MANNING -- A boy in a blue plaid shirt and glasses sat on the witness stand in a wood-paneled courtroom, explaining why he had to seek counseling after spending four days at Clemson University's Camp Bob Cooper in 2008.

"I don't like people touching me or touching my neck," he said. "I only let my mom touch me. It sends shivers up my spine."

Dylan Walker, now 13, described high ropes, archery and campfires, how rock climbing made him nervous and how he did not welcome horseplay. He also said he does not like talking about what happened when he left his Summerville home to attend the camp on Lake Marion.

Dylan, 9 at the time, was one of four young boys allegedly forced to play "the choking game" by 17-year-old volunteer counselor Ronald Edward Riley, who outweighed each of them by at least 100 pounds. The choking game causes a brief high but comes with the risk of serious injury or death.

Dylan didn't want to play.

His family and another camper's family together won a $1 million verdict in a civil case against the federal program, Operation: Military Kids, Clemson and its Youth Learning Institute and Camp Bob Cooper. The trial ended Thursday following four days of testimony and arguments.

The Clarendon County jury took just minutes to deliberate before reaching a decision. Each boy's family will receive $500,000.

One of the attorneys representing the families, David Savage of Charleston, likened the situation to throwing a hornet's nest into an enclosed room and shutting the door. Anyone stung inside the room can't blame the hornets, only the person who put them there.

Riley "made a MySpace page of himself holding a knife up to his lips saying, 'Be quiet. This is going to hurt.' That's how he advertised himself," Savage said. "They did no background check on him."

Clemson University spokeswoman Cathy Sams said Camp Bob Cooper makes safety its top priority, and the school plans to fight the damages awarded in this case.

"We believe the award is excessive, is not supported by the facts in the case, and we will appeal," she said.

Criminal charges

A string of allegations against another South Carolina university-run summer camp culminated last year.

The Citadel received complaints about admitted molester Louis "Skip" Reville in 2007, but police learned of the accusations four years later.

In 2006, the school settled lawsuits from former campers who claimed sex abuse at the hands of a former Marine captain.

The Citadel camp closed that year, but a third sexual misconduct allegation arose just last month. Officials provided scant details on that new accusation.

Unlike the Citadel cases, the Clemson incident included no claims of sexual abuse. Sams said the Riley case marked the first of its kind in Camp Bob Cooper's 50-year history.

Camp Bob Cooper serves more than 8,000 campers each year, Sams said. The alleged choking incident took place in a cabin during lunch, while an adult counselor was assigned to an adjoining room, Sams said.

In the years since the alleged attacks, Clemson has implemented standards for its camps, which includes constant adult supervision.

Riley, now 21, had been a senior at Saluda High School at the time of the alleged attacks and a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He lived some 80 miles away from the camp near the town of Prosperity.

Arrest reports state Riley choked a 9-year-old boy three times, choked an 11-year-old boy once, attempted to choke a 12-year-old boy three times and attempted to choke an 11-year-old boy once.

One boy went home and told his parents, who alerted authorities.

Clarendon County sheriff's investigators arrested Riley a few weeks later on warrants for eight counts of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and four counts of unlawful child neglect. The criminal case against him remains open and should head to trial in the coming months, according to prosecutors.

Riley did not respond to interview requests. His attorneys listed on court records did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Trouble sleeping

Dylan's mother, Kym Walker, said she learned about the alleged attacks from another mother who lived in their Summerville neighborhood. Walker waited for her son to get off the school bus that day in 2008 and confronted him.

Dylan denied anything happened at first and then began to cry. Walker said her son told her that Riley wanted to show the boys how Navy SEALs silence enemies.

Another Charleston attorney representing the campers' families, Michael Timbes, described the behavior as "grooming." Timbes said Riley "called this a game that the boys themselves would be participating in so that, when it's all over, it's something that they voluntarily participated in."

When a counselor at the Lowcountry Children's Center interviewed Dylan, the boy said Riley claimed to know people in Iraq, where Dylan's father was stationed, and would have Dylan's father killed if the boy spoke out about the alleged choking. Attorneys for the boys' families provided those interview notes to The Post and Courier.

"Dylan said he was threatened not to tell about this," the notes state. "Dylan said Eddie also showed the boys knives, waving them, and cursed at times."

In the days after Dylan told his mother what happened, he couldn't sleep in his own bedroom and often crawled into her room at night, sometimes sleeping on the side of her bed "to protect her," Kym Walker said. Even though his family moved hundreds of miles away to Virginia, Dylan still likes to keep a light on in his closet.

Even for church, he refuses to wear a necktie.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird.

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