Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Secretary details what he calls officers' 'despicable acts'

By Bill Cotterell

Florida Capital Bureau Political Editor The head of the state's prison system said Tuesday that some fired correctional officers at a Southwest Florida prison sadistically abused inmates with ''heinous and despicable acts'' including homosexual assault and beatings.

An attorney for the eight former officers facing criminal charges said his clients were innocent and the allegations weren't supported by the charges filed.

Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough said seven former guards at Hendry Correctional Institution were charged with 11 counts of battery and 11 counts of failing to report incidents. An eighth man was accused of grand theft involving recycling of copper wiring. In March, McDonough fired 13 Hendry officers and accepted resignations from the warden and assistant warden during an investigation of an inmate beating and its raucous aftermath.

McDonough said the remote location of the Hendry prison, a code of support among the officers and the number involved contributed to an attitude that officers could get away with ''disgusting'' things.

He was graphic.

''We had cases where inmates were compelled, under threat of force, to clean a commode with their tongues,'' said McDonough. ''We had cases, substantiated administratively, where officers offered the inmate a choice between sexual acts upon the officer or other improper acts like eating food off the floor.

''And whenever choices were made, then brutality ensued. These were improper, illegal, heinous and despicable acts, and it was done apparently in an organized and conspiratorial fashion.''

Attorney Robert Hagaman, representing the eight men, said the charges of battery and failure to report incidents were misdemeanors. If the state had evidence of such brutality, he said, they would have faced felony charges.

''All of my clients say they are not guilty of these charges and certainly want to deal with them,'' Hagaman said. He said the eight had surrendered and were being processed for pre-trial release on Tuesday afternoon.

''I have heard nothing from the clients that anyone ever suggested they had done that,'' Hagaman said of McDonough's descriptions. ''When we have rumors floating around of certain things that have happened, we wait for the actual charge to see if what has been bandied around in the headlines actually filters down to an actual charge.

The case began March 14, when convicted killer Charles Gundlah said he was beaten and choked unconscious by four correctional officers. Sgt. Walter-Bruce Sooy pursued the allegations and McDonough fired four officers on March 15.

McDonough called the warden, assistant warden and Col. William Avant to Tallahassee to discuss conditions at the prison. He fired Avant on March 21, then Warden Carol Starling and Assistant Warden James Tridico resigned March 30.

McDonough said Avant hosted a party at his home on state grounds the night he was fired, with several officers attending. Threatening phone calls were made to the prison and some staff members left the party and went to the prison parking lot, threatening employees, McDonough said.

Sooy was promoted to major. McDonough fired eight more employees, seven of whom he said attended Avant's party, and demoted a captain to sergeant. He also reassigned a captain and a chaplain.

During the investigation, McDonough said Tuesday, agents scoured inmate abuse complaints and developed ''a matrix'' of how many times officers were accused. He said some patterns emerged.

''It was as if a series of events had transpired very quickly, that was large neon sign that said, 'Look at us, look at us, look at us,' '' said McDonough.

''So we followed the sign and looked at the people who had come under suspicion.''

The former officers charged in the case were Sgt. Randy Hazen, two counts of battery and failure to report incidents; Sgt. Phillip Barger, two counts of each offense; Sgt. William Thiessen, three counts of battery and three counts of failure to report; and Officer Gabriel Cotilla, one count each. They were the four fired March 15 in the Gundlah beating.

Sgt. James Brown was charged with one count of grand theft. He was fired March 28 after the party.

The DOC said the others charged with battery and failure to report incidents were former Officer Kevin Filipowicz, one count each; Sgt. Stephen Whitney, one count each; and Officer Ruben Ibarra, one count each.

While pleading innocent to the criminal charges, the men can also appeal their dismissals through the Police Benevolent Association. A PBA attorney said Tuesday he has not yet received the DOC internal investigation report on the incidents for appeals to the Public Employees Relations Commission.

McDonough also said his legal staff ''has had discussions'' with the U.S. Attorney and FBI about possible federal civil-rights violations in the case.Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough displays a spreadsheet of inmate-abuse allegations Tuesday during a news conference announcing criminal charges against eight former employees of a Hendry County prison.

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