Two weeks after 16-year-old Del'Quan Seagers died at a wilderness camp for juvenile offenders in remote Chesterfield County, another boy nervously approached his staff mentor to talk. He'd seen what happened that day in November 2015.
Four other teenagers had punched Del'Quan multiple times at the privately run camp before he bent over, walked to another room and collapsed, the boy said.
The boy's mentor was Dwight Marshall, then a direct care staff supervisor at AMIkids Sand Hills, a cluster of grey clapboard buildings that house low-level juvenile offenders. Marshall said he detailed the boy's account in a report that he sent to the state Department of Juvenile Justice's director and the Florida headquarters of AMIkids. The nonprofit corporation runs the camp and five others like it for DJJ.
Marshall said he received no response from either.
"Nothing," he said.
Marshall reached out to The Post and Courier after reading its Oct. 8 report "Into the wilderness," which revealed a web of secrecy shrouding fatalities and assaults at the state's little-known network of wilderness camps. Until then, Marshall said he didn't know that Del'Quan's mother, Shadeana Seagers, had pressed authorities to investigate another teen's claims that her son died after an assault. Authorities have maintained that Del'Quan died of natural causes.
"Ms. Seagers needs answers," Marshall said. "She's been lied to. I've been lied to."
DJJ spokesman Patrick Montgomery said the state agency wouldn't discuss any investigation into the teen's death and it "has no record of receiving an event report from an AMI staff member with these allegations." AMIkids didn't respond to specific questions about the report.
A state audit released this year slammed DJJ’s inspector general for failing to investigate claims that foul play was involved in Del’Quan’s death or report that information to the State Law Enforcement Division. The auditors also stated that DJJ could not locate or produce investigative files related to the episode.
For months, the only publicly available document pertaining to Del'Quan's death had been a Chesterfield County Sheriff's Office incident report. It described how teens in his dorm heard a crash and found Del'Quan on the floor of another room after he went to put items in a closet. The report made no mention of an assault.
The Post and Courier on Thursday, however, obtained DJJ investigative reports and the results of a SLED inquiry this year prompted by the audit. The documents came from an outside source after SLED refused to provide its files to the newspaper, citing juvenile confidentiality. The newspaper also filed an open records request for the DJJ reports back in February, but the agency still had not complied with that request as of Friday.
The records obtained through the source detail interviews conducted earlier this year with several, but not all, of the boys who were in the dorm the night Del'Quan died. The boys' accounts vary dramatically.
One insisted Del'Quan was beaten and killed. Two referenced a gang-related "game" that involved beating Del'Quan on the chest and arm. Two echoed the official accounts.
Another boy told his mother he had witnessed a murder at Sand Hills. Yet he told a SLED agent that he heard a lot of "thumping and stuff" from the room where Del'Quan collapsed but didn't see what happened.
Yet another told two different stories that both ended with him not seeing Del'Quan collapse. He said he lied in his first account because a staff member supervising the dorm "asked them all to lie about the events" so he wouldn't lose his job. The staffer denied that to SLED.
AMIkids spokesman Joseph Gallina issued a statement to The Post and Courier:
"Moving forward, AMIkids will not be commenting on allegations or speculation made by former employees. We fully participated with all agencies that conducted investigations into the tragic death of Del’Quan, and we were found not at fault. Given the gravity of the situation that tragic night, we commend our staff’s response in following AMIkids and DJJ’s protocols in notifying the proper authorities and Ms. Seagers in a timely manner."
Marshall's report, however, raises fresh questions about how seriously AMIkids officials took the assault allegations.
Marshall chronicled his conversation with the teen who came to him shortly after Del'Quan died. The boy was terrified that other campers would harm him if he was labeled a snitch.
"I told him somebody lost their life, man, a parent lost their child," Marshall wrote.
The boy started to cry, then explained that an assault occurred after Del’Quan returned to the dorm after cleaning the cafeteria that night. Four boys who lived with them hit him multiple times. Del'Quan "lost his breath and told the students to stop hitting him, but (two boys) hit him one more time,” the report stated.
Del’Quan bent over and said, “Man y’all hit me too hard that time,” according to the report.
The staff member who was in their barracks-like sleeping quarters told the teens to get to bed. Del’Quan walked into an adjacent room, apparently unsupervised. They heard a noise and found him unresponsive on the floor.
Later, the boys spoke “about how they got lucky about not being caught up in the death,” the report stated.
Marshall, a Navy veteran, said he notified camp Executive Director Lolita Gray of the boy's account. He didn't know it at the time, but the account closely matched that of another teen who had called Del'Quan's mother from the dorm after his death.
Gray assured him that Del'Quan had died of heart failure "and that the investigation was already done, and the autopsy report was complete also,” Marshall wrote in his report.
