Nicholaus Contreraz
 January 1982 - March 2, 1998
Find A Grave Memorial
The day before his death, Nicholaus Contreraz fell several times while taking part in physical training. At one point, he fell while running up a hill and was put into a wheelbarrow and another boy was forced to push him around the camp while Nicholaus was told to make sounds that an ambulance would make. On the day that he actually died, a staff member told him that he deserved an academy award for faking.

On January 5, 1998 Nicholaus had been sent to Arizona to the Boys Ranch in Oracle, Arizona, he was sent there by a Judge in Sacramento County, California for joy riding in a stolen car and running away from group homes he had been living in. Each time he ran away, he would run to his mothers home in Sacramento. His grandmother came to call him a homing pigeon because of this.

When he first arrived at the ranch, Dr. Virginia Rutz, an osteopath who was the camp Doctor, examined him. At that time, this supposed doctor was on probation by the Arizona Board Of Osteopathic Examiners for illegally use of narcotics, prescribing medication to herself and failing to adequately maintain medical charts. Virginia had her license suspended and then after she went into a rehabilitation program, it was reinstated. What the heck was she doing working with troubled children when SHE couldn't even behave properly? Nicholaus was allowed to have his inhaler, though he was only allowed to use it when he asked for permission.

At the Arizona Boys Ranch, Nicholaus was humiliated over and over by the staff, who didn't believe he was sick. Staff, including Virginia Rutz claim to have examined him and found nothing wrong. Nicholaus was accused of faking sick to get out of participating in the daily routine around the ranch. Some staff members even told other children at the ranch that he suffered with AIDS, which was a lie.

Nicholaus was forced to eat his meals while sitting on the toilet and he had to carry around a container that held clothing that he had had accidents in, due to being ill. Nicholaus started having episodes where he would vomit and the staff made him vomit into that container. At times, Nicholaus was forced to pushups where his head would end up inside that container.

About four and a half hours before Nicholaus died, he had spoken to his probation officer over the phone and told him that he was sick. The Sacramento probation officer ignored him. Nicholaus was not checked out by any outside sources nor were any x-rays ever done of his lungs to check out the trouble he was having with breathing even though he suffered from Asthma.

On March 2, 1998, Nicholas collapsed and died. On that day, at about 5:30 p.m., staff members demanded that Nicholaus get up, the last word he would say before dying was "no", in response to them. Two hours later, Nicholaus was pronounced dead. A massive infection that was somehow "missed" by even a doctor, combined with other illnesses that he had, claimed his life.

Staff members told the Pina Country Sheriff's Department that they had no knowledge of the medical history of Nicholaus other than his Asthma. Linda Babb, a staff nurse, claimed that she had examined Nicholaus the same day that he died and had not found anything of concern to her. She said that she listened to his lungs and heard nothing. She said the she had cleared Nicholas to go back to the daily routine of physical demands as well as extra work for punishment for vomiting and for the accidents he had had during the previous weeks while he was sick and getting sicker every day. No one could explain why it was that he had lost 20 pounds since being sent to the ranch.

During the autopsy, the Pima County Medical Examiner drained over one half gallon of pus from his chest. It was determined that he had been suffering from Pneumonia and Chronic Bronchitis as well as having a staff infection in his lungs and strep infection in his chest. Nicholaus also had a partially collapsed lung which was the result of
fluid that had accumulated around his heart. How had a supposed Doctor and nurse had BOTH missed this? The Medical Examiner also found that though they didn't contribute to his death, Nicholas had 71 cuts, abrasions and contusions on his face, body, neck and head. It was determined that Nicholaus died of Empyema, a buildup of fluid in the lining between his lungs and chest cavity:

If he was exhibiting those symptoms, I'd have to wonder what he was doing in that kind of 
program. I've been working with high-risk kids for 15 years, no way can you make excuses for 
missing such obvious signs. If that's what's going on at this place, it needs to be shut down" 
Dan MacAllair - Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Franciso

An investigation would reveal that the Arizona Boys Ranch had about 100 complaints for child abuse, against them. People wondered why it was that this ranch was still in operation and why a child who was from California, where these ranches were not legal, was sent to the ranch in Arizona. Agencies tried to figure it all out and wondered if California should continue to send children to the ranch. Nicholas was just one of more than 1,000 children who were sent out of the state of California to live in one of these court ordered facilities. These facilities are not legal in California since they do not meet the standard to operate there due to violating the laws against physically restraining children.

Licensing authorities were able to conclude that at least some of the allegations against the ranch were true. Included in the facts were that a boy was hit on the head with a shovel, another boys head was repeated dunked under water, another boy had his feet burned so badly in hot water that he required skin grafts and another boy had his nose broken after it was slammed into a table.

There was a 1,000 page report made by the Pinal County Sheriff's Department about the treatment of Nicholaus. Starr and residents had given information to contribute to the report. The investigation had many conflicting statements, however, the medical facts of what is now known as case number 980300044, are not disputed at all.

Finding who was responsible, would be hard to determine. Four Arizona agencies launched investigations into the death of Nicholaus. Those agencies included the Department Of Economic Security, which was the agency that licensed that ranch. The Sacramento County Probation and Department Of Social Services also did investigations as well as an Assembly task force, all looking into the issues involved in out of state placement of the children of California.

Nicholas' family said that his problems started when he witnessed the drive by shooting of his father. Shortly after that, he started with rebellious behavior and was removed his mothers house and placed into foster cared. He eventually ended up in the care of his uncle Joe Contreraz. On the day that he died, Nicholas had told staff members at the ranch that he had been sexually abused by a family member.

Julie Vega hired an attorney to investigate the death of her son. Joe Contreraz said they want answers and they want the truth. Joe said that in the beginning, staff members told him that Nicholaus had gone on a hunger strike and killed himself that way. The family is in shock from what they have learned about the treatment Nicholaus received:

"It's unbelievable,. I can't picture them treating a human being that way. You don't treat an animal 
that way. It tears me up. I can picture his face, saying, 'Help me, help me,' telling them he was 
sick and no one listening. How could they let that happen" 
Joe Contreraz

Other children at the ranch said that Nicholaus was vomiting on such a regular basis and the staff was mocking him with a countdown and then they would say"

"He's gonna blow!" 

One 16 year old boy said that the others watched daily as the staff would put Nicholaus down if he was unable to do physical training:

"They'd tell him, Keep going!' or 'get up off your knees! If he didn't keep doing the push-ups, then 
they'd pick him up and start pushin' him up and he'd start crying, he'd say, 'I can't do it.' 'I can't, I can't,' like he was a little kid. They'd start pickin' him up and beatin' him against the ground. He would let 
out a series of yelps, like, 'OW!,' but they kept doin' it." 

The staff said that they thought Nicholaus was just trying to get out of doing the work required by the boys at the ranch. Andres Torres, who was the case worker for Nicholaus at the ranch says that he was never told by Nicholaus that he was sick. He also said that he though the staff had been extremely compassionate with Nicholaus.

Investigators ran into some trouble during their interviews. Each staff member gave the same answers, obviously lies. At one point, Detective M.C. Downing was so frustrated that he asked one of the staff, Oscar Peru Jr., who was the staff orientation lead, what took place at the camp and the answers were all the same:

Det. Downing: Mr. Peru, enough, OK? . . . you guys are driving me crazy. Every staff member I've talked [to] in here, they sugar coat everything. Do you see stupid on my forehead? 

Peru: No, I don't.

Downing: All right. Let's get over this [expletive], OK? I'm tired of hearing the sugar coating. I basically know what goes on here. I was military . . . and you guys gonna sit here and tell me you're being polite? Ain't gonna happen. I know that, he knows that, everybody that has to deal with this place knows that .

Officials said that of the 100 child abuse complaints filed against the ranch, 21 of those were found to be true, that didn't mean more were not, it just meant only 21 could be proven. Other claims are still under investigation. The ranch was suing state regulators claiming the investigation was shoddy and biased. The truth was still there and of the claims against the ranch, these things are true:

1. Nick is not the first boy to die while in the care of the ranch. In 1994 a Mississippi youth drowned in the Arizona Canal while fleeing Boys Ranch employees. The death was ruled accidental. 

2. In the wake of that death, the Arizona Supreme Court put a freeze on sending that state's teens to Boys Ranch but has since resumed placements. In 1995, Alameda County, Calif., withdrew 67 boys after half of them claimed abuse at the hands of ranch staff. The Alameda County Juvenile Court concluded there was "systematic abuse." But Alameda County, too, resumed sending boys to the ranch. 

3. In 1995, the ranch fired two employees who struck a 15-year-old California boy 25 to 30 times. 

4. Newly released Arizona Department of Economic Security records show that in a 1996 internal memo, five employees complained that Boys Ranch was hostile and uncooperative and "continues to abuse children, thwart regulations and use their political influence to combat noncompliance of licensing rules." The documents also show that DES agreed to give the ranch 48 hours' notice before undertaking any inspections. 

5. The ranch's license has been put on provisional status because of abuse three times. In the latest case, its license was renewed in 1996, with the stipulation that it enact more stringent reporting on ill or hurt children and increase staff training on the use of physical restraint and control. 

After the death of Nicholaus, the ranch responded quickly, with changes such as firing two employees and placing four others on administrative leave, that included the camp director. Though they say the problem was not systemic, they do admit that some of the staff acted in an inexcusable way.

In October of 1998, five former employees of the ranch were indicted on charges that they were responsible for the death of Nicholaus. The case was seven months old when the indictments came. The five employees were the ones who worked most closely with Nicholaus.

Linda Babb and four others, Geoffrey Sean Lewis, Montgomery Clayton Hoover, Michael Martin Morena and Troy Michael Jones were the defendants who were indicted. Each of them were charged with one count of child abuse and one count of manslaughter. They faced 12 and a half years for what they did to Nicholaus, once again, the 
punishment would NOT fit the crime. The charges would eventually be dropped.

In 50 years of operation, the ranch was now facing a threat bigger than they had ever seen. State officials refused to renew the license for them to operate unless they agreed to some reforms:

1. Adhere to a zero-tolerance policy on abuse. It has always had such a policy, but state investigators want the board of directors to enforce it. 

2. Create an ombudsman office to resolve youth complaints. 

3. Hire state-approved consultants to determine whether changes are needed in staff training, medical services or the way employees control youths. 

4. Add an expert in youth rehabilitation programs - with no ties to the Boys Ranch - to the board of directors. 

5. Recruit a new director within 60 days. The board last month bought out the contract of Bob Thomas, who led the ranch for the past 22 years. 

6. Let state investigators do their job by giving them unobstructed access to residents, staff and records without prior review or oversight by ranch legal staff. 

None of the people responsible for the death of Nicholaus were ever sent to prison or held accountable, legally. The Pinal Country District Attorney dropped all of the charges:

"The court ruled that because the staff depended on Babb (who was allegedly absent most of the time) for information about Contrarez'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 didn't have enough information about Contrarez 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 Arizona Boys Ranch changed their name to Canyon State Academy in March of 2000. Their website talks about changes they have made while showing pictures of children in class, feeding cattle, working with machines and playing basketball. Where are the pictures of the children being punished by being made to do hard work, 
outside, in the heat? Absent are the pictures of the children who were murdered there.

A settlement of $3 million dollars was made to the mother of Nicholaus.

"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."



Return To Nicholas' Story
Read letter from  Ron Acket about Nicholas

Death Occurred in the state of Arizona

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