A Deadly Game?
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.
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.
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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.
ADJC staff reported to investigators that Camacho was upbeat and happy at school the day of April 11, the class clown. He was surprised with a room change later that day. Instead of living with another boy, he would now have his own room. After his death, it would be revealed that another boy was supposed to live alone, not Camacho. But Camacho moved his mattress a few doors down and told staff he was happy to get room number 23.
Later, staff member Everett Morris told investigators, "Putting Youth Camacho in room 23 was just a mistake. It was nothing more than a mistake. I mean in hindsight, Camacho would not have done what he did or at least would not have died if he had not been in a room by himself."
Camacho's new next-door neighbor recalls, "Youth Camacho seemed to be in a good mood. He said he was going to work on his workbook . . . He wanted to use my book and answers. I was going to slide them under the door to his room but never got the chance to."
That evening, sometime after 7 p.m., Youth Corrections Officer Martin Jaquez walked by Camacho's room, and Camacho told him to go away, that there was something he didn't want him to see. Jaquez confiscated a D battery, a green dry-erase pen and a plastic pen with black ink in it. Camacho was furious.
One boy told investigators he heard Camacho banging on his door and yelling, "Fuck, I'm never going to leave this unit because I'm always getting in trouble over stupid shit." When Jaquez tried to talk to him, Camacho yelled, "Fuck you, get away from me, I don't want to talk to you."
About an hour later, some boys, including Camacho's next-door neighbor, were returning from chapel.
The neighbor says he looked through the small window to Camacho's cell and saw that he had a sheet knotted around his neck and wasn't moving.
"I said, `Look, look at this guy.'"
Jaquez recalls, "I looked through the window in the door and saw a sheet around Youth Camacho's neck like he was hanging. His head was back, and his face was kind of sideways to the door. I did not notice where his feet were, and I did not notice his clothing. I never saw his genitalia exposed. I would have remembered that.
"I just remember putting my arms around him just below his hips and lifting him. I reached up with my right hand and pulled the sheet from around his neck. I don't remember if his sheet had a knot, but the sheet just came loose when I pulled on it."
Jaquez put Camacho on the floor, called for 911 and began CPR. Camacho was pronounced dead an hour later at John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix. ADJC staff logs show that it had been about 20 minutes between the last time someone had checked on Camacho and the time he was found hanging. Regulations require a room check every 30 minutes.
Christopher Camacho died in his ADJC-issued yellow tee shirt, dark jeans and white sneakers. Shoelaces, another possible hanging instrument, were found in his cell.
In the pocket of Camacho's jeans was a note to another boy at Adobe Mountain, telling him of the room change and asking for some "nutty," which is slang for pornographic photographs, and four or five gloves. (The boys use the gloves to masturbate.)
The note is signed, "Your Partner in Crime."
The real reason Christopher Camacho tied that sheet around his neck on April 11 died with him.
But it is clear from the investigation that boys at Adobe Mountain School regularly choke themselves for fun. There are many examples in the investigative report, including one from a boy in the Freedom cottage who knew Camacho:
"I have passed myself out three different times with the use of a sheet. I would tie a loose knot in one end of a sheet and put the knot in a vent that is above the door. I would then tighten the knot so it would not come out of the vent.
"I would then tie a slipknot in the other end of the sheet with the sheet around my neck. I did it this way because it is a better total body high than passing myself out with my hands. My roommate would keep me from hanging myself.
"One time I did it over and over again by my self. I would put the sheet in the vent like before and then put the loop around my neck. I stood on a chair and with the rope around my neck, I stepped from the chair onto the floor. I stood on the floor until my feet started to tingle and then got back on the chair. I did this over and over again."
The boy says Camacho never talked about getting high by passing out. He believes that Camacho didn't mean to kill himself, but just wanted attention.
The boy says he won't choke himself again. "I saw Youth Camacho's face when they brought him out of his room," he told investigators, according to the report. "His was between light and dark blue."
Peter Luszczak, superintendent of Adobe Mountain, details "lessons to be learned" in a cover page on the Camacho investigation. He says the "design flaw" that allows sheets to be anchored under metal bars is being reviewed. Kids are being informed of the risks of choking themselves, he says, and allows that it was probably not such a good idea to leave Officer Jaquez alone with a large group of boys.
Luszczak concludes that staff acted appropriately in their assessment that Camacho was not a "high risk to commit suicide."
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