January 10, 2018

The Death of Nicholaus Contreraz

During Nicholaus Contreraz' short life, he was often in the wrong place at the wrong time and given the short end of the proverbial stick.

It started when his father was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1994.  The elder Contreraz was a victim of mistaken identity; worse, young Nicky, who had turned twelve just two months earlier, witnessed the murder.  Such trauma led the boy, previously a good student, to slip academically and to begin committing petty crimes, like shoplifting.  The Sacramento teenager finally pushed his luck when he was caught joyriding in a stolen car. A judge told him and his family that in order to avoid California juvenile prison, he would have to go to the Arizona Boys Ranch.

Nicky was reportedly optimistic about the Ranch - - he was told by a Ranch representative prior to his arrival that the Ranch was his golden ticket to starting a new chapter in his life.  He was excited about getting high school credits and earning his diploma because he wanted to be a firefighter.

At the time Nicky arrived at the Arizona Boys Ranch in January of 1998, the facility was celebrating its forty-ninth birthday.  It was a privately run, military-style "bootcamp" located near Oracle, Arizona in Pinal County. Over the years, it had received the support of numerous politicians and lawmakers.  It also received funding from California, a state that did not allow staff in juvenile institutions to physically restrain their wards.  Arizona, sadly for Nicky, had no such law on the books.

He arrived on January 8 and was examined on arrival by Dr. Virginia Rutz. He had asthma, a condition that likely was exacerbated by the change in elevation and atmosphere.  Dr. Rutz would prescribe inhalers for his condition, but not until a month later and a second medical evaluation, on February 8.  That was inexplicable enough but Nicky was told that he was not allowed to use the inhalers without permission of the staff.

A quick note about Dr. Rutz.  At the time Nicky arrived at the Ranch, she was reportedly on probation by the State of Arizona for the illegal use of narcotics, prescribing medication to herself and inadequate maintenance of medical charts.  Her license had been yanked, she went to rehab and then her license was reinstated.  Marvelous.  We can see that the Ranch had high standards, can't we?

Nicky had also begun to experience nausea and diarrhea but staff members berated him, telling him it was "all in his mind" and that he was being "a baby." 

On his medical chart, it was indicated that between January and March, Nicky suffered with muscle spasms, severe chest pains, chills, sweating, rapid pulse, impaired breathing, dry heaves, cyanosis, coughing, wheezing, a "moldy" body odor and fevers of over 100 degrees.  He also lost nearly 20 pounds.  Nevertheless, the oh-so-caring staff at the Ranch believed that Nicky was not only faking it but milking it.

As the young man became more ill, he began receiving worse and worse treatment.  Believing him to be lazy, staff used calisthenics to get him in line; when he slowed down or faltered, he was shoved on the ground and punched. When he lost consciousness, he had water thrown on him.  He was routinely denied the right to use the restroom, with privileges only being given in the morning after breakfast and in the evening after completion of what they termed "physical training."   Nicky became unable to control his bodily functions, resulting in him soiling his clothing and his mattress.  He was punished for this, moved into the barracks' bathroom and forced to sleep in his soiled clothes and on his soiled mattress.  Staff made him eat his meals while sitting on the toilet, and encouraged other wards to tease and scrutinize Nicky when they ordered him to drop his pants.  When he did leave the bathroom, he was made to carry his urine/feces/vomit soaked clothing around in a trashcan with him.  Staff made him do push-ups over that same trashcan.  As if the young man wasn't being humiliated enough, the staff could tell when he was about to become sick and they would mockingly do a "3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . ." countdown. They also told the other wards that Nicky had AIDS, a complete fabrication.

On February 27, Nicky had a phone conversation with his family, which was monitored by staff. His grandmother recalled later that her grandson could barely put a sentence together, he was so unresponsive and weak, but he did state his chest was hurting badly, he wanted to die and be with his dad, that it was "too hard."  His mother recalled that he coughed uncontrollably during the conversation.  Ranch staff informed his family at that time that Nicky hadn't eaten in a week - - but it was nothing to be concerned about. 

Amazingly, there appeared to be no further attempt by his family or by Berg to intervene on Nicky's behalf or ensure that he received medical attention.

On March 2, 1996, Nicky was awakened from his bathroom bedroom at 6:30 a.m.  During the day, he collapsed repeatedly.  Staff told him he deserved an Academy Award before bouncing him off a wall and throwing him to the ground for push-ups.  After he collapsed during an uphill run, another ward of the Ranch pushed him in a wheelbarrow while Nicky was ordered to make sounds mimicking an ambulance siren.

Somewhere around 1:00 that afternoon, he spoke to Don Berg, his Sacramento probation officer.  Nicky told Berg that he was sick; Berg chose to ignore him.

Following his phone call and plea for help to Berg, he was taken back to his physical activities, where he again vomited and defecated on himself.  Pursuant to statements given by other Ranch wards, he was not allowed to clean himself up or change clothes. At 5:30, he collapsed for a final time.  Ordered by staff to get up, Nicky responded "No."  It was the last thing he would ever say.

Upon this collapse, Nicky was picked up by two Ranch staff members, one on either side of him, and, with his toes dragging on the ground, they attempted to force him to consume water. As he had already gone into cardiac distress, their attempts were unsuccessful.  It was only then that EMS was called but it was far too late for Nicky.

Two autopsies were performed on Nicky's body and the results were shocking, horrifying and disgusting.  Nicky had been suffering with a massive infection in both of his lungs.  One lung had partially collapsed.  Both lungs contained fluid that was most likely vomitus that had been inhaled.  His abdomen was distended with more than two and a half quarts of pus from a different combined infection of both staphylococcus and streptococcus.  His body, including his head and face, was covered with seventy-one separate cuts, bruises, abrasions, scratches and minor puncture wounds that were determined to have come from manhandling.  Blood was found in his stomach.  Nicky suffered a cardiac arrest, likely brought on by the fluid build-up in his lungs and chest cavity.

