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Juvenile's death labeled as abuse

The boy died while being restrained by a camp counselor. The state wants a plan to ensure this never happens again.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


The state Department of Children and Families has classified the death of a 12-year-old boy at an Eckerd youth camp as a case of abuse and will ask camp directors for a plan to ensure it never happens again.

Michael Wiltsie, who weighed just 65 pounds, died in February after being restrained by counselor Joseph Cooley, who weighed roughly 300 pounds.

Wiltsie had been sent as a juvenile offender to live in the camp near Silver Springs, on the edge of Ocala National Forest.

A grand jury later that month decided not to indict Cooley, saying he had followed the procedures he had been taught as he restrained the boy, and could not have been considered guilty of manslaughter.

But the Department of Children and Families said in a report issued this week that Wiltsie suffered a type of abuse that it categorizes broadly as "asphyxiation/suffocation/drowning" and another defined as "confinement/bizarre punishment." It says these may have been "a contributing factor in the demise of the victim."

Ron Zychowski, deputy administrator for District 13 of the department, said state officials will now write a letter that will "ask them for a corrective action plan that ensures that this doesn't happen again."

Asked if Eckerd would be subject to fines or other disciplinary action, Zychowski said, "I don't believe so, but I think all of that is contingent on how the conversation goes with Eckerd."

He said the goal was to make sure any problems are corrected.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives, the Clearwater-based non-profit company that runs the camp, said in a prepared statement: "We continue to consider the death of Michael Wiltsie as a tragic accident. However, we do understand the need for a review of the evidence."

Wiltsie had spent about two weeks at Camp E-Kel-Etu, where youths sleep in tents, make their own meals and plan wilderness trips in an effort to learn teamwork and personal responsibility.

He was reportedly trying to hit another camper when Cooley restrained him. Cooley got on the ground and placed his arm over Wiltsie, who complained that he could not breathe. He also straddled Wiltsie, who began kicking.

During the restraint, Wiltsie "struggled for a while, then became still. Mr. Cooley accused (Wiltsie) of "playing possum' and continued the restraint for a short time and then got up," the grand jury report said in February. When Cooley realized Wiltsie wasn't breathing he began CPR and counselors dialed 911.

Cooley was placed on paid leave after the incident, and his status has not changed, Andy Anderson, a spokesman for Eckerd Youth Alternatives, said Wednesday.

"We remain steadfast in our support for our counselor, Joe Cooley, a young man who has dedicated his life to helping children," Eckerd's statement reads. "He is a role model for integrity and compassion, and our prayers and support are with him during this difficult time."

Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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