CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Benjamin Hill was 15 years old when he went into the Industrial Home for Youth, West Virginia's only maximum-security correctional facility for juveniles. He had pleaded guilty to third-degree sexual assault and was sent to the Doddridge County facility after not following the program at another facility.
When he left the Industrial Home for Youth, it was in a body bag.
His grandmother and legal guardian, Nancy Szilvasi, has been trying to figure out what happened since Feb. 23, 2009, the day Benjamin Hill died.
"I want to know how he died," Szilvasi said. "I will tell you this, six months before he died he just looked me in the eyes and said, 'Mom, you know I'm going to die in here.' I said, 'Oh, no you're not. You're too young to die.' But that's what happened."
An autopsy from the state Medical Examiner's Office listed Hill's death as a result of undetermined causes.
West Virginia State Police Cpl. S.D. Swiger investigated Hill's death and found nothing. A video camera pointed at Hill's cell shows no one entering or leaving from the time Hill went in until he was found dead, Swiger said.
"There was no sign of foul play, no sign of a struggle, no marks on the body," Swiger said. "He just died. ... Believe you me, I wish I had more answers."
So does the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Steve Canterbury, the court's administrative director, said many judges and justices are concerned not only about Hill's death, but also about a number of irregularities that have been reported from the Industrial Home for Youth.
Canterbury, who was the regional jail system's director from 1997 to 2005, directed construction of $420 million in new jails and other secure facilities, including new construction at the Industrial Home for Youth.
Denny Dodson, deputy director of the state's Division of Juvenile Services, said he and the staff at the facility are always looking to improve treatment there.
"We have some good people there. Let me say that loud and clear," Dodson said. "But Salem is a small town and it's a 200-bed facility. That's a lot of staff needed for that facility. ... It's hard to find good-quality people."
Hill 'had a discoloration to him,
like he was oxygen deprived'
Benjamin Hill was 15 when he admitted to Szilvasi that he had fondled an 8-year-old boy, and that he'd made the boy fondle him. Szilvasi took Hill to the police, where he turned himself in. He pleaded guilty to a third-degree sexual assault charge. Hill also admitted that he'd committed similar acts with two other boys. Those cases didn't get resolved before Hill died.
Szilvasi, a social worker, said she knew the teenager she thought of as a son needed treatment.
"He was highly intelligent. He could read by the age of 2," she said. "But he was a difficult child to raise. He was stubborn, had a problem with authority."
Hill was first admitted to Sam Perdue Juvenile Center in Princeton but, after about six months, was sent to the Industrial Home for Youth.
"He didn't work the program [at Sam Perdue]," she said.
While Hill was at Sam Perdue, his grandfather (Szilvasi's ex-husband) died in a January 2007 apartment fire in Huntington, with eight other people.
Hill had to identify his grandfather's body, Szilvasi said. The experience was terribly traumatic for him and likely exacerbated his emotional and mental problems, she said.
"He would never talk about it," she said. "The only thing he said was that that was the last picture I'll have of my pop."
She said Hill also admitted around that time that he had been sexually abused, when he was 12. The boy who'd abused him was about 18 and has never been prosecuted, she said.
Once in Salem, Hill was beat up at least twice, Szilvasi said. He met a boy in there, whom he liked, she said.
"He talked about how they wanted to get an apartment together when they got out," she said.
But Hill continued to not do what was asked of him inside, to work his treatment programs. He was threatened with being transferred to adult status and to the Mount Olive Correctional Center, something that terrified the small-framed, gay 18-year-old.
At one point, Hill threatened to commit suicide, his grandmother said.
"He was petrified of being transferred," she said.
Once he found out he was going to stay at the Industrial Home, though, Hill started being more cooperative, she said. He also got saved at a church service there.
"That changed Benjamin," Szilvasi said. "He was working his program, not acting out."
However, on Feb. 23, 2009, a young State Police trooper knocked on Szilvasi's door and told her that her son was dead.
Szilvasi was devastated.
"It just ... I couldn't believe it," she said. "The trooper was very kind. He sat on the floor and held my hand until someone came to be with me."