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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Jury selection begins Monday for the trial in the boot camp death.
By ABBIE VANSICKLE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 22, 2007
"If the jury felt they did wrong, then they will be punished," said Reto Williams, 63, of the seven boot Bay County Boot Camp guards and a nurse who are charged in the death of her grandson, Martin Lee Anderson.
[MELISSA LYTTLE | Times]
[MELISSA LYTTLE | Times]
Martin Lee Anderson is buried about a block away from his grandmother's house.
Photo taken just before Martin Lee Anderson entered the boot camp facility.
PANAMA CITY -- She still remembers her grandson lying on the emergency room stretcher, hours from death.
Martin Lee Anderson's head rolled from side to side. Blood poured from his mouth. His dreadlocks had been shaved. She put her hand on his chest, felt his heart beating way too fast. She talked to him. He didn't answer.
Reto Williams turned to a guard from the boot camp Martin had reported to the day before, the only other person in the room.
"What happened to Martin?" she asked.
"I don't know, I don't know," Lt. Charles Helms Jr. replied, she remembers.
The memory still rankles, the wound that won't heal.
"He lied to me," Williams, 63, says. "He lied."
When she filed charges against her grandson, she never imagined any of this.
After 14-year-old Martin and his friends stole her car during church services and went on a joyride, it was Williams who asked for punishment. Her grandson had started hanging with a bad crowd, and she wanted him back on the straight and narrow.
Now, from her little pink house on Redwood Avenue, she can see a daily reminder of it all: the cemetery next door that is home to Martin's grave.
* * *
Since her grandson's death in 2006 after boot camp guards roughed him up, she has stayed quiet amid the clatter. State politicians closed all the boot camps. Martin's mom got an attorney, received millions in a settlement and moved out of town. Even the national head of the NAACP came to Panama City on Martin's behalf.
On Monday, jury selection will begin in the trial of seven guards and the camp's nurse, charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child in his death. It's the biggest case anyone here can remember since Gideon vs. Wainwright, the 1963 case of a Panama City pool hall burglary that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, guaranteeing everyone in America the right to an attorney.
Like Gideon, Martin Lee Anderson's life served a larger purpose, Williams says. It's no coincidence that Martin was born on the birthday of another man of that name -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. God doesn't make mistakes.
"When God took my grandson, he used him," Williams says. "He took him to use him. He took him to show Florida what they're doing to the kids, it ain't right. What was his name? Martin. He had to live up to that name."
Williams' faith, already strong, has only grown since Martin's death, she says as she sits in the cozy living room that smells of the spaghetti boiling in a pot in the kitchen. A well-worn Bible and reading glasses rest on the couch. Another grandson rocks in a chair on the porch.
She's helping to raise that boy as she did Martin, who spent countless afternoons with her while his mom, Williams' daughter Gina Jones, worked long hours at Burger King to pay rent. Williams taught Martin to believe in God, to work hard, to be responsible for his actions.
That's why she wanted him to face consequences when he took the car.
"I wanted him to understand, you can't just go around and do this," she says. "It was to let him know that, 'Hey, you're going down the wrong road. You can't do this.'"
She thought he'd get community service, but he was sent to boot camp instead. Shortly before he left, she showed him his grandpa's Army uniform. Williams always dreamed Martin would grow up to be like his grandpa. Join the service. Bring honor to the family.
Martin tried on the uniform. He was grinning. Williams danced around him, singing, "I'm in the Army now! I'm in the Army now!"
As he walked out the door, she said, "I love you." He smiled.
'Helms is the one'
The next morning, her daughter came to her door. Something was wrong. Williams headed to the hospital. There, she saw two men from the boot camp. She says that's when Helms told her he didn't know what happened.
The doctors decided to fly Martin to a bigger hospital in Pensacola. Martin's mom went, too, but Williams went home. She sat in her bedroom, praying.
Williams said her daughter plans to go the trial.
But don't expect to find Williams in the courtroom. She has never watched the boot camp video and doesn't plan to, she says. She blames only one person for Martin's death: Lt. Helms. He was in charge of what happened that day in the boot camp yard, she says, and he should take responsibility for Martin's death.
"Helms is like the person that's leading the war," she says. "Helms is the one."
Helms' attorney, Waylon Graham, was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment, according to his law office staff.
Williams said the guards met their match that day in the yard, that Martin tried to fight back because his grandmother always told him to never let anyone abuse him.
"They didn't know he was a God-fearing woman's grandson," she says with a chuckle.
It was all part of God's plan, she says.
"What an ultimate sacrifice," she says. "There's a reason why he was there."
After Martin's death, Williams had visions of him. Whenever there was big news in the case, she heard him knocking at her front door, she says. She demonstrates, putting her hand into a fist and rapping the air.
She'll spend jury selection and the trial as she usually does, at home with her grandkids.
"The attorney had said they couldn't get a fair jury here," she says. "As a woman of God, I said, 'It doesn't matter where it is. It's all in God's hands.'"
She'll pray quietly in her room, out of the spotlight. If something goes wrong at the trial, she believes Martin will come and tell her, that she'll hear his knock at her door.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3373.