Grand jury to probe teen’s death in lockup

As Eric Perez’s death at a West Palm Beach lockup continued to
reverberate Monday, prosecutors are trying to seal a key piece
of evidence: a video of the teen’s final hours.


State prosecutors in West Palm Beach have convened a grand
jury to look into the death of Eric Perez, a teenager who stopped
breathing at a juvenile detention center after he sought medical
care unsuccessfully for hours.

The Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office, which is spearheading
the death investigation, also has asked a judge to prevent
juvenile justice administrators from releasing a video that details
Perez’s final hours at the lockup. Perez, 18, died at 8:09 a.m.
July 10, about two weeks after he was arrested for possessing a
small amount of marijuana, and several hours after he sought
medical care for a severe headache and vomiting. The cause of
his death remains undetermined.
In a court pleading filed Friday, the State Attorney’s Office said releasing the video to Perez’s mother, who has
requested it under Florida’s public records law, “will cause irreparable harm to the pending criminal and grand jury

Last spring, lawmakers passed a revision to the state’s public records law forbidding the release of pictures or
recordings that show a person dying. The bill, which took effect last month, included one exception: spouses or
parents of the deceased still may be given copies of such recordings. Maritza Perez, the dead teen’s mom, has
made a formal request for it.

Perez, 47, told The Miami Herald on Monday that prosecutors offered her a deal: They would give her a copy of the
video if she vowed not to show it publicly. Perez said she declined the offer, because she wants everyone to know
how her son died.

“Only the mother has the right to the tape, and I want the tape, and I’m going to show it to the world,” Perez said. “I’m
not going to let this die. I’m not going to let Eric die for nothing.”

“I don’t want other kids to suffer what my son went through. I don’t want any other mother to suffer the way I have
suffered,” Perez said.

The fate of the seven to eight hours of video may be decided Tuesday morning. Prosecutors will ask Palm Beach
Circuit Judge Stephen A. Rapp at a 10:30 hearing to keep the video under wraps.

“This request is made to preserve the integrity of the pending criminal investigation, not to thwart the interests of the
parents of the decedent,” Assistant State Attorney Andrew R. Slater wrote in the motion.

The controversy surrounding the youth’s death continued to swirl Monday, as a spokeswoman for state Chief
Financial Officer Jeff Atwater blasted juvenile justice administrators for seeking to spend $5,000 from the
Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget to help Perez bury her son.

“My office is now working directly with the family’s attorney through our Division of Risk Management, and my
commitment is to have a check covering funeral expenses for this young man in the hands of the family within 24
hours,” Atwater said in a prepared statement. Late Monday, Atwater’s spokeswoman said a check had been mailed
to the family overnight.

But Atwater did not stop there. He also accused juvenile justice administrators of adding to the family’s pain by
botching the expenditure. “Regrettably, this tragic delay would not have occurred if the Department of Juvenile
Justice had not blatantly ignored guidance from my office. In the future, I would hope that DJJ would be more
transparent in its dealings with the public and with taxpayer monies,” Atwater wrote.

His spokeswoman, Anna Alexopoulis, said “the proper venue” for paying the funeral expenses would have been the
CFO’s Office of Risk Management, which defends the state against lawsuits — not the DJJ operating budget. Perez
has notified the state of her intent to sue.

“DJJ failed to submit the claim to Risk Management even after our department had advised them to do so,”
Alexopoulis said.

A DJJ spokesman, C.J. Drake, replied: “We’re pleased that this matter is finally being resolved in favor of the young
man’s family.’’

On Saturday, The Herald reported that DJJ had sought the $5,000 to help the Perez family defray the costs of the
teen’s funeral under a policy implemented in 2008. Since then, DJJ administrators have paid the funeral costs for
two other youths who died while in the agency’s care, one in 2008 and another the following year. After first cutting
the check last week, Atwater’s office then instructed DJJ to destroy it.

Also on Monday, DJJ administrators confirmed they had fired a guard who had been the subject of a lengthy article
in The Herald last week. The guard, Laryell King, had previously worked for several years at the agency’s lockup in
Orange County, but was fired after leaving youths unsupervised — including locking up one boy in a room for 45
minutes, until he banged on a door to get help. Her personnel record included a strong warning: “NO rehire in any
position.” Nevertheless, she was rehired in September 2010 at the West Palm Beach detention center. King could
not be reached for comment.

King’s dismissal letter, which is dated July 29, said King had failed to complete her probation at the West Palm
Beach lockup “satisfactorily,” and Florida law allowed her to be “terminated at any time without the right to appeal
such action.”