Thursday, October 4, 2007

Boot camp trial begins

October 4, 2007
Medical testimony dominates Day 1
By David Angier


There were gasps and quiet moans Wednesday from audience members as they watched segments of the black and white video of boot camp employees striking and manhandling a limp Martin Lee Anderson.

“Oh, my God” often was repeated by some in the thick crowd of onlookers as prosecutor Pam Bondi played short excerpts from the video of Anderson’s first day at the boot camp on Jan. 5, 2006, and his last full day of life.

“The last conscious moment of Martin Lee Anderson’s life was with his mouth being covered by a hand and ammonia capsules shoved into his face as he struggled to breathe,” Bondi said.

Former boot camp drill instructors Henry Dickens, Charles Enfinger, Patrick Garrett, Raymond Hauck, Charles Helms Jr., Henry McFadden Jr. and Joseph Walsh II, along with former camp nurse Kristin Schmidt, face charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child and 30 years in prison each if convicted as charged.

They’re accused of culpable negligence in 14-year-old Anderson’s death. Anderson died Jan. 6, 2006, after collapsing during his initiation into the camp.

The trial, held inside the Bay County Juvenile Justice Courthouse on 11th Street, began Wednesday and is expected to end Oct. 12 or 13. Testimony resumes at 8:30 a.m.

In her opening statement, Bondi pointed out three episodes where the drill instructors used ammonia capsules, or “smelling salts,” on Anderson during the 23-minute encounter. She said one lasted 55 seconds, another 54 seconds and the third “well over five minutes with three separate applications.”

She said Anderson didn’t die from natural causes, as Panama City Medical Examiner Charles Siebert Jr. opined in the first of two autopsies. She said Anderson died from oxygen deprivation, the result of having his mouth covered and forced to inhale ammonia fumes. She said sickle cell trait, Siebert’s named cause of death, is a benign blood disorder.

“This was no accident,” Bondi said. “This was a child who was killed by what these eight defendants did and what they failed to do.”

Bob Sombathy, Garrett’s attorney, followed Bondi’s presentation and started by introducing each lawyer and defendant. He then explained the defense’s view of Anderson’s cause of death.

Sombathy said more than 100 people had died in military boot camps from sickle cell trait, as have 15 to 20 athletes and five college football players.

“It is real,” he said. “There’s a history to it. And all of these people had lived normal, healthy lives.”

Sombathy said the unique finding in this case was that of Dr. Vernard Adams, who performed the second autopsy on Anderson and concluded that drill instructors had suffocated him by forcing him to breathe ammonia fumes, which caused his vocal cords to spasm and close his airway.

“There has not ever been a case where ammonia capsules caused any serious injury to anybody,” Sombathy said. “Dr. Adams’ opinion is the first of its kind in the history of the world.”

Sombathy, and most of the other defense attorneys, told jurors there had to be some element of foresight that the guards’ actions would cause Anderson’s death. He said it was uncontested that none of the boot camp employees knew that Anderson had sickle cell trait.

Sombathy said jurors would hear from a hematologist who had witnessed people collapse from sickle cell trait during physical exertion.

“He described this as a classic exertional sickle cell collapse,” he said.


The day’s first witnesses mainly were medical personnel — a paramedic who first treated Anderson and doctors and nurses from Bay Medical Center’s emergency department. One of the issues closely discussed was at what time Anderson’s blood gases were tested.

Both sides want to establish this point because Anderson’s carbon dioxide level was below normal. Emergency department Dr. Jeff Appel said Wednesday he would have expected to see the carbon dioxide level in Anderson’s blood to be 20 or 30 points above normal if he had been suffocated into a coma; instead, it was 20 points below.

When someone stops breathing, his oxygen levels drop because he can’t get air in, but carbon dioxide levels rise because the body can’t get rid of it through exhalation.

Siebert explained the low carbon dioxide level in his autopsy report by saying that Anderson never stopped breathing; his blood, because of the sickled red blood cells, couldn’t absorb and transport oxygen properly but still was shedding carbon dioxide.

Adams explained the low level by saying that Anderson was able to “blow off” the excess carbon dioxide after the guards stopped suffocating him. If Anderson was “ventilated” — whereby a person or machine forced oxygen into his system and assisted him in getting rid of the carbon dioxide — at some point before his blood gases were tested, then his carbon dioxide level would have dropped faster.

Respiratory therapist Dr. Dennis Arnold said Anderson’s breathing was manually assisted for less than a minute before his blood was drawn for testing. Anderson then was hooked up to a respirator after the blood was tested.

Appel said he had no experience with exertional sickle cell trait collapse prior to Anderson, but insisted his treatment of Anderson would not have changed if he had known that Anderson had sickle cell trait.

Appel also said that the guards’ use of ammonia capsules, and whether they obstructed his mouth for any length of time, played no role in his treatment. Appel said he has used smelling salts hundreds of times in his career to revive patients and to test for malingering. He said he has never heard of them causing injury or death.


The man who videotaped the encounter between the guards and Anderson was the first to take the stand. Antonio Jones, now a Panama City Beach police officer, said he was working the control booth the morning of Anderson’s collapse and recorded the incident while also logging the guards’ use of force.

He said he had the authority to call 9-1-1 or intercede on Anderson’s behalf if he saw the guards abusing him or signs of distress. Jones said he saw neither.

“You’re not accusing these men you just identified of any wrongdoing, are you?” defense attorney Jim White asked him, after Jones identified each defendant for the jury.

“No sir,” Jones said.