Staff blamed in camp death

But an underlying illness contributed to the 14-year-old boy's death, doctors say.

Published March 16, 2007

TAMPA - Water and rest could have saved Martin Lee Anderson's life. The nurse's inaction led to the boy's death. He suffocated when guards covered his mouth and forced him to inhale ammonia.

Those are among theories doctors offered to explain why the 14-year-old died last year, after guards roughed him up at a Panama City boot camp.

Until now, two autopsy reports formed the backbone of discussion on Martin's death. One medical examiner called it a natural death. The other medical examiner ruled it a homicide.

But among 20,000 pages of court documents released Wednesday by prosecutors in the case are variations of other theories from medical experts who reviewed the case, adding to the debate over the teen's death. The documents are the result of a several-months long investigation by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, which ultimately blamed seven guards and the camp nurse in Martin's death.

Gov. Charlie Crist asked legislators Wednesday to approve a $5-million claims bill for Martin's family. On Thursday, Senate President Ken Pruitt called for a motion to waive the rules and take up late-filed legislation.

House leaders were not as swift, saying they had to review the circumstances. House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, noted that other claims bills have waited years for a hearing.

None of the medical experts disputed that Martin had sickle cell trait, a genetic disorder - typically not fatal - that can cause blood cells to change shape, clump and clot.

Bay County Medical Examiner Charles Siebert had blamed Martin's death on complications from sickle cell trait.

Early in the investigation, Dr. John Kark of Howard University Hospital, who studied exercise-related deaths of military recruits, wrote Siebert a letter agreeing with that cause of death.

But most of the medical experts who gave statements to the prosecution did not think the death was natural.

They concluded that several factors led to the teen's death, principally the guards' decision to cover Martin's mouth and force him to inhale ammonia.

Dr. Thomas Andrew, a forensic pathologist from New Hampshire, blamed dehydration, ammonia-induced suffocation and mass organ failure because of sickling cells.

Martin began to feel ill in the boot camp yard before the guards touched him, and that was likely the beginning of his cells sickling, or changing shape, the doctor wrote.

"Had he been permitted rest and/or fluids, it is more likely than not Anderson would have spontaneously recovered," Andrew wrote.

Instead, camp guards forced the boy to inhale fumes, holding the capsules at his nose at least three times as his body went limp, Andrew said.

Steve J. Martin, an expert on use of force by corrections officers, studied a NASA-enhanced videotape of the boot camp and said that in 22 minutes, guards had used force on Martin 35 times.

The guards, in contrast, reported three or four use of force incidents, according to a statement from drill instructor Amber Hunter.

Andrew and other doctors reserved their sharpest criticism for the camp's nurse, Kristin Schmidt.

Andrew called her actions "disturbing." He wrote that "even at the time of the terminal collapse, boot camp staff, including the nurse on scene, seemed only vaguely aware of the gravity of the situation."

Dr. Martin Steinberg of Boston and Dr. John B. Downs of Tampa both criticized Schmidt, saying she did little to help Martin.

"It is my opinion that the nurse ... should have recognized the critical medical condition that was developing in Anderson," Downs wrote.

Jonathan Dingus, who represents guard Henry McFadden, said the variations among medical experts' theories will help the defense's case.

"There's a big problem with showing these guards' acts caused the deaths of this defendant," he said. "I would suggest they've got a major hole."

Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

"Unlike the defense attorneys, we plan on trying our case in the courtroom," said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi.

News researcher John Martin and staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373.