Ex-Guards Charged with Manslaughter in Boot Camp Death

Martin Lee Anderson
PENSACOLA -

Seven former juvenile boot camp guards and a nurse were charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child for the death of a 14-year-old boy, who was roughed up by his overseers during a videotaped altercation, a special prosecutor said Tuesday.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober's announcement comes almost 11 months after Martin Lee Anderson collapsed on the exercise yard at the Bay County sheriff's camp in Panama City on Jan. 5. Guards said he was uncooperative and refused to continue participating in exercises. He died the next day in Pensacola.

If convicted, the former guards and the nurse who watched the altercation could face up to 30 years in prison. Gov. Jeb Bush said the eight were in the process of being arrested.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Anderson's parents, didn't immediately return a phone call for comment. But he and the parents, Gina Jones and Robert Anderson, planned to speak to reporters later in the day in Tallahassee.

The surveillance tape showed guards kneeing and punching the boy repeatedly during a 30-minute encounter. His death caused protests, the passage of a law in May eliminating the military-style boot camp system and the resignation of the state's top law enforcement officer.

The boy's family had demanded that the guards be arrested and accused them of murdering him.

Waylon Graham, the attorney for Lt. Charles Helms, the highest ranking officer charged, said he had long anticipated criminal charges. He said his client would voluntarily surrender to Bay County authorities before the end of day and spend a night in jail before an initial court appearance Wednesday afternoon.

Graham said Helms' family has money saved to pay for bail to get him released pending trial. He said officials have assured him that his client and the other guards would be segregated from the general jail population for their own safety.

Bob Pell, an attorney who represents former guard Joseph Walsh II, said he learned of the decision to charge his client from The Associated Press.

'I didn't anticipate it. I was hoping cooler heads would prevail,' he said.

Bush appointed Ober in February to investigate the death after the state attorney for Bay County asked to be removed from the case citing close ties with local law enforcement.

'We'll obviously follow the developments of this case closely and hope at the end of the day that justice will be served,' Bush said. 'We also hope that once the process is completed that Martin Lee Anderson's family will have the answers to the questions that they legitimately have.'

An initial autopsy by medical examiner Dr. Charles Siebert found Anderson died of natural complications of sickle cell trait, a usually benign blood disorder. But a second autopsy ordered by Ober contradicted that, although Siebert has consistently stood by his findings.

Dr. Vernard Adams, the medical examiner for Hillsborough County, ruled Anderson's death was caused by suffocation due to the actions of the guards. He said the guards' hands blocked the boy's mouth, and the 'forced inhalation of ammonia fumes' caused his vocal cords to spasm.

The guards had said in an incident report that they used ammonia capsules five times to gain cooperation from the boy who was in custody for a probation violation for trespassing at a school.

The death gained national headlines in April when students staged a two-day protest in Bush's office. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined the students and Anderson's parents for a march on the state's Capitol.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief Guy Tunnell, who started Bay County's boot camp when he was sheriff there, then resigned under criticism. He had sent e-mails to current Sheriff Frank McKeithen questioning those who criticized the boot camp concept.

Ober sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday saying there 'is no evidence of any attempt by any public official or agency to improperly influence this investigation.' Anderson's parents had alleged a cover-up.

'Despite its complexity and magnitude, we have conducted a timely, thorough and ethical investigation. In so doing, we have rightfully ignored repeated demands calling for a rush to judgment,' Ober said.

Still pending is the family's wrongful death lawsuit against the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversaw the boot camp system, the Bay County Sheriff's Office and the seven guards. They are seeking more than $40 million in damages.

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