A 12-year-old suffocated to death at camp after he was confined in a fully enclosed bivy sack, autopsy report says

A boy from New York journeyed to North Carolina for camp but did not survive his first night, authorities said. Now, his death is being investigated as a homicide.

Hours after arriving at Trails Carolina, a program for adolescents with behavioral or emotional issues, the 12-year-old suffocated in February after camp staff directed him to sleep in a fully enclosed bivy sack, a newly released autopsy report states. A bivy sack is a piece of sleeping equipment that usually includes waterproof material.

“The cause of death is asphyxia due to smothering,” the autopsy report says. “The manner of death is homicide.”

The boy’s family, who lives in New York, has asked CNN not to publicize the boy’s name. The family declined to comment further, family representative Robert J. Higdon Jr. said.

The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating the death. While no arrests have been made, investigators do have suspects, Det. John C. Nicholson told CNN on Wednesday. The sheriff’s detective declined to answer additional questions, citing the ongoing investigation.

CNN has reached out to Trails Carolina for comment.

While North Carolina authorities have started the process to permanently revoke the nature camp’s license, Trails Carolina could still appeal.

Confined in a bivy enclosed with an alarm

A bivy sack gives more protection than a sleeping bag alone, often eliminating the need to sleep in a tent when camping.

Bivies typically include a breathable inner layer that can be zipped and an opaque, waterproof outer layer.

“It should be noted that a common warning on commercially available bivy products indicates that the outer, weather resistant opening should not be fully secured as it may lead to condensation and breathing restriction,” the boy’s autopsy report states. “This information was obtained on basic web search.”

During the overnight hours between February 2 and 3, the boy was directed to sleep in a fully enclosed bivy with an attached alarm that would alert counselors if the boy tried to leave, the autopsy report states. The child had previously left his bivy sack to sleep outside of it. The counselors woke him and made him re-enter the bivy.

According to the camp’s protocol, the boy “was placed to sleep in a bivy (small camping enclosure) with a sleeping mat and sleeping bag,” the autopsy report states.

“The program’s protocol required the bivy to be placed on top of a thick mil plastic sheet which was folded up the sides in the form of a ‘canoe’. The opening to the bivy was then secured with an alarm device such that if the occupant attempted to exit the bivy, it would alarm and wake up the counselors in the cabin,” the autopsy report says.

“According to investigative reports, the internal mesh bivy door, which is normally used to secure the opening, was torn and the outer weather resistant door was instead (used) to secure the opening with the alarm device.”

During the overnight hours, a counselor noticed the boy was moving around “but stopped moving shortly after,” the autopsy report states.

“Routine checks were performed throughout the night, but due to the outer, opaque layer of the bivy being closed, he could not be visualized,” the report says. “In the morning, the counselors attempted to wake him up but noted he was not moving.”

Trails Carolina released multiple statements in the days following the boy’s death.

“We are shattered by the tragic loss of a young life and our deepest sympathies are with the student’s family and loved ones,” the camp said in a February 6 statement.

Two days later, the camp issued another statement in response to the sheriff’s office’s initial findings, which said the boy’s death “appeared suspicious” and claimed the camp was not cooperating with the investigation.

“Trails has conducted an internal investigation of this incident and the Trails facility has been investigated by outside professionals who are subject-matter experts,” the camp said February 8. “Both investigations have concluded that there is no evidence that Trails failed to properly supervise, no evidence that Trails caused harm, and no evidence that conditions at Trails were unsafe or unhealthy.”

“Our staff have fully cooperated with the local law enforcement’s investigation,” the statement continued. “Any assertion to the contrary is false, reckless, and defamatory.”

Trails Carolina has not given an updated statement to CNN after repeated requests for comment this week.

The camp is shut down for now

Trails Carolina is an “outcome-driven nature-based therapy program in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina,” the camp said in its February 6 statement. “The program helps adolescents, aged 10-17-years-old, work through behavioral or emotional difficulties, build trusting relationships with their family and peers, and achieve academic success.”

The camp “pairs psychological counseling with a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, backpacking, camping, rock climbing and equine-assisted emotional work,” Trails Carolina said.

Following the boy’s death and an investigation into the camp, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services started the process of revoking Trails Carolina’s license, according to documents obtained by CNN.

“They cannot operate at this time,” agency spokesperson Kelly Haight Connor said Tuesday.

On February 12, the DHHS sent a letter to Trails Carolina ordering the camp to halt new admissions and stop using “bivy bags for any purpose” until an investigation is complete.

On March 28, the DHHS sent a letter ordering Trails Carolina to suspend admissions because “conditions in the facility are found to be detrimental to the health and safety of the clients.” The letter cited violations involving medication requirements, incident response requirements and protection from harm, abuse, neglect or exploitation.

And on May 17, the DHHS sent a letter to Trails Carolina saying it was starting the process to revoke its license.

But Trails Carolina has 60 days – or until mid-July – to appeal the revocation of its license. As of Tuesday, the DHHS was not aware of any appeals filed, the agency’s spokesperson said.

CNN’s Eva Roytburg contributed to this report.

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