A 12-year-old boy died less than 24 hours after arriving at a North Carolina wilderness camp for troubled adolescents, according to authorities, who said the child’s death “appeared to not be natural.”
The boy, who has not been publicly identified, was found dead at Trails Carolina Camp in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, on the morning of Feb. 3, the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said. The day before, he had been “transported per parents by two men from New York to Trails Carolina Camp,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement, adding that the “death appeared suspicious since he had arrived at the camp less than 24 hours prior.”
The boy had been assigned to a cabin with other students and four staff members when he got to the camp. Shortly after 8 a.m. the next morning, staff discovered he was not breathing, officials said. The staff said that they had done CPR, but when emergency responders arrived, “rescue efforts were initiated and then stopped as the child appeared to be deceased for some time,” the sheriff’s office statement said.
Following an autopsy earlier this week, a forensic pathologist said the boy’s death “appeared to not be natural but the manner and cause of death is still pending,” according to the sheriff’s office.
The camp told officials it placed the staff members assigned to the boy’s cabin on leave, the sheriff’s office said. Investigators executed search warrants for two areas of Trails Carolina and are continuing their investigation, the sheriff’s office said, but “Trails Carolina Camp has not completely cooperated.”
Trails Carolina disputed that in a statement issued Thursday through a public relations firm, saying its staff has “fully cooperated” and that the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office’s statement “does not present an accurate account of the facts nor the current state of the investigation.”
Trails Carolina also said it has “conducted an internal investigation of this incident and the Trails facility has been investigated by outside professionals who are subject-matter experts,” and neither found evidence that the camp caused any harm or had improper supervision or unsafe conditions. It was not clear from the statement what type of experts conducted the external investigation.
In a statement earlier in the week, the camp said that there were few details available about the boy’s death, “only that at approximately 8 a.m. on Feb. 3, staff called 911 when a 12-year-old student did not respond to attempts to wake him.”
It cautioned against speculation and said its priority “has been to acknowledge and respect the unfathomable impact on this family’s life and maintain the integrity of the investigation.”
A controversial history
The boy’s death is the second of a Trails Carolina camper in the last decade. In November 2014, 17-year-old Alec Lansing walked away from the camp, prompting a massive search. His body was later found in a stream, where investigators believed he fell after climbing a tree and breaking his hip, leaving him unable to move. Reports from the time said he died of hypothermia.
A 2021 investigation by WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, reported that a state Department of Health and Human Services report showed Trails Carolina waited five hours before calling for help to find Alec. The camp was cited for failing to supervise a student and fined $12,000 but was allowed to continue operating, the news outlet said.
Trails Carolina said at the time that it was proud of the work it had done serving children.
“Since its founding, Trails has helped make a difference in the lives of more than 2,800 adolescents,” Trails Carolina told WBTV in 2021. “Seven years have passed since the tragic event in 2014 and we continue to pray for healing and peace for everyone involved.”
Trails Carolina describes itself as an adventure therapy program that aims to “help children and teens who struggle with various mental health issues and behavioral concerns.” It is licensed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services; records show the agency has cited the camp for numerous deficiencies in recent years, most recently in June 2023, when it found that Trails Carolina failed to provide training to staff on “alternatives to restrictive interventions.”
The 2023 report mentions students at the camp with diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, learning differences and other conditions, and said some of the children told agency workers they had been restrained by staff.
Most campers told the agency at the time that they had not been hurt when they were restrained, though one showed a bruise on their upper arm that was “caused by staff’s hand,” the report said. Another said staff had held their arms down and one arm felt “tingly” so they asked staff to stop and the staff “loosened up a bit,” the report says.
In response to the evaluation, Trails Carolina submitted a plan of correction in which it committed to more training and wrote: “The Executive director will monitor the situation to ensure it will not happen again.”
Trails Carolina did not respond to questions about its past evaluations. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said it could not comment on the 12-year-old who died but said in an email that “staff have been on-site for several days investigating this incident and are working closely with local authorities.”
The camp has also faced legal issues. Federal court records obtained by NBC News show it was sued by the father of a former student who attended Trails Carolina when she was 14. The complaint, filed in 2022, alleges the student was molested in 2019 by another female student in her cabin and that staff denied her request to be in housing separate from her alleged abuser.
The complaint was later voluntarily dismissed by the student’s father but was filed again in 2023 under her name. Trails Carolina has denied the allegations in court documents, and the case is ongoing.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com