Augusta, GA (WJBF) - Sounds of crying broken up by sniffles are not the typical echoes you hear at a city park and recreation center. On Friday, the only sound louder than the cries of a little brother who misses his hero were the demands of community activists as they fight for answers related to the death of a child.
12-year-old Melquan Robinson died after he was electrocuted by a fence at Augusta's Fleming Park in October. Now, activists stand with his family and friends to demand justice for "Mr. Make it Happen."
Crystal Underwood was at the rally on Friday. Her family sued the city and county in the early 90's because she says she was shocked at the same park.
NewsChannel 6 talked to Capt. Jimmy Wylds about that June night in 1991. Capt. Wylds is currently with the Burke County Sheriff's Office and he is also a 40-year veteran of the Augusta Police Department and Richmond County Sheriff's Office. He says he remembers when a little girl was electrified by a fence at Fleming Park because he was there.
"I found a small blonde-headed girl laying in the grass and the best I remembered I pulled her from the grass onto the concrete because it was like there was something in the ground that didn't feel right," Capt. Wylds describes what he remembers from that night. "I remember her laying there and I was holding her hand. She'd been out of consciousness and had come back and she asked me if she was going to die and I said ‘no ma'am you're not going to die.'"
Crystal wanted to share her story right after Melquan's death, but says she did not have the paperwork to prove what she says happened. Crystal's mom Janet passed away last month. Following her death, Crystal dug through paperwork looking for something else. That is when she says she stumbled across the medical records and lawsuit documents from when her mom sued the city and the county in 1993. (the entities were separate prior to consolidation).
In court documents obtained by NewsChannel 6, you can read the county’s response to her family’s attorney. Their statement in a 1993 document said in part:
“The cause of the incident was determined to be underground ground wires that, within the 13 years since installation, (Fleming Complex opened in 1978), had become detached from the ground rods around the light poles. This was determined by excavating the area where the ground rods were and visually seeing the ground wires bad, rusted and corroded at the point where they met the rod and had become detached.”
The attorney who Crystal's mom hired-- Jacques Hawk-- who is still an active lawyer in the area today. Hawk gathered testimonies from multiple people involved in the 1991 investigation. He gathered recorded statements from the following people:
- Tony Wydell Miller, Sr.- Athletic Coordinator there the night of Crystal's accident
- Tom Beck - Assistant Parks & Recreation Director (at the time)
- John Bennett- Operations Manager for Parks & Recreation (at the time)
- James Adams- Superintendent of Electrical Department (at the time)
- Bill Goodwin- Georgia Power Representative (at the time)
A key testimony is missing. One can assume attorney Jacques Hawk would have also gathered an account from Fred Oaks. He was a foreman who court documents confirm completed work on Fleming Park following the June 1991 incident in which a child was electrified. However, Oaks never testified because he died before the Underwood's initiated the lawsuit in 1993.
According to testimonies from the above group of people, there were three reports of electrical issues at Fleming Park in the early 90s--the one where Crystal was the victim and two others. According to court documents, after Crystal's incident and one more, park employees were instructed to shut off the lights and call the electricians.
As is listed above, John Bennett was the Parks & Rec Operations Manager in 1991. His testimony confirms at least one other report of the fences or poles becoming charged in the past.
Bennett: "We had one incident, give or take four of five years ago, on the same ball field, field 4, and it was in the outfield, but it was on the other end. It was in left field or left center field."
Lawyer: And what happened then?
Bennett: We replaced the ballast and then there was no charge on the fence.
Later in his statement, Bennett says he, himself felt electricity passing through the fences or the poles at Fleming Park.
Lawyer: And when you say you felt it, how did you go about that?
Bennett: Just touching it with my hand.
Lawyer: Get a tingle?
Bennett: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: Was it painful?
Based on their investigation results, Crystal's family attorney asked if anybody ever contacted the folks who originally installed the lighting for Fleming Park. Bennett answers, "Not that I'm aware of." Also, when asked if Bennett ever talked to Crystal Underwood or her mother, he responded "no."
In Tom Beck's testimony (Assistant Parks & Recreation Director at the time), the lawyer asks what they found after inspecting the electrical mechanisms following the night of Crystal's injuries. Beck responds with the following:
"In checking the grounding mechanisms, we did find that the ground rods-- the grounding wires had become detached from the first one that we dug up right there at the pole closest to where the little girl was shocked, and the grounding rod-- the clamp around the grounding rod had all but disintegrated, which was not holding the grounding wire onto the rod, which meant the grounding mechanism was not-- no longer intact." -Tom Beck; 1991 Assistant Parks & Recreation Director
Later in his testimony, Beck describes the clamps as "very frayed," "rusted" and "not even functioning as a clamp." He goes on to respond that they did not keep the defective clamps.
