--Arizona Boys Ranch motto
Lord help me, I need help, I need help . . .
--Nicholaus Contreraz, the day before he died at Arizona Boys Ranch
Autopsy photos are released, and on Thursday morning they're on the front page of the daily paper.
I get out of bed, go to the kitchen, pour some milk into a mug. Sit down and pick up the paper. Read. And can't drink the milk.
The report and the photos bring to mind scenes from some Third World dictatorship--captives being brutalized, being driven crazy, their bodies broken. The stories in the paper say that Nicholaus Contreraz had a medical condition that was ignored, and that he died at Boys Ranch. That's the official story, and that's what people are angry about.
But they should be angrier.
Because Nicholaus didn't die of neglect.
Denying a person medical attention is neglect. But a 16-year-old whose body is covered with cuts and bruises has not been neglected. He has been tortured.
Anyone who reads the investigative reports into Nicholaus' death could logically arrive at no other conclusion. There are reports by the state Department of Economic Security (which licenses Boys Ranch), the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, the autopsy report and a report by a California investigative team. Nicholaus was from California, and had been sent to Boys Ranch because he was a juvenile delinquent. This happened because California law doesn't allow staff in its juvenile institutions to physically restrain their wards. Arizona, however, has no such qualms.
Looking at the autopsy photos, you wouldn't guess that Nicholaus had died of a heart attack caused by an infection that filled his chest cavity with more than two quarts of pus. You'd think he'd been beaten to death. His torso is covered with abrasions, bruises and cuts. Granted, some of these marks were made during attempts to resuscitate him. But that leaves dozens of injuries without an innocent explanation.
So why is everyone talking about "neglect"?
Because his death could have been easily prevented. He'd been complaining about chest pains and diarrhea. He was shitting in his pants, according to the investigative reports. He was throwing up constantly. Witnesses said he had to carry a bucket around with him in case he threw up.
But staff at Boys Ranch didn't believe there was anything wrong with him, and accused him of faking, according to the same reports. When he passed out, they threw water in his face. They made him do push-ups over a bucket of his own excrement- and vomit-soaked clothes. And, when he said he wasn't well enough to do calisthenics, they took hold of him and forced him to.
And he died.
We're told that he died because of neglect. And that's probably true.
But it doesn't tell the whole story. When you look at what happened to Nicholaus Contreraz, what Boys Ranch was doing to him, you have to consider that death might have been a welcome release.
According to Contreraz's fellow wards--they were questioned by Pinal County and California investigators--abuse is a fact of life at Boys Ranch. The DES report paints a similar picture.
Being thrown against a wall and rabbit-punched is not neglect. It's torture.
Not being allowed to defecate when you need to, and then having your head banged against a wall, is not neglect. It's torture.
When you soil your clothing, and your keepers make you carry the stinking clothes around in a bucket, you're not being neglected. You're being tortured.
When you have a fever of 102 degrees and you're losing weight, and your keepers tell other residents that you have AIDS, they're not neglecting you. They're torturing you.
The marks on Nicholaus' body came from somewhere. And so did the near-catatonia he displayed near the end of his life.
Three days before his death, Contreraz spoke to his grandmother on the phone. Her account of the conversation is eerie. He was like an automaton. He addressed her as "ma'am." He was unrecognizable to her, and she to him. This was a boy so terrorized that he couldn't differentiate between authority figures and his family.
As he grew sicker, staff at Boys Ranch laughed at him, taunted him. A CPS report states, "The staff appeared to think the victim's symptoms were faked for manipulation. However, many of the symptoms documented cannot be faked, including sweating, fever, chills, rapid respiration and pulse, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cyanosis and flushing of the skin, trembling and muscle fatigue with exercise, cough, left chest pain, dry heaves, difficulty breathing, wheezing, 'moldy' body odor and weight loss."
Nicholaus Contreraz was tortured, physically and mentally. He lost 14 pounds in two months. And then he was allowed to die.
What has been done about it?
Nothing much. Five staff members have been fired. And Linda Blessing, director of the state Department of Economic Security, has conducted her own investigation and refused to renew Boys Ranch's license to operate.
And the response from Boys Ranch?
Boys Ranch president Bob Thomas wants business as usual. He has declared that he will not close the institution. Thomas does not regard Contreraz's death as sufficient reason to cease operations. What is he going to do to keep a similar incident from happening? "We're doing a lot of training, and we need to get better medical procedures."
Such promises would be dubious grounds for keeping Boys Ranch open, even if the abuse that led to Nicholaus' death were unusual. Just how many deaths should an institution be allowed?
All reports I read make it clear that the only unusual thing about this incident is that a child died. In a chilling sentence, the California report remarks that the fluid in his lungs probably came from inhaling his own vomit from the bucket he was forced to carry around and do push-ups over.
I called Bob Thomas to ask how he could justify his reaction to his license renewal being denied. He didn't seem to think he had to justify it.
"Nicholaus Contreraz passed away from a medical problem, which I'm not an expert on," he told me. "It was a tragic aberration. But there's nothing we can do to bring him back."
He added that he considered publication of the autopsy pictures to be "in very poor taste."
Wasn't beating the kid in even poorer taste?
It didn't happen, according to Thomas.
"Nobody beat him. He was given CPR for an hour in rocky terrain. I don't know if you've ever given CPR, but there are going to be some marks."
All over his body? From head to toe?
In Thomas' world, every criticism of his institution is politically motivated. While admitting that he hasn't read the California report, Thomas claims it was constructed to make Boys Ranch look bad.
A teenage boy died alone and in a kind of misery that those he left behind can only try to imagine. Bob Thomas runs the institution responsible for that boy's well-being. And it's everyone's fault except Thomas'. The kid's mother, probation officer, the California authorities--they are all apparently somehow to blame for what happened, though Thomas doesn't say why. This kind of denial of personal responsibility is more commonly expected from the inmates of a correctional facility than from its president.
Despite having had its license renewal turned down, Boys Ranch can continue to operate. Its current license is valid while Thomas appeals the DES decision.
While vitriolic about DES, Thomas also says, "I hope we can work this thing out with DES. We don't plan on closing. Our main goal is to help kids. We have a commitment to these kids."
Justice wouldn't be served by the closure of Boys Ranch. It wouldn't be nearly enough. If a citizen kills someone, we don't merely take the weapon away from him. We prosecute him and make him pay.
And this is what needs to happen to Boys Ranch.
And it might, according to Charles Ratcliffe of Pinal County Attorney's Office.
"We're considering it," he says. "We should know in a couple of weeks whether there will be criminal charges, and against whom."
In the light of his attitude, Bob Thomas ought to be charged as an accessory. In criminal trials, the attitude of the perpetrator has a strong bearing on sentencing. A lack of remorse brings a harsher sentence. And for Thomas to blithely dismiss a boy's cruel death, and go on with his business, is beyond arrogance.
It is criminal, and prosecutors should treat it as such. Justice will only be served when Thomas and his former employees are made to answer to a jury.
And, if they're found criminally responsible, the penalties should be severe. And the word "neglect" should only be used in passing.
Because neglect is passive. Torture is not.
Thomas has said, "It comes to this: Who do you believe, the staff or the kids?"
I believe a dead kid covered in abrasions.
And it appears I'm not alone. As New Times went to press on Tuesday, it was announced that Boys Ranch's board of directors has placed Bob Thomas on administrative leave.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]