Former boot camp guard cleared in teen's death wants job back

Published: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 4:52 p.m.

A former juvenile boot guard exonerated by a jury in the beating death of a Panama City teenager sued the Bay County Sheriff's Office on Friday claiming the agency was wrong to fire him.

Charles Helms Jr.'s lawsuit, filed in Bay County Circuit Court, seeks his reinstatement as a certified law enforcement officer.

Helms, 53, was among seven former Bay County Juvenile Boot Camp guards and a camp nurse acquitted by an all-white jury in October for the 2006 death of 14-old Martin Lee Anderson. A video showed the guards slamming the black teen on the ground and dragging his limp body around an exercise yard. The nurse watched and did nothing during most of the 30-minute altercation.

Jurors agreed with defense attorneys that the teen died of complications from sickle cell trait, a previously undiagnosed blood disorder. Civil rights leaders have continued to push for federal charges against the eight.

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen did not return phone messages seeking comment about the lawsuit.

Helms told The Associated Press he filed the lawsuit because the case has damaged his reputation, his finances and caused his family emotional pain.

"I am really disappointed by the lack of support the sheriff has given us throughout this whole process, " said Helms, who was the highest-ranking officer on the exercise field the day of Anderson's death.

Helms said the sheriff opted to fire the eight employees of the now-closed boot camp instead of suspending them without pay, and did not give him an administrative hearing.

Unlike the other employees, Helms was a sheriff's department lieutenant and he had the authority of a law enforcement officer. The status should have entitled him to an administrative hearing, his attorney Danielle Joyner Kelley said.

"Should this action be successful, he would be entitled not only to his job back but for additional relief for the stress he has suffered," Joyner Kelley said.

Helms, who had worked for the sheriff's department since 1994, is now working as a laborer at a Panama City chemical plant. He said the job is physically demanding, requires heavy lifting and pays less money than his job with the sheriff's office.

"It's manual labor, I don't get to use my military training, my police standards, he said. "When I was 25 or 45, it wasn't an issue. Now I'm in my 50s and it is," he said.

He said he has been unable to seek another job in law enforcement because of publicity surrounding the Anderson case.

The verdict sparked outrage and caused demonstrations in Tallahassee where students blocked intersections.

Anderson's mother left the courtroom in tears as the verdict was read, screaming at the jury and the guards:

"I cannot see my son no more."

The teen collapsed while running laps on the exercise yards. The guards testified that they hit him with their arms and knees and used ammonia capsules for 30 minutes because he refused to comply with orders to continue running. They said they never realized he was bleeding internally and was not feigning illness.

A telephone call to the family's attorney and spokesman was not immediately returned Friday.

Helms, a former Army drill instructor, said he still thinks of Anderson as "one of his men."

"I had talked to him earlier and he had a good attitude and had a good motivation," Helms said.

"It's devastating to me and to my family that a young kid died with us being there. In my character as drill Sgt. in the army and as a boot camp commander, it's a matter of integrity and pride," he said.

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