Death at Arizona Youth Ranch

Courts: Former employees are accused of manslaughter and child abuse in the case of a California offender whose complaints of illness were reportedly dismissed.

October 02, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Arizona grand jury Thursday indicted five former employees of Arizona Boys Ranch, charging that the four camp workers and a staff nurse were responsible for the March 2 death of a Sacramento boy at the paramilitary-style boot camp for juvenile offenders.

The indictments by the panel in Pinal County, southeast of Phoenix, were the first criminal charges in the 7-month-old case, which has brought about legislative changes, stricter licensing standards and tougher oversight guidelines. The fallout from the death has also all but closed the 50-year-old juvenile rehabilitation facility, which has a national reputation.

The people charged were among those who worked most closely with 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz, who died while being physically punished. The boy was cleared for rigorous exercise, despite repeated complaints to the nurse that he was ill.

Indicted were camp nurse Linda Babb and four "work specialists"--Geoffrey Sean Lewis, Montgomery Clayton Hoover, Michael Martin Moreno and Troy Michael Jones. Four of the defendants live in Tucson, and Hoover is from Sierra Vista, about 60 miles southeast of that city. Each was charged with one count of child abuse and one count of manslaughter, and faces a maximum penalty of 12 1/2 years in prison for each count. Arraignment was scheduled for Oct. 23.

Officials at the program--based in Queen Creek, about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix--had no comment Thursday. In the past they have characterized Contreraz's death at their Oracle facility, north of Tucson, as a tragedy and blamed it on the actions of a few employees who were then suspended.

Children's rights advocates and others were outraged by the death--the second at the ranch, which has had more than 100 child abuse complaints lodged against it in the last five years. Thursday's decision did not completely appease the Contreraz family, which has sued the Arizona agency that licensed the ranch.

Contreraz's grandmother, Connie Woodward of Sacramento, told the Associated Press that the administrators who tolerated abuse should also be held accountable.

"It's a great feeling, but it's not enough yet," she said of the indictments. "At least we know they're not gonna just slap their hands and walk away."

Cathy Sutton, whose daughter died while attending a Utah wilderness camp and monitors such boot camp deaths nationwide, echoed that sentiment.

"They fire the staff and think they've taken care of the problem," she said. "But administrators never seem to be held accountable."

Contreraz had been sent to the camp after stealing a car and running away while in custody. The slender teenager spent the last week of his life complaining of chest pain and difficulty breathing, but had been identified by the staff as a malingerer and punished more when he complained, authorities said.

When the boy sought medical attention, the camp nurse repeatedly sent him back out with approval to engage in the stringent exercise required of troublesome juveniles, according to a sheriff's report.

His condition worsened and he began to defecate on himself and vomit frequently, the report said. Among the indicted staff were those who the report described as having belittled the youth, made him sleep in soiled underwear, made him eat dinner while sitting on a toilet and ordered him to carry a trash basket filled with his soiled clothes and his own vomit.

Contreraz eventually collapsed and died. The medical examiner pinpointed the cause of death as empyema, a buildup of fluid in the lining between the lungs and chest cavity. Contreraz was also suffering from strep and staph infections, pneumonia and chronic bronchitis. The coroner noted 71 cuts and bruises on the boy's body.

Contreraz's gruesome punishment and death sparked a debate in both Arizona and California.

California had a policy of sending juvenile offenders to out-of-state facilities that did not meet its own state licensing requirements. Lawmakers in Sacramento have since passed legislation discouraging out-of-state placements and begun bringing home about 1,000 juveniles from facilities around the country.

The loss of California youths was a severe blow to Boys Ranch, which relied on the state for three-fourths of its enrollment. Since Contreraz's death, the seven-campus ranch has closed five sites and laid off dozens of employees.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security in August denied the ranch an operating license, citing a "pattern of abuse" in the Contreraz case and attacking the program's core philosophy of physical restraint and hands-on confrontation. The state agency also announced that 17 former staff members were being placed on the Arizona Child Abuser Directory based on their treatment of Contreraz and others.

The ranch has appealed the ruling and this month replaced Bob Thomas, the program's longtime president.

The FBI is continuing its own investigation of the death.

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