Suicide Watch

Roy Roman Jr. poses with Romeo, the family Chihuahua, shortly before the 16-year-old's death.
courtesy of the Roman family

On the morning of Sunday, March 23, Roy Roman Jr. looped a belt around his neck and hanged himself at Adobe Mountain School. He is the third boy to kill himself in less than a year at the Phoenix detention facility run by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

Officially, ADJC has released only the briefest facts on the death of the 16-year-old, who was sent to Adobe Mountain in January for breaking into a car with some friends. Roman was scheduled to be released as early as June, and he had a lot to look forward to, says his mother, Angela Villa. She and her family are shocked, saying they had no clue that the boy was even depressed.

But staff at Adobe Mountain say there were indications that Roy Roman was suicidal. One individual who attended a confidential meeting shortly after Roman's death says the boy tried to hang himself with a tee shirt while in a Mesa detention facility, shortly before he was sent to Adobe Mountain.

"Nobody red-flagged this info, and now he's dead," says the staffer, who spoke to New Times on the condition of anonymity.

And other staff members say the most basic measures to prevent a suicide were not taken:

• Several staffers confirm that the youth corrections officer who first found Roman was not wearing the "911" emergency pack that all officers have been required to wear since shortly after the second successful suicide last summer. The pack includes a CPR mask, gloves and a tool designed specifically to cut down a hanging victim.

• Although the grounds of Adobe Mountain School have been "suicide-proofed" in recent months, metal structures were left on the walls of the Freedom cottage, where Roman lived, that made a hanging possible. (In the days following Roman's suicide, those structures were taken out by maintenance personnel, staffers stay.)

• Staffers also confirm and Roy Roman's parents say they were told that the boy was left unsupervised in his room for 10 minutes, which turned out to be more than enough time to commit suicide.

Morale among both kids and staff at ADJC is way down, insiders report, and there is wide speculation that this latest death could mark the end of director David Gaspar's career with the agency.

Roy Roman's suicide has focused new attention on ADJC. Despite the fact that the agency has been the target of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation for a year, Governor Janet Napolitano has taken no action with regard to ADJC since taking office in January.

Gaspar, like several other state agency heads, has not been fired, but he has also not been officially appointed to the Napolitano administration.

Napolitano, who heard of the latest suicide "within minutes," met with Gaspar two days later, and has scheduled several additional meetings with ADJC staff in the coming weeks, says her spokeswoman, Kris Mayes.

There is speculation inside ADJC and among local politicos that Napolitano has given Gaspar more leeway because the two are neighbors at a downtown Phoenix condominium complex.

Mayes says Napolitano is now focused on ADJC, and wants to make long-term plans to ensure that behavioral services are adequate, and that juveniles are treated differently from adult offenders.

One ADJC staffer, who spent the day of Roman's suicide counseling kids at Adobe Mountain, says that will not happen without the dismissal of Gaspar and several other top-ranking ADJC officials.

"We don't treat kids humanely, we treat them just like they're in the adult system now.... We give treatment lip service," says the staffer, who also requested anonymity. "It's kind of like Iraq. It's time for a regime change."

Steve Meissner, ADJC's spokesman, refuses to discuss the governor's meeting with Gaspar, the director's employment status or the status of the Justice Department probe. Mayes says she's heard that the feds' final report is due out in late summer.

The ADJC staffer wonders if anything will ever change. He asks, "How many kids have to die?"

Until last spring, it had been 14 years since a kid died in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. That changed on April 11, 2002, when Christopher Camacho, 15, was found hanging by a bed sheet in his cell at Adobe Mountain.

David Horvath, 14, hanged himself on July 11 in his cell at Adobe Mountain. He didn't die immediately, but was taken off life support three days later.

There has been at least one other suicide attempt in the past year, in the ADJC system. On October 12, a 16-year-old boy at Eagle Point School in Buckeye attempted to hang himself with a bed sheet in his room. He was hospitalized and later recovered.  

ADJC's internal investigation into the Camacho death concluded that the boy was not trying to kill himself, but instead was engaged in autoerotic asphyxiation, in an attempt to intensify sexual gratification. Although there is some indication in interviews with other youth that that might have happened, the evidence is by no means definitive. In any case, the Camacho family's attorney, Barbara Cerepanya, says she is filing a lawsuit against the state. She has only days left to meet the one-year deadline.

The Horvath family's attorney filed a lawsuit March 27 in Maricopa County Superior Court, claiming that ADJC did not adequately review David's records when he entered the system and failed to diagnose, treat or supervise him properly.

Christopher Camacho's suicide was not the first indication of trouble at ADJC. In a series of articles beginning in July 2001, New Times has detailed abuses at ADJC since a federal court order designed to ensure civil rights was lifted in 1998 ("Slammed," Amy Silverman). Although ADJC officials insist that they are continuing to follow the court order, violations abound: Children are regularly locked in solitary confinement for days or even weeks, mental-health care is almost nonexistent, children abuse each other and are abused by staff, educational services are subpar, staffing levels are dangerously low.

And kids keep killing themselves.

Justice Department officials refuse to comment about their ongoing investigation, but ADJC staffers and other observers confirm that after the Horvath suicide, the feds brought in consultants who specialize in suicide prevention. Recommendations were made regarding suicide-proofing the grounds at Adobe Mountain, and staff was required to wear the 911 fanny packs.

But ADJC current and former staff say things have not improved much.

