Mother, Son Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
December 1, 2005
OCALA - A woman whose 12-year-old son died in 2000 after being pinned
down by a youth camp counselor was found dead in her garage with her
7-year-old son in an apparent murder-suicide, authorities said.
Linda Ibarra, 36, was found late Tuesday lying outside the driver's
side door of a sport utility vehicle. Her son Lorenzo was found dead in
the passenger seat, Marion County Sheriff's investigators said.
The vehicle's engine was not running, but the ignition was on and the
garage door was closed, a sheriff's spokesman said. Ibarra's 16-year-old
son found the bodies and called the sheriff's office.
"All signs point to carbon-monoxide poisoning and murder-suicide,"
Capt. Denis Strow said.
An assistant medical examiner found no signs of trauma on the two
bodies, but an autopsy still needs to be conducted, Strow said.
Ibarra's son, Michael Wiltsie, died on Feb. 5, 2000, after being
pinned to the floor by a 300-pound counselor at Camp E-Kel-Etu, a
wilderness camp in the Ocala National Forest for troubled youth.
A grand jury cleared the counselor of wrongdoing, saying he was
following proper restraint procedures. An autopsy concluded the cause of
death was ''compressional asphyxiation.''
A Florida Department of Juvenile Justice investigation later held
counselor Joseph Cooley responsible, saying he used excessive force to
Linda Ibarra filed wrongful death lawsuits against Cooley and the
camp owner in both state and federal court. The cases settled for an
undisclosed amount in 2002, the Ocala Star-Banner reported.
Neighbor Jesse Heckman said Ibarra often talked about the ghost of
her son helping her around the house.
"It seems she had never gotten over him," Heckman said.
(read more articles below)
Mother Sues After Boy Dies at Camp
St. Petersburg Times
July 10, 2001
Just before entering a camp for troubled boys, 12-year-old Michael
Wiltsie was taken off medicines that helped control his hyperactivity
and defiant behavior.
The reason? Camp E-Kel-Etu would not accept youths taking such
But Clearwater-based Eckerd Youth Alternatives should have known that
taking Michael off Ritalin and Clondine would "foreseeably lead to
erratic behavior that would place Michael and others at risk of great
bodily harm," according to a federal lawsuit filed in Jacksonville on
Shortly after entering the camp, Michael started to fight with
another camper. Michael, who weighed 65 pounds, was restrained by camp
counselor Joseph Cooley, who weighed 300. The boy died of "compressional
asphyxiation," meaning he was squeezed so tightly that he could not
Michael's mother, Linda Ibarra, filed the federal lawsuit seeking
$13.2-million for the "cruel and unusual" punishment alleged in the
In addition to saying that Michael should have been allowed to
continue taking his medicine, it says Cooley and other Eckerd staffers
used improper restraints at the camp.
Cooley, the counselor, and Eckerd, the non-profit organization that
operates the camp in Marion County, were named as defendants in the
lawsuit. Camp E-Kel-Etu, in Ocala National Forest, has a contract with
the state Department of Juvenile Justice to rehabilitate youths who have
been ruled delinquent.
Cooley's attorney, James Felman, said this was not a case of a boy
whose civil rights were violated, as the lawsuit alleges.
"This is just nothing but an accident," he said. "It's tragic."
Andy Anderson, an Eckerd vice president and spokesman, said he had
not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it.
Ellis Rubin, attorney for Linda Ibarra, held a news conference in
Jacksonville on Monday during which an enlarged color photo of the boy's
body on an autopsy table was displayed.
The picture showed the boy's dirty and bruised face. A tube was in
his mouth and electrodes were taped to his chest.
Ibarra, who stood wiping her eyes with a tissue, spoke of her son's
death as friends and relatives held posters and red balloons.
"I feel like Michael received a death sentence, while I've received a
life sentence of pain and suffering," she said.
This lawsuit is the latest of several actions stemming from Michael's
death. A separate lawsuit has been filed in Marion County.
A grand jury cleared Cooley of criminal wrongdoing, saying he was
restraining the boy in the way he had been taught. But it criticized the
Department of Juvenile Justice for placing Michael in a wilderness camp
when he needed a mental health program.
The lawsuit alludes to that issue by pointing out that the state's
contract with Eckerd requires it to "ensure access to necessary and
appropriate mental health and/or substance abuse treatment services to
youth in need of such services."
