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12-Year-Old’s Death At Wilderness Therapy Camp Ruled A Homicide

June 26th, 2024

The death of a 12-year-old boy on his first night at a wilderness therapy camp in North Carolina was determined to be a homicide, according to an autopsy report released Monday.

The boy was discovered dead in February at Trails Carolina, a self-described “therapeutic wilderness program” that’s part of what’s known as the troubled teen industry. With little oversight, the private camps, boarding schools and residential treatment facilities have been accused for decades of traumatizing the children they’re designed to help and, in some cases, have faced allegations of abuse and negligence.

Trails Carolina was permanently shut down by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services in May after it determined that the facility “endanger[ed] the health, safety, and welfare of clients,” WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, reported.

No criminal charges have been filed since the autopsy’s release. The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said it is reviewing the report in conjunction with its overall investigation and is meeting with the district attorney.

A spokesperson for the camp did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Tuesday.

12-Year-Old’s Death At Wilderness Therapy Camp Ruled A Homicide

Toxaway Falls at the outfall of Lake Toxaway in North Carolina, with the Toxaway River below. The Trails Carolina wilderness camp is at Lake Toxaway, south of Asheville. Glenn Ross Images via Getty Images

According to the autopsy report obtained by HuffPost, the boy was escorted to the camp by two men on Feb. 2 and processed for check-in.

At one point during check-in, the boy refused to do anything until he had spoken to his parents in New York, and he refused to eat supper that night, according to the report.

All campers who were enrolled in the camp spent their first night next to their counselor, the report said, and the boy slept inside an individual tent known as a bivy in a mummy sleeping bag, which had a zipper alarm attached to it.

The boy’s counselor told detectives that he was “restless and mumbling in his sleep” at around 10 p.m. and was talking an hour later, so they took him out of the sleeping bag, according to the medical examiner’s report. He went back to sleep shortly after but awoke again by midnight.

Counselors said that by this time, the boy was “thrashing about,” according to the medical examiner’s report. The boy’s thrashing eventually stopped, and the next morning, counselors allegedly found him “cold to the touch and unresponsive.”

Transylvania County sheriff’s deputies said camp officials did not immediately cooperate with the investigation, which camp officials denied, according to previous reports by HuffPost.The staff presenters who were assigned to the cabin where he was found dead were placed on leave.

The medical examiner’s report said that the boy’s cause of death was asphyxia due to smothering and determined the manner of death to be a homicide.

Meg Applegate, the CEO and co-founder of Unsilenced, a nonprofit group for victims of institutional child abuse, called the medical examiner’s findings “heartbreaking and infuriating” in an email to HuffPost.

“It further highlights the urgent need for comprehensive reform within the troubled teen industry and is a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in these facilities,” Applegate said.

The organization is now calling for state authorities to take immediate action and “demand justice for this young boy and his family.”

A number of children have died in wilderness therapy camps since the 1990s, including a previous death at Trails Carolina.

Alec Lansing, 17, an Atlanta teen who was enrolled at the camp, was found dead in 2014 in a stream in western North Carolina after being missing for days, according to previous reports by WYFF-TV in Greenville, South Carolina. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina said he had run away from the camp and died of hypothermia.

A 14-year-old girl reported being sexually assaulted by another camper at Trails Carolina in 2019, but when she brought it up to camp officials, they denied her request to move to another cabin, according to a lawsuit reviewed by HuffPost. The suit remains ongoing.

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