Desert Boot Camp for Youth Is Shut Down After a Death

New York Times/July 4, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Phoenix -- The authorities here are investigating how a 14- year-old boy died this week while participating in a rigorous boot- camp program for troubled youth in the desert west of Phoenix.

Medics were summoned to the camp, about 15 miles south of Buckeye, Ariz., on Sunday after supervisors called 911 saying the boy, Tony Haynes of Phoenix, was suffering from heat exhaustion. The temperature was well over 100 degrees when he died.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who ordered the camp shut down, said in an interview today that his department was investigating the case as a "suspicious death" and that the possibility of child abuse by camp personnel was also under review. Investigators called to the scene said they saw bruises on some children enrolled in the program - observations that parents of other camp children confirmed in interviews.

"I've never heard any complaints about this camp before and I've talked to parents about it," Sheriff Arpaio said. "They seemed to like it. But these kids didn't get bruises falling off a platform."

The sheriff said this was the first time, as far as he knew, that the camp, run by a Phoenix nonprofit organization, America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association, had experienced any problems of this severity. But it is by no means the first camp of its kind where children have suffered serious injuries and even death.

Tony became at least the fifth young person in the last 10 years to die at a boot camp, including another teenager in Arizona three years ago. The camps are not regulated in Arizona and many other states. These so-called wilderness therapy camps for troubled children have been around for more than 50 years, most of them in western states, where acclimating to rugged conditions is a major part of a routine that attempts to break bad habits and replace them with new feelings of confidence, self- esteem and humility.

Several trade organizations have formed in recent years to help parents find reputable programs for their children and to help program operators adopt safe and measurable standards. For the most part, they operate without incident. But as each succeeding incident of injury and death shows, not all of the several hundred programs now operating have adequate safeguards.

Investigators here said they did not know enough yet about the Buffalo Soldier's camp or its owner, Charles F. Long II, 56, who claimed to be a former marine and police officer in the District of Columbia, to know whether the program was properly run and suitable for all participants.

Capt. Tim Dorn, the sheriff's department commander of investigations, said Tony was one of 40 boys and girls, ages 7 to 17, who were participating in a 14-week session.

At the time of Tony's death, Captain Dorn said, there was no medical personnel at the site, adding, "We still don't know if there is any on the staff." He also said that investigators could not determine whether camp personnel had adequate amounts of food and water available to the children.

When investigators visited the camp on Monday, he said, the temperature was 120 degrees. Several parents said children were forced to eat dirt, and teenagers who Mr. Long used as camp counselors "stomped on their chests," as one parent, Doreen Hurff, said. The Arizona Republic reported today that the boy who died had vomited dirt before he died.

Efforts to reach Mr. Long, who identifies himself as a colonel of the Buffalo Soldiers 10th Cavalry, were unsuccessful. He has an unlisted telephone number here, and messages left at the camp's business listing were not returned.

Most people listed as in-house management on the camp's Web site have military titles. One person listed as a captain is actually a retired Phoenix Police Department sergeant. R. Lee Fraley, a lawyer listed as the camp's corporate attorney, said he was stunned to learn that his name was on the site. He said he helped Mr. Long only once, with some trademark and copy right issues.

Tony's mother, Melanie Hudson, who lives in Phoenix, said she enrolled her child in the camp to help him control his anger. She said he had behavioral problems and had been on probation for shoplifting. Once, she said, he slashed her tires. But her son never complained about the camp, which he had been attending since the end of March, Ms. Hudson said in an interview. "He had never said anything. He didn't like it. But he never said anything was wrong."

She added: "It was for Tony to get some self-respect and discipline and to become a better person. He had started to control his anger. He was trying to head down the wrong path, and we were trying to get him on the right one." Ms. Hudson said the boy's therapist told him about the camp but neither knew anything about it.

Captain Dorn said that since the investigation began, parents of other children attending the camp have called, some to support Mr. Long's rigorous approach, others to criticize it as excessively harsh.

Dana Naimark, deputy director of the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona, a nonprofit research and advocacy group here, said the death at the boot camp, which she said was unknown to her, raised questions about such programs.

"Who's watching?" Ms. Naimark said. "Who is responsible for oversight of these programs?" Ms. Hudson echoed the thought, saying parents should investigate any program in which they are about to enroll a child. "If you think about a program like this, check it out," she said.

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