By Matt Zapotosky and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010; B01
Police are questioning a 13-year-old boy in connection with the slaying of a teacher at a state-run juvenile detention center in Prince George's County, and three law enforcement sources say he is their main suspect in the case, now officially ruled a homicide.
The boy has not been charged, and it remains unclear exactly why or how he might have killed Hannah Wheeling, 65, of Bel Air, Md., a teacher of general studies at the Cheltenham Youth Facility.
Greg Shipley, a Maryland State Police spokesman, said late Friday that Wheeling died from "multiple blunt-force trauma injuries." Wheeling also appeared to have been sexually assaulted, law enforcement sources have said.
Wheeling's body was found by another employee outside the facility's Murphy Cottage about 7:45 a.m. Thursday. Despite his age, the boy is big enough to have overpowered Wheeling, one of the sources said. All of the sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the boy has not been charged.
The boy has been moved to another facility while detectives continue their investigation one of the sources said.
Prosecutors are trying to determine what criminal charges the boy should face because Maryland law requires them to get a waiver by a juvenile court judge to try someone younger than 15 as an adult.
The incident raises questions at a facility with a difficult past. The suspect had been staying in Murphy Cottage, which sits outside the fence at Cheltenham and houses about 20 boys without any history of major mental illness or violent crime, such as murder, first-degree assault or first-degree sex offense, said Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which runs Cheltenham.
Cleary declined to comment specifically about the 13-year-old, but he said Juvenile Services officials "will be commencing an investigation into the security protocols of the Murphy Cottage and determine whether those security protocols were followed on the day of the incident."
Cleary would not say what those protocols are. But a source familiar with operations at Cheltenham said the youths are supposed to be in the line of sight of a staff member 24 hours a day.
Shipley said a preliminary investigation found that Wheeling arrived at the school at 8 a.m. Wednesday and probably did not leave that night. It is unclear when she was killed.
Shipley said those housed in Murphy Cottage were allowed to walk throughout the building and would have had access to the area where Wheeling's body was found. He declined to say whether police had any suspects Friday.
"All I can say is it's progressing well, and that's where we are," he said.
The news of Wheeling's death shocked neighbors and friends, who remembered her Friday as a woman who was a bit of a loner but one who would readily help others.
The mother of two loved her job and spent most of her free time writing lesson plans and watching cooking shows on TV, said neighbor Mike DeMartino, 63. DeMartino said Wheeling often talked of her job but told him she never felt unsafe in the classroom.
"I always used to say, 'Are you afraid?' " DeMartino said. "She said, 'There's nothing to be afraid of.' "
Kinano Jahi-Wade, 56, who taught with Wheeling at Cheltenham until she took a disability leave, said the incident left her with "too many unanswered questions." Wheeling and the suspect should have been checking in with others before moving to other parts of the building or leaving for the night, and someone should have noticed her car sitting in the parking lot overnight, Jahi-Wade said.
"I'm not so upset as I am mad, because this should not have happened," Jahi-Wade said.
Cheltenham houses about 100 teenagers from Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties awaiting trial or sentencing. Those who live in Murphy Cottage have already been sentenced, Cleary said.
The facility emerged from federal oversight in 2008 after it showed significant progress in reducing violence and providing medical and other services to the youths it housed. But despite its progress in recent years, the facility still has problems, according to sources and public records.
A source familiar with its operations said that the parking lots are not well lighted and that security staff members are often dispatched to do other tasks, such as delivering medicine to the juveniles. The source said the facility has made much progress since federal oversight ended but has a way to go in beefing up security and reducing crowding.
In its 2009 annual report, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit reported 15 youth-on-staff assaults at Cheltenham, the same as in 2008. An earlier report from the unit said that the facility was overpopulated for much of 2009 and that there was a shortage of "direct care" staff employees to work with youths.
Patrick Moran, director of AFSCME-Maryland, which represents the majority of staff at Cheltenham but not its teachers, said the incident shows the need for greater staffing and monitoring.
"First and foremost, I think there needs to be a thorough evaluation of why or how this happened," he said.
"Obviously, we need to staff these places more carefully and more thoroughly and ensure that all of the kids that are there . . . are monitored around the clock."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.