Nicholaus Contreraz (sometimes incorrectly referred to as Nicholas or Contreras) (January 1982 – March 2, 1998) was a 16-year-old Sacramento, California resident whose torture and death while incarcerated at the Arizona Boys Ranch at the hands of staff members in 1998 made national news in the U.S.
Contreraz witnessed the death of his father, who was a victim of mistaken identity in a drive-by shooting. After this incident, he began to decline academically, and had gotten into trouble for shoplifting. After going for a joyride in a stolen car, a Sacramento County judge told Contreraz and his family that the Arizona Boys Ranch was his last opportunity to avoid going to California juvenile prison. He had been optimistic about attending, and was supposedly going to be able to earn high school credit while there.
Life at the "ranch"
Contreraz was sent out of state by juvenile authorities to the 49 year old, privately run paramilitary bootcamp-styled facility near Oracle, Arizona in Pinal County, a place which had historically enjoyed the support of prominent politicians. The facility received funding from California, where law prohibits staff in its juvenile institutions to physically restrain their wards, whereas Arizona does not. There Contreraz would be subjected to humiliation and physical torture.
Contreraz arrived January 8, at which time he was examined by Dr. Virginia Rutz. He had asthma, perhaps exacerbated by the change in elevation, and was prescribed inhalers by Dr. Rutz during his second and final visit with her one month later on February 8, but was forbidden to use them without the permission of facility staff. Around this time, he had begun experiencing nausea and diarrhea, but was told by staff members that it was "all in his mind" and that he was "a baby". During the two months there prior to his death, he lost 14 pounds, suffered fevers of temperatures over 100 degrees, muscle spasms, and severe chest pains. Other documented symptoms included chills, sweating, rapid pulse and impaired breathing, dry heaves, cyanosis, coughing, wheezing, and "moldy" body odor. He was nevertheless accused of malingering by staff.
As his condition worsened, his treatment became more extreme. Staff members at the facility used physical exercises as a method of abuse, ordering him to do calisthenics, and when he faltered he would be shoved to the ground or punched. When he would pass out, the staff would throw water on him. It was also common for inmates at the facility to be denied the right to use the restroom, access only being allowed in the morning after breakfast, and in the evening after the completion of physical "training". He eventually reached a point of inability to control his bodily functions, soiling his clothes and mattress, which was moved into the barracks bathroom, where he was made to sleep in the clothes and on the mattress. He was ordered to drop his pants for the scrutiny of other inmates, and forced to eat his meals on the toilet. He was also forced to carry his vomit, urine and feces-covered clothes around with him in a trash receptacle, over which the staff would make him do push-ups.
The vomiting and soilings became frequent, and he stated that he was "hurting all over". When staff could tell that a soiling or regurgitation were imminent, they would mockingly count down "three, two, one..." They also told other inmates that he had AIDS.
On February 27, a few days before he died, Contreraz was allowed to speak to his family on the telephone. His grandmother, Connie Woodward, later told The Arizona Republic that facility staff monitored the conversation which was held over speaker phone. They informed her that he had not eaten in a week, but that it was not something to be concerned about. "I asked Nickie, 'What's the matter, babe?' and he couldn't put sentences together. I guess he didn't have the breath. He said, 'Wanna die. Wanna be with Dad. Too hard.'" She also quoted him as saying "Chest hurts bad". His mother, Julie Vega, also later stated that during this final conversation he had with them, he coughed uncontrollably. Despite what would seem to be the alarming nature of this conversation, for whatever reason no apparent attempt was made to make sure that he received reliable medical attention. Nor was any such attempt apparently made after Contreraz spoke with his probation officer, Don Berg, two days later.
The day before he died, he was quoted as saying "Lord, help me, I need help, I need help..."
