The Arizona Republic May 6, 1998
Boys Ranch facility to close--Oracle boot camp to be overhauled
By Dennis Wagner
Arizona Boys Ranch will shut down an Oracle boot camp for juvenile delinquents and overhaul its orientation program in the wake of a youth's death during disciplinary exercises.
The decision comes amid civil and criminal probes into the death of Nicholaus Contreraz, 16, of Sacramento, who died March 2 from a lung infection while being forced to do work and push-ups.
"We have learned that staff actions totally disregarded established disciplinary policies," said Bob Thomas, chief executive of Boys Ranch. "We accept responsibility for those actions. We will do everything in our power to institute changes to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy. That is our responsibility and duty."
Thomas said Contreraz was a victim of disciplinary methods that he described as "appalling and embarrassing."
Medical examiners found that the youth had been sick for weeks with strep and staph infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. They concluded that the condition was exacerbated by physical exertion. The autopsy revealed 2 1/2 quarts of pus in the lining of his lungs, as well as 71 superficial wounds to his body.
Wards at the Oracle campus told Pinal County sheriff's detectives that Contreraz suffered from breathing difficulties, vomiting and diarrhea in his final days.
They said Boys Ranch staffers taunted Contreraz as a faker. When he refused work and exercises, they struggled with him and made him do push-ups with his face over a bucket containing defecation-soiled clothes.
Thomas said such incidents were aberrations in a program dedicated to integrity and building relationships with troubled youth.
"This is not Boys Ranch," Thomas said of incidents. "This was never Boys Ranch. I found it appalling. We haven't had that situation before, and we won't have it again."
Three employees have been dismissed, although Thomas would not identify them. He said several other workers are on suspension, including a nurse who failed to detect Contreraz's illness. The Oracle camp director was replaced. Additional personnel moves are planned.
"We were unaware of this situation," Thomas said, "and we are still investigating to discern the full extent of the violations. The individuals involved may have tacitly encouraged each other's activities by silence, example or peer influence."
Thomas promised a major revamp of operations to prevent a repeat of the Contreraz incident.
Boys Ranch houses about 540 severely delinquent youth, mostly from California, at eight Arizona campuses. Juveniles are placed with the private, non-profit agency by courts and probation departments, which pay about $3,700 per month for each child. Boys Ranch uses discipline, hard work and rigid structure to rehabilitate and build character.
The Oracle campus provides a military-style orientation for new recruits. More than 200 boys lived there before Contreraz died. About 35 have been withdrawn by probation officials in California, Thomas said, and others are expected to graduate this month.
A criminal probe of Contreraz's death, and other abuse allegations that arose afterward, is being conducted by Pinal County authorities. Additional probes are under way by Arizona Child Protective Services, the California Department of Social Services and Sacramento County Probations Services.
In addition, the license for Boys Ranch is up for review next month by the state Department of Economic Security.
Thomas said reforms were prompted by management concerns rather than regulatory officials. He said the Oracle boot camp will be closed in June, then re-established and restructured, probably on the main campus at Queen Creek.
Carl Prange, newly appointed as director at Oracle, is expected to take charge of the new boot camp.
Thomas said he is particularly concerned that Boys Ranch "did not make good decisions medically" for Contreraz, who visited a doctor and a nurse repeatedly during the weeks before his death. Neither diagnosed the lung condition, known as an empyema.
Thomas said he does not intend to open a new orientation program until he is confident that children will receive appropriate health care and supervision. He said the revamped program will feature:
Jim Hart, assistant director of the Department of Economic Security, said those reforms could help Boys Ranch retain its license.
- A major upgrade in medical personnel and plans for outside review by medical experts.
- More stringent hiring procedures and employee screening.
- Oversight, including unannounced inspections, by a panel of retired law officers and other citizens.
- Installation of an independent ombudsman who will work with residents and report to outside agencies.
"We're gratified to see they're making some significant moves and not waiting for us (to take action)," Hart added. "That's the kind of thing we're looking for.
"The proof is going to be in their actions. We will track them to see if they're implemented."
At least four major abuse controversies have erupted in the past 20 years at Boys Ranch, mostly involving orientation methods. Its license was suspended several times after complaints were substantiated.
Thomas had blamed each of those on manipulative youth, inept state investigators and biased bureaucrats.
Early in the Contreraz case, Boys Ranch officials informed DES that they found no wrongdoing by staff.
However, Thomas said, those preliminary findings referred to emergency medical treatment given to Contreraz after he collapsed. Thomas said a thorough internal investigation at Boys Camp confirmed the charges of mistreatment.
"We have been deeply saddened by Nicholaus' death," he said. "Nothing can change this tragedy nor bring Nicholaus back. We realize that, and we again express our sorrow and condolences to his family and friends."