12-year-old camper who died at Trails Carolina may have suffocated, NC report says

The 12-year-old boy found dead at a North Carolina wilderness therapy camp in February may have suffocated in a small tent, a staff member told state investigators.

The boy wasn’t visually checked overnight, but staff thought they heard him breathing before daybreak, according to an inspection report obtained from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The breathing could have come from an employee sleeping nearby, staff members said.

The boy, who had just arrived at the Trails Carolina camp in Lake Toxaway the previous day, was sleeping in a cabin in a one-person nylon tent called a bivy, the report said.

Staff members were required to check whether children were breathing at 12 a.m., 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. On the night of Feb. 3, they said they thought that they heard heavy breathing coming from the boy’s tent around 3 a.m. and quieter breathing around 6 a.m., according to the report.

The boy, who has not been identified by state and local officials, was found dead and cold at 7:45 a.m.

“I didn’t check as thoroughly as I should have,” the staff member told local law enforcement, according to the report.

“My actions that night was to perform night checks ... that was my responsibility, which I failed on ... I do feel like the bivy had a lot to do with it.”

Earlier that night, the zipper to the bivy’s mesh window broke off, the report states. This covering allows for “breathability,” according to the report.

The boy was let out momentarily and allowed to sleep on a sleeping bag in the cabin. But by 10 p.m. he was back in the tent with the tent’s exterior flap zipped up, the report said.

“The screen part is where the zipper part fell off, so we zipped up the wind shell part (outer layer),” a staff member told investigators.

Once campers are asleep, staff attach an alarm to the bivy’s zipper. If a camper tries to get out, the alarm sounds, the DHHS report states.

Sleeping in one of the tents makes campers feel claustrophobic, staff members told investigators.

One camper said that it was difficult to get help while sleeping in one.

Said the camper: “You have to tap them (staff) somehow…You roll on top of them … It’s really hard to wake staff up.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Trails Carolina called the state report “inaccurate and misleading in many respects” and said it is working with state officials “to clarify and correct where needed.”

“In fact, just yesterday, April 23, 2024, we met with DHHS staff in person, and walked them through basic camping lexicon and systems, which, by their admission, they did not previously understand,” the statement said.

“Most importantly, the cause of death has yet to be released by the medical examiner, and, in the meantime, statements by anyone beyond those with authority and direct access to specifics of the autopsy are nothing more than speculation.”

An aerial view of part of the Trails Carolina camp in Lake Toxaway, N.C. Screen grab from Trails Carolina's Facebook page
An aerial view of part of the Trails Carolina camp in Lake Toxaway, N.C. Screen grab from Trails Carolina's Facebook page

Will the camp reopen?

Trails Carolina, based about 140 miles west of Charlotte, says it was founded in 2008, largely on the belief that a wilderness setting enhances the benefits of therapy. It took children, ages 10 to 17, on wilderness expeditions, and its therapists met with children on a weekly basis.

The 12-year-old who died there wasn’t the first young person to lose his life while enrolled there. Alec Sanford Lansing, 17, died of hypothermia after running away from the program in November 2014.

In mid February, the state removed all children from the camp after concluding the move was needed to ensure their health and safety. And in March, DHHS said it planned to revoke Trail Carolina’s license due to several serious deficiencies. Whether it will proceed with the revocation remains unclear.

In all, the state has cited Trails Carolina for five violations, according to the documents obtained Tuesday. Among them:

  • Trails Carolina failed to protect campers from harm, abuse and neglect.

  • It failed to provide “the least restrictive and most appropriate methods” to ensure the safety and dignity of campers.

  • The camp repeatedly failed to properly document how it administered medication.

  • It restricted the communications children had with their parents or guardians. Several parents told investigators the phone calls with their children were monitored by program staff members.

DHHS has fined Trails Carolina $18,000 for the violations. The state’s findings were based on an investigation that was completed on March 21.

In the camp’s written response to the state’s report, it stated that its correction plan “does not indicate full agreement with conclusions of the state report.”

But it said it would make changes nonetheless.

When clients are under heightened supervision, Trails Carolina said it would ensure a staff member is present and awake. The camp also said it would no longer use bivy bags or a type or restraint called “the burrito,” even though “these have been state approved interventions for safety for the past 15 years,” the report states.

In complaints to an advocacy group for troubled teens, a number of former Trails participants spoke of the burrito — a technique in which staff put them inside their sleeping bags and then wrapped those sleeping bags with tarps. Some said the tactic made it hard for them to breathe, said Meg Appelgate, CEO of Unsilenced, the advocacy group.

Trails Carolina said in March that it was “surprised and disappointed to learn of the state’s intent to revoke the program’s license, given the progress we’ve made and continue to make.”

“The basis for some of the state’s conclusions are unclear, since it indicates policies it had approved, and in some cases helped create, are noncompliant,” the statement said.

But the program said it will cooperate with state regulators to satisfy their concerns.

“We have always valued our good working relationship with the state and hope to focus on what matters most: providing our students with the highest quality of care in a compassionate healing space,” the statement said.

A suspicious death?

The boy who was found dead on Feb. 3 arrived the previous day from New York.

The child’s death appeared “suspicious,” according to a Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office news release after his death. A forensic pathologist told investigators that the death did not appear to be natural, the sheriff’s office said.

Trails Carolina has disputed that characterization, contending that there is no evidence of “criminal conduct or suspicious acts” and that preliminary reports indicate the boy’s death was “accidental.”

The boy who died reportedly experienced a panic attack the night he arrived and was found cold, stiff and frothing at the mouth the next morning, search warrants show.

While it’s unclear what caused the boy’s mouth to froth, that “could’ve indicated that he ingested some sort of poison,” according to an affidavit from a detective who obtained the search warrant.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office is continuing its investigation into the boy’s death. Office spokesman John Nicholson said in an email Wednesday that investigators are still awaiting a medical examiner’s report “so the cause and manner of death is not known as yet.”

Nicholson said the office is also awaiting forensic analysis of computers that investigators seized from Trails Carolina.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from Trails Carolina.