When Julie Vega got the call about her son at 10 minutes to 10 p.m. on March 2, she knew something was wrong.
Virginia Avila, a California-based community services coordinator for the Arizona Boys Ranch, told her she needed to talk to Vega--in person--about her 16-year-old son, Nick Contreraz, who was confined to the facility for joy-riding in a stolen car.
When Avila arrived at the family's Sacramento home, the case worker didn't have to say anything. Vega knew her son was dead.
"I said, 'Don't tell me that,'" Vega says. "I don't know why, I guess it's just mother's intuition, I just said, 'Don't tell me something's wrong with my son,' and she said he'd had a heart attack."
Contreraz's pulse had stopped at 5:57 that evening; though staff and emergency workers performed CPR for an hour, Contreraz was pronounced dead at a nearby Tucson hospital.
Now, the Sacramento family members have discovered they cannot yet bury their son as an investigation into Contreraz's death continues. A memorial service and Mass were held for Contreraz last week, but his burial has been postponed while a second autopsy is performed.
Adding to the family's pain is its uncertainty. Nick Contreraz, in his last conversations with relatives on the Friday before he died, complained of diarrhea and chest pain and talked about suicide. A staffer also told Vega that Nick was "on a hunger strike," she says.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Department and the state's Child Protective Services are currently investigating Contreraz's death. Sheriff and CPS officials won't talk about the incident, but the detective assigned to the case told state officials there may have been "disturbing violations of rules."
The family members say no one from Arizona has asked them any questions about Contreraz's last words to them, or even contacted them regarding the investigation.
The death has rocked the Arizona Boys Ranch, a nationally known "last chance" facility for juvenile offenders founded in 1949. Located near Tucson, the program houses about 400 court-ordered youths at its two main facilities. More than half are from California, like Contreraz.
Boys Ranch officials say there has never been abuse at the program and that an internal investigation found no wrongdoing by ranch employees.
"This is the first death that we have experienced on one of our campuses, and only the second death in the almost 50 years for Boys Ranch as a home for disadvantaged young men," Bob Thomas, the president and CEO of the Arizona Boys Ranch, said in a press release. "A major tragedy can happen at any public or nonprofit organization such as Boys Ranch."
Thomas also sent his "heartfelt prayers" to the family. Citing the ongoing investigation, Boys Ranch staff declined further comment.
Contreraz was ordered to the Boys Ranch on January 5, after other placements in foster homes and with family in California failed. His uncle describes him as a sweet-natured young man who began having difficulty after his father was killed, a bystander in a gang shooting.
"Nick was a very kind, loving little kid, almost like a little puppy, but ever since the death of his dad, he just became a real troubled kid," Joe Contreraz says.
Contreraz had been at the Boys Ranch just less than two months when his grandmother, Connie Woodward, got a call from Mr. Newman, a Boys Ranch staffer, on the Friday before Nick died.
Woodward says that Newman told her Nick was "not doing too good."
"He said, 'Well, he quit eating a week and a half ago,'" she says. When Woodward asked why she hadn't been called earlier, she says Newman replied, "'Oh, no problem, you've got a healthy young man here.'
"A healthy young man. Those were his exact words. He said, 'He's just being very stubborn.'"
Woodward said that the staffer told her that since Contreraz wouldn't do pushups, two ranch employees took his hands and feet and put him through the exercises.
"He said that he won't do what he's told, and, 'He will find out that he will do it or we will do it for him,'" Woodward recalls. "He said that 'we don't give up,' and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I knew we were in trouble right then. I knew it."
Woodward then asked to talk to her grandson, who was placed on speakerphone. "He was like a little zombie. He couldn't put sentences together," she says. Woodward says Contreraz would only address her as "Ma'am."
"I said, 'Nicky, I'm Grandma, honey, I'm Grandma,'" she says. She then asked Contreraz why he couldn't do the exercises. He replied, "Wet, cold." When she asked why, she says Contreraz told her, "'Poured water on me.' And the guy in the background said, 'Yeah, every time he passed out we poured water on him.'"
Contreraz also kept talking about suicide, Woodward says. "He said he couldn't take anymore, 'I want to be with my dad.' I started crying and said, 'Nicky, this is not what Daddy would want, sweetheart.'"
The Boys Ranch staff also apparently called Contreraz's mother later that afternoon.
"He told me that 'Nick had been on a little hunger strike,'" Vega says. She says she was told staff was keeping "an extra eye" on Nick, and that as long as he was supervised, he would eat.
Nick was again placed on the speakerphone. Vega also says her son was speaking in disjointed phrases.
