Troubled boot camp to close

02/22/2006 1:04 PM

02/28/2008 2:28 PM

With his boot camp "virtually paralyzed" by the uproar over a teen's death, Bay County's sheriff said Tuesday he is closing down the controversial Panama City lock-up in 90 days.

"I believe this program has had some very positive results, " Sheriff Frank McKeithen wrote state officials, adding "the integrity of the Boot Camp in Bay County has been compromised."

On the heels of the surprise announcement, the local state attorney, Steve Meadows, asked Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint another prosecutor to investigate up to nine guards and the nurse tied to the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

The decisions - praised by critics who want to shutter all five juvenile boot camps in the state - came as Martin's family, lawmakers and the news media increased their scrutiny of the boot camp, the close ties between state and local cops, and the bizarre twists of the Panhandle story.

The boot camp incident caught the public's attention when two lawmakers who saw a videotape of the altercation between Martin and camp guards told The Miami Herald the youth had been brutalized.

The video became public after The Miami Herald and CNN sued the state for its release.

The fallout is far from over: The Rev. Jesse Jackson is being courted to head to Panama City this weekend, a federal civil rights investigation is under way and a new medical examiner may review the autopsy performed by Dr. Charles Siebert, who concluded that the teen died of a genetic blood condition - sickle-cell trait - and not the apparent manhandling he received from guards.

RENEWS LICENSE

Siebert drove two hours from Panama City to Tallahassee on Tuesday to renew his medical license, which he said he did not know had expired Jan. 31, after which he performed or signed off on six autopsies, including Martin's.

Gov. Bush's office inquired into the status of Siebert's license Tuesday morning, amid reports of mistake-prone autopsies he performed in an unrelated case that found a woman had "unremarkable" testicles.

Siebert acknowledged his mistakes in the genitalia mix-up - resulting during a hurricane-related power outage - and for allowing his license to lapse as the pressure mounted in Martin's case. But he said the boy's autopsy was done properly. He said he welcomed a new review.

"They'll find what I found, " Siebert said.

Bush said he had confidence in Siebert, and said a new medical examiner may take a look at Martin's autopsy.

He then appointed Mark A. Ober, Hillsborough County's prosecutor, to replace Meadows, who made the request to be replaced shortly after receiving the investigative report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Friday.

'SURPRISED'

Bush called the switch in prosecutors "common, " but said he was somewhat "surprised" by the sheriff's decision to close the camp.

"Given all the publicity that this case has gotten, you could see how maybe the sheriff wanted to get back to fighting crimes. I think boot camps are part of the strategy that has reduced juvenile crime in our state, " Bush said, calling the teen's death a "tragic case."

Saying that his "heart goes out to the family, " the governor added: "The system that we have in place has yielded what people want. The citizens of this state want less crime and that's what they're getting."

The Bay Boot Camp, currently holding 22 kids, is one of the few in Florida where the use of deadly force, chemical agents and pressure points is allowed. It also has one of the highest re-offender rates: About half of its kids return to the criminal justice system within a year of release.

AMMONIA BANNED

After Martin's death on Jan. 6, the Bay sheriff banned the use of ammonia capsules used to revive youths who were forced to exercise.

"Why did it take a death to make these changes?" asked Gina Jones, Martin's mother. "Things should have been that way before they murdered my baby."

Shauna Manning, the mother of a youth who was at the camp when Martin was kneed, punched and wrestled by guards, said the staff abused the use of force.

"They get pleasure out of it. Seriously, it's a shame that grown men get pleasure out of this. They have no sympathy. They have no remorse. They don't care. They feel like these kids are scum, like these kids deserve to be treated like animals so that's how they're going to treat them, " Manning said Tuesday.

The sheriff dwelt on the positives in his letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice announcing the closure of the camp. He said he had to close it temporarily because the camp is "compromised, leaving the effectiveness of this program virtually paralyzed."

STATE PAYMENT

In his letter, McKeithen left open the possibility he'll operate some kind of youth corrections program. The state pays about $1 million yearly to help run the camp, not including state education money funnelled to it through the county.

Neither Bush nor DJJ officials could figure how McKeithen planned to operate the camp without state input. Bush promised to find appropriate facilities to account for the loss of the 30-bed medium-risk facility, where Martin was detained after joyriding in his grandmother's car.

Some lawmakers who oversee Florida's troubled 55,000-child justice system, in which 600 are in boot camps, praised McKeithen for pulling the plug on his program. They continued to lobby Bush's administration to take more steps to protect children in similar programs throughout the state.

"I'm calling on DJJ to remove every kid from all the boot camps until they can create policies and put policies in place that assure the safety of kids, " said state Rep. Gus Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who chairs the important Juvenile Justice Appropriations Committee, which controls DJJ purse strings.

NOT FAR ENOUGH

State Sen. Rod Smith, a former Gainesville prosecutor who is one of two Democrats running for governor, said more needs to be done.

While he supports the idea of having a special prosecutor look into the case, he suggested authorities hadn't gone far enough to assure Floridians that Martin's death was being investigated by an agency with no ties to the Bay County sheriff.

"I would have an independent investigator conduct the investigation, rather than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, " said Smith.

The reason: FDLE's chief, Guy Tunnell, is a former Bay County sheriff and founded the boot camp.

Though he does not have a direct conflict of interest, Tunnell may be plagued by the perception that he does, Smith said. Said Tunnell: "This is what we do. We investigate fairly. If we didn't do our jobs, people would say 'Aha!' And if we do, they say the same thing."

'JUSTICE FOR MARTIN'

Martin's mother said it's not enough. She said she has seen little fairness from law enforcement.

"Justice needs to be done, " she said. "We just want to get justice for Martin."

Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Cara Buckley contributed to this report.

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