Tom Parsons worked as a youth corrections officer from July to October last year at Adobe Mountain, before leaving to pursue a teaching career. He says the stress of the federal investigation was too much for him; the investigators weren't the problem, he contends, but he felt pressure from ADJC administrators who threatened staff that they had to convince the feds that everything was fine at Adobe.

Parsons wasn't happy about wearing the 911 pack, which included what he describes as a "real, real sharp hook" designed to cut quickly through a sheet, belt or rope. He says staff was not trained to use the device.

He says that one day he came to work and his manager handed him the pack and told him to wear it.

"I'm like, I'm not carrying around this sharp object to cut somebody down.'... There were no classes, or anything. I didn't feel comfortable being there, because I'm not a small person, but if a kid got mad at you, who knows?" he says.

"All I had to do was sign off that, yeah, I got talked to about it."

And, Parsons adds, staff members are still not adequately prepared to deal with suicidal kids. "They need to have a lot more intensive training about it.... Like it or not, the kids talk about it a lot."

The ADJC staffer who interviewed and counseled kids at Adobe Mountain after Roman's suicide says the tragedy could have been prevented.

"There were signs clearly, there. We could have seen it if we'd been attentive," he says.

The staffer says that training youth corrections officers in suicide prevention is not enough.

"We're still so caught into a punitive approach that we really force kids into that as a last resort," he says. "There are still units being locked down all the time throughout the agency.... We do a lot of isolating of kids. Staff berate kids. The culture still remains that's going to cause kids to become suicidal."

He was surprised at how ill-equipped ADJC was in handling the aftermath of Roman's suicide.

"Even though it seems like having two of them [so recently] you'd think we'd have somewhat of a plan, it still seemed sort of scattered."

He says staff members were reprimanded for not wearing their 911 packs, and that was about it. As for the kids, they were put on close observation: checked every five minutes, around the clock. (A memo obtained by New Times confirms this.)

The staffer was incredulous when he learned that officers were going to each cell all night long, turning the lights on every five minutes.

"You're taking kids who are maybe okay, but yet you're sleep-depriving them.... That's 100 times a night you're turning the lights off and on. They're going to become unstable," he says. "If you turned the lights on and off every five minutes in my bedroom, I might get a little suicidal myself."  

They eventually switched to flashlights.

Roy Roman Sr. and Angela Villa sit dry-eyed in their central Phoenix home, days after their only son's death. A small shrine of pink roses, purple daisies, candles and photographs stands in a corner of the living room.

It all happened so quickly, Villa says. Less than two years ago, Roy was no trouble at all. Then he fell in with a bad crowd, started skipping school and missing curfew. Came home with tattoos. She offered to quit her job in credit fraud at Bank of America, but her son said no.

"He said, No, Mom, I have to do this on my own,'" Villa recalls.

Roy was a funny kid. When he was a little boy, he wanted to be a firefighter. Later, he thought he'd be a chef. His specialty was eggs, his sister, 15-year-old Alvina, says over easy, scrambled, omelets. He always asked his mom if he could make her breakfast.

Roy loved to draw, and he loved oldies. He loved his nieces. He made people laugh.

"He was funny," Alvina says. "He knew how to dance."

But he had a dark side, too. "It seemed like he was angry," his mother says. "He would hit the wall, he would punch the mailbox."

She'd get on him about being respectful, particularly when he didn't let her know where he was.

His father recalls, "We'd tell him, This isn't just Motel 6, where you can come and go as you please.'"

Last fall, Roy was charged with third-degree burglary, and sent to the county's detention facility in Mesa. Roy Sr. says he misunderstood the paperwork, and missed his son's hearing date. Next thing he heard, Roy Jr. was at Adobe Mountain.

The strange thing, his parents say, is that Roy was doing so well at Adobe. They visited him at almost every opportunity, sometimes twice a week.

"Each time I'd see him, he'd be more positive," Villa says. He was working on his GED, and told the staff at Adobe he needed glasses. He got them.

"He just looked so professional. I told him, this just changes your whole attitude," Villa says, recalling that the kids told him he looked like a professor, which he loved.

The day before his death, Roy called home to see if the family was planning to visit that afternoon. Alvina gave him the bad news. His father, a plumber, had to work overtime, and the family wouldn't be coming. Roy hung up on his sister, but called back five minutes later, she says, sounding happy, asking how she was doing and telling her he was fine.

The following morning, Roy Sr. got a phone call just before 11. It was Peter Luszczak, superintendent of Adobe Mountain School.

"He goes, Your son has hung himself,'" Roy Sr. remembers, clutching the family Chihuahua, Romeo.

"I said, What the hell are you telling me, man? Is he all right?'"

Luszczak said he didn't know, and told him to go to John C. Lincoln Hospital.

By the time the family got to the hospital, Roy Jr. was dead.

"Basically, they haven't told us jack," Roy Sr. says. What the family has heard is that Roy Jr. got into a verbal confrontation with someone either another kid or a staff member on the morning of March 23. Afterward, he spoke with a counselor, then walked into his cell and shut the door. Ten minutes later, a staff member found him. Roy Jr. died in the same cottage, Freedom, as Christopher Camacho.

The family was told that Roy Jr. tied his belt to a cabinet or something mounted on the wall in his cell, stuck his head through the loop, and leaned forward.

A few days later, a memorial was held at Adobe Mountain, in honor of Roy Roman Jr. Peter Luszczak was there, Roy's family says, but David Gaspar was not. They never met Gaspar.

He didn't come to the hospital, either.

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