Accounts Put Darker Cloud Over Camp

New York Times/July 5, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Fountain Hills, Arizona -- As the investigation continued today into the death of a 14-year-old boy at a desert boot camp for troubled youth, other campers told of abusive treatment they said they had suffered at the hands of counselors who were not much older than the children they were supervising.

Children at the camp west of Phoenix said they were punched, kicked, handcuffed and forced to swallow mud. They said they were allowed to wear only black sweat pants and sweatshirts in temperatures that regularly exceeded 100 degrees and were physically abused for asking for food, water or medical attention.

The autopsy report on the teenager who died on Sunday, Tony Haynes, is not expected to be made public for several weeks. But Justin Hurff, 12, and his brother, Michael, 9, who watched him as artificial respiration failed to revive him, said Tony was dehydrated and delirious before help arrived. Other witnesses said Tony vomited after he was forced to eat mud.

"We all cried and cried and cried," Michael Hurff said in an hourlong interview in which he and Justin recounted their experiences at the camp run by America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-Enactors Association, which describes itself as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping troubled youth.

The camp, 15 miles south of Buckeye, Ariz., was shut down on Monday by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the boy's death and the litany of accusations from parents that the camp operators had abused their children. The sheriff's department said about 40 boys and girls, ages 7 to 17, had been attending.

Tony Haynes is the latest child to die in a series of incidents in recent years at so-called wilderness therapy camps for young people in which rugged conditions and tough discipline are used to break antisocial and, in many cases, criminal habits. Many of the camps are in Western states, like Arizona, that do not regulate them.

Capt. Tim Dorn, the commander of investigations for the Maricopa Sheriff's Department, said today that much of what the Hurff boys said had been corroborated by others and that investigators were putting together a case to present to the county attorney for prosecution. When asked if he believed the accusations rose to the level of criminal offenses, Captain Dorn said, "There certainly is that possibility."

Sheriff Joe Arpaio said that when investigators came to the camp this week they noticed bruises on some children. The camp is run by Charles F. Long, 56, who calls himself Colonel. Captain Dorn said Mr. Long had refused to speak to investigators. Mr. Long did not return telephone messages seeking comment today or Tuesday.

The Hurff boys said much of the abuse occurred when Mr. Long was absent, leaving all supervision in the hands of three people known to the campers as "sergeants." Justin said one was about the same age as Mr. Long and two others were 17 or 18. Captain Dorn said the three had been interviewed by investigators.

The Hurff brothers, who had enrolled for a five-week program, said beatings and other abuses began several days after they arrived last week. Once, they said, all the campers were told to lie on their backs alongside one another after which the sergeants, wearing boots, ran across their chests. Michael said younger campers were often made to ingest dirt that turned to mud after the sergeants poured water into their mouths.

Complaints, the boys said, were answered with physical punishment. "They'd make you stand up at attention, and if you moved they'd punch you down," Michael said. In one exercise, they said, campers were made to place rocks along a trail. "But if you didn't do it right, they stomped on your arms," Justin said. "They could do anything they wanted because Colonel Long wasn't there." But the boys said they were frightened of Mr. Long as well. They said he once held a knife to the throat of an older boy who wanted to quit the program. "I saw that," Justin said.

The Hurff boys said they believed that of all the children, none were abused more than Tony Haynes, whose troubled past included slashing the tires on his mother's car. Justin Hurff said the sergeants once handcuffed and shackled Tony before they pulled down his pants and "beat his butt with a boot." "He was screaming, `I want to go home,' but they just put mud in his mouth and kicked him some more," Michael said.

By Sunday, the Hurff boys said, Tony was hallucinating, insisting that Indians were chasing him. At one point, they said, he passed out, prompting the sergeants to douse him with water. When that did not appear to help, he was taken by pickup truck to a hotel in Buckeye where they said Mr. Long was staying, only to be returned a short time later. At that time, Justin said, the sergeants dragged him from the truck and placed him in a sleeping bag to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"He looked blue to me and he was foaming at the mouth," Justin said. Someone called 911, and Tony was taken to a hospital in Buckeye, where he was pronounced dead hours later. In many cases, parents said they relied on word-of-mouth endorsements before sending their children to the camp, and heard of abuses only after the boy died. Chris Hanner, whose son Brandon, 14, described similar episodes of abuse in a separate interview, said Brandon's mother, from whom he is divorced, had been assured by a friend that the camp had proved helpful to the friend's daughter.

"She is his mom; I respected her decision," Mr. Hanner said. "Then my child comes home with a boot- print bruise on his body. It almost makes me sick."

Doreen Hurff said that after her sons attended another of Mr. Long's camps last summer and a Saturday program for five months this year, with no problems, she did not hesitate to send them back this year. But the difference, she discovered, was that Mr. Long was not at the camp at all times this year, as she said he had told parents he would be.

"Sure, I signed a form that said I understood corporal punishment would be used," Ms. Hurff said. "But I thought corporal punishment would mean a swat on the rear end. I never thought it meant anything like this."

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