Apology, tough line in wake of death
By Sam Stanton and Mareva Brown
Bee Staff Writers
(Published June 28, 1998)
ORACLE, Ariz. -- The head of the Arizona Boys Ranch has
apologized for the death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz, and
has taken responsibility for what he says were failings in the
program that led to it.
"We feel horrible about it," ranch President Bob Thomas said
in an interview with The Bee. "We've all lost sleep. It's
something I'll have to live with for the rest of my life."
Although Thomas added that he has made many changes to avoid
such a tragedy in the future, he acknowledged there is no way to
guarantee programs such as his will not experience other deaths.
"You can never ensure with this type of program that you're
not going to have a death," Thomas said.
That blunt assessment is the essence of the controversy that has
engulfed the program since Contreraz collapsed on March 2 at the
Camp Mary Mullaney facility in the Catalina Mountains near here.
Nicholaus Contreraz, 16, who died from a massive
lung infection while being forced to do pushups
at the Arizona Boys Ranch.
After initial public announcements that Contreraz collapsed
from a heart attack, investigators discovered a more brutal
truth: Contreraz died from a massive lung infection while being
forced to do pushups and after being accused of faking illness.
Investigators have since found that Contreraz had been sick
for at least two weeks and had been vomiting and defecating on
himself for several days before he died. Despite that, he was
told by a camp nurse that he was fine.
He also was forced to carry a bucket containing soiled
clothing and vomit.
"They did things to him that you just don't do to a human
being," said Don Berg, Contreraz's Sacramento County probation
Since those revelations have surfaced, Thomas has made no
effort to shift the blame away from the ranch.
"It was a total management breakdown," he said. "And I'm head
chef there so I'm the person who has to accept responsibility."
For the Arizona Boys Ranch, the death of the Sacramento youth
has proved to be the most painful chapter in its half-century
What the tough-talking Thomas will not concede, however, is that
the overall philosophy of the program is at fault. And he has no
use for laws such as those in California that prevent programs
such as his from operating in the state because they are based
His stay at the Arizona Boys Ranch has been a
positive experience for 18-year-old Luiz Munoz
of Holtville. "Without this, I would have either
ended up in the (CYA) or in prison," he says of
the ranch's last chance program.
Bee photo / Chris Crewell
"It's all semantics," Thomas said. "In other words, we don't
stand around and let a damn kid break windows.
"And we don't sit around and let a kid hurt himself and we
don't sit around and let a kid curse and let a kid jump around
and hurt somebody else. We refuse to accept that kind of
behavior. This is a civilized society and we expect kids to be
That approach is what has built the 49-year-old program, also
known as the "Last Chance Ranch," into a $26 million-a-year camp
for youths who often are one step away from prison.
Arizona Boys Ranch, started by the Phoenix Rotary Club in
1949 to help troubled area youngsters, now takes youths from
Arizona, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. But California is its
biggest customer, providing two-thirds of the juvenile offenders
at the ranch and generating $18.6 million in revenues.
In Queen Creek, the ranch headquarters southeast of Phoenix,
cottages, classrooms and state-of-the art athletic facilities --
including a football field and 1,000-seat gymnasium -- sprawl
over 188 acres surrounded mostly by agricultural fields.
Residents are taught everything from computer use to auto
mechanics to raising livestock, and all of them are taught to
stop and address visitors or staff members as "sir" or "ma'am."
Many are quick to praise the program, saying it offers them a
last chance to escape gangs, drugs and other problems they faced
"You have to see what kind of program it really is," Justin
Cummins, a 19-year-old from Louisville, Ky., said during an
interview on campus recently. "I never thought I'd have an A in
my life, and now I'm getting A's and B's."
Other youths have different perceptions of life on the ranch,
however, particularly those who were at the Oracle orientation
program where Contreraz died.
Interviews by The Bee with various youths who had experienced
both the Queen Creek main campus and Oracle campus revealed
claims that staff members used physical force against them and
sought to keep it quiet. Such comments parallel what
investigators were told after Contreraz died.
"Sometimes they shove you up against the wall," a 16-year-old
said, according to transcripts of an interrogation by
investigators. "The whole side, the right side of my head was
bleeding because they took me to this room in the pool area and
the wall is really rough and they kept bumping my head ... and
they kept scraping it back and forth and I had a gouge right
here and my head was bumped up," the state records read.
Wards play volleyball at the Oracle campus of
the Arizona Boys Ranch. It was at this campus
that 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz died in
Bee photo / Chris Crewell
Another 16-year-old told investigators such behavior stopped
after the Contreraz death because of the presence of outsiders.
"Well, since Mr. Contreraz is not here no more they have not
been throwing people up against the door like they usually do,"
according to the transcripts. "I don't know. I guess they gonna
wait until you all leave or something to do it again."
The youths are not alone in their negative descriptions of
life at the ranch.18
Steve Raths, a former English teacher at the ranch who lives
in a Phoenix suburb, said in an interview with The Bee that he
quit in 1991 after 1 1/2 years of regularly seeing what he
believed was improper treatment, including "staff members
throwing boys' bodies around for infractions I didn't think were
worthy of that kind of treatment."
Richard DiNaso, a 58-year-old Phoenix area man, said in an
interview that he left his job as a staff supervisor last year
after six months because the stress was "astronomical."
