Grand jury hears evidence against youth camp guards

House votes to create justice oversight panel

March 28, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors presented evidence to a grand jury yesterday against several guards accused of punching, kicking and breaking the bones of teens in their care at three juvenile boot camps in the hills of Garrett County.

Also yesterday, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would create an independent commission to monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice, advise the department secretary and provide regular reports on its findings.

The Garrett grand jury will be asked whether indictments should be handed up against the guards for assaulting the teens, sometimes while they were handcuffed. Prosecutors will present evidence against at least one guard who is accused of fracturing a teen's wrist.

The grand jury session marks the first criminal proceedings against guards at the military-style boot camps at the Savage Leadership Challenge, Meadow Mountain Leadership Challenge and Backbone Leadership Challenge, the temporary home of some of Maryland's toughest and most needy juvenile delinquents.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening suspended those programs, and Maryland State Police began a criminal investigation in December after The Sun ran a series of articles that described assaults by guards against teens.

"They're cases that we feel are very strong cases, with corroboration both from witnesses and physical evidence," said Maj. Thomas Bowers of Maryland State Police. "And our investigation isn't over yet. It's ongoing."

Police investigators and workers with the state's Department of Social Services set out to interview all of about 750 teens who have graduated from the camps since they began opening in 1996, Bowers said. Investigators have interviewed about half the delinquents.

The investigation has been slowed because many of the teens cannot be located.

In addition to the assaults, the series in The Sun described how the teens, once released from the camps, receive little or nothing in the way of follow-up care. In many cases, they are able to ignore the terms of their probation with no consequences from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Probation officers overwhelmed by their caseloads often lose track of the teens, and that problem has made for extra legwork for investigators.

"You can't interview them if you can't find them," Bowers said.

He would not comment on how many cases will be presented to the grand jury, which is scheduled to continue considering evidence, in secret proceedings, today and tomorrow.

The cases are being presented by Lisa Thayer-Welch, the Garrett County state's attorney. She was before the grand jury much of the day and did not return telephone messages for comment.

One of two teens who testified yesterday was Gary Johnson Jr., a 16-year-old from Easton whose wrist was fractured by guards at the Savage camp. An internal report The Sun obtained from the Department of Juvenile Justice said guards fractured Johnson's wrist Nov. 29, his first day at the camp. The report said he was not trying to escape and not a danger to himself or others -- the two cases in which guards are permitted by state policy to use force.

"The record shows this was not an isolated incident, and we're interested in speaking to other parents and youth who have experienced these camps," said Johnson's attorney, Mark Darden of Glen Burnie.

Bowers, the police major, said it would be up to the state's attorney to decide what charges to seek. They could range from simple assault to child abuse, or the grand jury could decide that no charges are warranted.

Aside from the grand jury's addressing past problems with the camps, the legislature is debating measures designed to address problems with the juvenile justice system, which has been troubled for years.

The House bill, which would create an oversight commission, passed by unanimous vote. It had been virtually rewritten in the Judiciary Committee to meet departmental concerns and those of acting-Secretary Bishop L. Robinson.

Sun staff writer M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/28/00

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