Hidden truth of youth's death at camp

 
 
Gina Jones, center, Martin’s mother, is comforted by her sister, Debbie Williams, and attorney Benjamin Crump after reburying her son in Panama City in March.
Gina Jones, center, Martin’s mother, is comforted by her sister, Debbie Williams, and attorney Benjamin Crump after reburying her son in Panama City in March.
MARI DARR-WELCH/AP



VERSIONS OF WHAT HAPPENED


In the days and weeks after Martin Lee Anderson died, officials of the Bay County Sheriff's Office, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Medical Examiner's Office offered a variety of explanations for his death - all of which either were untrue or are now in dispute. Among them:



  • Martin was "uncooperative" and belligerent, provoking the boot camp guards to restrain him. Offered by a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office.

  • Martin "passed out" or "collapsed" during physical therapy or intake. Told by guards to doctors and paramedics who treated Martin.

  • Martin fell "ill." Included in two press releases posted by the Sheriff's Office on its website.

  • Martin was a "tough gang member" who probably died of a drug overdose. Said by DJJ Secretary Anthony Schembri to a state lawmaker.

  • Martin died because paramedics or emergency-room doctors botched a routine procedure to insert a beathing tube down his windpipe. Told to a reporter by a DJJ official.

  • Martin died from complications of sickle cell trait, a usually benign blood disorder. The conclusion of the Bay County Medical Examiner's Office.

cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

On the morning of Jan. 5, Bay County sheriff's Sgt. David Cruel called 911 to report a medical emergency at a boot camp for juvenile delinquents.

"We need an ambulance over here immediately, please, " Cruel said. "We got an offender that we just entered this morning. Looks like he's passed out."

What Cruel didn't say: At least seven of his co-workers had spent more than half an hour manhandling 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson. They punched and kneed him, dragged him around and shoved ammonia capsules in his nose. When they were through, he lay on the ground, dying.

Hours after the 911 call, the sheriff's office, which ran the camp, posted a press release on its website, saying Martin had fallen "ill." Headline: Boot Camp Offender Receives Medical Care.

Thus began a concerted effort to define Martin's death as a tragic but unforeseeable medical mishap, whether from illness or shoddy medical care.

From the Panama City boot camp to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, officials miscast the circumstances surrounding the youth's demise numerous times in the ensuing days, masking the brutal details of a death that brought national attention, major reforms to Florida's boot camps and the resignation of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's chief, Guy Tunnell, who had founded the boot camp when he was Bay County sheriff.

In those first days immediately after Martin's death, Tunnell's FDLE, which was investigating his former agency, refused to release the videotape of the beating. Meanwhile, some officials cast aspersions on Martin, portraying him as a malingering, belligerent drug user and gang member who provoked guards to use "force" to restrain him when he became "uncooperative."

The juvenile justice agency even floated a theory to lawmakers and The Miami Herald that Martin bled to death when emergency workers botched a procedure to insert a breathing tube, piercing the youth's windpipe.

The boot camp's narrative of Martin's final conscious hours contrasts sharply with the emerging picture of Martin as a victim of brutality:

Martin was suffocated by guards who held his mouth shut while they jammed ammonia tablets up his nose in an attempt to revive him, according to a new autopsy performed at the request of a special prosecutor, who also threw FDLE off the case after Tunnell sent chummy emails to Bay County's sheriff. No arrests have been made in the case.

OFFICIAL VERSION

The official version of events of Jan. 5, like Martin, died hard.

Even paramedics and emergency-room doctors - whose treatment of the youth depended in large part on what they were told ailed him - were told little. They were given a benign story by guards about a teenager who had mysteriously collapsed.

"After about 15 minutes of physical therapy, the patient said he could not go on, and he collapsed to the ground, " Jeffrey Appel, the emergency-room doctor at Bay Medical Center, wrote, based on information he received from guards. The guards, the doctor added, "used an ammonia capsule to the nose. He got some response from that, but then went completely unresponsive."

