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Sheriff 'disappointed' in guards
May 05, 2004 12:00 am
Sheriff Terry Ashe has for the first time publicly criticized three former employees who pleaded guilty to charges arising from a federal investigation of the Wilson County Jail.
At the same time Ashe defended the air of silence he has maintained over the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice probe, saying he has been instructed by federal authorities not to discuss the investigation.
"I cannot comment on the investigation," Ashe said yesterday, the same response he's offered repeatedly when asked about the probe.
Characterized by federal officials as an investigation into alleged civil rights violations, three former jailers have already pleaded guilty as a result of the inquiry, launched by the January 2003 head injury death of inmate Walter S. Kuntz, 43, which was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner.
At least two other former corrections officers are widely considered targets of the probe, according to numerous sources as well as statements FBI agents entered into the court record last November, when the first of the former jailers pleaded guilty.
At that time former corrections officer William Westmoreland pleaded guilty to assaulting an inmate while a one-time co-worker, Travis Bradley, pleaded guilty to charges of falsifying official reports and lying to investigators.
Just last month Officer John McKinney resigned shortly before he too pleaded guilty to charges of falsifying official reports detailing altercations between guards and prisoners.
"I am so disappointed in them it's unimaginable," Ashe said of his three former workers yesterday, the first time he has publicly criticized the trio since they pleaded guilty.
However he declined to discuss the investigation further, again saying he is not allowed to comment publicly on the probe, which according to FBI statements has focused "primarily" on the jail's second shift.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Cohen, one of the federal prosecutors overseeing the probe, declined to comment when asked if Ashe had been instructed to remain silent on the investigation.
"I'm not going to comment one way or another," Cohen said. "I can't comment."
However at least two other local officials close to the investigation agreed that Ashe has likely been advised by federal authorities to remain silent until the investigation is complete.
"He can't say anything right now," District Attorney General Tommy Thompson said. "Basically under the rules the federal system utilizes regarding the grand jury and other witnesses and so forth, he's not allowed to discuss the investigation at all."
Thompson – who in a recent speech was mildly critical of jail officials, saying he believes some prisoners have been abused and that Ashe "maybe… should have known" of the incidents – predicted the sheriff would freely discuss the investigation upon its conclusion.
"I think he'll have plenty to say when it's finally over and I think it's important to remember, until then, that the sheriff asked for this investigation in the first place," Thompson said. "Certainly it wouldn't be proper for him to ask for an independent investigation and then go around making public comments on it before it's finished."
County Attorney Mike Jennings said that regardless of whether Ashe was directly ordered by federal authorities to remain silent, "It's never a good idea to start making public statements about a grand jury investigation that's still going on."
"We don't really know where the grand jury is with its investigation and it just wouldn't be proper for the sheriff to make any comments about it while it's still underway," Jennings said. "That doesn't mean he or anybody else has done anything wrong or is under any suspicion by any means. It's just that when a grand jury is in session, silence is the general rule. In almost every situation, the less said, the better."
Jennings also noted that the jail has been hit with several federal civil suits alleging brutality within the jail, at least four of which are still pending, which he said makes it even more difficult for Ashe to speak out.
"It's just not a good idea to go around making public statements until you know where things stand. That would be my advice to any private client and that's my advice to the county in this situation," Jennings said.
In addition to the three former officers who have already pleaded guilty, two other one-time jailers have been widely identified as targets of the probe.
One guard, Cpl. Gary Hale, has remained on suspension since the investigation began, though his attorney, Frank Lannom of Lebanon, has repeatedly said he expects his client to eventually be exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Statements by FBI agents at the time implicated two other jailers, Sgt. Patrick Marlowe and Officer Shane Conatser, who is still employed at the jail. Marlowe resigned shortly after the probe began, reportedly telling supervisors he was "tired of the hassle" it created. Though Marlowe has been identified by numerous sources as a target of the probe, neither he nor Conatser have been charged.