Teacher, 65, found dead at Cheltenham

Case called 'apparent homicide

' police 'not ruling anything out'

February 19, 2010|By Justin Fenton and Brent Jones | Baltimore Sun reporters

CHELTENHAM — A 65-year-old Bel Air woman was found dead Thursday morning on the grounds of a Prince George's County facility where she taught literature to troubled youths, prompting a lockdown as state and county homicide investigators interviewed students and staff.

State police said Hannah E. Wheeling was found by a staff member about 7:45 a.m., lying partially clothed and unresponsive outside a school building at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, which has a long history of problems and was recently released from federal monitoring.

Wheeling was an instructor at the Murphy Shelter Program, a low-security cottage outside the barbed-wire fences of Cheltenham's higher-security buildings. The shelter provides court-ordered supervision for up to 20 juvenile offenders "who have not been deemed dangerous to themselves or others," according to state records.

Few details were available, with police saying only that Wheeling had been assaulted and describing her death as an "apparent homicide." A National Guard soldier from a nearby armory blocked the one-lane driveway leading into the facility as a helicopter hovered overhead. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said detectives were interviewing youths and staff members at the facility.

"At this point, there's a lot of questions but not many answers," Shipley said. "We are not ruling anything out."

Shipley said that investigators had cleared the scene Friday morning and were "working other parts" of the case. He said an official cause of death could become available Friday afternoon and that investigators were in contact with the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office.

Kinano Jahi-Wade, who taught with Wheeling for several years as part of a team at Cheltenham, called her "an exceptional teacher" who was adamant about reading and always had a book to give her students.

She said Wheeling taught literature, language arts and history. Before working at Cheltenham, Wheeling had worked for many years at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, she said. Wheeling was preparing to retire this year, Jahi-Wade said.

The youths "respected her because she respected them," Jahi-Wade said. "She loved the kids more than herself."

One of Wheeling's neighbors in Harford County, Bob Turner, said she spent her weekend preparing lesson plans and enjoyed her 75-mile commute to work.

Patrick Moran, state director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents much of the staff, said circumstances surrounding Wheeling's death frightened workers.

"It's a concern everywhere. We need proper staffing ratios," Moran said. "Those that are working there need to believe that everyone will arrive to work and leave work safely and soundly. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen for one person."

Cheltenham is one of 11 state juvenile facilities and serves youth awaiting trial or court disposition from Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Regarded for years as one of its most troubled, with a long history of escapes, violence and staffing shortages, it was downsized by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. amid a series of critical independent state reports and calls from critics to close the facility.

Three violent offenders escaped from the grounds after cutting a hole in the fence and were at large for days in August 2008. Juvenile services officials said two employees were fired and two more disciplined because of policy violations surrounding the escape. Republican lawmakers later accused Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration of trying to cover up the escape.

Officials did not alert the public to the discovery of Wheeling's body through the facility's mass notification system until 1 p.m., and residents who lived nearby said they had not heard of the killing.

About 20 boys are housed at the Murphy building, which has barracks-style dorms, classrooms and offices. It opened in 2002 in an attempt to expand Cheltenham's shelter capacity and offer an alternative to detention, and though offenders are court-ordered to stay there, officials have said in the past that they are able to leave for reasons such as work. In 2003, three nonviolent offenders ran away while playing basketball, and two were later apprehended in a stolen vehicle.

George Myers, president of Maryland Professional Employees, a teachers union that oversees the unit to which Wheeling belonged, said security is supposed to monitor all employees while on the grounds, including the Murphy building. "But I have heard at times that is not always the case," he said.

Myers said he spoke with department officials about security but did not get much information.

"I'm going to stay on top of this. I want to know what happened. I expressed to management my concern that public safety be considered," he said.

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