The Arizona Republic, August 27, 1998

Listening, Finally, to Nicholaus, By E. J. Montini, Republic Columnist

Now, he's got their attention. Back in February, when Nicholaus Contreraz told a nurse at Arizona Boys Ranch that he hurt all over and wanted to die, nobody gave a damn.

But now, the conference room at the Arizona Department of Economic Security building was filled with grown-ups eager to hear Nicholaus' story.

Ten television cameras lined the back of the room Wednesday morning, their spindly legs crossing over one another like a chorus line of stick figures. Reporters filled the chairs and collected like dust in every corner. In front of them, standing before an ugly bouquet of microphones, were DES Director Linda Blessing and two underlings.

Nicholaus is important to them, now.

In late February, when he was unable to control his bowel movements, vomiting and too weak to stand, he was no big deal. Back then, according to a DES report, a member of the Boys Ranch staff told him, ''Nick, aren't you embarrassed of yourself?''

He was just a punk kid from California in those days. Nobody listens to punk kids. Even when they're telling the truth. Even when they're dying.

Once they're dead, we listen.




On Wednesday morning, reporters gathered to witness the performing ensemble of Linda and the Bureaucrats sing the praises of their department's 4,000-page investigation into Boys Ranch.

''The details of Nicholaus' death alone display a pattern of abuse and neglect by 17 people that cannot be excused as an isolated incident by a few rogue employees,'' Blessing said.

And she's correct.

But then, where was DES when the abuse took place? Where were they during years of complaints about Boys Ranch? Where were they the day before Nicholaus died, when he was heard to say, ''Lord help me. I need help. I need help.''

He was 15 years old, suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis and other infections, alone, being called a liar and fake by his keepers.

''Your breathing problems are in your head,'' a nurse at the ranch supposedly told him.

The staff made him sit on a toilet with his pants down while he ate dinner. They forced him to do push-ups, to carry a bucket of his own waste and vomit. When he collapsed, they told him he deserved an Academy Award. When he stopped breathing, they conducted an internal investigation and found ''no wrongdoing on the part of staff.''

It might have worked, too, if Nicholaus had survived. Alive, he was a nobody. Dead, he has power.

It was on display Wednesday morning, when DES officials announced they had denied the Ranch a new operating license. It's possible a deal will be worked out to keep the facility running, but it won't be the same.


The bureaucrats spoke of new rules to better protect kids in facilities like Boys Ranch. They talked of getting tough with inspections. They forwarded their report to the Pinal County Sheriff's Department, which could file criminal charges against the 17 former Ranch employees accused of abusing Nicholaus.

''It's a start,'' said Connie Woodward, Nicholaus' grandmother. ''It won't mean much if there aren't big changes, or if nobody goes to jail. But I'm happy.''

She said she got a call at home in Sacramento on Wednesday from one of the bigwigs at DES.

''He told me they were sorry about what happened to Nicky,'' Connie said. ''It was the first time anybody official said something like that to us. Too bad none of them ever talked to Nicky.''

After speaking with reporters, Connie and Nicholaus' mother, Julie Vega, decided to visit the cemetery. For a long time, now, their boy has wondered if he'd ever be heard.

They wanted to tell him in person - he has.

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents