By Julie Cart
Times Staff Writer
ORACLE, Ariz.--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
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.
Signs of Illness 2 Weeks Earlier
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
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
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
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."
Many Staffers Were in Military
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
* 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
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 kid
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
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 Seen as a 'Pot of Gold'
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
Nick Seen Caught in Awful Spiral
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
Det. Downing: Something was wrong with him the last two weeks of his
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.