Paramedics aboard a Panhandle air rescue service that airlifted Martin from Bay Medical to a trauma center in Pensacola say they were told only that the youth passed out from exercise.

"Patient was at juvenile boot camp - running a 1.5-mile run, " their notes say. "Stopped midway through run, stated 'I can't do this' and then collapsed."

Doctors at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola were given the same story. In his discharge summary after Martin died, Dr. Jason Foland, the boy's attending physician, wrote that he was told that Martin was "a 14-year-old male who presented to [the] emergency room after passing out at boot camp."

The boot camp's nurse, Kristin Schmidt, expressed few concerns about Martin's treatment by guards when the state Department of Juvenile Justice's highest-ranking medical official, Dr. Shairi Turner, interviewed her shortly after Martin's death.

Schmidt referred to Martin's ordeal as "use of force techniques, " "counseling" and and an effort by guards to "maintain control." "She noted that Martin Anderson was alert, looking around and made eye contact, " Turner wrote in her report. "The youth stated to her that he could not breathe, however, per her report, he appeared comfortable and in no respiratory distress."

If the boot camp officials' story to doctors was sanitized, the information they provided to the public was positively sterile.

In a Jan. 5 press release posted on the Bay sheriff's website and e-mailed to reporters who inquired, spokeswoman Ruth Sasser said Martin was airlifted to a trauma center "after becoming ill during Intake procedures."

"The nurse began to take his vital signs and assess his medical condition, " Sasser wrote. "When she became concerned, EMS was called to the facility. Just minutes prior to the arrival of EMS, the offender became unresponsive."

ILLNESS CITED

After Martin died on Jan. 6, the department twice repeated its claim that Martin simply "became ill" in a press release. Its headline underscored the fact that Martin died nowhere near the Panama City boot camp: Juvenile Offender Passes Away in Pensacola. Later that day, however, Sasser acknowledged to The Miami Herald that guards had used "force" when Martin became "uncooperative, " but declined to elaborate.

"The body has been turned over to the Medical Examiner's Office and authorities are awaiting autopsy results, " Sasser wrote in the Jan. 6 release.

But the autopsy itself began to raise questions. In her five-page report to DJJ administrators, Turner briefly recounted a conversation she had on the morning of Jan. 6 with Dr. Charles Siebert, Bay County's chief medical examiner:

"Reported that the Sheriff had requested that the autopsy be moved from Pensacola where the death occurred to Panama City where the boot camp was located, " she wrote. "Pathologist felt this was 'highly unusual.' "

Normally autopsies are performed in the county where a person dies. But Siebert has consistently denied saying the request to bring Martin's body back to Panama City was unusual. Turner insists he did, and said so at a hearing of the state House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee.

The evening of Jan. 6, state Rep. Gus Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who spearheaded the boot camp reforms as head of the justice committee that controls juvenile justice spending, got a call from DJJ Secretary Anthony Schembri, who told him of Martin's death.

"He said: 'I've investigated hundreds of these cases. He's a young black gang kid, and you'll find drugs in his system, ' " said Barreiro, who along with his committee has repeatedly faulted Schembri for lying to them.

In a written statement, Schembri responded: "I remember telling the legislators that Martin's file indicated that he was a gang member. . . I was careful not to reach any conclusions based on preliminary information."

Martin's arrests: joy riding in his grandmother's stolen Jeep, violating curfew while on probation for the car theft, and stealing candy.

WITNESSES TO VIOLENCE

The 10 frightened boys who were present in the exercise yard Jan. 5 also were told that Martin died of an illness - although they had watched in horror as guards punched and kneed the youth and dragged him around.

Aaron Swartz, a Leon County 14-year-old who was admitted to the camp the same day as Martin, said a mental-health worker told the youths that Martin died of "medical reasons" and that the actions of guards "had nothing to do" with his death.

"She was telling us how athletes die every day, all the time, because of medical reasons. That healthy athletes stop and die, so it's not unusual, " Aaron told The Miami Herald.

