FLORENCE -- Five Arizona Boys Ranch employees pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and child abuse charges Friday in a case that one defense lawyer described as "bogus."
The defendants, arraigned in Pinal County Superior Court, were indicted last month in connection with the death of Nicholaus Contreraz, a 16-year-old Sacramento youth who died Mar. 2 at a Boys Ranch boot camp in Oracle.
Investigators say Contreraz was taunted and punished for refusing to work despite a severe illness, which was misdiagnosed.
Nurse Linda Babb and staffers Geoffrey Lewis, Troy Jones, Montgomery Hoover and Michael M. Moreno made no comments as Judge Gilberto Figueroa entered innocent pleas on their behalf, then released them without bail.
Outside the courtroom, however, defense lawyers said their clients were idealistic youth workers who have become secondary victims of Contreraz's death.
"I'm mystified that this is a criminal case," said Michael Picarreta, an attorney for Jones. "...I think this is a case of Monday morning quarterbacking by prosecutors."
"What you have is misplaced vengeance," agreed Darrow Soll, who represents Hoover. "It's unfortunate that a young man died, but it's misplaced vengeance against our clients."
Soll described the charges -- one count each of manslaughter and abuse against each defendant -- as "bogus." He said ranch employees are dedicated to helping troubled kids, hundreds of whom turned their lives around.
As a result of the indictment, he added, Hoover's own future is wiped out.
"His life is ruined, regardless of the fact that he will ultimately be acquitted."
Reports by the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and Arizona Department of Economic Security found that Contreraz was gravely ill for days while ranch staffers subjected him to work, punishment and ridicule.
Investigators said the boy, who had a history of delinquency and malingering, had vomited repeatedly, suffered from diarrhea and complained of breathing difficulties, but ranch workers thought he was faking. In one case, Contreraz was forced to do pushups with his head over a bucket of feces-smeared clothing.
An autopsy revealed that he died of an infection in the lining of his lung; the coroner also noted more than 70 bruises, cuts and other wounds on his body.
Child Protective Services specialists substantiated abuse or neglect on the part of 17 ranch employees, five of whom were charged criminally. But after Friday's arraignment, attorneys said the defendants had not committed any crimes.
Michael Bloom, who represents Moreno, said: "He believes in helping troubled kids. This is really a heartache and a horror story for Mr. Moreno."
Boys Ranch housed about 600 boys in seven campuses statewide. But the nonprofit agency has been in a state of upheaval since Contreraz's death.
Longtime president Bob Thomas left the agency. Most of the estimated 600 placements have been withdrawn. Six satellite campuses were closed, leaving only the Queen Creek headquarters in operation. And a majority of the employees were laid off.
DES announced that it would not renew Boys Ranch's operating license. But that decision was reversed early this month after ranch directors agreed to sweeping changes in management, oversight and policies.
* * *
Dennis Wagner can be reached at 444-8874 or at Dennis.Wagner@pni.com via e-mail.