On March 2, the day he died, he had collapsed repeatedly. He was told he "deserved an Academy Award", thrown to the ground, forced to do pushups, and bounced off a wall. Another boy was ordered to push him around in a wheelbarrow while Contreraz was ordered to mimic the sound of an ambulance siren. He continued to be accused by staff of faking his condition. At around 5:30 pm, he collapsed for the last time. According to witnesses later interviewed by Arizona Child Protective Services, after his final collapse and inability to move, he was ordered by staff to get up, to which he simply replied "No", which was his last spoken word. He was pronounced dead two hours later.
Autopsy results showed that he had been suffering from a massive infection in the lining of his lungs, one of which was partially collapsed. His abdomen was distended with more than two and a half quarts of pus from a virulent hybrid infection of staphylococcus and streptococcus, probably caused at least in part by having had to do pushups over raw waste. His lungs also held fluid that according to one official inquiry was probably inhaled vomitus. His body was covered with seventy-one cuts and bruises and there was blood in his stomach. However, the official cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Another autopsy by a forensic pathologist showed that the boy had been manhandled causing bruising, abrasions, scratches and minor puncture wounds to the head and body.
Although the infection would have taken weeks to develop, Linda Babb, the nurse employed at the facility, claimed there had been no sign of an infection and denied any responsibility for the boy's condition, but admitted she had only once taken his temperature and listened to his lungs, which occurred one week prior to his death. She said that on the day he died, "basically he was fine, and it's not like he never had the opportunity to tell somebody". She claimed that Contreraz had not complained in her presence, and that she believed the mass in his chest was contained and therefore would not have been obvious until the point when it would have burst. However, autopsies showed no sign of rupture. Babb claimed that Contreraz never showed any outward symptoms of illness.
After the death
The conclusion of the California Department of Social Services report was that Contreraz's death was the result of "medical neglect and physical abuse".
Bob Thomas, the president of the facility, claimed that abuse experienced by Contreraz never happened, and that a subsequent report of the incident from California, although he had not read it, was constructed to make the facility look bad, adding that the publication of Contreraz's autopsy pictures, which appeared on the front page of Phoenix's newspapers, was "in very poor taste". He further stated "It comes to this: Who do you believe, the staff or the kids?"
The Arizona Department of Economic Security's report stated that 17 former Arizona Boys Ranch staff members were placed on the Arizona Child Abuser Directory as a result of their treatment of Contreraz. (In Arizona, inspection, supervision and certification of such juvenile detention facilities is the responsibility of the Department of Economic Security.)
It was soon revealed that in the past five years, almost 100 complaints of child abuse had been made about the facility, including a report of a staff member hitting a boy on the head with a shovel, and another in which a boy was burned with hot water so severely that he had to have skin grafts.
Four of five other similar facilities in Arizona were closed, and the employees implicated in Contreraz's death were dismissed, laid off, or resigned. The facility lost its license on August 27, 1998. Thomas stated his intention to appeal the license removal, but was later placed on administrative leave by the Ranch's board of directors.
Five employees were criminally charged for Contreraz's death, including Babb, who was charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of child abuse for allegedly clearing Contreraz for exercise with reports to staff members urging them to "hold Contreraz highly accountable" for his "negative behavior."
However, the Pinal County district attorney dropped all charges, and no one involved served jail time or was legally punished. Everyone charged got off on a technicality: The court ruled that because the staff depended on Babb (who was allegedly absent most of the time) for information about Contreraz's condition, and she claimed there was nothing wrong with him, they were not responsible for his death. Paradoxically, the court ruled that because Babb did not have enough information about Contreraz to know his life was threatened (due to her absence), she wasn't guilty either. The extent of any further legal repercussions for the facility were that California canceled its contract with it, and ceased funding.
The state of Arizona and Sacramento County settled out of court with Contreraz's mother for more than a million dollars. She told The Arizona Republic, "I feel like he was sacrificed, and some good things changed for the better because of him. But nobody really paid a price for his death."
The Oracle facility is closed, but the Queen Creek facility is now in operation again, under the name Canyon State Academy.
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