Previously, the Underwood's lawyers requested pictures from the investigation. The response they received from the city and the county was that there were no pictures. The government entities also responded in legal documents that they did not have documentation from the night of the incident. However, Tony Wydell, the Athletic Coordinator later testified that he did in fact fill out an incident form and he gave it to his supervisor.
Lawyer: Who did you file the incident report with?
Wydell: Okay. With the-- our procedures with Richmond County Recreation & Parks is to file an incident report, get all the pertinent information that you need, and I turned it in to my supervisor.
Lawyer: And who would hav ea copy of that now?
Wydell: I think Mr. Tom Beck has a copy of that.
Laywer: Did you write it up just like you told me here today?
Wydell: Yes, sir.
Again, prior to the testimony from Wydell, the Athletic Coordinator who was there the day Crystal was injured, her attorneys requested documentation from the incident. The city and county responded that there was no documentation.
The government entities conducted an investigation to find out what went wrong to cause the fence at Fleming Park to become electrified in 1991. An attorney for Crystal's family asks Beck what they did after they determined the problem. He responded with the following:
"As a result of that we determined that the best thing to do was to go ahead and check all the grounding mechanisms at each one of the poles, not only that one. We did that and did replace all of the grounding mechanisms in the entire park." -Tom Beck; 1991 Assistant Parks & Recreation Director
Here in 2019, the aforementioned information brings up the question-- if all of the grounding mechanisms at each of the poles were replaced for the entire park back in 1991-- what went wrong in October of 2018 when Melquan Robinson was killed? Unfortunately, we do not have the answer to that question since city leaders have not released investigation results.
NewsChannel 6 reporter Ashley Osborne field a legal request under the Freedom of Information Act and asked for the investigation results. "No such documents exist" was the response from the legal department for the City of Augusta. NewsChannel 6 continues to work hard to bring you answers.
Back to the 1993 lawsuit. Beck explains to the Underwood's lawyers that he is not an electrician. He says he was involved in the investigation from a supervisory role as the Assistant Director of Parks & Rec. A lawyer asks Beck-- "were you ever out there involved in the actual repair, to be on-hands for that?" As his answer, Beck "(Indicates negatively.)" according to the transcript. In other words, Beck said he was not involved in the repair of the faulty clamps at Fleming Park in 1991, despite the fact that he was the Assistant Parks and Rec Director at the time.
James Adams, the Superintendent of the Electrical Department in 1991, was able to provide more details about the faulty clamps given he had the electrical knowledge that Beck lacked. Adams explained that electrical components should all consist of the same type of metal. In other words, if some pieces, then all pieces should be copper. However, during their investigation, they found that most of the components were copper, but the clamps were made of galvanized steel. Adams described that this kind of inconsistency can cause corrosion over time.
The lawyers also interviewed another electrical expert. Bill Goodwin was the Georgia Power Representative in 1991. In summary, Goodwin says he went to Fleming Park to assist with the investigation and give recommendations based on his expertise, but says he was limited in what he could actually do because the park is not Georgia Power property.
The testimony from Goodwin is very similar to Georgia Power's statement in 2018, which said the following:
"The county is conducting their investigation today at Fleming Park. No Georgia Power lines or equipment will be excavated or exposed. Anything related to the investigation should be directed to the county. Georgia Power’s preliminary investigation in October indicated that Georgia Power does not control or maintain the voltage that energized the fence at the complex, and we continue to assist local officials in their ongoing investigations." -GPC Statement following 2018 death of Melquan Robinson
There are no court documents to confirm a resolution to the lawsuit the Underwood’s filed in 1993. The last court filing shows a “leave of absence” request from an attorney in 1997, but the records department does not have any documents after that entry. A legal expert tells NewsChannel 6, in the past it was not uncommon for civil settlements to go unrecorded.
We emailed the legal department for the city of Augusta for a comment on this previous lawsuit.
The city administrator responded with the following statement:
"The tragic incident at Fleming Athletic Complex, which resulted in the loss of a child, is of great concern to us. Likewise, we recognize that members of our community are greatly concerned.
Since October, we have taken action to make our parks safer places for children and adults. We have contracted experts to review conditions of electrical systems at eight athletic facilities with similarities to Fleming. We have made repairs expeditiously. I believe appropriately, this work has taken priority over other work orders.
As you might realize, our current leadership team was not in place in 1991. We are gathering information about the incident, but we are not in a position to comment." -Janice Allen Jackson; Current Augusta Administrator
On Friday, NewsChannel 6 received an email from the City of Augusta requesting that we scan and send them our copy of the past Fleming Park lawsuit. NewsChannel 6 declined considering the lawsuit is a government document, filed in a government facility, overseen by government employees. We have since been informed that the city obtained a copy of the lawsuit for themselves.
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