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A father's quest

A lawyer sues his former client— a behavioral facility— when his own son dies under questionable circumstances
Attorney Charles Moody would be drawn into a battle with a former client — but in a way he never expected.
Attorney Charles Moody would be drawn into a battle with a former client — but in a way he never expected. Dateline NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

DALLAS, TEXAS— Charles Moody, a hard-charging attorney, made a name for himself by doggedly defending corporate giants against claims from the little guy.

For years, Moody was the hired gun for big psychiatric hospitals, defending them against abuse claims brought by aggrieved patients and sometimes grieving parents.

For Moody, it was nothing personal. He was just doing his job—at least that’s what he thought at the time. That meant battling someone like Judy Chandler, a mother and homemaker from a small town in Louisiana who suffered a heart-wrenching experience with her son.

Defending the Brown schools
Moody squared off in court with Chandler years ago on behalf of the Brown Schools, a national chain of treatment facilities for kids with emotional and behavioral issues. She was suing the Brown schools on behalf of her 18-year-old son, Brandon, who died in their care.

She hated Charles Moody and his team from the start. “Just naturally, I just couldn’t stand ‘em,” says Chandler. “They were the enemy, you know.”

For Moody, it was strictly business. It was another day in court and another case to win.

Judy Chandler sued the schools in an effort to hold someone accountable for the death of her only son: Brandon was a rambunctious, risk-taking kid who loved the outdoors and hunting and fishing. When he was 16, Brandon fell out of a moving pickup truck while drinking and suffered a head injury. He survived, but ended up with brain damage.

He had to re-learn everything, including walking and talking. Frustrated by his disability, Brandon developed anger issues. Eventually, experts said the best place for Brandon was the Brown Schools’ hospital in Austin.

He was there only a month when a doctor at the hospital called Judy with agonizing news. 

"He started telling me that Brandon had been combative that night. And that they had put him in a camisole [straight jacket]. Something had happened and he had started vomiting. And ended up aspirating on the vomit. And that Brandon had passed away," recalls Chandler of the day she received the news. "I kinda felt like I died myself."

Judy hired an attorney, did some investigating, and learned details of that horrible night. Then she faced off in court with Charles Moody and told her wrenching story.

She says Brandon had acted out and staff restrained him, she believes as punishment.

"What hurts so bad is to know what must Brandon have been thinking when they were holding him down. And he was just trying to get up," she says. "He was brain injured. And they weren’t. How could they have done that?"

But Charles Moody, on behalf of the Brown Schools, argued its counselors were well-trained and did their jobs and the death was simply a tragic accident.

In her lawsuit, Chandler claimed Brandon died because staff “failed to follow proper procedures” and failed to “properly attend” to her son. But Judy says the Brown schools — and their hired gun Charles Moody — tried to shift the blame to Brandon and indirectly to her.

"That was their defense — maybe he just wasn’t the great, wonderful child he should have been. Maybe if he’d have been a better person, none of this would have happened," says Chandler.

Settling out of court
But no jury would ever hear about Brandon and how he died, nor decide if anything was done wrong.

After seven years of legal wrangling and astronomical legal bills, Chandler was exhausted and decided to settle out of court.

"I do regret it," she says now. "But you reach a point where you think it’s enough. I got to stop. I’ve got go on with my life.'"

The Brown Schools never admitted fault in Brandon’s death — in essence, a victory for Moody. The company, however, did pay Chandler an undisclosed amount of money. 

"Anybody thinks, 'This is going to make you feel a little better. We made them pay.' But... it’s nothing. That’s the emptiest feeling I have ever felt in my life," she says.

And she says even a small gesture of kindness from Charles Moody felt hollow. After the settlement, Charles Moody walked up to Judy Chandler and put his hand on your shoulder and said something to her: He said, “Miss Chandler, I really did think you were a good mother."

Nothing would bring her son back, yet Chandler thought she at least had forced some changes to prevent another death like Brandon’s. In fact she said Brown schools executive assured her that things would be different.

But it did happen again to another teenaged boy much like Brandon who died nearly the same way in another Brown Schools facility.

Charles Moody would be drawn into this battle, too— but in a way he never expected.

By the summer of 2002, attorney Charles Moody had put the case of Judy Chandler and her son Brandon’s death at the Brown schools facility behind him.

Moody's son goes off to a Brown school
Charles had other things on his mind— for starters, his own son, Chase.

Ever since he was a toddler, Chase was a gregarious, outgoing child. He loved to joke around and he loved sports—especially basketball. At one point, he dreamed of becoming a pro-ball player.

But throughout his life, Chase had battled hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. Just as he turned 17 and was about to start his senior year in high school his behavior changed, like a lot of teenagers. He became angry and defiant, especially with his mother and step-dad who he lived with. And he began turning to drugs.

