The FBI has opened a “preliminary inquiry” into Thayer Learning Center, the northwest Missouri boot camp where a 15-year-old boy died in November 2004.
Jeff Lanza, a spokesman for the Kansas City office of the FBI, said Thursday night that the agency would conduct a limited investigation to determine two things: whether a crime occurred in connection with the death of Roberto Reyes and, if so, whether that crime violated federal law.
After the preliminary inquiry, which could take three months or more, the FBI will determine whether to open a full investigation.
John and Willa Bundy, who own Thayer, denied in court papers any wrongdoing in connection with Roberto’s death. Neither the Bundys nor their attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.
Roberto died less than two weeks after enrolling at Thayer, home to about 100 troubled teenagers in Kidder.
Roberto’s death was attributed to a probable spider bite, but his parents alleged in a wrongful-death lawsuit that their son was subjected to physical exertion and abuse that caused or contributed to his death.
The FBI has already spent about two weeks reviewing the case, which had been referred to the FBI by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting a nationwide probe into residential treatment programs for teens.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, last month urged the FBI to treat the GAO’s Thayer referral “with urgency.”
Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, hopes to convince Congress that boot camp-type facilities should be more stringently regulated. His committee last month held hearings in Washington about the nation’s facilities for troubled teens.
“The details of the Reyes case that we heard at our hearing last month were horrifying,” Tom Kiley, Miller’s communications director, said Thursday. “The Reyes family deserves to have a new set of eyes looking at this tragedy, so we are extremely encouraged that the FBI has taken this step.”
So far, FBI officials have looked only at documents and investigative work provided by the GAO. During the preliminary inquiry, a special agent will work with support staff to locate witnesses, conduct interviews, gather and review documents, and consult with federal prosecutors.
Lanza said it was not clear how long the inquiry would last, saying it could be done in 30 days or stretch for 90 days or more.
James Thompson, a Kansas City attorney for Victor and Gracia Reyes, could not be reached for comment.
In a statement submitted to Congress by Thayer, and later provided to The Kansas City Star by a Thayer attorney, Thayer officials said there has never been a finding of child abuse against Thayer, but that there are only “unsubstantiated hearsay reports from disgruntled former employees” and others.
The statement also said Roberto’s death was investigated by several entities, including the Missouri attorney general.
Scott Holste, a spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon, said Nixon’s office never has played a role in any investigation of Thayer.
A division of the state’s Department of Social Services investigated and found a “preponderance of evidence” that Roberto was medically neglected by Thayer employees.
Thayer is challenging those findings in court.
Thayer, which is exempt from state oversight under Missouri law, is about 50 miles northeast of Kansas City. It has been the subject of numerous child-abuse allegations, most of which came to light after Roberto’s death.
A 2005 investigation by The Star showed that, between April 2003 and October 2005, at least seven people reported more than a dozen allegations of child abuse at Thayer to the Caldwell County sheriff’s office. A state investigative report obtained by The Star said “it appears that those responsible for the safety and well-being of Roberto Reyes failed to recognize his medical distress and to provide access to appropriate medical evaluation and/or treatment.”
No Thayer official was charged in connection with Roberto’s death or any other child-abuse allegations. The Bundys previously said in a written statement that allegations of abuse were “ludicrous and false.”
In their February 2005 lawsuit against Thayer, the Reyeses alleged that Roberto would have lived had he received competent medical care in a timely manner, and that he was dragged, hit, placed in solitary confinement and “forced to lay in his own excrement for extended periods.”
In court filings, Thayer denied those and other allegations. The two sides settled in March 2006 for slightly more than $1 million.
© 2007 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com
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