COLUMBUS, Ohio – The family of a black teenager who died at a church camp last spring has filed a wrongful death lawsuit claiming he was the victim of an asphyxiation prank that was little better than a lynching.
James McCoy III was found hanging from a tree on April 22, 2006, in a remote area of Camp Cotubic, a Christian camp east of Bellefontaine where his youth group was on retreat. It was his 18th birthday.
A preliminary coroner's report called it a suicide, but the lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court alleges that McCoy died as a result of his friends, who were white, pulling a prank on his birthday.
The lawsuit, seeking $25,000 in damages, claims four unidentified youths gave false statements to authorities, leading officials to believe McCoy had been depressed and suicidal.
"If this was a hanging, it was a lynching rather than a suicide," said Cliff Arnebeck, an attorney for McCoy's mother, Tonya Amoako-Okyere. Among his claims is that the civil rights of McCoy and his family were violated.
The lawsuit was filed against the four unidentified youths, four adults and the United Methodist church that sponsored the retreat, Church of the Messiah. It claims that authorities 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.
Church officials reached by The Associated Press said they were unable to comment on the lawsuit or the circumstances surrounding McCoy's death on the advice of their attorney.
A message seeking comment from Logan County Coroner Michael Failor was not returned.
McCoy's death has already drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose civil rights section closed an initial investigation into the matter last month.
In a letter to Amoako-Okyere, authorities said that they had determined they either lacked evidence or jurisdiction to pursue criminal charges but that she may want to pursue options in civil court.
Church of the Messiah, where McCoy was a member, is in the Columbus suburb Westerville. Bellefontaine is about 50 miles northwest of there.