Martin's mother, Gina Jones, said she was given the same story at Bay Medical.

The boot camp's commander, Capt. Mike Thompson, was with her at the Panama City hospital just after 10 a.m., before Martin was flown to Pensacola, Jones said. She asked what had happened.

Thompson responded that her son "ran two or three laps and just collapsed." Thompson couldn't be reached for comment.

At 1:30 a.m. when Martin was pronounced dead, Jones said that Lt. Charles Helms was with her and broke down, crying. "That boy didn't deserve this, " she recalled him saying. "He never told me he was one of the first people to put his hands on my baby." Bay Sheriff Frank McKeithen, though, knew it would only get worse - because of a videotape of Martin's last moments. In an unusual move, he issued a statement on Jan. 17 saying the tape would eventually lead to "many questions, concerns and accusations."

Yet McKeithen, who on several occasions has expressed sympathy for the dead teen's family, didn't discuss the tape's contents at the time, nor would the FDLE, which possessed it.

But two state representatives who privately insisted on viewing the tape couldn't keep quiet after what they saw. Barreiro and Democrat Dan Gelber told The Miami Herald for a Feb. 9 story that Martin had been "brutally" beaten and "flung around like a rag doll."

FDLE Commissioner Tunnell shot off several e-mails that day, bashing the lawmakers and assuring McKeithen, who soon called the legislators "loose cannons, " that his agency would fight a request from The Miami Herald that the video be made public.

Tunnell received an e-mail that day from an FDLE assistant commissioner, Scotty Sanderson, who wrote that the medical examiner was expected to release his report soon and "bring this case in for a landing quickly. Our side will be ready to roll out as soon as we get the toxicology findings."

"Hurry - BEFORE I get REALLY carried away, " Tunnell replied.

The next day, Tunnell called McKeithen's cellphone, according to records obtained by The Miami Herald. McKeithen says the commissioner only left a message, as he did in four other calls listed in records from Tunnell's office cellphone.

"There were no calls that I had with Mr. Tunnell that were inappropriate, " said McKeithen, who declined to discuss any specifics. According to the FDLE, the agency was working on 11 other cases with the sheriff's office when the calls were made.

A week later, on Feb. 16, Siebert, the Bay County medical examiner, released his report, concluding that Martin died of natural causes when an undetected genetic blood disorder, sickle cell trait, together with rigorous exercise, led him to bleed to death.

Tunnell placed a call to McKeithen's cellphone at 9:35 that morning.

Seven minutes later, Tunnell called the Bay County Sheriff's Office main line and had a nine-minute conversation with someone at the department.

Early the following morning, Tunnell and a key aide to Gov. Jeb Bush urgently debated by e-mail how best to release the 30- to 40-minute video that Tunnell had fought hard to keep private. In a 7:15 a.m. e-mail to Tunnell, the aide, Bush chief of staff Mark Kaplan, all but pleaded with Tunnell to release the controversial video in the state capital, not in Bay County.

"The press is already challenging FDLE's choice of location for this morning's press conference, " Kaplan wrote. "They are saying that you regularly investigate officer shootings and do not make an announcement from the officer's department.

"Your integrity is being challenged unfairly, and you are making it too easy for those who wish to allege that FDLE is part of some conspiracy."

Tunnell ignored Kaplan's advice, saying that if his agency were to "bow to the political or media pressure, " it would empower his critics.

The videotape, released later that morning on Feb. 17 to a throng of reporters from across the nation, told a messier story than the official, sanitized narrative.

But in those hours before the tape was released, the state law enforcement chief and former Bay County sheriff was sure he could handle the criticism that McKeithen had predicted.

"There is simply no opportunity that would allow for any alleged 'cover-up, ' " Tunnell said in his e-mail response to Kaplan. "Not that there was any effort or intent to do so."

Miami Herald staff writer Matthew I. Pinzur contributed to this report.

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