Government & Politics

Jailhouse beating that FBI investigated ends in large settlement

James Ramirez says in a new lawsuit that he was beaten by four guards in 2015 at the Jackson County Detention Center at 1300 Cherry St.
James Ramirez says in a new lawsuit that he was beaten by four guards in 2015 at the Jackson County Detention Center at 1300 Cherry St. The Star file photo

The jailhouse beating that was the catalyst for an ongoing FBI investigation of the Jackson County jail led to a settlement Monday in a lawsuit filed by the inmate who was assaulted.

Former inmate James J. Ramirez contended in his lawsuit that he was the helpless target of a savage beating by guards that left him with nine broken ribs, fractured wrists and a collapsed lung.

Attorneys for Ramirez say their client was disoriented and going through alcohol withdrawal on July 4, 2015, when he was attacked twice by guards, four of whom are now under federal indictment for allegedly violating Ramirez’ civil rights.

The county settled with Ramirez for $437,500.

According to the suit, the alleged assaults reflected a brutal culture among staff at the Jackson County Detention Center, where there was “a widespread pattern of using excessive force against JCDC inmates.”

Initial reports of the attacks also provided the first public glimpse into what has been described as a dysfunctional institution where, according to court filings unrelated to this case, guards and detainees alike are subject to assaults, rape, and filthy conditions

Allegations of corruption by jail staff have also surfaced. Two weeks ago, some 200 law officers raided the jail in downtown Kansas City in search of contraband on the same day that federal officials accused two guards of accepting bribes from detainees in exchange for smuggling in illicit cellphones, cigarettes and illegal drugs.

In addition to Jackson County, defendants named in the Ramirez lawsuit include the correctional officers accused of administering the beatings, a guard who allegedly stood by and kept watch during the first of the two assaults, as well as the top officials in charge of the Corrections Department: Deputy Director Rex Tarwater and then-acting Director Joe Piccinini, who now holds that post on a permanent basis.

As supervisors, they should have done more to counter guards’ use of excessive force, the lawsuit said, and replaced broken and missing surveillance cameras that allowed the second of the two alleged assaults to go undetected.

The lawsuit is one of many filed by former inmates in recent months. However, it appears to be the first one addressing guards’ alleged use of excessive force toward inmates since county officials announced in August 2015 that the FBI was looking into that.

While Ramirez wasn’t named as the victim at the time of the early press briefing that began to raise attention about the jail, nor in the federal indictment, his injuries and the alleged circumstances behind them match the incident that county officials said led to the FBI probe.

The Star also published his name two months after the beating when Jackson County sued to prevent Ramirez’s attorney from accessing records, saying it would impede the then-pending federal investigation of his case.

A series of incidents and revelations since then — including at least three inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults and one death that raised questions about the sufficiency of medical care — have led to subsequent investigations and provoked county officials to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants. A suit alleging that lax security led to an inmate’s sexual assault resulted in a $275,000 settlement earlier this year.

On Monday, for the third time in recent months, the county Legislature went into private session Monday with the legislative auditor to get updates on those consultants’ findings.

One firm is evaluating the jail’s operations, while another is taking a look at the conditions of the 33-year-old, red brick tower and its newer annex at 1300 Cherry St.

Some of the findings from those audits are expected to be released to the public next month, and could provide context to now-informal discussions on whether to build a new jail or expand the current one.

The operations study could also provide a guide County Executive Frank White in the short term on how best to improve the security and treatment of the more than 900 detainees there on any particular day, not to mention the security of jail staff.

A guard was hospitalized last week after she was attacked by an inmate.

According to the Ramirez lawsuit, he was being held on a Benton County warrant for an alleged probation violation when he was set upon by the three guards: Travis Hewitt, Dakota Pearce and Terrance Dooley Jr.

They slammed him into the cinder block wall, the lawsuit said, punched him repeatedly and pinned him to the floor with knees to his back and neck as other guards allegedly laughed.

The attack ended when another guard, one named as a defendant, allegedly signaled that a supervisor was approaching.

Hewitt, Pearce and guard Jen-I Pulos resumed beating Ramirez later that night, the suit said. Nine hours after the first attack, Ramirez was admitted to Truman Medical Center at 4 a.m. July 5, 2015, with multiple bruises, the broken wrists and ribs, collapsed lung and and three fractured vertebrae.

In addition to surveillance camera evidence, the lawsuit said, the attack was documented by another correctional officer who reported the abuses in a written statement. While that document is part of the court filing at Jackson County Circuit Court, the judge in the case has ordered it be kept under seal.

County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks