Mysterious death of 12-year-old at camp for troubled adolescents ruled a homicide by asphyxiation

The boy died in February at Trails Carolina, a wilderness camp for adolescents  (ABC13 News)
The boy died in February at Trails Carolina, a wilderness camp for adolescents (ABC13 News)

The death of a 12-year-old boy who died at a wilderness camp for “troubled” adolescents has been ruled a homicide by asphyxiation – despite initially being thought to have been accidental.

An autopsy report said the boy died less than 24 hours after arriving at the camp at Lake Toxaway in North Carolina on February 3.

Authorities have ruled the manner of death as a homicide, listing the cause as “asphyxia due to smothering,” the inability to breathe oxygen and “in this case due to covering the nose and mouth with non-breathable material.”

The boy arrived at Trails Carolina, which reportedly has since lost its operating license, after being taken from his home in New York at the request of his family due to behavioral issues, the autopsy, obtained by Fox Carolina, states.

Once he was there, he was placed to sleep in a bivy, a small camping enclosure, which the camp says was its protocol, with an alarm secured on it that would sound if the occupant attempted to exit the bivy.

The autopsy report states that the inner mesh panel, normally used to secure the opening of the boy’s bivy, was torn, so the outer, weather-resistant door panel was used instead.

The report notes that bivvies usually include a warning against fully closing up the weather-resistant layer because it “may lead to condensation and breathing restriction.”

According to an investigation, the autopsy report notes that the boy was moving and making noise in the bivy around 11pm that night, so counselors removed him until he relaxed and fell asleep, when he was then woken up again and told to get back in the bivy due to their protocol.

One counselor said that the boy was moving around again one to two hours after the initial incident but stopped moving shortly after, the report states.

In the morning, the boy was found with his head at the enclosed end of the bivy and his feet near the opening. While resuscitation attempts were made, it was determined by emergency medical personnel that he was beyond life-saving measures as it appeared he had likely been dead for several hours, the report says.

Trails Carolina has reportedly previously said that the death appeared to be accidental and that staff members performed CPR once they found the unresponsive boy in the morning, according to NBC.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, which has been involved in the investigation into the boy’s death, told NBC that it is currently reviewing the autopsy report and will be discussing it with the local district attorney.

No natural disease or toxic levels of drugs were found that could lead to his death, the autopsy report added.

“Non-specific findings included swelling of the brain. Mild bruising was present on the left thigh and leg without significant internal injuries,” the report states.

The autopsy report also claimed to have found that the boy was “placed into this compromised sleeping position by other(s) and did not have the ability to reasonably remove himself.”

While routine checks were being performed throughout the night, counselors could also not see the boy because of the opaqueness of the bivy’s outer panel, which potentially prevented them from spotting any signs of issues.

“With this combination of factors, the death is best certified as homicide,” the report stated.

The Independent has contacted Trails Carolina for comment.