The Arizona Daily Star, July 10, 1999

Mother of Boys Ranch victim Contreraz settles suits, By Enric Volante

The mother of a boy who died at Arizona Boys Ranch has settled lawsuits against Arizona, a California county and the ranch, which agreed to erect a monument to keep the teen's memory alive.

Arizona paid $750,000. Boys Ranch, a private, non-profit organization, and California's Sacramento County, which placed the boy at the ranch, agreed in confidential settlements to pay additional amounts, Juli Vega said yesterday in Sacramento.

Her son, Nicholaus Contreraz, 16, collapsed and died in March 1998 after an undiagnosed infection in the lining of his lung filled his chest cavity with 2 1/2 quarts of pus and restricted oxygen to his heart.

A sheriff's investigation showed some workers at the military-style camp for teens in trouble with the law had ridiculed and forced the boy to exercise that day over his protests because they thought he was feigning illness.

None of the organizations admitted any liability in the settlements.

``I want people to know this whole thing was not about money to me,'' she said. ``This money I got helps my family and kids to ensure a better future, but God knows if there was any way, I would give everything back if I knew that these people would go to prison or at least jail.''

Two former ranch workers face trial in Pinal County Superior Court on charges of child abuse. A nurse formerly employed by the ranch who cleared the boy for physical activity faces a charge of manslaughter.

Vega said Boys Ranch initially balked but later agreed to build a memorial of undetermined size at the Oracle camp.

``I want them to remember, so that maybe if somebody raises a hand to a child the wrong way, they would see that and remember and maybe think twice about it,'' she said.

Boys Ranch President Saunders Montague confirmed the settlement terms and said there are no plans to reopen the Oracle camp, which is up for sale. He declined further comment.

The camp closed after the ranch came under scrutiny because of the death and other allegations of mistreatment. Boys Ranch continues to operate for about 40 boys at its main Queen Creek campus.

Vega would say only that the settlements, finalized with the ranch and state last spring and with Sacramento County yesterday, added up to a sum that was ``not in the millions.''

She put most in a trust fund to provide college for her three children, she said. She also bought a home for herself and provided a down payment on a home for her mother - both overlooking the Sacramento cemetery where they buried Contreraz.

The $750,000 Arizona settlement required the approval of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which agreed that it was in the best interests of the state, said Howard Boice, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Administration.

The suit accused the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which licensed the facility, of failing to ensure the safety of the boys despite many clashes with ranch management and documented instances of abuse and neglect.

DES spokeswoman Sally Ordini said the settlement should help the family move on.

``I think there are enough significant changes in place that we can all look foward to the future, and hopefully Nicholaus' death will serve as a good reminder to everyone that life is precious,'' Ordini said.

The DES recently renewed the ranch's operating license following reforms ranging from better staff training to closer medical monitoring.

Vega said she did not sue the state of California because it responded promptly by withdrawing hundreds of boys from the Arizona ranch and then reduced funding to send boys there.

``I think they should just burn it down, myself,'' said Connie Woodard, the boy's grandmother.

``If Arizona wants their children there, then that's their state. California and other states should keep their children home where they can take care of them.''

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents