Tough Love, Teen Death

Newsweek/July 16, 2001
By Jane Spencer

Melanie Hudson wanted to get her 14-year-old son Tony some help. At heart, she knew he was a good kid. He had an insatiable appetite for Harry Potter books, and dreamed of building a Lego robot that would do all of the housework for her. But Tony had been caught shoplifting a $12 action figure, and he'd recently slashed the tires on a car. Melanie feared she was losing control, and that her teenage son needed the kind of discipline that she alone could not provide. "I'd tried everything I could think of," Hudson told Newseek. "I'm a single mom, and I needed help." So she turned to an outfit called America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-Enactors Association (ABSRA), which runs summer and weekend boot camps for troubled kids.

Tony died less than a week after arriving at the dusty camp outside Buckeye, Ariz. Autopsy results haven't been released yet, but Tony's fellow campers say that counselors beat him, then denied him water even though he was clearly dehydrated in the 114-degree heat. "He was hallucinating," says a 13-year-old camper who was sitting beside Tony before he died. "He kept saying Indians were chasing him. He started eating handfuls of dirt, saying 'the ocean, the ocean'." The Maricopa County sheriff last week deemed the death "suspicious," closed the camp and quickly launched a criminal investigation. ABSRA president and founder Charles F. Long II did not return repeated phone calls; Long's lawyer, Larry A. Hammond, refused to comment while the matter was still under investigation.

Where does "tough love" end and unlawful abuse begin? And shouldn't somebody be watching to ensure that counselors at boot-camp facilities don't cross the line? Whatever the cause of Tony's death, it was no isolated incident: at least six children have died in boot camps around the country over the last decade, including another teenager at an Arizona camp in 1998. Yet such privately run facilities often operate with little or no oversight. In Arizona, for example, any private youth program open less than 12 months a year does not have to be licensed by the state.

Tony's death focused attention on the president of the Buffalo Soldiers outfit. A former Marine lance corporal who served in Vietnam and liked to be called "The Colonel," Long was arrested in 1989 for breaking through an ex-girlfriend's door with a sledgehammer, the local sheriff's office confirmed. (She declined to press charges.) In 1991 he received a fine and probation for punching the same girlfriend in a dispute, according to The Arizona Republic. Allegations of abuse have also been leveled against another of Long's youth programs. Just a year ago teens at his Apache Indian Reservation camp claimed they were beaten and handcuffed for extended periods. The FBI investigated, but no charges were filed and Long closed the camp.

Long never suggested that his camps were easy retreats, and many parents believe his brand of rugged discipline has helped turn their kids around. Melanie Hudson had read publicity materials warning that the Buffalo Soldiers program was "not a fun-in-the-sun camp" and she signed a release authorizing the use of corporal punishment. (Tony's father, who has remarried, approved the decision to send him to the camp.) In the spring Tony had attended weekend camps run by Long without incident, and Hudson believed they were improving Tony's attitude.

Some children in the summer program now say they were punched, kicked and forced to eat dirt for minor infractions such as failing to stand up straight. Campers say they had bruised ribs from an exercise in which they were ordered to lie on their backs while counselors ran across their chests in boots. One 13-year-old camper says females faced additional harassment, and that counselors (who liked to be addressed as "sergeant") called her "whore" and "prostitute." "They asked me how much I charged," she told Newseek, adding that one of the youngest counselors touched her hair and said he was going to "mess with her." Campers say Long was absent on the day of the most severe corporal abuse, but they believe he was generally aware of the situation at his camps.

Counselors may have thought Tony was exaggerating his thirst when he begged for water. After he collapsed, the counselors had him loaded into a pickup and drove to the Day's Inn in Buckeye, some campers say, to clean him up because he had been vomiting mud. According to investigators, the counselors returned to the camp more than an hour later with Tony, who still had not received medical attention. "It looked like he was already dead," recalls one camper. "His face was blue and his eyes were rolled down in his head." Long, back at camp, tried to revive him, failed, and help was called. But by then, no amount of tough or even gentle love was going to save Tony.

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