Six camp counselors were charged with murder Monday in the death of a Douglas County boy restrained for over an hour at a wilderness camp for troubled youngsters.
A White County grand jury deliberated for about an hour before returning the charges of felony murder, child cruelty and involuntary manslaughter. Travis Parker, 13, died April 21, the day after he was held face down by counselors at the state-run Appalachian Wilderness Camp in Cleveland, in the North Georgia mountains.
The boy, who had asthma, was denied his inhaler during the restraint. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
"This is all based on the criminal negligence or reckless conduct of these individuals," said White County District Attorney Stan Gunter. "It was due to the restraint, and how they applied it, that has led to these charges."
An attorney for counselor Mathew Desing said the counselors restrained the boy as they had been taught.
"They were doing what they were trained to do," said attorney Abbi Guest. "This is clearly not a case of counselors gone awry."
Desing "cared very much for the children he worked with, and he cared very much for the job of helping those children," she said.
Gwen Skinner, a top official of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, which oversees the Appalachian Wilderness Camp, said the counselors were not following agency rules or procedures.
"We do not train staff to do face-down restraints," she said.
Counselors restrained the boy April 20 after he angrily confronted one of them for denying him food as punishment, according to accounts from counselors and boys who witnessed the incident.
Travis was restrained by at least three counselors at a time, witnesses said in reports obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He eventually stopped breathing.
The state fired five camp employees after the incident, and another resigned. The six counselors indicted Monday were: Desing, Ryan Chapman, Paul Binford, Torbin Vining, Johnny Harris and Phillip Elliott.
Vining's lawyer, Dan Summer of Gainesville, said his client will surrender to White County authorities this afternoon. Summer said he would not comment on the indictment until he reviewed the case's investigative file. None of the other counselors could be reached for comment.
Felony murder charges, which can bring sentences of life in prison, are brought in cases where a death occurred during the commission of a felony. Authorities say the felony in this case was cruelty to children.
"I think there was no intent to kill, but because of their recklessness, he died," Gunter said.
Travis had been sent to the camp in February. He was on probation after hitting his grandmother, who raised him, and threatening her with a knife. Still, a family attorney said the boy and his grandmother had a loving relationship. Attorney Thomas Cuffie said that when Golden Griffin saw her grandson on life support in the hospital, she suspected he had taken a bad beating.
"He had considerable swelling, knots and lacerations about his body," Cuffie said. "They imposed a form of punishment that resulted in his death."[Emphasis added]
Griffin, who adopted Travis when he was 18 months old, remains shocked that the people she trusted to counsel and care for her grandson treated him so harshly, Cuffie said. She has called on the Department of Human Resources to tighten its policies on the treatment of youngsters.
The department has retrained staff on the use of restraints since the incident and is reviewing its policies on when restraint may be used, officials said.
"So there's no confusion about when it can be used, and how it's to be used," Skinner said. "Making sure that it's crystal clear."
— Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.
A partial list of boot camp victims
Michelle Sutton, dead at age 15, Summit Quest
Kristen Chase, dead at age 16, Challenger
Paul Choy, dead at age 16, Rite of Passage
Aaron Bacon, dead at age 16, Northstar
Dawnne Takeuchi, dead at age 18, VisionQuest
Lorenzo Johnson, dead at age 17, Arizona Boys Ranch
Carlos Ruiz, dead at age 13, VisionQuest
Mario Cano, dead at age 16, VisionQuest
John Vincent Garrison, dead at age 18, VisionQuest
Bernard Reefer, dead, VisionQuest
Robert Zimmerman, dead, VisionQuest
Charles Lucas, dead, VisionQuest
James Lamb, dead, VisionQuest
Tammy Edmiston, dead, VisionQuest
Leon Anger, dead, VisionQuest
Charles Collins, Jr., dead at age 15, Crossroads for Youth
Jamie Young, dead at age 13, Ramsey Canyon
John Avila, dead, Rocky Mountain Academy
Danny Lewis, dead at age 16, VisionQues
Nicholas Contreras, dead at age 16, Arizona Boys Ranch
Edith Campos, dead at age 15, Desert Hills
Matt Toppi, dead at age 17, Robert Land Academy
Chirs Brown, dead at age 16, Robert Land Academy
Eric David Schibley, dead at age 17, VisionQuest
Chad Andrew Frenza, dead at age 16, Polk County Boot Camp
Robert Doyle Erwin, dead at age 15, VisionQuest
Lyle Foodroy, dead, VisionQuest
Gina Score, dead at age 14, State Training School (South Dakota)
Bryan Dale Alexander, dead at age 18, Texas Correctional Services
Michael Wiltsie, dead at age 12, Eckert Youth Alternatives
Tristan Sovern, dead at age 16, Charter Behavioral Health System
Robert Rollins, dead at age 12, Devereaux School
Andrew McClain, dead at age 11, Elmcrest Psychiatric Hospital
Anthony Haynes, dead at age 14, American Buffalo Soldiers Boot Camp
Ian August, dead at age 14, Skyline Journey
Charles "Chase" Moody, dead at age 17, The Brown School (CEDU affiliated)
Roberto Reyes, dead at age 15, Thayer Learning Center Boot Camp
Travis Parker, dead at age13, Appalachian Wilderness Camp
See DEADLY RESTRAINT
See related: Boy's pleas for aid denied; Inhaler withheld, restrained teen died
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