In January, 14-year old Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a state-sponsored juvenile boot camp in Florida by as many as seven guards, with the beating causing Anderson’s death, despite initial claims that Anderson died of “natural causes.” The camp, run by Bay County Florida’s sheriff’s department, attempted to “discipline” those at the camp through strict, military-style training and calisthenics. Anderson—a student who received A’s and B’s in school—entered the camp after a parole violation for a “joy ride” in his grandmother’s car, collapsed and complained of shortness of breath in the middle of a drill on January 5—his first day at the camp—prompting guards to beat him for at least thirty minutes. As is the case with the disproportionate numbers of African-American adults in prison, African-American children such as Anderson are also disproportionately sent to boot camps as a mechanism of control.
An initial autopsy claimed that Anderson died from sickle cell anemia, despite the fact that video footage clearly showed Anderson being beaten by guards at the boot camp. In that initial autopsy, Bay County’s chief medical examiner ruled that Anderson died of “natural causes” with the camps rigorous exercise exacerbating the sickle cell anemia which in turn set off a “chain reaction” of health events leading to his death. This find came even after Florida state representatives Republican Gus Barreiro and Democrat Dan Gelber said that video of the incident shows Anderson being “brutally” beaten and “flung around like a rag doll.” However, an autopsy released earlier this month found that Anderson’s death was caused by “suffocation due to the actions of the guards at the boot camp” with the suffocation caused by hands blocking his mouth and “forced inhalation of ammonia fumes” causing his vocal chords to spasm.
Since Anderson’s death, the boot camp and the local sheriff’s office have been involved in a process of obstructing a real investigation into Anderson’s death. The initial report given to medics on January 5, 2006 was that Anderson was “running a 1.5 mile run. Stopped midway through” with no information about Anderson being beaten by boot camp guards. The next day, after a press release was issued by the sheriff’s office claiming that Anderson died after he “became ill,” Anderson was transferred back to Bay County for an autopsy in violation of standard protocol that dictates autopsies be preformed in the city where the death occurred. On February 9, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Guy Tunnell—whose department is investigating the death—forwarded an email to Bay County sheriff Frank McKeithan stating that they will not release video from surveillance cameras to the news media, with the Miami Herald and CNN suing four days later to obtain access to the videotapes. A federal investigation was launched on February 16 and once the videotape was released on the February 17, local news organizations air footage that shows Anderson being punched, kicked, and repeatedly being manhandled by at least seven men as a camp nurse observes the situation. Emails uncovered during the investigation find that investigator Tunnell, himself a sheriff and boot camp founder, sent many friendly emails to McKeithan throughout the investigation, prompting Tunnell to be removed.
Already, the camp has closed with sheriff McKeithen announcing that his camp has been “virtually paralyzed” by the uproar over the death. Florida’s top law enforcement official—Commissioner Guy Tunnell—was forced to resign on April 20 following public pressure in light of his mishandling of the investigation. Governor Jeb Bush has called for the removal of the boot camp’s supervisor Captain Mike Thompson, although Sheriff McKeithan has refused Governor Bush’s request. Additionally, the Florida legislature passed the Martin Lee Anderson Act that eliminates aggressive, military-style tactics at the state’s four remaining boot camps and converts the camps into programs that emphasize education and therapy. Students have been central in brining public pressure on law enforcement and government officials, with students in Florida and around the country hosting a “call-in” demanding the removal of former camp supervisor Mike Thompson. The “call-in” is continuing and people are encouraged to call either Sheriff McKeithan at 850-747-7500 or the Bay County sheriff’s office at 850-747-4700.