Employee at Oxbow Academy East charged for allowing boys to play ‘choking game’

(Photo courtesy of Sanpete County Sheriff's Office) Tuakimoana Leota

An employee at a Utah facility for troubled youth has been charged with child abuse after authorities say he allowed teens to choke each other as part of a game.

Tuakimoana Leota, 20, was charged Tuesday with two counts of third-degree felony child abuse.

Prosecutors allege that Leota had been working at Oxbow Academy East, and had looked on as several residents choked each other to the point of unconsciousness Friday as part of a game called “Cloud 9” or the “choking game.”

Oxbow Academy describes itself as a treatment center for boys struggling with sexual issues. “Oxbow East” is a 16-bed facility specifically targeted for teens who have autism, according to its website. It’s located in Mount Pleasant, in a rural area in Sanpete County.

Sanpete County deputies were called to the facility Friday after a 16-year-old boy was choked until he was unconscious, according to charging records. The boy was barely able to speak, a deputy wrote, and was shaking and had hemorrhaging in his eyes.

The boy was taken to a hospital, where he told police that one of the other residents, a 17-year-old boy, had choked him as part of a game. When asked if any staff were present, the boy told police that Leota had been there.

Police say that Leota later admitted that he watched two boys, including the 16-year-old who was hospitalized, be choked until they passed out.

When the second boy could not stand and his eyes were rolling back in their sockets, Leota said they concocted a story about how the youth had fallen down the stairs and he was taken to the hospital. He eventually told other staff about the "choking game," according to police.

Shawn Brooks, executive director of Oxbow Academy, said Tuesday that they are cooperating with police and state licensing officials. He said Leota was terminated immediately after the incident, saying the students had engaged in “horse playing” and the employee did not intervene according to the facility’s training standards.

“The students involved in the incident are safe, being cared for, emotionally attended to, and continuing on with their very sensitive and clinically complicated treatment," Brooks said in an email. “The families have all been involved and updated throughout this process and are supportive of Oxbow and our mission with their sons.”

Leota is expected to make his first court appearance Wednesday. He is being held in the Sanpete County jail in lieu of $20,000 bail.