Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp
Slowly, a dozen boys emerged, hard and lean, with haunted eyes. Their clothing was soiled and stained, their fingernails rimmed with dirt. The ones wearing orange, Bruce would soon learn, were trouble. The worst cases didn’t approach at all; they were firewalled, which usually meant they couldn’t speak to anyone except staff. Each looked Bruce dead in the eye and shook his hand firmly — something in their manner, though, both cocksure and skittish, unsettled him.
Bruce had no idea the terrors and torment that awaited him at Tierra Blanca, some of the worst of it at the hands of the boys who now surrounded him. And he could never have imagined the decision to send him here would result in his death.
A working cattle ranch spanning 30,000 acres in one of the most isolated regions of the country, Tierra Blanca promised to take unruly teenagers—drug users, drop outs, kids in and out of the court system—and reform them through “sound Biblical principles,” exercise, hard work and discipline. The program operates on the fringes of what’s known as the troubled teen industry, a booming business that generates as much as $1.2 billion a year and takes in 10,000 to 14,000 kids and teenagers at any given time. For around $100 a day, or the rough equivalent of prep school tuition, you could send your teen to Tierra Blanca to become the sort of raw-boned young man who answered “yes, sir” and didn’t complain when asked to do the dishes.
When Bruce arrived in October of 2011, he had little idea how the camp functioned, what it would take to leave, or how long he’d be there. “There was no program, there was no handbook, there wasn’t anything,” says Nathan Bailey, who was at the ranch with Bruce. “As you became more trusted, more things were explained to you by the other guys. The only way you learned about the place was just a trickle of information.”
The aim of the program, several boys told me, was to break you down so what Chandler called “real change” could begin. Each day began early, typically at 7 a.m., with breakfast and Bible study or reading about historical leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Tuesdays and Fridays a retired elementary school teacher known as Miss Allie came to the ranch and handed out assignments from teachers in the nearby town of Deming. Every other day, the 15 or so kids at the camp were put to work on the ranch, clearing land, chopping the firewood that Chandler sold in town, or building miles of fence to keep cattle from wandering off. To soften up the rocky ground for fence posts, the biggest kids ran the digger, an unwieldy contraption with sharp metal spikes, or they just used “ghetto dynamite,” bullet cartridges stuffed with gunpowder, to blow the rock apart.
“That’s what we did every day, shit like that,” says Gunnar Hatton, who was at Tierra Blanca with Bruce. “And then they’d say, ‘Everyone put your tools down, it’s time to run up and down the mountain, 10 fucking times with a 20 pound rock in your hands.’ And then it was back to work. That’s all we did, run and work.”
Exercises varied from grueling long distance runs to charging up a hill with a truck tire hoisted above their heads, a drill Chandler called “Halos.” In between, boys were made to do up-downs, scissor kicks, push-ups and wall sits until their legs burned and their lungs were on fire. “The bigger you were and the stronger you were and the more you liked fucking up the little guys, the more powerful you were,” says Hatton. Bruce tried to keep up, but he was out of shape. When he couldn’t do exercises, staff encouraged the other boys to “help” him, which was code for either dragging him or “just a punch to the gut,” another camper later told police.
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