A 16-year-old Manassas youth who died at a juvenile detention facility in April shortly after a scuffle with seven correctional officers succumbed to a heart attack while choking and was not the victim of foul play, said a report released yesterday by the state medical examiner.
"The death is classified as accidental," said Robert M. Holloway, regional administrator of the medical examiner's office. Officials declined to discuss the specifics of their findings or how they reached their conclusions.
The Virginia State Police and the FBI are continuing separate investigations into the death of Wallace Wesley Dandridge.
The state police are investigating whether a crime was committed by the officers and will include the medical examiner's report in the findings they pass along to the Chesterfield County commonwealth's attorney, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
The FBI is looking into whether Dandridge's civil rights were violated, said Mary Johlie, spokeswoman for the Richmond branch of the FBI.
The incident involving Dandridge, an emotionally unstable, mentally retarded youth, has been under investigation since he was pronounced dead early on the morning of April 8. Officials at the Oak Ridge Juvenile Correctional Center in suburban Richmond said that late in the evening of April 7 Dandridge threw a cup of what he claimed was urine on a correctional officer and then punched another.
Several other officers responded to the scuffle and eventually restrained Dandridge with handcuffs and then a leather belt that bound his hands near his waist. The officers left Dandridge strapped face down to his bed. Someone returned every five minutes to check on him through his cell door window, because he had been placed on a suicide watch, state officials said.
But when a state trooper arrived to take an assault report about 45 minutes later, he found that Dandridge had only a slight pulse. He was then taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short while later.
The Department of Juvenile Justice, which cares for more than 1,300 youths at eight facilities, had never before had a death in its 10-year history.
The seven officers involved in the case have been on suspension since May, and it was unclear whether yesterday's report will allow them to go back to work, said Don Harrison, spokesman for the state's Secretary of Public Safety, Gary Aronhalt.
Advocacy groups for the mentally retarded have expressed concern that new restraint tactics, which are dubbed "Handle With Care Plus" and include striking and kicking patients, may have played some role in the death of Dandridge.
"I fear that Handle With Care Plus was misused," said Holly Oehrlein of the Arc of Virginia, a Richmond-based interest group that helps the mentally retarded and has been closely monitoring the Dandridge case. "It strikes me as unusual that such a young kid would have a heart attack. It's hard to say what really went on in that room."
James McCoart III, a Manassas lawyer who has been retained by Dandridge's family, was out of the country yesterday and unavailable to comment on the medical examiner's report.