Michael had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
The suit also says that Eckerd was "deliberately indifferent to the
use of improper and unauthorized restraint techniques."
- Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.
Camp Counselor Involved in Boy's Death Resigns
Another Man, Accused of Giving a False Account in a Boy's Death, Also
BY CURTIS KRUEGER
St. Petersburg Times
September 30, 2000
The 300-pound wilderness camp counselor criticized for restraining a
12-year-old boy who later died has resigned from Clearwater-based Eckerd
Youth Alternatives, which operates the camp.
So did another employee who was accused of providing false
information to state officials looking into that incident, Eckerd said
in documents provided to the Department of Juvenile Justice this week.
Eckerd also says it has changed its policies to train employees more
frequently in the use of physical restraints and to reduce the number of
cases in which a single employee restrains one of the youthful campers.
Whether Eckerd will face any sanctions over the February death of
Michael Wiltsie is not clear. Florida Juvenile Justice Secretary Bill
Bankhead said in a statement he still is reviewing the documents.
The Juvenile Justice department's inspector general last month said
counselor Joseph Cooley had used an "improper, unauthorized and
inappropriate" restraint against Wiltsie, who weighed 65 pounds, at the
The report also said Joseph Acton, a resource teacher at the camp,
had provided false information to investigators looking into the death.
Acton had said he could not provide specific information about the
restraint Cooley used on Wiltsie because he didn't see it. But witnesses
said it was in plain view, according to the report.
In its response to that report, Eckerd calls Cooley "a fine employee
who helped many young people overcome their problems." Eckerd kept
Cooley on paid leave until his Sept. 18 resignation.
As for Acton, Eckerd said "we believe that Mr. Acton did not
intentionally impede the investigation."
Eckerd said in the documents that it will provide restraint training
to staff who had not previously received it, including managerial,
clinical, educational and social service workers. "This change will
increase the number of staff available to assist in de- escalating
and/or restraining youth, while concurrently decreasing the number of
occurrences involving one-person restraints."
A Marion County grand jury had previously decided not to indict
Cooley. Although jurors said Cooley's restraint of Wiltsie "led to his
death," they said his actions did not amount to culpable negligence, an
element needed to prove manslaughter.
The camp near Silver Springs in Central Florida seeks to teach
troubled boys personal responsibility and life skills.
Agency Condemns Camp's Conduct
CURTIS KRUEGER, JOUNICE L. NEALY
St. Petersburg Times
August 30, 2000
A Juvenile Justice leader says he is "extremely disturbed" by
findings about the death of a boy in a wilderness camp.
In a stinging new report, state officials say a 300-pound Eckerd
wilderness camp counselor used an "improper, unauthorized and
inappropriate" restraint hold that led to the death of Michael Wiltsie,
a 12-year-old boy who weighed 65 pounds.
And after the boy died, another employee at the camp for youthful
offenders provided false information to investigators. The camp's
managers also refused to hand over certain documents, according to the
report from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
"I am extremely disturbed by these findings," Juvenile Justice
Secretary Bill Bankhead said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Bankhead has asked Eckerd Youth Alternatives, the Clearwater- based
non-profit company that operates Camp E-Kel-Etu, to ensure that
counselor Joseph Cooley will not have any more contact with the youths
it sends to the camp.
Cooley has been on paid administrative leave since the incident Feb.
4, according to his attorney.
Bankhead also wants to know what disciplinary action, if any, Eckerd
plans against Jospeh Acton, the employee accused of providing false
But it was unclear whether Eckerd would face any sanction beyond
harsh words from the department.
"That's something that the secretary will address once he sees how
Eckerd responds to his letter," DJJ spokeswoman Catherine Arnold said.
Wiltsie's mother, Linda Ibarra, expressed relief at the findings.
"Finally, the truth is coming out as each report is released," she said.
Regarding Cooley, she said, "I don't worry that he works with
children ever again because he never will . . . not with his record."
Her family has filed a civil lawsuit stemming from her son's death.
But Eckerd Youth Alternatives president and CEO Karen V. Waddell said
in a statement that she was "disappointed regarding the allegations
involving two very fine young men who had dedicated their lives to
She said Eckerd's staff was "most surprised" to learn about the
allegations about Acton, whom she called an excellent teacher. She
pledged to begin a third-party review of the allegations.
