12-Year-Old Dies Shortly After Joining Wilderness Therapy Program

A 12-year-old boy was found dead at a youth wellness therapy camp in North Carolina on Saturday, shortly after he enrolled in the program that has faced scrutiny over its practices.

Trails Carolina, a self-described “therapeutic wilderness program,” confirmed the 12-year-old’s death in a statement to HuffPost, saying staff called 911 after finding him unresponsive and were unable to resuscitate him.

In a news release shared with HuffPost on Wednesday, the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office said the boy arrived at the camp Friday from New York and was assigned to a cabin with other campers. According to deputies, four adult staff members were also assigned to the cabin.

Toxaway Falls at the outfall of Lake Toxaway in North Carolina, with the Toxaway River below. The Trails Carolina camp is located at Lake Toxaway.
Toxaway Falls at the outfall of Lake Toxaway in North Carolina, with the Toxaway River below. The Trails Carolina camp is located at Lake Toxaway.

Toxaway Falls at the outfall of Lake Toxaway in North Carolina, with the Toxaway River below. The Trails Carolina camp is located at Lake Toxaway.

According to the news release, the boy was taken to a hospital for a preliminary examination and an autopsy was ordered. The sheriff’s office added that “his death appeared suspicious since he had arrived at the camp less than 24 hours prior to his death.”

Forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy Tuesday said the death “appeared to not be natural, but the manner and cause of death is still pending,” according to the news release, which added that the investigation is ongoing and that a report from the chief medical examiner may not be available for several months.

Deputies served search warrants at two Trails Carolina camp locations in Transylvania County on Tuesday, one where the teen was found and another where campers were relocated following the death.

Authorities said camp officials had “not completely cooperated with the investigation” but had told investigators that the staff members who were assigned to the cabin where the teen was found were placed on leave.

In a statement shared with HuffPost on Thursday, Trails Carolina said the sheriff’s press release did “not present an accurate account of the facts nor the current state of the investigation.”

The camp maintains it has fully cooperated with local law enforcement’s investigation.

According to the camp’s statement, it had not been made aware of any suspicious preliminary findings by the medical examiner and claimed preliminary investigation indicated the 12-year-old’s death was an accident.

The camp called public speculation into the death “inappropriate and disrespectful to the family.”

“The family and their son deserve nothing less than a thorough, professional, fact-based investigation by law enforcement, other government agencies, and our program,” the statement read. “Speculation before the full results of these investigations are available is harmful, counterproductive, and irresponsible.”

According to its website, Trails Carolina helps children and teens who are struggling with mental health and behavioral issues through its wilderness therapy program.

The camp has faced scrutiny for years. Camper Alec Lansing, 17, was found dead in a stream in 2014 after being missing for days.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said the Atlanta teen ran away from the Trails Carolina program and died of hypothermia, WYFF-TV in Greenville, South Carolina, reported at the time.

Jonathan Hyde, a former Trails Carolina Wilderness field instructor, told USA Today in a 2022 article that he believed most of the campers did not get the professional help they needed or what was advertised to parents.

Hyde said he felt unprepared to handle the level of care the campers needed.

“Some of these kids are trying to kill themselves. I didn’t feel really prepared for exactly what I was getting into,” Hyde told USA Today.

According to federal court records reviewed by HuffPost, one South Carolina parent filed a lawsuit in 2022 against Trails Carolina, claiming the camp neglected their 14-year-old daughter when she tried to report being sexually assaulted by another camper.

The parent’s lawsuit claimed the camp negligently and wantonly permitted their daughter’s sexual abuse in 2019 when an older camper “with a prior history of sexual assault” attacked her while she was unconscious.

According to the lawsuit, the camp allegedly denied the 14-year-old’s request to move to another cabin and she was sexually assaulted again several nights later.

The case was voluntarily dismissed by the parent months later, but their daughter filed the lawsuit againunder her name in 2023.