David Hess died at the hands of staffers at Wordsworth, a residential treatment center for troubled young people, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office said Friday as it pronounced the teen's death a homicide.

Hess, 17, of Lebanon, Pa., died of suffocation, an autopsy found. His death at the West Philadelphia facility last year followed a fight with staffers who accused him of stealing an iPod and went to his room in search of it.

Related stories

In the confrontation that followed, three staffers restrained Hess, who grew agitated as they flipped over his bed and tossed furniture around, according to a report on the incident by the state Department of Human Services. One held his legs while another repeatedly punched his ribs, the report said.

At one point, Hess began gasping for breath, saying, "Get off me, I can't breathe," witnesses who heard his screams later told state investigators.

James Garrow, a spokesman for the Medical Examiner's Office, said Friday that an autopsy concluded that Hess died from a lack of oxygen.

No one has been charged in Hess' Oct. 13 death, which is under investigation by Philadelphia police and the Department of Human Services. The missing iPod was eventually found in a soap box in Hess' room.

In a statement, Garrow said the autopsy's conclusion was that "one or more people caused the death." He added, "It is not a determination of criminality. It is the role of the District Attorney's Office to determine if these actions were crimes and, if so, if there is sufficient evidence to charge any person(s) with a crime."

Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, declined to comment Friday, saying the case was under investigation.

Officials at Wordsworth on Friday called the teen's death tragic and pledged to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials.

"Everyone at Wordsworth Academy was deeply saddened by the loss of this young man, and the medical examiner's finding underscores the tragic nature of this situation," board chairman Tom Johnson said in a statement. "Our thoughts continue to be with his family and friends during this difficult time."

Hess' death led state officials to close the West Philadelphia facility days after the incident, saying it posed "a serious danger to the health and safety of residents."

Johnson said Wordsworth had taken steps to improve its services in recent months, including installing a new chief executive officer, Diana Ramsay, who took the helm last month. She replaced Debra Lacks, who left after eight years. Lacks could not be reached for comment Friday. Johnson and other Wordsworth officials have declined to comment on her departure.

In his statement, Johnson said Wordsworth remained committed to its "vital mission - to transform children's lives in positive and meaningful ways."

Word that Hess' death had been ruled a homicide was the latest blow for Wordsworth. It follows the December arrest of former staffer Isaac Outten, who was charged with sexually assaulting three girls in the program. Police say he repeatedly assaulted the girls, ages 15 to 17, luring them to the basement for sex and forcing them to take naked selfies with his iPhone.

Outten, 37, of Henrico, Va., has pleaded not guilty to institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, and other crimes, and is awaiting trial.

Before ordering the facility to shut down, state officials repeatedly cited Wordsworth for violations that included unsafe building conditions, training lapses, and earlier instances of improper restraints. After the girls reported the sexual assaults, DHS ordered Wordsworth to step up security and surveillance in the building.

In addition to the now-shuttered treatment facility, Wordsworth offers educational programs, mental health services, and foster care, and does case-management work for the city Department of Human Services.

nphillips@phillynews.com
215-854-2254
@PhillipsNancy

Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.