The report says that Acton, a resource teacher at the camp near
Ocala, had told investigators he could not provide specific information
about the restraint Cooley used on the disruptive Wiltsie because he
didn't observe it. He said he was too busy with other campers at the
time, "despite being less than 6 feet from the 15- minute-long
Numerous youths who witnessed the incident, however, said the
restraint was in plain view.
Waddell also said "we were shocked to learn" that DJJ believed Eckerd
failed to provide enough documentation. The report says Eckerd refused
to provide state officials with copies of an internal investigation and
a letter of resignation or termination of another employee.
Cooley's attorney, James Felman, of Tampa, said, "It probably
shouldn't come as any surprise that when a child dies that the state
agency is going to take the position that the force applied was - with
the benefit of hindsight - excessive. But that doesn't mean that it was
anything other than an accident."
The report includes a statement from Keith Paulk, former training
director for Eckerd, who said that if Cooley needed to restrain Wiltsie,
he should have used a method called the small juvenile restraint, or the
"basket hold," he said.
Cooley told investigators that he recalled the basket restraint but
thought that technique was no longer used.
This hold is designed to compensate for weight differences between
counselors and smaller kids, making it safer.
Cooley, who had a glowing record at the camp, admitted that he wasn't
trained to use the restraint he used on Wiltsie, the report said.
After Wiltsie's death, some changes were made at Camp E-Kel-Etu, the
Counselors are constantly reminded of restraints and techniques and
were given two-way radios.
Eckerd also now trains resource teachers in critical intervention
procedures so they can assist counselors if necessary.
There also have been some staff changes.
Sandra Graham, the nurse who performed CPR on Wiltsie along with
program director Fred Stickney while Cooley was away from the area
sobbing, resigned for personal reasons, including nightmares about the
Paulk, the training director who had been with Eckerd for 27 years,
was told sometime between Wiltsie's death and April 26 that his services
were no longer needed.
Paulk denied he resigned and says he was released because of
The report from the Department of Juvenile Justice's inspector
general is the third major report examining Wiltsie's death.
DJJ had sent the boy to the camp after he was arrested several times
on charges that included battery, burglary, trespassing and resisting a
law enforcement officer.
The Department of Children and Families said in a June report that
Wiltsie's death was due to abuse it categorized broadly as "asphyxiation
/ suffocation / drowning" and "confinement/bizarre punishment."
But a Marion County grand jury report in February, while saying the
restraint led to Wiltsie's death, criticized DJJ more harshly than it
did Eckerd, saying Wiltsie should have been placed in a mental health
facility instead of a wilderness camp. The grand jury declined to bring
charges against Cooley.
Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said Tuesday he would not
present another case to another grand jury based on the report because
there is no new evidence.
Juvenile's Death Labeled as Abuse
St. Petersburg Times
June 29, 2000
The state Department of Children and Families has classified the
death of a 12-year-old boy at an Eckerd youth camp as a case of abuse
and will ask camp directors for a plan to ensure it never happens again.
Michael Wiltsie, who weighed just 65 pounds, died in February after
being restrained by counselor Joseph Cooley, who weighed roughly 300
Wiltsie had been sent as a juvenile offender to live in the camp near
Silver Springs, on the edge of Ocala National Forest.
A grand jury later that month decided not to indict Cooley, saying he
had followed the procedures he had been taught as he restrained the boy,
and could not have been considered guilty of manslaughter.
But the Department of Children and Families said in a report issued
this week that Wiltsie suffered a type of abuse that it categorizes
broadly as "asphyxiation/suffocation/drowning" and another defined as
"confinement/bizarre punishment." It says these may have been "a
contributing factor in the demise of the victim."
Ron Zychowski, deputy administrator for District 13 of the
department, said state officials will now write a letter that will "ask
them for a corrective action plan that ensures that this doesn't happen
Asked if Eckerd would be subject to fines or other disciplinary
action, Zychowski said, "I don't believe so, but I think all of that is
contingent on how the conversation goes with Eckerd."
He said the goal was to make sure any problems are corrected.
Eckerd Youth Alternatives, the Clearwater-based non-profit company
that runs the camp, said in a prepared statement: "We continue to
consider the death of Michael Wiltsie as a tragic accident. However, we
do understand the need for a review of the evidence."
Wiltsie had spent about two weeks at Camp E-Kel-Etu, where youths
sleep in tents, make their own meals and plan wilderness trips in an
effort to learn teamwork and personal responsibility.
