More questions raised about Cheltenham killing

DeVore calls for expert panel in wake of teacher's death

February 25, 2010|By By Justin Fenton | The Baltimore Sun

The discovery of a slain teacher's body last week outside a juvenile detention facility is raising questions about the operations of the troubled Prince George's County facility and about how the woman got outside of the secure building.

On Wednesday, police continued to investigate the death of 65-year-old Hannah E. Wheeling, a teacher found early Feb. 18 outside a building at the Cheltenham Youth Facility where she worked. She was partially clothed and had been beaten.

A 13-year-old juvenile has been identified as the suspect in the killing, according to sources. Under Maryland law, a suspect that age cannot be tried as an adult unless a juvenile judge grants a waiver, and juvenile courts have an accelerated timetable of 30 days for resolution of the case.

Because the suspect was being detained on prior charges, law enforcement sources said authorities want to prepare the strongest case possible before starting that 30-day clock. That includes waiting for the results of forensic testing.

Meanwhile, under criticism from lawmakers that state oversight agencies were being kept from investigating systemic issues related to the killing, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore authorized a state advisory board to "select an independent panel of experts at their choosing to review all security procedures at Cheltenham," said Jay Cleary, a DJS spokesman.

Officials say all reviews, including the DJS's internal review, cannot begin until police conclude the criminal investigation. Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, has called for DeVore to brief lawmakers, and Cleary said DeVore would comply.

"What we can provide is extremely limited, but Secretary DeVore is committed to working with all concerned legislators and addressing all of their questions and concerns," Cleary said.

A number of questions have begun to emerge. The Murphy Shelter, located on the grounds of the Cheltenham Youth Facility, has been described as a low-security building that houses nonviolent juvenile offenders, who are allowed to leave for reasons such as work.

But those familiar with the facility's operations say the building is locked at all times from the inside and outside, and only select staff members have keys necessary to enter or leave the building.

Those staff members do not include teachers. Cleary confirmed that the "general policy of the Department of Juvenile Services is that only security personnel are permitted to have keys to the external doors of a facility," raising questions over how Wheeling's body could have been found outside the building.

A former employee, Kinano Jahi-Wade, who left in 2007, said teachers had lobbied to have keys.

"We fought about having a key, but we were told we couldn't have one," Jahi-Wade said. "But at that time, there was really no problem. Whenever we needed to get out, the staff was right there."

Wheeling might have obtained a key - possibly against agency policies or because staffing levels necessitated that she have one - that was used by her attacker to open the door and either commit the crime outside or dispose of her body. Or, the juvenile could have procured a key through other means, which went unreported or unaddressed.

It is also believed that Wheeling was killed the evening of Feb. 17, but her body was not found until the next morning, raising the question of why no one among the small staff noticed that her vehicle had remained in the parking lot overnight.

The 13-year-old suspect was being held on burglary charges and has been moved to a facility in Western Maryland as the investigation continues.

A source said that before Wheeling's death, the boy had initially been housed in the high-security area of Cheltenham until a juvenile judge determined he should be moved to the Murphy Shelter to participate in a selective and competitive program called Re-Direct. All told, he had been at Cheltenham for about three months, the source said.

News Channel 8 in Washington, citing unnamed sources, reported Tuesday night that investigators recovered a state-issued shirt in the boy's name and with the victim's blood on it, and investigators are waiting for DNA results for confirmation.

Sources also say investigators have a witness who saw the teen running from the scene, as well as the boy's videotaped statement conceding that he was at the crime scene and was driven by sexual desire.

Fourteen-year-olds accused of first-degree murder, rape or sex offense and 16-year-olds charged with most other violent crimes are automatically charged as adults, though defense attorneys can - and often do - persuade judges to move their clients to juvenile court. But 13-year-olds must be charged as juveniles, and prosecutors can ask judges to move the case to the adult system. That is rare.

While an adult case must be taken to trial within 180 days unless the defendant waives that right, juvenile cases must be handled within 30 days of charging, according to officials.

If found to be the juvenile court equivalent of guilty, the maximum penalty a juvenile defendant could face is being held in a juvenile detention facility until age 21, regardless of the severity of the crime.

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