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Boot Camp Where Boy Died Will Close

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Times Staff Writer

A Florida sheriff ordered the closing of a boot camp for young offenders Wednesday as the investigation into the death of a 14-year-old detainee widened and critics demanded all such facilities in the state be shut down.

In early January, Martin Lee Anderson died after an altercation with guards at the Bay County Sheriff’s Office Boot Camp in Panama City, in the Panhandle. A surveillance camera videotape, made public last week, shows the guards dragging the limp boy around the grounds, kneeing and striking him several times.

Camp officials said Anderson, who had just arrived, was uncooperative when ordered to do push-ups, sit-ups and other exercises. He died the next day in a Pensacola hospital.

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A state medical examiner ruled that the young African American boy’s death was caused not by the incident but by bleeding due to sickle cell anemia, a genetic blood condition. Florida’s top official in the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People called that finding ridiculous and demanded an outside investigation.

“It’s absolutely asinine,” said the state conference president, Adora Obi Nweze. “Many, many people have sickle cell, and they are alive today.”

Two state lawmakers who got an early look at the videotape expressed outrage, and Gov. Jeb Bush has called it a “tragic case.”

On Tuesday, Bush appointed a special prosecutor -- State Atty. Mark A. Ober of Hillsborough County -- to decide whether to bring criminal charges in the boy’s death.

Bush also said a second autopsy might be conducted; news reports have said that the license of the medical examiner, Charles F. Siebert Jr., was expired when he signed Anderson’s autopsy report.

State officials said the U.S. Justice Department also had opened an investigation into the case, the third death of a young black male in state custody in three years.

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Television news programs have played scenes of the incident repeatedly. The uproar reached such magnitude that Bay County Sheriff W. Frank McKeithen said the 30-bed boot camp could no longer operate effectively. On Wednesday, he ordered it closed within 90 days.

“Drill instructors no longer feel confident in the execution of their duties,” McKeithen said in a statement. “Juvenile offenders currently placed at the boot camp are taking advantage of the situation and are using the abuse hotline not for its intended purpose but as a means of retaliation.”

The camp opened in June 1994, according to the sheriff’s office website, which describes it as a “paramilitary program designed to teach self-respect, discipline, high self-esteem and motivation” to male felons 14 to 18 years old. Youths are committed for at least six months.

Of the 22 current prisoners, 12 are to finish the program March 7. The rest will go to other state facilities, said Cynthia Lorenzo, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which funds and has oversight authority for the five boot camps in Florida operated by local sheriff’s offices.

On Tuesday, Bush called the camps, which hold 600 youths, “part of the strategy that has reduced juvenile crime in our state.”

Statistics from the Department of Juvenile Justice, however, indicate that the camps have operated with varying degrees of success.

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In fiscal 2003-04, the most recent period for which data are available, one out of five Martin County boot camp graduates was caught breaking the law again. Bay County’s recidivism rate was considerably higher: 52% of the boys who passed through the Panama City boot camp committed another crime.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all program, but some youths benefit,” Lorenzo said.

The president of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First, Howard M. Talenfeld, said studies had shown that boot camps were less effective at reforming juvenile offenders than other programs, that they wasted taxpayers’ money and that they should be abolished.

“The fact a youth can take orders for a relatively short time doesn’t guarantee how they are going to behave afterwards,” said Talenfeld, an attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “There is no aftercare. It’s a quick fix. And you don’t get to the heart of what caused the delinquent behavior in the first place. They need rehabilitation, not just tough love.”

Lorenzo said the Department of Juvenile Justice would await the findings of investigators, including its own inspector general, before deciding whether boot camps should be changed or perhaps closed.

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