He was reportedly trying to hit another camper when Cooley restrained
him. Cooley got on the ground and placed his arm over Wiltsie, who
complained that he could not breathe. He also straddled Wiltsie, who
During the restraint, Wiltsie "struggled for a while, then became
still. Mr. Cooley accused (Wiltsie) of 'playing possum' and continued
the restraint for a short time and then got up," the grand jury report
said in February. When Cooley realized Wiltsie wasn't breathing he began
CPR and counselors dialed 911.
Cooley was placed on paid leave after the incident, and his status
has not changed, Andy Anderson, a spokesman for Eckerd Youth
Alternatives, said Wednesday.
"We remain steadfast in our support for our counselor, Joe Cooley, a
young man who has dedicated his life to helping children," Eckerd's
statement reads. "He is a role model for integrity and compassion, and
our prayers and support are with him during this difficult time."
No Charges in Michael Wiltsie's Death
A Grand Jury Exonerates the Camp Counselor Whose Restraint Led to the
Boy's Death, But it Blasts the Justice System
By CURTIS KRUEGER and JOUNICE L. NEALY
St. Petersburg Times
February 24, 2000
OCALA -- A grand jury decided Wednesday not to bring criminal charges
against the wilderness camp counselor who restrained a 12-year-old boy
who later died, but instead blamed the state for failing to give the boy
proper mental health treatment.
In an unusually quick action, the grand jury issued a four-page
report and determined that Joseph C. Cooley, 27, properly followed
restraint policies when he pinned down a combative Michael Wiltsie at
Camp E-Kel-Etu near Silver Springs on Feb. 4.
Wiltsie stopped breathing during the restraint and died the next day.
Autopsy reports showed that the boy died of compressional asphyxiation.
Cooley weighed about 300 pounds; Wiltsie about 65 pounds.
Although the jury acknowledged that "the weight used during the
restraint, given Michael's size, led to his death," it said Cooley's
actions did not give rise to culpable negligence, an element needed to
"He followed the procedure which he had been taught and which he and
other counselors had used for many years. No one who witnessed the
restraint saw it as more forceful or longer in length than other
restraints. Under these circumstances, we cannot say Mr. Cooley acted
with utter disregard for Michael's safety, as is required to constitute
manslaughter," the report said.
Wiltsie's mother, Linda Ibarra, broke down after hearing the grand
jury's findings. Reached later at her home in Anthony, she said, "I can
sleep at night because I tried to get him help and they can't."
Wiltsie's grandmother, Jacki Miller, was furious.
"He wouldn't have died if he hadn't crushed him to death," Miller
said in a telephone interview. "What is wrong with our judicial system
these days? All the evidence, it was there that this guy did this. It's
not fair. A little 12-year-old boy died from something that wasn't his
Reading from a prepared statement, Eckerd Youth Alternatives
president and CEO Karen V. Waddell said "we are relieved that our
counselor has not been charged, but this is not a time of celebration
for Eckerd Youth Alternatives," the Clearwater-based agency that runs
the camp for troubled juvenile boys.
"Our whole organization remains in shock over the loss of Michael
Wiltsie and we are in the process of grieving and healing," she said.
For Eckerd officials, the grand jury recommended that "the size of
the child be emphasized in determining how to restrain the child and
that alternative restraint methods be taught."
Andy Anderson, a spokesman for Eckerd, said it was too early to
decide whether any policies would be revised.
In its report, the grand jury slammed the state Department of
Juvenile Justice for placing Wiltsie in a program for juveniles with
criminal records or behavioral problems in school. The department should
have provided him with residential mental health facilities, which
previous experts had recommended for Wiltsie, the report said.
Since Wiltsie was 5 years old, his mother has tried to get him help
because of his aggressive behavior. She was first told seven years ago
to get mental health counseling for Wiltsie.
In March 1995, Wiltsie went to a mental health facility because of
"aggressive behavior and suicidal ideation." He was placed on medication
and diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and
opposition defiance disorder.
The report lists several more cases in which officials identified
Wiltsie's mental health problems. After an arrest for burglary in 1997,
another mental health examination said "Michael needed immediate
residential treatment to protect him and the community."
A second exam at the time recommended drug therapy and behavior
modification and possibly residential treatment.
Instead, he was placed on probation.
Wiltsie was arrested several more times for charges that included
battery, burglary, trespassing and resisting a law enforcement officer.
In November, a mental exam recommended again that Wiltsie receive
residential mental health treatment.
