12-year-old’s death at wilderness camp for troubled youth ruled a homicide

FILE - Officials in North Carolina have ruled the death of a 12-year-old boy a homicide after he asphyxiated inside a bivy at a wilderness camp for troubled youth. Getty Images via skiserge1

Almost five months after a 12-year-old boy died at a wilderness camp for troubled adolescents in North Carolina, officials have ruled the child’s death a homicide.

According to an autopsy report released Monday, the boy died of “asphyxia due to smothering,” meaning he was unable to breathe from his nose or mouth.

The boy died on Feb. 3 while attending Trails Carolina in Lake Toxaway, a for-profit program that has since lost its licence to operate.

He had been at the camp for less than 24 hours when staff members discovered the boy was dead inside a bivy, a sleeping bag-type tent used by a single person. The bivy was equipped with a zipper alarm that would wake counsellors if the boy exited the sleep sack.

The autopsy, released by Fox Carolina, said the boy’s bivy was torn along the inner mesh panel. Staff at Trails Carolina defied protocol and secured the 12-year-old into the bivy using the weather-resistant door panel instead, which is not made from a breathable material.

Story continues below advertisement
A bivy, also called a bivouac shelter. Getty Images via Zoonar RF

Around 11 p.m., the autopsy notes the boy was let out of the bivy after he was seen “moving around and making noise.” He was permitted to sleep outside of the bivy but was soon placed back inside, which was protocol.

Staff said the boy was seen moving one-to-two hours after being put back inside the secured bivy “but stopped moving shortly after,” the autopsy details.

During routine night checks, the boy could not be seen inside the opaque bivy. When counsellors went to wake him in the morning, he was already dead.

Emergency personnel were called and attempts to resuscitate were unsuccessful. It was determined the boy had been dead for several hours. He was turned in 180-degree position, with his head at the enclosed end and his feet near the bivy’s opening.

Story continues below advertisement

The autopsy reported the boy did not have the ability to reasonably remove himself from the bivy with the alarm securing the opening.

“It should be noted that a common warning on commercially available bivy products indicates that the outer, weather resistant opening should not be fully secured as it may lead to condensation and breathing restriction,” the autopsy reads. “This information was obtained on basic web search.”

No charges have been laid in connection with the newly declared homicide. The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office told NBC News it is continuing its criminal investigation.

Trails Carolina said the 12-year-old’s death was accidental.

At the request of his family, the boy was brought to the program for “behavioural issues.”

The autopsy reported no evidence of trauma or sexual assault.

The 12-year-old is not the only child to die while attending a Trails Carolina program. In 2014, a 17-year-old named Alec Lansing was reported missing, and his body later found in a nearby stream. He died of hypothermia and suffered a broken leg.

Trails Carolina lost its operation licence in May after the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services determined the organization failed to provide “protection from harm, abuse, neglect or exploitation.” Other violations reportedly included the use of strip searches, issues with medication disbursement and improper training for staff on the use of restraints.

Story continues below advertisement

The camp was known for serving children with behavioural issues and diagnoses including ADHD, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In recent years, many former Trails Carolina campers have spoken out against the organization. Several ex-participants have alleged abuse and mistreatment.

On an Instagram page dedicated to sharing stories about attending Trails Carolina, one teen said she was sent to the program when she was 14. The girl called the camp a “prison” and said she was made to hike through hurricane weather and was often battered and bruised as a result of extreme physical activity.

“Trails was one of the most traumatizing things in my life and even my mom regrets sending me there to this day,” she wrote. “I would never wish my worst enemy there.”

Click to play video: 'Summer Camping Tips'
Summer Camping Tips

Sponsored content