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8 charged in teen's boot camp death

Martin Lee Anderson died a day after arriving there nearly a year ago.

By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published November 29, 2006


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In this image taken from video provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, guards and other personnel place Martin Lee Anderson on a gurney at the Bay County Sheriff's Department Boot Camp in Panama City after restraining the teen.
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  • [Florida Department of Law Enforcement via AP Television News]
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    photo
    [Times photo: Ken Helle]
    Gina Jones holds a photo of her son Martin Lee Anderson taken just before he entered the boot camp facility in January.

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    Martin Lee Anderson died of suffocation.
    [Times photo: Ken Helle]


    Seven guards and a nurse at a Panama City boot camp were charged Tuesday in the death of Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old whose videotaped beating nearly a year ago incited a national outcry and led to the shutdown of boot camps in Florida.

    Each faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter on a child, punishable by as much as 30 years in prison if convicted.

    The charges culminated a nine-month investigation by Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, who faced pressure to act in a case that carried racial undercurrents.

    "This conduct cannot and will not be tolerated in our society, and none of us are above the law," Ober said in Tallahassee. He said his office reviewed 20,000 pages of documents and interviewed scores of people to establish a case.

    "We hope at the end of the day justice will be served," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Ober as special prosecutor after concerns arose about the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's review of the death.

    With her lawyer's arm around her waist, Anderson's mother said she no longer faults Ober for the delay, realizing he needed time.

    "This is a good day for me," said Gina Jones, 37. "I'm finally getting justice for my baby."

    She pulled back from a gaggle of microphones in tears.

    The family has filed a $40-million lawsuit against the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the guards and the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

    The case has ruined the life of one of the accused, Lt. Charles Helms Jr., according to his attorney, Waylon Graham.

    Helms, 50, a father of three, served in the Army, working as a drill sergeant. But after the boot camp tape surfaced, Helms lost his job and now works for a chemical company.

    "He's been vilified, and that's what's crushing him. ... All along I've known these men would be charged," Graham said, noting political pressure in the case.

    If anyone is to blame, it's the nurse, Graham said. Kristin Schmidt told guards the teen faked his illness, even as they covered his mouth, forcing him to breath ammonia, he said. The guards waited to call 911 at the nurse's advice, he said.

    "I certainly think she's largely responsible for it," Graham said. "These officers look to her for guidance, and she failed them miserably."

    Schmidt's attorney, James Appleman, did not return calls seeking comment.

    Conflicting autopsy reports heightened Helms' belief that the guards did not kill Anderson, Graham said. He said he thinks a Bay County jury will agree.

    "We want to be judged by our peers in this community," he said. "I am confident that this community can produce a fair and impartial jury."

    The Hillsborough medical examiner says the teen died from the guards' behavior. The Bay County doctor says Anderson died of sickle cell trait. A jury must weigh the two.

    The differing autopsy reports could raise doubts for a jury, particularly because Ober cleared the Bay County medical examiner of any conspiracy, said Pinellas lawyer John Trevena.

    Joyride starts it

    Anderson was sent to the boot camp after violating probation for taking his grandmother's car from church without permission. On Jan. 5, only hours after entering the facility, he collapsed after a 11/2 mile forced run around a dirt track. Guards surrounded him, punching and kneeing the boy and forcing him to inhale ammonia. The nurse looked on.

    Anderson died the next day at a Pensacola hospital. His body was brought back to Bay County for the autopsy, a development that gave rise to accusations of conspiracy.

    Ober's investigation, however, found no such evidence. He exonerated several top officials, including former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Guy Tunnell, who resigned amid the investigation after questions surfaced about his ties to the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

    The beating was captured by a surveillance camera, and the video was seen by two South Florida lawmakers who described it to reporters, transforming a little-noticed death into a national story, peaking with a protest march on the state Capitol and a sit-in outside Bush's office in the spring.

    Anderson was memorialized on T-shirts and emerged as a symbol of sorts for African-Americans and others who criticized the juvenile justice system. The controversy played a significant role in the dismantling of the state's boot camp program.

    "When I first saw the video, I knew it wasn't simply a kid collapsing on a field," former state Rep. Gus Barreiro said Tuesday. "No criminal charges or convictions will ever bring this young man back. But people who work with kids ... have to understand that if you mistreat a child you will be held accountable."

    'Culpable negligence'

    An initial autopsy concluded Anderson died of a usually harmless blood disorder known as sickle cell trait. But a second autopsy, conducted after the body was exhumed, found Anderson suffocated because his mouth was forced closed as ammonia tablets were shoved in his nose.

    Ober said the guards and nurse caused the death by culpable negligence, failing to provide Anderson "with the care, supervision or services necessary to maintain his physical or mental health that a prudent person would consider essential for the well-being of a child, or by failure to make a reasonable effort to protect (him) from abuse, neglect or exploitation by another person."

    In addition to Schmidt, the nurse, and Helms, the other defendants were identified as Henry Dickens, Charles Enfinger, Patrick Garrett, Raymond Hauck, Henry McFadden Jr., and Joseph Walsh II.

    The guards appeared Tuesday before Bay County Judge Elijah Smiley and were released on $25,000 bail each. Arraignment is set for Jan. 18. Schmidt planned to turn herself in later Tuesday, prosecutors said.

    Both sides said they are comfortable going to trial in Bay County. The defendants will be tried together.

    "They were all prior law enforcement," Bay County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Marc Tochterman said. "They all want to get this done and over with." The guards and nurse lost their jobs when the boot camp closed April 6, but they remained in the area, Tochterman said. None returned calls seeking comment.

    Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen called the investigation lengthy, complex and intense. He emphasized Ober's findings that no coverup existed, but he said nothing in defense of the guards and nurse.

    The criminal case will likely slow the $40-million civil suit, said John Jolly, an attorney who represents the Bay County Sheriff's Office.

    Jim White, the attorney for Hauck, said he hopes the Sheriff's Office will stand behind the camp guards.

    "Sure (Hauck) thought he was doing the exactly right thing," White said. "I think that all the things he did would have been in keeping with Sheriff's Office policy."

    Hauck was third in command at the camp. Specifically, he is accused of forcing ammonia capsules on Anderson as the teen lay limp, according to White.

    No conspiracy

    Ober's investigation did not find evidence of a conspiracy, as had been suggested by Anderson's family.

    Dr. Charles Siebert, the medical examiner who performed the original autopsy, acted under "good faith belief" that he could do so even though Anderson died at a hospital outside Siebert's district, Ober's report shows.

    Reached at his office Tuesday, Siebert said he was relieved but always thought he acted properly, and stands by his finding that Anderson died of internal bleeding caused by sickle cell trait.

    Nor did Ober find fault with Tunnell and McKeithen, who traded e-mails about the case while the FDLE was investigating.

    Tunnell was the Bay County sheriff when the boot camp was created in 1994.

    "Tunnell's personal relationship ... did not affect the work of the FDLE investigations," Ober wrote in a letter to Bush.

    And Bay County State Attorney Steve Meadows "did not attempt to hide information pertinent to the investigation" by deleting e-mails on the case, Ober concluded.

    Ben Crump, the Anderson family lawyer, said he disagreed with some of Ober's findings, but said overall, Ober showed great courage in pursuing the case.

    "We know we're a long way from a conviction," Crump said, "but this is a huge step today."

    [Last modified November 29, 2006, 01:43:06]


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