Police question teenager in Cheltenham death

February 20, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton

Police are questioning a teenage boy in the death of a 65-year-old teacher at a state-run juvenile detention center in Prince George's County - a scenario that Maryland lawmakers described Friday as their worst fear.

Hannah Wheeling, a Bel Air resident who had taught troubled teens for 18 years, was found partially clothed and unresponsive Thursday morning on the grounds of Cheltenham Youth Facility by another employee. Maryland State Police are investigating the homicide because it occurred on state property.

Several sources with knowledge of the case said police have been questioning a boy who was housed in the unlocked shelter where Wheeling taught. Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, Washington news media outlets said police had narrowed the investigation to a 13-year-old and had moved him to another facility. Police would not comment on the reports.

"It appears that this happened at the hands of one of the kids there," said Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat who had spoken with state employees and officials Friday to learn more about the death. "If, God forbid, that turns out to be true, it puts a different tone on our discussions about security."

Muse said he and other lawmakers will request the Department of Juvenile Services prepare a security analysis report by the end of the legislative session.

Autopsy results show that Wheeling died of multiple blunt-force trauma, police spokesman Greg Shipley said Friday. Additional tests are being conducted.

The Department of Juvenile Services did not make Secretary Donald W. DeVore, who once monitored Cheltenham as a federal contractor, available for comment.

In a prepared statement delivered to reporters upon request, the department said it was "deeply saddened by the loss of Ms. Hannah Wheeling and sends its heartfelt condolences to her friends and family. ... The loss of Ms. Wheeling will be truly immeasurable both on personal and professional levels."

Joseph Cleary, a juvenile services spokesman, said Cheltenham was operating normally Friday but with increased presence from additional senior staff and crisis management counselors.

Wheeling was found outdoors near the parking area of Murphy Cottage, where she taught. The building is secured only by staff and houses teenage boys sent there for a maximum of 60 days by judges who deem them to be low-risk. Cleary said 21 boys were there Wednesday.

Murphy is outside the razor-wire fences that surround Cheltenham's high-security and detention area, which is monitored by video surveillance. It does not have cameras in or around the unit, Cleary said. He could not say how many employees, who must clock in and out, were on duty Wednesday night. Typically, he said, the youth-to-staff ratio is 7:1.

Gov. Martin O'Malley called Wheeling's death "a horrible, brutal murder" and said officials would be "reviewing security issues and everything else in connection with security."

The secure-detention portion of Cheltenham typically holds about 80 juveniles. A long-troubled facility, it was released from federal monitoring about 18 months ago.

Wheeling taught general studies at the school, with a particular focus on reading. Friends and neighbors said she enjoyed the 75-mile commute from Harford County and worked long hours on lesson plans. She began working at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, which also had a troubled history, in 1992 and switched to Cheltenham in 2004. A friend said she had been planning to retire this year.

Joanne Kalver, a Florida resident who said she was Wheeling's cousin, said detectives contacted Wheeling's brother with the news, which he then delivered to her.

Kalver said Wheeling was born in Hazleton, Pa., and had been a teacher all her life, working in public schools before moving to work with troubled teens.

"There was never any indication whatsoever that she felt unsafe," Kalver said. "It was really a wonderful job. It was her life."

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

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. The Murphy Cottage opened in 2002 in an attempt to expand Cheltenham's shelter capacity and offer an alternative to detention.

Lawmakers who track juvenile justice issues said they are waiting to learn more about the circumstances of Wheeling's death, but even with few details said the death of a state employee on state grounds was shocking.

"How does this happen to an educator on state property?" asked Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat on a subcommittee that approves the budget for the Department of Juvenile Services. "And to happen at a DJS facility? You would think they'd have safeguards in place."

Muse, a minister who has worked with teenagers at Cheltenham and last visited about eight months ago, said the property has obvious needs, including better lighting and more security cameras. "The fact is, the staff is scared," Muse said. "They've always been worried about safety, and now this. Security is obviously not where it needs to be."

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