Christopher Walter entered the Decker Lake Youth Facility an angry and hostile young man and died 14 months later. But Youth Corrections officials said Friday there were no visible signs of violence or suicide in his death. He died of natural causes.
A medical examiner's report showed Walter most likely died from cardiac arrhythmia, a deviation of the normal rhythm of the heart, Youth Corrections Director Gary Dalton said at a press conference.Walter died about 3 a.m. June 16.
The teen was placed in the West Valley youth correctional unit on an interstate compact from California in March 1995 for various crimes, including aggravated robbery, assault and carjacking. He also had gang ties.
But in the 14 months he was at Decker Lake, the juvenile equivalent of prison, the 18-year-old California native became an "ideal and model" resident, who, through a writing project, searched for answers about the injustice of racism. He was Hispanic; Walter was his adopted surname.
The teen also landed the leading role in a play that portrayed gang life as a dead end. He was so excited about the play that he insisted it continue and be performed despite several unforeseen interruptions.
But during this apparent change for the better, Walter died unexpectedly. Decker Lake staff found him dead inside his room after trying to wake him for breakfast.
Pat Lambert, an investigator with Youth Corrections, said Walter's heart was larger than an average heart of a young man his age, weighing 520 grams instead of the average weight of 400 grams.
Maureen Frikke of the state medical examiner's office reported to state Human Services officials that a preliminary autopsy found heart irregularities, and his left ventricle had a dark, black ring around it.
A final diagnosis is pending, but officials said the heart anomaly could have killed Walter at any age.
"He could have died when he was 7 or 23," Dalton said.
Decker Lake supervisor Salvador Mendez said Walter received a medical and physical examination upon entering the facility and had complained earlier about chest pains, but said there were "no problems whatsoever."
The incident has prompted officials to look at how they monitor health services, but Mendez said he didn't anticipate any sweeping changes.
"We're going to continue concentrating on our programs and increase our ongoing contacts with the youth," he said. "We're also looking at getting some cameras for the health center."
Dalton said Walter's death was the end of a series of tragedies in the young man's life.
At the age of 5, he and an older brother were taken away from their mother in California after she was put in jail for abusing her children, Dalton said. The boys did not know their father, and the mother was in and out of jail on drug charges.
After being separated from his brother, Walter stayed in numerous placements with relatives and in a group home in California. In 1993, he was adopted by Melody and Larry Walter, Roseville, Calif.
On Oct. 3, 1994, the Walters were killed when a Cessna single-engine plane they were flying in crashed 14 miles west of Milford, Beaver County.
Dalton said a wrongful-death lawsuit over those deaths is pending, and Walter was due to collect a substantial settlement.
After the plane crash, California refused to accept custody, so Christopher Walter became a ward of Utah, Dalton said. He was placed in custody of Youth Corrections after the aggravated robbery, assault and carjacking charges.
Walter, who was recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, was then released in May 1996 for a trial placement program with a family in Cedar City. He was brought back to Decker Lake on June 14 after marijuana was detected in a random drug test, Dalton said.
Funeral services and burial are pending, but will take place in Sacramento, Calif.