"It didn't seem like Nick. He wasn't talking to me in sentences. It was, 'No, Ma'am, I can't, Ma'am,'" she says.
Vega asked her son how he was doing, she says.
"He said he hurt. He said his chest hurt," Vega says. "He had scrapes on it from picking up the big rocks, carrying them and putting them in wheelbarrows."
Contreraz then told his mother he had diarrhea, and had had to change clothes four times the previous day.
Vega says Newman told her Contreraz "purposely defecated on himself four times" and that staff had to clean him up and change his clothes.
Vega asked him if he'd received her Valentine's Day card and why he didn't write more. Then, "Mr. Newman reassured me that everything was fine, not to worry," she says.
But on Monday, Contreraz refused to work when directed to by staff, according to a report submitted by the Boys Ranch to the Department of Economic Services, which oversees CPS. He lay down on the ground and was carried by staff back to the campus.
Contreraz was then examined by a registered nurse, the report says, who said that there was "no reason why he could not work or complete any activity."
The teen still refused to walk or do exercises and was isolated in a barracks to improve his behavior. According to the report, Contreraz lay down on the floor and "grabbed a bed and pulled it toward him, striking his head on the bed."
The staffers restrained Contreraz, who threatened to kill them and bit one of them on the leg, the report says. After that, he calmed down enough to be released, but then defecated on himself. While being carried back to his own barracks to clean himself up, he bit the other staffer on the chest.
At his barracks, the staffers removed his clothes and placed him in the shower after he refused to do it himself. The Boys Ranch employees then dressed him and escorted him to the dining hall, where they asked him to do "remedial exercises." The staff "continued to help him do the exercises," the report says.
Contreraz asked for water. After drinking some and spitting some out, he again refused to exercise. He asked for more water, and the employees carried him to the water.
"Mr. Contreraz laid on the ground and staff splashed water in his face and he did not respond," the report says. At that point, the staffers realized he was not breathing. They began CPR when they could not find a pulse.
The staffers continued CPR for almost an hour until paramedics arrived. Contreraz was loaded into a helicopter and taken to Northwest Hospital in Tucson, where he was pronounced dead.
Vega and her husband flew to Tucson after being notified of Contreraz's death to meet with Boys Ranch officials and claim Nick's body. Vega says that Nick had black eyes and bruises on his face when she saw the body.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Department and CPS declined to comment on Contreraz's death, citing the ongoing investigation.
However, a March 9 e-mail from DES says that there are "no criminal charges at this time."
The message goes on to say that the detective investigating the case found that "Nicholas had major medical problems. He stated he did not want to elaborate at this time."
The detective told DES, "In his judgement, there were 'some disturbing violations of rules and regulations.' Staff may have used 'poor judgement' but they don't have a 'crystal ball,'" the e-mail says.
The preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive, DES records show.
Boys Ranch CEO Thomas denies that Contreraz was mistreated at the facility. "The young man did not go for a week without food and water as stated in numerous articles," Thomas wrote in the statement he issued a few days after the death.
However, a report to DES from the ranch says that Contreraz "would refuse to eat unless staff were standing right over him."
Thomas also said Contreraz had health troubles, but he did not provide details. "This boy possessed a medical problem, but I am unable to provide further information at this time," he wrote.
The State of California has stopped placing juveniles at Arizona Boys Ranch until the inquiry into Contreraz's death is complete. The Los Angeles County Probation office has removed two boys from the ranch as a part of its own investigation into the facility. An L.A. County probation officer interviewed two boys at the ranch who roomed with Contreraz, but it's not known if those are the same youths who were removed.
Virginia Avila, the Boys Ranch employee who notified Contreraz's family, criticizes the decisions by those agencies.
"There is no peer with Arizona Boys Ranch when it comes to working with delinquent children," she told New Times. "I see the changes that my boys made."
Avila also says that past residents at the ranch have said that there has never been any abuse at the facility.
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DES substantiated 13 cases of abuse at the Boys Ranch in 1994. The ranch has challenged those findings in court; the case is still pending. The Boys Ranch has also filed a libel suit against the Arizona Republic for an article it published about the ranch in 1994.
"Frankly, we feel uncomfortable in our present situation, since we have litigation against these powerful institutions who are entrusted to write about and evaluate our program in the coming weeks," Thomas wrote.
In his statement, Thomas asked for patience until the investigation is complete. "Yes, there will be controversy in the coming weeks," he wrote. "I can only hope that you will bear with us until the facts are out."
The answers cannot come too soon for Contreraz's family. "If he died from a cardiac arrest, things like that happen," Joe Contreraz says. "We just want to know what happened. . . . He was a good, strong, healthy boy. What happened in two months?