But the state Department of Juvenile Justice recommended putting
Wiltsie in a "low-risk residential program." The court ordered a
medium-risk. The department then sent him to Camp E-Kel-Etu, although
some Eckerd officials objected, apparently because of Wiltsie's mental
"We are very concerned by the fact that Michael had been placed at
Eckerd E-Kel-Etu camp. . . . It still is apparent to us that Michael
needed to have been placed in a residential mental health program," the
grand jury report said.
Because the camp does not accept children who are on medication,
Wiltsie had to discontinue taking Ritalin when he came to the camp,
according to the grand jury report.
Wiltsie was pronounced dead Feb. 5 at Shands at the University of
Florida in Gainesville. The day before he died, Wiltsie got into an
argument with another juvenile and "was going after another offender,
attempting to hit him," according to a prior report from the state
Department of Juvenile Justice.
Wiltsie ignored verbal warnings to stop and, as a consequence, was
physically restrained, the report said.
Cooley "placed his body on the ground with his arm over (Wiltsie's)
torso. (Wiltsie) then began to say he could not breathe."
Wiltsie had made the same complaint when he was previously restrained
by Cooley on Jan. 23, according to the grand jury report.
Cooley then straddled across Wiltsie, "pinning (Wiltsie's) entire
body to the ground." After some cooperation, Cooley got off of him. But
Wiltsie started kicking Cooley and Cooley straddled him again, according
to the report.
During the restraint, Wiltsie "struggled for a while then became
still. Mr. Cooley accused (Wiltsie) of "playing possum' and continued
the restraint for a short time and then got up."
After that, when Wiltsie didn't move, Cooley turned the boy over, saw
that he wasn't breathing and started CPR.
Counselors called 911 and a nurse gave Wiltsie two shots of
epinephrine to revive his heart.
"Had he been placed in what we considered the obviously needed
program earlier in his involvement in the juvenile justice system, he
would not have been in Eckerd E-Kel-Etu camp," the jurors agreed. "We
are very concerned that there are other Michaels in the juvenile justice
They added, "the system which existed for Michael's benefit failed
him, and us."
Boy, 12, Dies After Restraint at Camp
Confined to a Camp for Youthful Offenders, He Dies After a Confrontation
with a Counselor.
BY WILMA NORTON
St. Petersburg Times
February 6, 2000
A 12-year-old boy confined near Ocala to an Eckerd Wilderness Camp
for youthful offenders died early Saturday, hours after being restrained
by a staff member during an altercation.
The Marion County Sheriff's Office said Michael Wiltsie became
combative about 1:30 p.m. Friday during a group counseling session and
was restrained by a counselor.
The boy then "became unresponsive," sheriff's spokesman James Pogue
said. Camp officials began CPR and called 911, Pogue said.
The boy was taken to Monroe Regional Medical Center and then to
Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he was
pronounced dead after midnight.
Wiltsie was from Anthony, a small town outside of Ocala.
The cause of his death had not been determined Saturday. The name of
the counselor involved in the incident was not released.
The Eckerd Wilderness Camp, known as E-KEL-ETU, at 19185 NE 13th St.
in Silver Springs, is one of several in the state that treats in camp
settings troubled youth ages 10 to 17.
The boy was staying at a "Level 6" camp, one that treats adolescents
who have committed serious offenses, said Bill Bankhead, secretary of
the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
"He had been in trouble," Bankhead said. "Kids at that facility have
Officials did not say why Wiltsie was sent to the camp.
Bankhead said he didn't know Saturday exactly how many youths are at
the camp. "It's not a big camp," he said.
The death is being investigated by the Marion County Sheriff's
Office, the Department of Children and Families' child protection
division and the inspector general of the juvenile justice department as
well as the administration of the Eckerd camp, Bankhead said.
A description of the incident released by the Department of Juvenile
Justice differed somewhat from that of the Sheriff's Office. It said the
boy's injuries were sustained "after a staff member reportedly attempted
to intervene in an altercation between the youth and another offender."
Bankhead said the statement was worded ambiguously because he was not
certain how the injuries occurred. He said the boy's family was
notified, but family members could not be reached for comment.
Bankhead said a youth drowned at one of the camps a couple of years
ago, and another committed suicide, but he called death or serious
injury at one of the camps "infrequent."
This is the first death Bankhead has dealt with since he became
secretary of the department more than a year ago, he said. "This is my
first one. It's not easy."