The Arizona Republic, April 22, 1998
Probe of Boys Ranch grows--Four agencies check death, abuse claims , By Dennis Wagner
The death of a California teenager at Arizona Boys Ranch has led to at least seven new allegations of child abuse at the facility, which is now under investigation by four government agencies.
The new abuse complaints are being reviewed by Child Protective Service officials along with the March 2 death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz.
That case is also being investigated by Pinal County Sheriff's deputies who have compiled more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts with ranch employees and residents. The Sacramento youth died of a lung condition after being forced to exercise and struggling with ranch employees.
Amid chilling accounts of Contreraz's final days, several boys told investiators they had been thrown against walls, punched and denied bathroom privileges by adult caretakers.
According to a summary of the interviews, one youth reported that his head was bashed against a wall because he asked to use the toilet. Another, who admitted being disrespectful, said a ranch employee retaliated by "hitting the bottom of his chin with (a) fist in rabbit-type punches."
Richard Platt, chief criminal deputy for the Pinal County Attorney's Office, said he doesn't know when a decision will be made on whether charges are to be filed. However, Platt said the inquiry may include allegations beyond the Contreraz case.
"If we see other crimes, we're not going to ignore them," he added.
Boys Ranch officials have said Contreraz was considered a malingerer who "lived in the nursing office." They did not respond to requests for interviews Monday or Tuesday.
Lorraine Margala, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Division of Children, Youth and Family Servcies, declined to comment on Contreraz's death or on new cases that have arisen since. She said the probe will last at least six weeks, and no action will be taken in the meantime.
State officials recently said 99 child abuse complaints have been lodged against Boys Ranch or its employees in the past five years. Twenty-four were substantiated; many others are still under investigation.
A media effort to obtain those investigative records also is pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The Boys Ranch is pursuing a lawsuit against state regulators who placed the organization on probation three years ago after substantiating mistreatment at the non-profit organization, which operates eight campuses statewide. That civil complaint alleges that Child Protective Services employees conducted faulty investigations, and that Boys Ranch was not granted hearings to defend itself.
Contreraz's death came after more than a week of conflict with ranch staff. The Pima County Medical Examiner said he died of empyema, a severe pus buildup in the lining between his lungs and chest cavity. The coroner also found 71 bruises, cuts and other wounds, at least some of which apparently occurred during resuscitation efforts. The autopsy said Contreraz had been sick for weeks. Boys Ranch residents and workers confirmed that to detectives, noting that the youth complained constantly of breathing difficulties and chest pains, only to be punished by staffers who accused him of malingering.
Youths interviewed by investigators said that when Contreraz vomited, fainted and defecated on himself, one ranch employee called him a "baby" and another told other residents he had AIDS. Witnesses said Contreraz was forced to sleep in his own waste on a barracks floor, and to eat while sitting on a toilet.
One 16-year-old gave this account, as paraphrased by a sheriff's investigator:
"Mr. Contreraz would be telling the staff he could not do any more physical training. The staff members would go to Mr. Contreraz and yank Mr. Contreraz up by his pants and slam him into a wall and telling him he better be doing them. The staff would then put Mr. Contreraz on the ground and assist him with the pushups. Mr. Contreraz would be telling the staff that he could not do it and that he was defecating on himself. Staff told Mr. Contreraz to go ahead and defecate on yourself. After Mr. Contreraz defecated on himself, the staff members had started making Mr. Contreraz walk around with the trash can with the soiled clothing."
Some residents said Boys Ranch personnel made Contreraz do pushups with his face going into a bucket containing stool-soiled pants. They said Boys Ranch employees taunted the boy and "assisted" him in doing exercises -- even after he vomited and said he had a fever of 102. In the last days, they recalled, Contreraz told others he wanted to die.
The sheriff's report says medical personnel repeatedly failed to recognize Contreraz's condition.
The boy was examined by Dr. Virginia Rutz, an osteopath, in January and again in early February. Just weeks before that, Rutz was placed on probation by the Arizona Board of Osteopathic Examiners for unprofessional conduct.
Board records show she admitted to the illegal distribution of narcotics, self-prescribing and inadequate maintenance of medical charts. Her license was suspended in October, then reinstated on five years probation after she entered a rehabilitation program and signed a consent decree in December.
The sheriff's report says Contreraz also was seen repeatedly by Linda Babb, a registered nurse at the Boys Ranch.
Babb, an experienced medical worker with an unblemished record at the state Board of Nursing, told detectives she examined Contreraz on the day he died. According to the sheriff's report, she "checked Mr. Conteraz's breathing and described using a stethoscope on Mr. Contreraz's chest and back underneath his clothing, and his breathing was 'normal.' " Later, Babb recontacted investigators and said she was not sure whether she'd used a stethoscope.
A 15-year-old ranch resident told deputies he received a checkup at the same time Contreraz visited the nurse, and she did not check their lungs or hearts.
The sheriff's report also notes that Babb went to the hospital, observed marks on Contreraz's body, then described them to another ranch supervisor.
Those marks had prompted a hospital employee to notify detectives that the boy may have been a victim of child abuse.
In a telephone interview from Sacramento, Julie Vega, the boy's mother, said Boys Ranch representatives convinced her that Contreraz was faking his illness during a phone conversation the day of his death.
She said she was sickened to read of the "cruelty" that her son suffered. Vega said her heartbreak is mixed with guilt and anger because "When I went to the coroner's office I knew, just by seeing his head, that he had been beaten," said Vega, who has hired a lawyer. "The more I hear, the more guilty they sound. . . . It's disgusting. It makes me so mad because they're supposed to be helping kids -- teaching them personal responsibility."
California authorities, meanwhile, have yanked some children from the camps and put a funding freeze on new placements pending investigations by that state's Department of Social Services and Sacramento County.
About 350 of the 500 Boys Ranch juveniles are from California. Officials from several counties said they have stepped up monitoring of the ranch, and sent a physician to Arizona to check on the health of inmates.
Because of the intense scrutiny, said Michael Elorduy, chief deputy probation officer for Sacramento County, "We feel comfortable that they're OK now. We've taken precautions."
Elorduy said Sacramento County will decide whether to recall its placements after its investigation of Boys Ranch is finished.
The Contreraz case, meanwhile, has become a subject of interest in California's Legislature as well, because of a pending bill which would allow operations like Boys Ranch open camps in that state.
Dennis Wagner can be reached at 444-8874 or at firstname.lastname@example.org via e-mail.