Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

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.'"

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Chris Farnsworth