Wednesday April 25, 2007, 3:28 pm
James McCoy III, a member of Church of the Messiah in suburban Westerville, was found hanging from a tree last April 22 in a remote area of Camp Cotubic, a Christian camp east of Bellefontaine where his youth group was on retreat. It was his 18th birthday.

News reports at the time said authorities were told McCoy had inexplicably wandered off from the group and that his friends were confused and shocked by his death. A preliminary coroner's report called the death a suicide.

But a lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court alleges that the boy died as a result of his friends, who were white, playing a version of a choking game on him as a birthday prank.

The lawsuit, seeking $25,000 in damages, claims that four unidentified youths gave false statements to authorities after the incident, leading officials to believe McCoy had been depressed and suicidal, and later created false writings to back up their story.

"If this was a hanging, it was a lynching rather than a suicide," said Cliff Arnebeck, an attorney for McCoy's mother, Tonya Amoako-Okyere.

The suit further claims that four unnamed authorities involved in responding to the incident were negligent in monitoring the youth outing, failed to quickly resuscitate McCoy and never investigated whether he might have been the victim of racial violence.

Church officials reached by The Associated Press said they were unable to comment on the lawsuit or the circumstances surrounding McCoy's death on the advice of their attorney. A message seeking comment from Logan County Coroner Michael Failor was not returned.

McCoy's death has already drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose civil rights section closed an initial investigation into the matter last month. In a letter to Amoako-Okyere, authorities said they had determined they either lacked evidence or jurisdiction to pursue criminal charges but that she may want to pursue options in civil court.

Bellefontaine is about 50 miles northwest of Columbus.