Family members recall the struggles that faced Juan Lopez-Robles. His hope for a better life ended in tragedy, his ashes coming home in an urn. (Eugene Weekly)

An 18-year-old young man from Ontario, Oregon, died of a fentanyl overdose while in the care of an Oregon Youth Authority (OYA)-operated home in Junction City on March 16, 2020. After he was pressed by other residents of the home to smoke the smuggled-in substance, care workers there failed to recognize the dire state of the young man after making four routine check-ins on his room over a three-hour period as his condition worsened, an analysis of more than 720 public records obtained by Eugene Weekly show.

The death of Juan Lopez-Robles kicked off investigations by Junction City Police Department and an investigation by the Oregon Department of Human Services into allegations of abuse by the home. Lopez-Robles’s mother is suing the home and OYA for wrongful death, asking for $5.8 million. 

 Entering the System

Before Lopez-Robles ended up in the Haag Home for Boys, he had a short string of misdemeanors starting in his teens that would set off his path of recovery, treatment and ultimately his death, in the Oregon juvenile justice system.

On Nov. 2, 2017, at 15 years old, Lopez-Robles and three other boys were picked up by police after tagging an Ontario baseball field with gang-related graffiti. A few months later, Lopez-Robles was arrested for fourth degree assault for punching a man attempting to break up a large fight between two groups that afternoon. A few months after that he and another boy stole more than $500 worth of merchandise from Walmart, according to police reports obtained by EW.

On April 18, 2018, Lopez-Robles was sent to the Northern Oregon Corrections Juvenile Detention Facility. After his release, he stole a 2001 silver Dodge Durango and again shoplifted from Walmart.

He re-entered the OYA system and was sent to the Next Door program — an OYA facility in Hood River, Oregon, focused on individual, therapeutic treatment. Here, he started to get his legs under him.

Lopez-Robles began studying for his GED, working through childhood traumas and dealing with his substance use that began when he was 13, but he ran into obstacles. While spending time at home with his family in March 2019, he was attacked by a rival gang and then broke his sobriety, using methylphenidate, the substance used in prescription drugs like Ritalin and Concerta.

After that relapse, he refocused on getting counseling, turning in his homework on time again and socializing with other kids in the program, according to an April 26 service plan obtained by EW.

A few months later, Lopez-Robles was leading the Relapse Prevention classes and getting into new hobbies like fishing, reading and cooking, according to a July 18, 2019, report from the program. His GED teacher wrote, “He is the type of kid that every teacher wants in their class!”

In an Aug. 19, 2019, counseling session, Lopez-Robles admitted that he had thought about stealing a car and running away with two other residents of the foster home who were in a rival gang. And he was planning on killing them once they left. These irrational thoughts still came to him, he said, because he got flashbacks of his best friend getting shot in the chest by a rival gang member when they were both just 15. This memory was affecting his mental health, he admitted, and causing anxiety and a lack of sleep. He tried melatonin, trazodone and hydroxyzine, but nothing worked.

He told the counselor he wanted to finish the program and was trying to put that goal before his need for revenge. But that chance to finish out the program never came.

On Oct. 18, 2019, just four days after he passed the language arts section of the GED, he stole a car with two other boys from the home and ran, eventually crashing into an apartment building after a short car chase with police. Lopez-Robles and one of the other boys ran from the crashed white Ford Bronco, leaving the third behind. Eventually all were caught, and Lopez-Robles was required to leave the Next Door program for the J Bar J Boys Ranch, a residential treatment program on 40 acres in Bend.

Nearly two weeks later, Lopez-Robles wrote in neat handwriting on his J Bar J intake form that his plans were to stop getting into trouble and to put his future first.

On Jan. 7, 2020, Lopez-Robles came to Lane County to start his first day at the Haag Home for Boys in Junction City after receiving a glowing review from his J Bar J case worker, Sarah Schlundt. “Due to his consistent engagement within the classroom, Juan has earned student of the week twice,” she wrote. She said that Lopez-Robles was ready for a less hands-on program like the Haag Home.

Coming Home

The first few weeks of Lopez-Robles’ stay at the Haag Home for Boys were not nearly as positive as at his previous homes. He was staying up late, sometimes past 2 am after complaining that he couldn’t fall asleep, and waking up past 11 am, often missing required classes or sessions. And he said he was worried about the other residents’ behavior in the facility.

Juan Lopez-Robles (Eugene Weekly)

His conduct raised red flags for his parole officers. In an email exchange on Jan. 21, 2020, between Alex Contreras, Lopez-Robles’ OYA juvenile parole officer, and Mike Padilla, his parole officer from Malheur County, Contreras said Lopez-Robles was going downhill fast. Padilla responded that the young man had always come across as a life-long criminal. Contreras said if he didn’t shape up, Lopez-Robles was returning to Wasco County — the location of the juvenile and adult corrections center — where he’d deal with adult probation and an 18-month term in prison.

But Lopez-Robles began to get into gear after he told Contreras that his mother and father — the latter who had been deported to Mexico after being convicted on drug charges — came down on him hard over the phone. He increased his participation in group sessions from 55 percent to 93 percent and applied for more jobs.

Contreras wrote in an update that Lopez-Robles told him he felt like he was doing much better and staying more focused, but that the other residents were making it hard. He was trying to ignore them but he was holding out hope they’d fail out of the program and leave him alone.

At 9:15 pm March 15, 2020, Lopez-Robles disappeared into the bathroom with another Haag Home resident. Both stumbled out minutes later, according to a case report from the Lane County Medical Examiner’s office obtained by EW. Lopez-Robles then went unconscious for a few minutes, and when he woke up, he was “pressed” by the other boys with him to inhale more of the smuggled-in substance, according to a report from Haag Home Executive Director Tony Husske.

While Lopez-Robles was passed out on the couch with a bleeding nose, care workers failed to recognize his deteriorating health on multiple routine nightly check-ins. Haag Home staff entered the room four times between 9:15 pm, when Lopez-Robles first inhaled the substance, and 12:32 am, when the other two residents finally decided to tell staff that Lopez-Robles needed immediate help, according to the medical examiner’s report.

By that time, Lopez-Robles was no longer breathing. Doctors were able to keep him alive long enough for his mom to drive five hours across Oregon to see her son one last time the following day.

In the tort claim filed by Lopez-Robles’ mother, Carolina Lopez-Robles, Contreras reportedly told her that Haag Home for Boys was known for its drug use, and on multiple occasions Carolina Lopez-Robles said that her son called her while at the home worrying about the other residents’ rampant substance abuse.

While closing Lopez-Robles’ file after he died, Contreras wrote that Lopez-Robles had been using “hard” drugs during his time in the program. A Feb. 29, 2020, report signed by Contreras assessing Lopez-Robles’ alcohol and drug use during the program filed two weeks before his death says otherwise.

According to that report obtained by EW, Lopez-Robles passed 100 percent of all daily breathalyzer tests and passed two urinalysis drug tests conducted in the 26 days leading up to the report.

The report also said that in as soon as three months, Lopez-Robles could finally go back home to his mom for good.

Lopez-Robles would eventually get to go home, actually months earlier than that report recommended. But Lopez-Robles would not arrive as the free, young, reformed man he had pictured. Instead, he’d return in a small, gold-trimmed, black urn. Contreras said Lopez-Robles might have even liked it — it looked manly.

Contreras and a representative for OYA said they could not comment on this story due to pending litigation.

This article is republished with permission from Eugene Weekly.

 SAFEGUARD YOUR LOCAL NEWS

Take one action today to help the Enterprise grow and do more for the community through accurate, fair reporting.

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription is $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.