Chase’s mother, Lisa Waite, was concerned her son was becoming addicted. Waite, a teacher, sent Chase to a string of drug and alcohol treatment centers. But those counselors told her what Chase needed most was to learn how to control his hair-trigger temper. Lisa thought she’d found the ideal place — a therapeutic wilderness camp called On Track.    

Charles knew nothing about On Track, but he knew plenty about the company that owned and ran it: the Brown Schools.

Charles said he had been confident about the Brown Schools in the past, but he was no longer doing work for them. Nonetheless, he reminded his ex-wife of the death and urged her to look carefully at On Track.

His ex-wife, Lisa, researched the program extensively on the Internet and talked to professionals and heard glowing recommendations. She even quizzed the staff face to face.

A decision was made. Chase would come to this wilderness camp for kids with behavioral problems nestled on a 6,000-acre wildlife preserve near Austin, Texas. The nearly month-long program, billed as learning through nature wasn’t cheap: $8,500 in cash up front.

Within a couple of days, Chase started writing letters home. It seemed the program was already working. He was eager to come home and get his life back on course.

Another struggle, another death
Chase was supposed to be there for 28 days. But suddenly, on the sixth night, in the middle of the night the phone rang at Lisa’s house... and then at Charles’ house. It was the director of On Track.

The Brown Schools said Chase got angry, then violent, and he died in a struggle with counselors.

Charles said he knew there was a lot more they were not saying. And because he’d represented the Brown Schools for years, he said he knew what they’d likely say next — they’d try to blame the victim: “If Chase had been a better kid... if he’d not resisted the counselors... maybe he’d still be alive.”

After all, that’s what happened in Judy Chandler’s case. But Charles said he wouldn’t let that happen this time.

"Chase was a good kid," says Moody. "He had his problems, but he deserved to live. He wanted it. He went for help. They took it away. He worked hard and a stupid decision, just like that, he’s gone."

In a terrible sense of deja vu to Chandler and her son’s death, Charles Moody had become the grieving parent — and he began to feel what it was like to be on the other side.

"It’s one thing to be a lawyer and you feel for your clients and you feel for the other side even, but you’re not there in it. And now, I’m in it," says Moody. "And I can understand a little more, I think, of what Judy Chandler must have felt like."

Chandler, in fact heard the news about Chase’s death in her hometown near Bossier City, La. Her initial thought? "I thought, 'God I hope that poor man doesn’t think he’s getting pay back,'" she says. "It's heartbreaking and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody."

Judy sat down and put pen to paper in a letter to Charles. In her letter, she expressed how sorry she was for him and his family and mailed off her letter.

"He was a lawyer. He was doing his job. He had nothing to do with Brandon dying," she says. "He wasn’t there. He’s not to blame and God love him. He lost his son. And I knew exactly how he felt," says Chandler.

Investigations into Chase's restraint death
Back in Texas, the state launched an investigation. But Moody wanted to do something too: So he launched one of his own. "I felt like that if I didn’t do something that this was just going to be swept under the rug," he says.

Moody learned a lot about what happened that night through statements that witnesses at the scene gave state investigators. The Brown Schools called the death an accident, but Moody said witnesses, including other children at the camp, told a different story.

"This was a mugging in my mind," says Moody.

So what triggered it all? It turns out, it was something so ordinary. Moody was told that his son broke the rules by talking in his tent after lights out. The counselors ordered him to sleep outside. He got angry and yelled racial slurs.

"They got up in Chase’s face. They got in a confrontation and they started getting in a verbal sparring match," says Moody of what he found out in his own investigation.

Remember, Chase was at On-Track precisely to learn how to control his anger. But witnesses reported counselors did nothing to calm him and actually seemed to provoke his anger by yelling back at him and grabbing him from behind.

The counselors said they were trying to get Chase under control by holding him standing up, but Chase fought back. And at 6 feet 2 inches and athletic — Chase was too tall and too strong and they all fell to the ground. Chase was face down struggling to breathe, all in the pitch dark.

Mental health experts say children should not be restrained unless they pose a danger to themselves or others. In Texas, a face-down restraint with any pressure that blocks the airway is illegal.

Charles said witnesses stated that the three men held Chase face down on the ground for nearly 30 minutes before they radioed the local sheriff’s department for help. It took a deputy another 20 minutes to reach the remote campsite at night. 

The deputy called for help, staffers did CPR, but it was too late. Chase was dead by the time EMS arrived at around 9 p.m.

The Travis County Medical examiner ruled the cause of death as traumatic asphyxiation: The pressure on his body from being restrained caused him to throw up and he choked on his own vomit.

The Brown Schools disagreed and hired its own medical expert who claimed Chase died from “excited delirium syndrome” where his heart stopped because of his high state of excitement.

State investigators weigh in
Meanwhile, state investigators issued a damning report which alleged 28 violations of state regulations in connection with Chase’s death. The state found that the actions of On Track’s three counselors’ resulted in Chase’s death. The report said the three counselors performed an inappropriate restraint, and belittled Chase and subjected him to “cruel and unusual punishment.”  Investigators further stated that there was not an emergency sufficient to justify the restraint.

