Asphyxia death an ‘absolute tragedy’ — but not a crime

Jamie Lamson and his late son, William ‘Willy’ Lamson.
Jamie Lamson and his late son, William ‘Willy’ Lamson. Courtesy of David Lamson Keene

William James Lamson and a staff member with whom he’d been quarreling entered a darkened, vacant bedroom at a troubled Central Florida program for disabled people sometime after 1 p.m. March 1.

Only the employee, Justin Maynor, left alive.

“We’ll never know what went on in that bedroom,” said Lamson’s uncle, David Lamson Keene. “Never.”

An autopsy concluded Lamson, 26, died of “traumatic asphyxia” — a very different picture than what was painted the day of the incident, when officers told of a Lamson who appeared to have died from banging his head.

But prosecutors in Lake County, where the Carlton Palms Educational Center for people with severe disabilities and behavioral problems is located, released an 11-page memo Friday explaining why they would not file charges against Maynor.

Considering that Lamson “had a history of attacking his caregivers,” prosecutors wrote, “the state would be unable to establish beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that the actions of Justin Maynor in this case constitute a reckless disregard of human life that would rise to the level of culpable negligence.”

Before hanging up on a reporter, Maynor said, “the charges have been dropped, and I’m not going to speak about any of that.”

The key pieces of evidence in the investigation of Lamson’s death were the sound and images from three surveillance cameras mounted in common areas outside Bedroom 15 — a room that did not belong to Lamson. But whatever occurred inside the room will never be known by anyone but Maynor: There was no surveillance camera inside the bedroom. And Maynor turned off the lights in the room when he entered it, reports from police and prosecutors say.

Overseeing what goes on inside the sleeping quarters of children and vulnerable adults long has been a problem in Florida. Authorities say it is inappropriate to record inside resident bedrooms. Caregivers and officers in group homes, residential treatment centers and detention centers have been accused for years of bringing vulnerable people into bedrooms to administer discipline, punishment or beatings — beyond the reach of cameras.

What footage does exist might shed light on what happened between Lamson and Maynor that day. The Miami Herald asked both the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office for a copy of the video, citing the state’s broad public records law. The sheriff’s office refused to release it — then changed its mind after the Herald appealed to an open government expert at the Florida Attorney General’s Office. APD says it will release the video, but after redacting it. APD has not confirmed the name of the victim.

Disability administrators declined to discuss Lamson’s case with the Herald Friday.

“The death of this individual is an absolute tragedy, and our hearts go out to his family,” APD Director Barbara Palmer said in a prepared statement. “The employee involved in this incident no longer works at the facility in Mount Dora.

As most people are aware, APD has worked tirelessly to hold Carlton Palms accountable, and we have taken multiple actions, including an agreed moratorium on new residents, extensive video monitoring in all homes, an outside monitoring and transition team, along with other administrative sanctions and a $10,000 fine.

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Jamie Lamson with son William, in the early 2000s. Courtesy of David Lamson Keene

“Carlton Palms is now in receivership and is being closed,” the statement added. “To date, 74 people have transitioned into community group homes around the state. We are expediting the transition of the remaining individuals to additional homes over the next several weeks.”

Carlton Palms’ parent company, Bellwether Behavioral Health, declined to discuss the reports.

Lamson’s family still is grieving his loss, and the decision to forgo charges reopened the wound, said Lamson Keene, the victim’s uncle. Family members have not told William Lamson’s father, Jamie Lamson, the latest news yet, said Keene.. “He is so catatonic now in his life. He is devastated that his purpose in life has been taken away in so violent and vicious a manner.”

“It is unimaginable what went on in that facility,” Keene said. “We are absolutely disgusted, and we think the decision not to proceed with charges is irresponsible.”

In a 17-page administrative complaint filed in April, APD sought to revoke Carlton Palms’ license, chronicling a parade of horrors that occurred in recent years, including rapes, rat infestations and scaldings.

Shortly after, Bellwether Behavioral Health announced it would pull out of the state, choosing not to renew its license, which expired May 31.

William “Willy” Lamson was born with severe autism. Among his most devastating symptoms was an obsessive impulse to bang his head and slap his own face. The self-injurious behavior prompted caregivers to employ a soft, white helmet designed to shield Lamson’s brain from the chronic abuse. But the behavior was sufficient to render Lamson blind in his right eye.

Carlton Palms records show that Lamson had 119 documented episodes of aggression, 256 episodes of self-injury and 132 reported tantrums last year, prosecutors wrote. Many of the self-harm incidents involved Lamson banging his head.

Police said Lamson eventually became “extremely attached to his helmet, and always wanted to wear it, except when he slept, when [he] would hold the helmet like a teddy bear.

That helmet played a role in what happened on March 1, according to records released by the sheriff’s office Friday.

Though prosecutors chose not to press charges, detectives had filed a “probable cause affidavit” asking the state attorney’s office to charge Maynor with manslaughter of a disabled adult. Detectives were skeptical of Maynor’s story, and said so in their report. In the sheriff’s office report, detectives pointed out “differences between [Maynor’s] first statement, his written statement, the surveillance video and medical fact.”

Maynor told police that Lamson “charged at him aggressively” while Maynor was handing out medication to residents in what was called the Annex building. Maynor said that as the two men argued, “in fear, he retreated to the room where the incident occurred.”

But Lamson, the detectives wrote, was “much smaller and slower than” Maynor. Maynor “easily handled [Lamson] and snatched the helmet that the deceased was attached to and led him into a bedroom off camera and turned off the light.”

Maynor is 5’11” and weighs 215 pounds. Lamson was 5’6” and weighed 171 pounds, a report said.

“At no time the day of the incident did [Maynor] advise that he body slammed or laid on the deceased for about a minute just prior to [Lamson] going unconscious,” the sheriff’s office report said, adding that it was more than a week later when Maynor volunteered those details.

A key source of concern for detectives was Maynor’s decision to wait what appeared to be 14 minutes before seeking help for a clearly distressed Lamson.

Lamson could be heard “grunting [and] heavy breathing” on the videotape and “was unconscious” at about 1:09 p.m., the probable cause affidavit said. Yet no one called for a nurse to treat Lamson before 1:23 p.m., and the call was not made “until another employee told [Maynor] to call.”

In the 911 call, Maynor calmly recites the the address to Carlton Palms and tells the operator that an ambulance is needed.

“One of our individuals was engaging in self-injurious behavior by head banging on the floor, on the wall and other surfaces., and has passed out from that,” he said, excluding any mention of body-slamming.

Operator: “Is he awake?”

Maynor: “At the time that I got notified to call 911, no he was not.”

“The defendant had a duty and responsibility to provide accurate and truthful information to first responders about the deceased’s medical condition,” the affidavit said.