In fact, the Medical University of South Carolina pathologist who conducted the teen's autopsy determined asthma was to blame for his death. She made no mention in her reports about a possible assault. It remains unclear whether the Chesterfield County coroner or others even told her of the allegations. She attributed bruising on Del'Quan's heart to CPR.
Del'Quan died five weeks after a judge sent him to Sand Hills for stealing candy and then violating probation by not going to school or following his mother's curfew.
About two months after his death, Marshall wrote a second report for AMIkids, which he said was accompanied by internal documents detailing problems at the camp. He complained that boys used an empty dorm on campus as their fighting ring, smoking den and illicit cell phone hideout. Some staff came to work drunk and gave alcohol to juveniles. Student escapes went unnoticed for hours. Fights were common, he stated.
Then he wrote: “Students are one riot away" from taking over the camp.
“Before another student dies at the hands of abusive juveniles or another parent (has) to receive another disturbing phone call, please look into these problems at Camp Sand Hills,” Marshall wrote.
He provided The Post and Courier copies of both reports.
DJJ told the newspaper for months that it had no mechanism for tracking assaults at its wilderness camps. But on Thursday, agency spokesman Montgomery told the newspaper that DJJ had received reports of 27 assaults and fights at Sand Hills over the past two years.
Four current and former Sand Hills employees, however, told The Post and Courier that the actual number is much higher. They said they often saw fights and boys with black eyes, bruises and other injuries.
They said the camp is chronically under-staffed, and employees aren't adequately trained. Reports of serious incidents are discouraged and often aren't passed along to AMIkids headquarters or DJJ, current and former employees said.
Three months after he filed his report about Del'Quan's death, Marshall said, the camp's director fired him. AMIkids' spokesman said the company wouldn't comment further.
"I know it's connected," Marshall said.
He now works for his local water company.
AMIkids operates six wilderness camps in South Carolina that cost about $1.5 million to run each year. They serve as a mainstay of DJJ’s efforts to rehabilitate non-violent young offenders outside of traditional prison settings, and most operate in remote outposts beyond the public's eye.
That began to change earlier this year when the state Legislative Audit Council released a scathing report on the juvenile justice agency, which is now the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation. Members of a House oversight subcommittee also promised renewed scrutiny of the agency and its programs.
"The safety of the children in the state’s care is paramount," said state Rep. Eddie Tallon, a Spartanburg Republican who chairs the panel.
In March, several weeks after the auditors presented their findings, the national head of AMIkids sent Tallon a letter assuring him that its staff responded to Del'Quan's death in full compliance with protocol.
"The Chesterfield Coroner (and the family's private autopsy) confirmed the juvenile died from the genetic heart defect. His father had previously died with the same heart condition diagnosis," AMIkids CEO O.B. Stander wrote in a letter obtained by The Post and Courier.
The letter contained errors beyond the cause of death. Del'Quan's mother said the family had no private autopsy done. And his father died of a gunshot wound to the head.
In the wake of the episode, Tallon and others have introduced a bill requiring the camps to report deaths to SLED, local law enforcement, and the county coroner within 24 hours. DJJ also now must give lawmakers monthly statistical reports about events at the camps.
The agency's director resigned the day after the auditors' report was released. Gov. Henry McMaster has confidence that her replacement, Acting Director Freddie Pough, is making needed changes, a spokesman said. Already, DJJ has enacted 91 percent of the auditors' recommendations, he added.
“Director Pough is committed to change and is the right person to lead the agency towards better fulfilling its mission of protecting and rehabilitating the juveniles in its care," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in an email.
DJJ's Montgomery added that his agency will continue its regular audits of the camps.
"They are a direct reflection of DJJ, and we entrust children into their care," he said.
Family seeks answers
After Del'Quan's death, Marshall wanted to give the teen's mother a jersey and a basketball he'd used at the camp. But a search of Del'Quan's file turned up no contact information for his mom, said Marshall, who was the camp's basketball coach.
Two camp supervisors would later tell The Post and Courier they had seen an employee remove documents from his file the night he died.
Marshall said no one at the camp would tell him how to reach Del'Quan's family. Gray, the camp director, told him: "I don't think that's a good idea," Marshall recalled.
He said he left the items with Gray. Shadeana Seagers said she never received them.
"She stopped answering the phone for me," Seagers said. "I asked her for the coach's number, but she said she didn't have it."
No one at the camp, DJJ or AMIkids informed her of Marshall's report, Seagers said. Nobody told her about the auditors' report either until The Post and Courier contacted her.
Seagers hired an attorney, Democratic state Rep. Justin Bamberg, to find out what else she hadn't been told.
“This reeks of a cover up," Bamberg said. “The deeper you dig into this, there’s a good chance somebody ought to be charged."
Del'Quan's family just wants answers.
“The whole story was a lie from the beginning,” his aunt Sheila Seagers said.