FBI probing former boot camp for teens

Facility closed last year after charges of abuse

December 17, 2005|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

The FBI is investigating the alleged abuse of teenage offenders at an Eastern Shore boot camp that was abruptly shut down last year after complaints about mistreatment of "cadets" in the Lower Shore DRILL Academy near Salisbury.

Agents from the civil rights division in the bureau's Baltimore field office have begun a probe, according to Special Agent Barry A. Maddox. "This is a preliminary investigation, and the results will be submitted to the U.S. attorney's office," Maddox said.

Federal scrutiny comes a little more than a year after the boot camp shut down and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services removed 45 young offenders, effectively cutting off funding for the program. The academy, designed for nonviolent young offenders, was operated by Wicomico County Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms.

This past summer, a county grand jury reviewed the results of a state police investigation and then quietly ended its inquiry of alleged abuse, apparently without hearing testimony from youths who served time at the academy, their parents or staff members. The panel issued no indictments.

Salisbury Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman and the city's police chief, Allan Webster - who had no authority over the county-run program - wrote to the Maryland State Police superintendent Dec. 2 seeking an independent investigation of the academy.

Webster said he decided to ask for an outside inquiry after seeing videotape of alleged abuse at the academy, material gleaned by state police investigators from hours of surveillance tape.

The police chief said he saw the video when it was shown to leaders of the nonprofit Wicomico County Child Advocacy Board. He declined to discuss details of the video that have not previously been disclosed, fearing he might "taint the investigation."

"What I saw on those tapes was wrong," said Webster. "I've got 35 years of law-enforcement experience to tell me what's right and wrong. This was not just unsavory, not just rough treatment. I couldn't believe nobody was indicted."

Webster confirmed complaints that young offenders were forced to drink large quantities of water until they vomited, then were told to "swim," cleaning up the mess with the clothes they had on.

"These kids were forced to drink water until they just threw up all over the place," Webster said.

Nelms, who did not return phone calls yesterday, worked for nearly six years to establish the DRILL (Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Leadership and Learning) Academy on a secluded site near the Salisbury-Wicomico Airport. It was patterned after a similar program Nelms had visited in Florida.

Nelms has said repeatedly that the program was no tougher than a military-style boot camp and cadets were challenged to conform to a rigorous tutoring and physical training regimen. Given more time, he has said, any problems at the short-lived academy could have been corrected.

In 1999, the state closed its juvenile boot camps in Western Maryland, eventually paying out $4.6 million in settlement to youths who said they were physically abused.

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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