UPPER MARLBORO — An adolescent was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder and the attempted rape of a teacher at the long-troubled Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, and prosecutors immediately moved to try him as an adult.
The juvenile charges against the Laurel youth, who was 13 at the time of the incident and turned 14 in early July, come five months after the death of 65-year-old instructor Hannah E. Wheeling. Her partly clothed body was found by another staff member at about 7:45 a.m. Feb. 18 outside a lower-security program for young offenders.
The Baltimore Sun is not naming the teen because he is a juvenile and charged as one.
If convicted of first-degree murder as an adult, the teen would face a possible maximum prison sentence of life without parole, and life sentences for convictions of attempted first-degree rape and first-degree sex offense. If found "involved" in juvenile court, he could be confined for rehabilitation in a juvenile facility only until he turns 21.
A hearing on whether the teen can be tried as an adult will be held next month.
"Whoever wins that, wins the case," said Byron L. Warnken, a longtime University of Baltimore law professor.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said outside the courtroom that the decision to attempt to try the youth as an adult was based on the "nature of the crime."
"I think the circumstances speak for themselves," he said.
Though Ivey declined to elaborate, details about the crime at the state facility emerged Wednesday, with sources indicating that DNA, fingerprint evidence and circumstances surrounding the crime pointed to the youth.
Wheeling was believed to have been bludgeoned with a concrete block, sexually assaulted and strangled, according to sources.
When she was last seen around 4 p.m. Feb. 17 — the afternoon before she was found dead in the snow — Wheeling was giving the youth a test in a classroom.
About an hour later, another Cheltenham worker saw the youth and thought he appeared agitated.
The Bel Air victim's pants, pantyhose and cell phone, as well as three bloody shirts of the kind given to the youths — one of which had the youth's name on it — were later found under a stairway by the classroom. One shirt had the victim's DNA on it, according to sources.
In a brief hearing Wednesday morning, Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. performed the juvenile equivalent of an arraignment on the new charges. The judge set a hearing for Aug. 27 on the prosecutor's request to shift the case to adult court, a move assistant public defender Allen Wolf vowed to fight.
The judge ordered that the youth, who said very little in court beyond whispers to his lawyer, continue to be held at a state juvenile detention facility, where he has been confined on earlier cases. At least some of the youth's other cases were break-ins of neighbor's homes.
Wolf said that as far as he knows, his client has denied involvement in Wheeling's death.
However, the youth, who initially was detained on burglary and related charges, had long been suspected in the crime. At the time Wheeling was killed, he was a court-ordered participant in the Re-Direct program, in which she taught. Re-Direct, operated at the Murphy Cottage at Cheltenham, was a short-term residential program for youths determined not to be a danger to themselves or others. Though on Cheltenham's property and considered secure, the cottage is outside the barbed-wire rimmed detention facility. Sources indicated the youth was unhappy there.
Admissions to Re-Direct ended with Wheeling's slaying. It has been closed since April, with no decision yet on whether to restart the program, according to Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services.
Before that, the 13-year-old had been in Cheltenham's more secure detention facility.After Wheeling's death, he was moved to another Department of Juvenile Services facility in Washington County.
Security lapses uncovered in the wake of Wheeling's slaying led to a staff shake-up in March, including the demotion of Cheltenham's superintendent, the firing of two staffers and the suspension of a program manager and a supervisor. DJS beefed up security at Cheltenham after Wheeling was killed, Cleary said. Additional security training was given as well.
Wheeling, who taught general studies at Cheltenham, had planned to retire this year, according to people who knew her. They said she began working at the Charles E. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, which also had a troubled past, in 1992, and switched to Cheltenham in 2004. A relative said shortly after her death that she had been a teacher all her life, working in public schools and then with troubled teens.