Despite the findings, no fines or sanctions were brought against the counselors or the company after Chase’s death.

Neither Brown Schools officials nor the counselors or their attorneys would meet with Dateline to discuss the case. The company appealed the state’s findings and made several statements about Chase’s death, including this one:

"The death of a student last year in the On Track program is a tragedy that profoundly saddens us and our sympathies remain with his family. At the same time, we know that our staff acted appropriately in very difficult circumstances. These are caring men who were devoted to helping the young people in their charge and they were properly trained to do their job."

To that Moody disagrees. "These were untrained individuals who, I don’t believe were caring. If they’d have been caring, they’d have been watching my son’s breathing."

In fact, Moody eventually discovered that the three counselors had neither the professional work experience nor the college education required by the Brown Schools’ own hiring policy.  One worked in a grocery store, another ran a convenience store and worked on septic tanks. The third graduated from high school and was hired on by On Track as a night watchman. It’s unclear, what, if any, training the three got in the use of restraints.

But now, even after the damning state report, Charles Moody found his legally-trained mind was filled with a haunting question: He knew Brandon Hadden had died in 1988 and now in 2002 his own son was dead. Were there other children who died this way?

The answer to that question would turn out to be far worse that he’d ever imagined.

16 deaths, no one criminally accountable
Less than six months had passed since he buried his only son, Charles Moody was fluctuating between being depressed and being on the warpath against his former client.

Nothing had happened to the Brown Schools in the wake of the state’s damning investigation into his son’s death — no criminal charges, no fines. So, Charles Moody, along with family and friends, marched to the Capitol of Texas to go public with his outrage.

He was invited to testify in favor of a bill imposing criminal penalties in restraint deaths. "I think my son’s death, like many of these kids' deaths, are entirely preventable," Moody said in his testimony.

Once there, he met families of other victims, parents just like himself who’d lost their kids after being physically restrained.

Like Holly Steele’s 9-year-old son, Randy, who died in a Brown Schools hospital in San Antonio when he was held face down for throwing a tantrum and refusing to take a bath. Her son’s death helped change Texas laws to prohibit face-down holds. 

It turns out that Chase was the 16th child to die in a restraint like that in Texas since 1988 — the fifth at a Brown Schools facility. Within weeks of Chase’s death, the state cancelled its lease with On Track, so the Brown Schools closed the program and its campsite. 

With On Track out of business, the state took no action against the Brown Schools beyond its damning report. The Brown Schools appealed, but officials say 26 of the 28 critical findings against it were upheld. The state also upheld the findings against the counselors, who had denied wrongdoing.

The local district attorney presented information to a grand jury, but never called the three counselors to testify and the grand jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.

Moody says there’s something wrong with the system when 16 children die in psychiatric and behavioral facilities and no one is held criminally accountable. He says he had to fight for some kind of accountability. So he did what lawyers do — he sued everyone involved in his son's death, including his former client, the Brown Schools.

"I’ll never win," he says of his lawsuit. "The only way I could win is if my son came home. There is no victory in this."

Chandler and Moody meet again, under different circumstances
Since Chase’s death, Charles says he’s often thought of Judy Chandler and her son’s death. He hadn’t spoken to her since he got her kind note after Chase died. But through "Dateline," the two former enemies in court came together again... this time as parents offering comfort to one another.  

Judy Chandler: Hello..Charles Moody: Hi. Judy? Charles Moody... sorry we had to meet like this again. Chandler: I wish there was something I could do for either one of you. Moody: Just you thinking of us made us feel really much better.

Charles and his wife, Tina, thanked Judy for the heartfelt letter she’d sent shortly after Chase died.

Judy, in turn, thanked him for the comforting words he’d spoken to her after her case was settled long ago.

Chandler: I just wanted you to know I knew how you felt. And you were kind to me that day. Just saying what little you said to me. And I didn’t want you to think that since you defended them, that I had any, any hard feelings. Moody: Well, I appreciate it. Chandler: You give them hell. Moody: Believe me, I’m going to. Chandler: Oh, I hope you do.

A time to heal
For more than a year, Moody fought hard against the Brown Schools. But like Judy Chandler, he concluded the emotional cost of a drawn-out legal battle was too high — so he, too, settled out of court with everyone involved.

Like a lot of civil cases, the exact terms of the settlement were private, but "Dateline" learned that Charles and his ex-wife got an undisclosed amount of money. There was no admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.

The Brown Schools declined comment on the legal action, but Charles said he believes there’s been a big change in the company’s attitude.

"It appears to me that there’s a different corporate mindset and it’s a caring corporate mindset," says Moody.

Moody and his family have moved from Dallas to a farm in Tennessee, where he’s re-thinking his career as a lawyer and spending more time with his family — and taking time to heal.

Just being around the horses and riding reminds Moody of the cherished time he spent with his son outdoors and riding carefree into the wind.

The Brown Schools filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.