In 2015, four cases of alleged abuse in the Jackson County jail sparked investigation
Four former Jackson County jail guards have been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the July 4, 2015, beating of an inmate who posed no threat to them, allegedly in retaliation for a previous incident at the facility in downtown Kansas City.
They were the first charges to arise out of an FBI investigation announced in August 2015 into multiple allegations of guards assaulting shackled prisoners at the Jackson County Detention Center.
Charged in the indictment unsealed Friday were Travis Hewitt, 27, Dakota Pearce, 24, Terrance Dooley Jr., 36, and Jen-I Pulos, 36, all of Kansas City. The four-count indictment was made public after the arrests and initial court appearances of Hewitt and Pulos, according to Tom Larson, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, and Tom Wheeler, acting assistant attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
Pearce and Dooley were said to be making arrangements to turn themselves in as of Friday afternoon.
According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to beat an inmate identified only as J.R., because J.R. had been in an altercation with another guard earlier in his stay at the detention center, 1300 Cherry St.
“The defendants, defying the orders of a superior officer, forcibly removed J.R. from his cell in the Medical Housing Unit and brought him to another holding cell down the hall in order to facilitate their assault on him,” the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City said in describing the indictment’s allegations. “There, as the indictment charges, all four defendants struck, punched and otherwise assaulted J.R., who was handcuffed, shackled, confined to a cell, suffering from disorientation and confusion, and not posing a threat to anyone.”
One of the guards allegedly served as a lookout and sent other corrections officers away while the assault took place, the indictment said. Hewitt and Pearce were also charged with a separate assault of J.R.
Hewitt is also charged with falsifying a report, claiming that J.R. bit his hand when the injury was allegedly a result of hitting the inmate, who was being held for an alleged probation violation.
No court date has been set.
This isn’t the first time a jail guard has been charged with using excessive force against prisoners.
Federal civil rights charges were filed against a Jackson County guard in July 2015 in connection with an alleged assault on an inmate in 2011. But those charges were dropped recently after he was tried twice and each time the jury failed to reach a verdict. That guard had been accused of stomping on the head of a retained prisoner multiple times.
Federal officials declined to say who J.R. is, but the events described in Friday’s indictment closely match allegations made in a lawsuit filed in 2015. An attorney for James J. Ramirez was attempting to access records in anticipation of filing a lawsuit. Ramirez, then 35, was severely injured, the court filing said, by guards who allegedly beat him on July 4 that year.
After the beating, he was hospitalized for treatment of what had been described as an “altered mental status.”
It was only after hospital personnel learned the extent of his physical injuries — broken ribs, three cracked vertebrae, a collapsed lung, cuts and bruises — that the Jackson County corrections officers who brought him to the hospital acknowledged the beating that caused them, according to that 2015 court filing.
The detention center has been the subject of multiple investigations the past two years. In addition to the FBI probe into allegations of physical abuse of prisoners by guards, former U.S. District Attorney Todd Graves is conducting an investigation on behalf of the county into lax security that allowed inmates to commit two sexual assaults on other prisoners without detection last August.
The county paid out $275,000 in January to settle one claim arising from those incidents.
County officials disclosed the existence of the FBI probe in the summer of 2015.
Joe Piccinini, then acting director of the county Department of Corrections, said at the time that his own preliminary investigation turned up four video-recorded instances in 2015 of male inmates who posed no threat and were physically abused by a special unit of jail guards known as the Correctional Emergency Response Team.
Their injuries ranged from bruises to the multiple fractures sustained by the man in the July 4, 2015, incident described in the indictment.
Piccinini said at the time that four guards thought to have caused those injuries were removed from the payroll, but county officials declined to say whether they were fired or resigned.
After that initial news coverage, other former jail detainees told The Star that they had been physically abused as well.
Then-County Executive Mike Sanders appointed a citizens task force at the time to evaluate jail conditions and operations. The report issued that fall made a number of recommendations, among them increased pay for guards and improvements in medical staffing.
But problems remain under current County Executive Frank White. A 53-year-old woman being held on an alleged probation violation died in January from a ruptured aorta after nurses apparently failed to recognize the seriousness of her condition.
In a statement issued late Friday, White said he welcomed the federal government’s attention to problems at the jail.
“I would like to personally thank and commend the men and women of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the United States Attorney’s Office for their tireless and professional work,” White said. “We will continue to assist federal authorities in this matter and are confident that those responsible will be held accountable.”
Federal officials did not say whether other charges will be filed in connection with other incidents, only that the FBI “will continue to work aggressively to pursue any and all allegations of civil rights violations.”
But county officials have been expecting the Justice Department to issue a report describing the findings of an investigation that dates back at least two years.