"The first day I was there a young kid was snoring and I saw
the staff supervisor and the senior staff member there go on
over and throw him out of the bed," DiNaso said. "What are they
doing? They're promoting animosity, they're not promoting
DiNaso said he never attended college or graduated from high
school but he had little trouble landing a job at the ranch.
"There was an ad in the paper," he said. "I never had any
experience in this field, but when I was interviewed they asked
what service I was in and I told them the Army.
"They asked what branch and I said infantry. They asked what
department and I said airborne, and they said, "You'll
Thomas flatly denies that any abuse takes place, saying
anyone who participated in such behavior would be fired, as
several Oracle workers were after the revelations about
He also notes that complaints from some young men in the
program, especially recent arrivals who have failed in placement
elsewhere and are angry at the system, are not uncommon. What
Thomas finds surprising is that anyone thinks they are credible.
Bob Burton of Tucson, Ariz., founded
VisionQuest, one of the several out-of-state
programs to which more than 1,000 youthful
offenders have been sent by county probation
officers in California.
Bee photo / Chris Crewell
"They've lied before, they've cheated, they've stolen,
they've done violent acts," Thomas said. "They come to Boys
Ranch and they have instant credibility, more so than staff.
I've always been amazed by that."
To Thomas, that is the reason the Boys Ranch files at
Arizona's Department of Economic Security read so negatively.
One internal briefing memo from the department filed in July
1995 lists a variety of problems the agency found to be true,
including a case where a youth suffered a bloodied or broken
nose after his face was slammed into a table; another where a
boy was restrained so roughly that his left eyebrow needed four
stitches; and another where a boy's blistered feet were scalded
in a tub of hot water and later required skin grafts.
Thomas said the reports aren't necessarily true. He said
investigators substantiated an allegation if more than half the
juveniles and staff members questioned agreed with the
"As long as they believe 51 percent is true, it's
"substantiated abuse,'" Thomas said, "and I say that's
The battle over such regulation reached a high point in 1994,
when the Arizona Boys Ranch sued the state over what it saw as
That year marked a nadir for Boys Ranch. The program suffered
its only other fatality -- the death of 17-year-old Lorenzo
Johnson, who died after running away from the Queen Creek campus
and drowning in an irrigation canal -- and Alameda County pulled
its 57 youths from the program after a trio of escapees claimed
they were abused by staff members, records in Arizona show.
Beset by allegations, Thomas eventually turned to a respected
Arizona legal expert -- former U.S. Attorney A. Melvin McDonald
-- and hired him to perform an audit of the ranch.
The study cost Thomas $400,000 but was done without any
attmept by the ranch to influence its findings, he says. It
alleges that Arizona Child Protective Services and licensing
investigators were incompetent and disputed virtually all of the
13 abuse allegations the state had said were true.
Two other studies performed in recent years -- both funded by
the ranch at about $10,000 each -- have been similarly
A separate study performed by University of Illinois
Professor Ron Davidson, which was not funded by the ranch, was
highly critical and found "a compelling body of critical
evidence to suggest that the Arizona Boys Ranch has long
encouraged or tolerated a de facto policy of abusive conduct on
the part of its staff."
Thomas has denounced that study as the product of a
three-hour visit by Davidson during which he interviewed one
youth. He claims the professor based much of the rest of the
review on negative stories that were appearing at the time in
the Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper, which was
probing the program in the wake of the Lorenzo Johnson drowning.
Eventually, the ranch sued Davidson to stop distribution of
the report, according to Thomas. The lawsuit ultimately was
dropped. Boys Ranch also has sued the Republic, a case which is
expected to go to trial late this fall.
Davidson said he hs been prohibited about talking about the
study because of the lawsuit.
The ranch remains one of the more powerful entities in
Arizona, and its board of directors and advisory board include
some well-known figures inside and outside of Arizona.
They include GOP political strategist George Gorton, a
longtime adviser to California Gov. Pete Wilson, and former
Arizona Gov. Rose Mofford.
Mofford said she was saddened by the Contreraz death but that
she is perplexed by the breadth of the controversy that has
engulfed the ranch.
"I'm very proud of the progress there and the board seems to
be quite supportive," Mofford said. "It really is an outstanding
Even Berg, Contreraz's probation officer in Sacramento,
agrees that the ranch's overall concept is useful.
"There has never been a question in my mind about the motivation
of the ranch administrators and 90 percent of the staff," he
said. "These people care about kids.
A VisionQuest ward in Tucson works on a wagon
wheel at the program's Rover Road Wagon Works.
Bee photo / Chris Crewell
"Philosophically, we disagree with some of their methods. But
Since Contreraz died, however, many are questioning the
concept espoused by Thomas, and the ranch faces several
investigations that threaten its very existence.
Arizona officials from two separate agencies are about to
complete a probe of the Contreraz death and 23 other allegations
of abuse that surfaced after the death. Arizona also must decide
whether to renew the ranch's license to operate, which expires
on Tuesday. And prosecutors in Pinal County, where the
now-closed Camp Mary Mullaney is located, still are debating
whether to file criminal charges against any of the ranch
employees involved with Contreraz in his last days.
Thomas said he expects the ranch to be re-licensed and that
he hopes to reopen the Oracle camp in six to eight months, a
delay caused by the difficulty of finding adequate medical
supervision for such a remote location.
He also said that if California decides to permanently stop
using the ranch, the state will be hurting its own citizens more
than his operation.
"If they think they're going to pull 1,000 kids back and put
them in group homes, I feel sorry for the communities," he said.
"And I feel especially sorry for the kids."