By Pat Reavy

SALT LAKE CITY — A man described in court documents as a staff member at a residential treatment center for troubled teens is facing criminal charges for allegedly allowing residents to play the choking game.

Tuakimoana Pulotu “Moe” Leota, 20, of Ephraim, was charged Tuesday in 6th District Court with two counts of child abuse, a third-degree felony.

On Nov. 22 Sanpete County sheriff’s deputies responded to a report of an assault at Oxbow Academy East near Mount Pleasant. A 16-year-old boy “had been choked to the point of unconsciousness” and “was barely able to speak, (was) shaking and had hemorrhaging in his eyes” when deputies arrived, according to charging documents.

That boy was taken to a local hospital. Deputies said they learned that the victim had been choked by a 17-year-old boy at the academy. That boy “admitted to playing Cloud 9, also known as the choking game,” the charges state.

When asked if “any staff members were present during the event,” the 17-year-old said, “Moe was present during the choking, but it was not his idea,” according to the charges.

Moe was determined to be Leota. When questioned by police, “Moe stated that he had allowed the group of juveniles to choke one another. According to his statement, Moe watched as one juvenile … got choked to the point of unconsciousness,” investigators wrote in the charges.

Leota then watched a second juvenile be choked “to the point of unconsciousness. After about one minute, (the 16-year-old) regained consciousness. Moe said that (the boy) could not stand and his eyes were rolling back in their sockets,” the charging documents say.

Police say the boys and Leota initially “fabricated a story that (the boy) had fallen down the stairs,” but later told other staff members the truth.

Leota was arrested and transported to the Sanpete County Jail.

In a statement Tuesday night, Oxbow Academy East said Leota “was immediately terminated due to negligence in following well-established supervision protocols” and that the school is cooperating with law enforcement and Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

“First and foremost, Oxbow Academy would like to let you know that 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. The families have all been involved and updated throughout this process and are supportive of Oxbow and our mission with their sons.”

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