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Lawyer in teen’s hanging wants probe reopened

COLUMBUS — The family lawyer for a teenager who died in a hanging at a Logan County church camp in 2006 asked the sheriff on Friday to reopen an investigation into the boy’s death after another camper invoked the Fifth Amendment during questioning last week.

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In an email to Sheriff Andrew J. Smith, attorney Cliff Arnebeck said the witness’ request for protection against self-incrimination during a deposition is enough to raise new questions about the death of James McCoy III.

McCoy was found hanging from a tree in a remote area of Camp Cotubic, a Christian camp at 2158 N. County Road 25, where the youth group from his Columbus-area church, Church of the Messiah of Westerville, was on retreat on April 22, 2006. It was his 18th birthday.

Sheriff Smith said he plans to meet with Logan County Prosecutor Bill Goslee and Coroner Michael Failor next week to review the facts of the case and determine if further investigation is warranted.

A 2007 lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by McCoy’s mother, Tonya Amoako-Okyere, alleges the boy was the victim of an asphyxiation prank that was little better than a lynching. The suit claims McCoy died as a result of his friends, who were white, playing a version of a choking game on him as a birthday prank.

Arnebeck told Smith in Friday’s email that the witness repeatedly took the Fifth during a March 13 deposition when questioned on the camp, the hanging, the handling of McCoy’s belongings after his death and statements the camper made to authorities.

The camper’s attorney did not immediately return a phone message Friday.

In legal filings, Amoako-Okyere has alleged four campers gave false statements to authorities after the incident, leading officials to believe McCoy had been depressed and suicidal, and later created false writings to back up their story.

Her suit further claims four unnamed authorities involved in responding to the incident were negligent in monitoring the youth outing, failed to quickly resuscitate McCoy and never investigated whether he might have been the victim of racial violence.

Arnebeck said the latest suit seeks more than $5 million in damages, to compensate for McCoy’s pain and suffering during death as well as for various losses suffered by his next of kin.

News reports at the time said authorities were told McCoy had inexplicably wandered off from the group and that his friends were confused and shocked by his death. A preliminary coroner’s report called the death a suicide.

His friends at the time reported he was in good spirits and was last seen playing basketball before wandering into the woods where he was found dead, according to an Examiner article at the time of the death.

The U.S. Department of Justice closed a civil rights investigation into the incident in 2007 after determining they either lacked evidence or jurisdiction to pursue criminal charges.

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