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Boot camp death haunts family of beaten teen
As Martin Lee Anderson's death after being sent to boot camp raises questions, his grieving family remembers the teen as a vivacious boy with big dreams.
By AUDRA D.S. BURCH
PANAMA CITY - When the sun sets, Robert Anderson can stand in his back patio and almost see his son's grave.
It lies in the cemetery a block away, the casket arrangement of wilted red carnations and satin ribbons aglow under three garden lights that he installed in the days after Martin Lee Anderson's death.
''This is the only way I can see my son now. This is the only place I can talk to him,'' says Anderson, his grief veiled by sunglasses. Anderson visits the cemetery almost every day and sometimes reads aloud the news stories about Martin's death at his graveside.
''I miss my boy.''
Martin, 14, died Jan. 6 at a Pensacola hospital -- 108 miles due west of this Panhandle city -- hours after he was admitted to a boot camp here for delinquent youths. Camp officers later said they used force to temper Martin, who had become uncooperative. But serious questions remain about the circumstances leading to Martin's death, now the subject of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation.
The funeral was held nine days later at the family church, Springfield First United Methodist. The next day Martin Anderson would have turned 15.
''My son will never serve his time. He will never get out of the boot camp, never get the chance to turn his life around, and never see his dream of becoming a basketball player,'' says Gina Jones, Martin's mother. Since his death she has never stopped demanding justice.
Jones, 36, sits in her small living room in Millville,a traditionally black, working-class neighborhood just 10 minutes from the boot camp where Martin died.
REMEMBERING A SON
Everywhere are signs of the boy -- his academic honor certificate proudly displayed on a wall, sympathy cards, his last picture taken at Grandma's house just before Christmas -- but they are most prominent on his mother. She wears a memorial T-shirt of his life and death -- three photos of the living Martin on the front, a single casket picture of him on the back.
He was born in Panama City, at the same hospital where he would later be treated before being transferred to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. His parents were both 22 when he was born and never married, but they were committed to raising him together.
Martin walked on his tip toes and loved fried chicken, was a die-hard University of Miami football fan and was crazy about a girl named Neazzi Lyles.
He was Jones' second boy. A growing spurt had left him 140 pounds and 6-foot-1, taller than all his friends, with a man's voice, a mischievous way and grown-up dreams. After all that, she still called him her baby.
''Martin was Martin. We all have moods, ups and downs, but he is still Martin,'' Jones says.
A POPULAR KID
He was popular too, as much for his basketball and Xbox skills as for his sense of humor and deft rap flow. After school, Martin played ball in neighborhood driveways or rapped like his favorite performer, Lil' Wayne, whose poster is still on his bedroom wall.
On Friday, the boys of Millville were leaning against a fence recalling Martin's shooting-guard fame, and the b-ball game at the Girls & Boys Club in which he manhandled the opposing team.
If all had gone well, he planned to go to Florida State or the University of Florida, dazzle the recruiters, go pro and buy his mama a three-bedroom dream house.
''He could dunk, he could dribble, he could defend, he could do everything,'' says Cordarryl Rogers. Buddy Tracy Craft, 14, chimes in: ''He beat us that game. He couldn't be stopped.''
On weekends, Martin worked at the Burger King where he knew all the kids, so well-known he earned tons of nicknames: Chuck G, Al Capone, said Arthur Middleton, his next-door neighbor.
And Martin was smart too, earning A's and B's at Emerald Bay Academy. He had completed the first semester of ninth grade.
''Martin was a well-liked student with lots of friends. He did not create disruptions in class, and he was good at math. He was chess champion of his class,'' says Joe Bullock, East Bay's principal.
By his own estimation, written for a school assignment he completed in November, Martin was ''a tiger, rough and rugged,'' a lion, a role model and ''a shining star in the world.''
Still, family members admit he had run into minor trouble and was struggling to make the right decisions just before he died.
''Martin was a sweet, sweet child,'' says his grandmother Reto Williams, who lives next to the cemetery where Martin is buried.
She says she first started seeing little changes just a year ago. Since Martin was a little boy, Williams had taken him and friends to church with her on Wednesdays and Sundays. Martin had come from a family that expected and demanded good behavior, but he had begun to flex. ''I think because he was big for his age, he was hanging around boys who were older,'' says Williams, a deeply spiritual woman. ''It seemed like we lost some control.''
Benjamin Crump, the family attorney, characterized Martin's troubles as ''nothing serious. At best he was mischievous. . . . We are not talking about a drug dealer or someone who kills. Nobody deserves what happened to him.''
In June, Martin was arrested for joy riding in his grandmother's 1996 white Jeep while she attended church. His sister and four friends were in the car.
Williams went along with the state attorney's decision to press charges -- grand theft -- but specifically asked that Martin be given probation and community service. In turn, Williams promised to return Martin to the church.
In October, after Martin violated probation and curfew restrictions, he served 21 days at a Department of Juvenile Justice facility, the first step leading to the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp.
''I remember in October he told me he was tired of getting into trouble,'' says Jones. ''He made a decision to leave it all behind.''
On Jan. 4, a Wednesday, Gina Jones took her son to DJJ at 4 p.m. She returned at 7:10 p.m for an hour's visit.
''We had a good talk. I would try and comfort him by telling him that it was going to be OK,'' says Jones. 'He said, 'I love you', but then that last 'I love you,' that was a frightened 'I love you.' He was scared, and I was scared for him too.''
The next day, Martin was booked into the boot camp around 7 a.m. with 10 other offenders. Jones got a 7:40 a.m. call confirming he was there. Around 9:50 a.m., she got a second call saying Martin was not breathing. He would later be on life support 15 hours.
Martin died at 1:30 a.m.
Williams, his grandmother, believes some good will come out of his death.
''His dying was divine intervention. God is using Martin. His death will turn around the juvenile system,'' she says softly. ''His death will not be in vain.''
As Martin prepared to do his six-month stint at boot camp, he stacked up $1.05 in coins on his television stand -- two quarters, four dimes and three nickels. He asked his sister, Startavia to remove one coin for every month he served.
On Saturday, Jones checked the stacks, though she already knew: All the money was still there.
Herald staff writer Tina Cummings contributed to this report.