Ranch nurse Linda Babb, who took Nicky's temperature and listened to his lungs approximately once,  and on the day of his death, denied any type of responsibility and claimed there was no outward sign of infection.  You know, like fevers, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, odor . . . She also took victim blaming to new heights by claiming that he most certainly had the opportunity to tell people if he were sick.   I am torn between my eyes rolling painfully to the back of my head and wanting to punch Babb in her nether regions.

A relative of Nicky's would later say that the Ranch had initially told the family that Nicky had committed suicide via a self-induced hunger strike.

Given that Nicky was a resident of California and a minor, the California Department of Social Services began an investigation. They found his death was the result of medical neglect and physical abuse. (Because clearly having dipshit assclowns in charge is not a legitimate cause of death.)

The president of the Ranch, Bob Thomas, denied there was any physical abuse whatsoever.  Seventy-one separate cuts and bruises?  Yeah, no big deal.  This denial was despite the findings of two separate autopsies.  He believed the California report, a report which he could not be bothered to read, was made simply and solely to make the Ranch look bad.  Never mind that California had been funding the Ranch.  I've got news, Bob Thomas.  You don't need a report from California or anywhere else to make your facility look bad.  He also opined that you need to believe either the staff or the kids.  Hmmmmm.

It very soon came to light that in the previous five years, nearly 100 counts of child abuse had been leveled at the Ranch.  These counts included an incident in which a boy was burned so badly with hot water he required skin grafts, a boy whose nose was broken after being slammed into a table and another who was struck in the head with a shovel by a staff member.  In 1994, a Mississippi youth drowned in a canal after attempting to flee the Ranch.  In 1995, a California boy was struck twenty-five to thirty times (the two employees responsible were fired.)  In 1996, five employees claimed the Ranch was hostile and continued to abuse children. Also in 1996, the Ranch's license was put on provisional status due to abuse - - the third time it had happened.

Employees directly implicated in Nicky's death were either fired, laid off or resigned. Seventeen former staff members were placed in the Arizona Child Abuse Directory as a result of what they had done to Nicky.  The Ranch lost its license on August 27, 1998.  Bob Thomas (again) publicly stated his intention to get the license reinstated but board members of the Ranch got smart and put him on administrative leave.

Staff employees Geoffrey Lewis, Montgomery Hoover, Michael Morena and Troy Jones all had criminal charges brought against them for Nicky's death.  Nurse Linda Babb was charged with one count of  manslaughter and one count of child abuse.  Babb, if you recall, was the nurse who claimed that Nicky had every opportunity to let on that he was sick.  For her part, she cleared Nicky for physically demanding exercise and, via reports to staff, encouraged them to "hold Contreraz highly accountable for his negative behavior."

The charges truly did not fit the crime.  With conviction, each defendant only faced some twelve years for Nicky's homicide.

Sadly, the case went nowhere when the Pinal County District Attorney dropped all charges. No one involved in Nicky's horrific end served time or was legally punished.  A technicality let them all walk.   The employees were supposedly relying upon Linda Babb and her (lack of) judgment; Babb reportedly didn't have enough information about Nicky to know his life was in danger and was absent most of the time period in question.

The only true repercussion suffered was that California pulled its funding and canceled its contract, leading to the closure of the Ranch.  Nicky's mother settled out of court with both the State of Arizona and County of Sacramento, reportedly for three million dollars.

Despite the Ranch being closed (although a Queens Creek location still operates, albeit under "Canyon State Academy"), there was zero justice for Nicholaus Contreraz.  No one was forced to answer for his miserable, painful death.  This was a boy who died only two months after his sixteenth birthday.  He was abused, physically, verbally and mentally, by persons who were responsible for his care.  The double infection that caused a disgusting two and half quarts of pus to seep into his abdomen was almost certainly due to his being forced to do push-ups over raw waste.

Poor Nicky was let down by the adults in his life.  His father died in front of him, something that certainly caused him to act out.  The Sacramento judge who, rather than letting him serve his juvenile time in California, where facilities like the Ranch did not exist, sent him out of state.  The employees and medical personnel at the Ranch did not look out for his best interests and had a depraved indifference toward his welfare.  Linda Babb listened to his lungs on the day he died and could not tell that one lung had partially collapsed?  She could not see his abdomen was distended by the over half gallon of pus building up?  She did not notice the multiple abrasions and bruises that littered his body?  His parole officer was not apparently alerted by Nicky's deteriorating health or by the Ranch's statement that he had not eaten in a week.  Nicky's assigned caseworker at the Ranch said that Nicky never mentioned to him about feeling well and said he was treated with "compassion" by the Ranch staff.  Even his mother and grandmother, who certainly loved and cared for Nicky, did not take action after that last phone call, in which he sounded weak, sick, in pain and with zero desire to live. Why didn't they, or his parole officer, notify local authorities?  Contact the judge in Sacramento who had sentenced Nicky?  Get on a plane, or jump in a car, to Arizona? 

I think it's important to point out that the Pinal County Sheriff's Department conducted their own investigations, as California did, which resulted in a 1,000 page report.  While there were conflicting statements, the medical evidence and findings were never disputed.

His murder - - because it was murder - - is the greatest tragedy in this story.  The fact that not one person was held responsible, not forced to stand trial for depraved indifference or negligent homicide, at the very least,  adds flagrant injustice to the tragedy.

My heart hurts for this young man, who wasn't a bad kid . . . simply a confused and hurt one.  Nicky looked forward to his time at the Ranch, a time when he thought he could continue his education and get his life on track.  Not where he would meet an early death.

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