The traumatic death of a 13-year-old boy after he was physically restrained for about an hour and a half by camp counselors has been ruled a homicide, White County District Attorney Stan Gunter said Wednesday.
The autopsy of T.P., whom counselors held face-down on the ground at a state-operated wilderness camp for troubled boys, indicates he died because of the restraint, Gunter said.
"The manner in which they performed that restraint is what caused his problem," the district attorney said in an interview. "For all practical purposes, his heart stopped and he did not get enough oxygen to the brain, which led to his death."
Gunter said he would decide whether to pursue criminal charges after he reviewed a recently completed GBI investigation, of which the autopsy is a part. The GBI gave the prosecutor seven binders of documents Friday, including the autopsy report. Gunter declined Wednesday to release a copy of the report.
"If everything that I've heard about the case matches what I find in the file, I would say most likely we will pursue criminal charges," Gunter said. "But I don't know that yet."
Authorities stressed that the homicide ruling by Dr. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, was a medical determination, not a criminal charge. It "indicates that the person's death was caused by the actions of another person or persons," said John Bankhead, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman.
Family urges charges
Attorney J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney, noted that a determination of homicide often results in criminal charges.
"This is the first step toward criminal charges," said Morgan, who is not involved in the case. "Most homicides result in criminal prosecutions of murder or voluntary manslaughter."
Morgan said much would depend on whether the counselors' actions were found to be reckless or negligent. If they are, the counselors might be charged with involuntary manslaughter, he said. Even then, the prosecutor must weigh whether their actions were so grossly negligent or reckless as to warrant criminal prosecution, or whether the matter should be resolved in a civil court, Morgan said.
Michael Tyler, the lawyer for T.' family, said the counselors should be prosecuted.
"We are strongly urging the district attorney to review the file and would expect that he would pursue action as warranted by the evidence," Tyler said.
Gwen Skinner, a top official of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, which oversees the Appalachian Wilderness Camp, declined to comment on the autopsy.
Boy was denied inhaler
On April 20, counselors held T.P., who had asthma, on the ground at the campsite for about an hour and a half, much of the time face-down, and denied the boy's request for his inhaler, according to documents from the Human Resources Department.
The Douglas County boy was restrained after he angrily confronted one of his counselors after being denied food as a punishment, according to accounts from counselors and boys who witnessed the incident.
The wilderness camp, which accommodates about 50 boys with behavioral problems, is in Cleveland, in the North Georgia mountains.
T.P. was restrained by at least three counselors at a time, witnesses said in reports obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He eventually stopped breathing and went limp, the reports said. He was taken to a hospital and died the next day.
Gunter, the White County district attorney, said it was not clear from the autopsy how great a role the boy's asthma played in his death. "The asthma did play a role in his inability to get fully ventilated," Gunter said. "How much of a role, I don't know."
Agency rules broken
The state fired five camp employees after the incident, Skinner, director of the DHR's Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases, said last month.
Skinner said camp employees violated department policy by denying the boy his inhaler and food. She said some of the employees refused to take a polygraph test, which "is reason for termination." Skinner declined to say whether all the fired employees were involved in restraining the boy.
The fired staff members are Phillip Elliott, Torbin Vining, Paul Binford, Matt Desing and Ryan Chapman, according to the DHR. The agency declined to provide further identifying information on the fired employees, such as ages and hometowns. Repeated efforts to reach the five for comment have been unsuccessful.
Rick Ryczek, a lawyer for Desing, said his client had cooperated with investigators. "I've instructed my client not to make any [public] statements at this time," Ry-czek said.
In addition to the Cleveland wilderness camp, the DHR runs an outdoor therapeutic program for troubled children in Warm Springs. Skinner said Wednesday the agency had retrained staff at both camps in the use of restraints.
Skinner said the state does not permit face-down restraints — and didn't before the boy's death.
Officials are reviewing the use of restraints, she said, and expect to have results within 90 days.
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