Camp abuse may move to U.S. court

Garrett grand jury decides not to indict some guards in assaults

Others still under review

State police want FBI to follow up on treatment of teens

March 30, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

After failing to win indictments from a Garrett County grand jury against guards accused of assaulting teens at three state boot camps, Maryland State Police investigators said yesterday they will ask the FBI to consider taking the cases to federal court.

Maj. Thomas Bowers stressed that investigations into alleged abuses at the now-closed camps is continuing and that only a small number of cases have been presented to the grand jury, which began meeting Monday.

Among the cases the grand jury decided did not warrant indictment was one against a guard accused of fracturing the wrist of a teen at a boot camp called the Savage Mountain Leadership Challenge. Reports from the state Department of Juvenile Justice said the guard, unprovoked, fractured the teen's wrist during his first day at the boot camp last fall.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, and Garrett County State's Attorney Lisa Thayer Welch would not comment yesterday on what evidence the panel heard.

She did not ask the grand jury to hand up indictments, she said, but presented evidence. She would not comment on why she did not seek indictments or whether she will present more allegations involving camp guards to a county grand jury.

On the grand jury's decision to not indict, Bowers said yesterday: "It's our job to investigate these cases, and then we turn them over to the state's attorney to prosecute or not. I'm not sure exactly what the grand jury found."

Bowers would not comment on whether the FBI would be consulted because of Thayer Welch's reluctance to seek indictments. "It's based on us maximizing our resources," he said. "We'll sit down and discuss which cases are more appropriate for federal court and which are more appropriately handled locally."

The FBI announced in December that it had begun an investigation to determine whether guards violated the civil rights of Gary Johnson Jr., the teen whose wrist was fractured. An FBI spokesman, Pete Gullota, said yesterday that case is still being reviewed.

His father, Gary Johnson, said yesterday he was disappointed but not surprised that the guard who fractured the wrist was not indicted. The Johnsons are from St. Michaels.

"I wanted to see justice done," he said. If there was anyone I wanted to see indicted it was the guard who did this to my son. But, you know, everybody knows everybody in these smaller, rural places. It probably should have been brought out of that county."

Matt Riley, president of AFSCME Local 3167, which represents employees of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the guards are taking the brunt of the fallout after newspaper reports of the assaults in December.

"Whether you agree or disagree with what they were doing -- and there's a good case to be made that things got out of hand -- the real failure was in management," he said. "It was no secret what was going on. The guards were doing what they were told."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered the boot camps ended in December after published reports that guards were routinely assaulting teens, sometimes severely.

After the reports, eight guards were fired, top officials at the juvenile justice agency were ousted, the Maryland State Police concluded the reports of the assaults were true, and a separate task force appointed by the governor found a pattern of abuse against teens beginning shortly after the camps started opening in 1996.

The assaults, according the files of the juvenile justice agency, included beatings by guards so severe that one teen's eyes swelled shut. Most of the offenders in the camps were from inner-city neighborhoods in Baltimore and Prince George's County. The cases were handled in rural Garrett County because that is where the camps are located.

More than 100 guards have worked at the camps since they opened. It is not known how many were the targets of investigations.

About 750 teens have passed through the boot camps since 1996, and state police are seeking to interview all of them. They still have a few hundred left to interview, and say their work has been slowed because the teens cannot be located even though many of them are still on probation.

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