A Deadly Game?

State officials say boy died playing around, despite his recent suicide threat

An internal investigation into the death of a child in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections concludes that the boy accidentally killed himself by wrapping a sheet around his neck to make himself light-headed, a popular way to get high in the detention facility.

But the report, which terms Christopher Camacho's demise "death by misadventure," dismisses ADJC's own evidence that the 15-year-old was suicidal and had sent a letter to his father, just days before his death, in which he wrote: "Right now I'm seriously thinking about killing myself."

Camacho was found hanging from a sheet in his cell at Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix on April 11.

Christopher Camacho (right) and his grandfather, in happier times.
Christopher Camacho (right) and his grandfather, in happier times.


Read related stories
in the "Slammed" series - A look at conditions within the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections

Three months later, on July 11, another Adobe Mountain resident, 14-year-old David Horvath, also died by hanging.

Very few details about Horvath's death have been made available.

And the 122-page Camacho report released last week raises more questions than it answers.

The investigation does not address evidence that Camacho and other residents of the Freedom cottage had been locked in their cells for days at a time, shortly before his death. It also doesn't mention Camacho's repeated complaints that an ADJC staff member was touching boys inappropriately ("Dying Young," April 18). And the investigation doesn't address ADJC's former ombudsman's assertion that Camacho had asked on the day of his death to go to the unit where he could have received counseling ("The Hanging," July 25).

ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner won't discuss the staff member, who is reportedly on the job, working with kids. He denies the former ombudsman's claim.

Instead, the investigation focuses on the events of the day of the death.

It is in fact possible that Camacho might have accidentally asphyxiated himself. Apparently, some kids at Adobe Mountain make a game of choking themselves with sheets until they passed out, and several told investigators that Camacho had tried it. But more than one kid also said that Camacho had stopped choking himself to get high, because he didn't like it.

(Although the practice is commonly called "autoerotic asphyxiation" and can involve masturbation, a sexual component was never mentioned in ADJC's report.)

Assuming that Camacho died accidentally rejects evidence that shows the boy was suicidal. According to the ADJC investigation, Camacho had been depressed for weeks, after his visiting privileges had been suspended. He was being given Prozac, a popular antidepression medication. Less than an hour before his death, Camacho had thrown a temper tantrum when ADJC staff confiscated a battery and some pens — tools used for homemade tattoos — knowing he could get additional time at Adobe Mountain.

But the most significant evidence that Camacho might kill himself arrived in an envelope the day before he hanged himself. Camacho's parents received two letters from their son on April 10, which were released as part of the investigation. The letter to his mother is upbeat and funny, celebrating his recently reinstated visiting rights.

"What's up Mom?" the letter begins. "Me just chillin'. I was happy as hell to see you on Saturday. You need to stop worrying about how I'm doing in here. I'm safe."

The same envelope contained a letter to Camacho's father. "What's up pops? Me just fucken pissed the fuck off at this place, myself, and my sorry ass P.O. [probation officer]," the second letter starts.

In the middle of the handwritten letter, Camacho wrote, "I'm not doing so good in here. Right now I'm seriously thinking about killing myself. It would be the easy way out of my hole that I've been trying to get out of for the last 3 years."

The letter concludes: "There isn't nothing for me in life but disappointment and failure. Why don't they take me out of my own misery? It would save time and precious air, if I was gone. I know your probly saying different your probly saying I can do this but the truth remains. I'm fucked. They might as well of gave me life because it gone anyways. Well I don't got to much more to say but I love you and sorry for the pain and agony I've caused."

He did include a P.S., asking his father to write back.

Camacho's family has declined New Times' interview requests. But his mother, Tammy Price, told ADJC investigators that she read that letter on a Wednesday and planned to visit Christopher at the next visitation on Saturday. He was dead by Thursday night.

By April 11, things should have been looking up for Christopher Camacho.

The offenses that had landed him at Adobe Mountain weren't all that serious: conspiracy to burglarize and multiple probation violations. But like many kids who wind up at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, Camacho had been in nonstop trouble for a month prior to his death. His father had sneaked cigarette rolling papers and matches to Camacho at visiting hours, and he lost visiting privileges. He was disruptive in school and in his cell, and he ran from line one day with some other kids while on the way from the kitchen back to his cottage.

By the second week of April, Camacho had straightened up. He was promoted at school, and his visiting hours were reinstated. Still, on April 10, he wrote to his father, apologizing for getting him in trouble over the contraband and threatening to kill himself. Clearly, he was concerned about getting out of Adobe Mountain and knew that, if he didn't behave, he would be given more time. The court recommends a sentence, but it's up to ADJC officials to decide how long to keep a kid, up to his 18th birthday.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets