November 24, 2022

Liar officers go unpunished in 2018 inmate death

By JOHN O’CONNOR – AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Three former Illinois prison guards risk their lives behind bars after the fatal 2018 beating of a 65-year-old inmate in a case marked by unpunished lies from other correctional officers who continue to get pay raises, records obtained by The Associated Press and court documents show.

Juries convicted Department of Corrections officer Alex Banta in April and Lt. Todd Sheffler in August of federal civil rights violations largely due to the cooperation of the third, Sgt. Willie Heden. Hedden is hoping for a reduced sentence – even though he admitted lying about his involvement until he pleaded guilty 18 months ago.

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But Hedden’s account of what happened to Western Illinois Correctional Center inmate Larry Earvin on May 17, 2018, is not unique. Similar testimony was offered by six other correctional officers who still work at Mount Sterling jail, 400 kilometers southwest of Chicago.

Like Hedden, all admitted under oath that they initially lied to authorities investigating Earvin’s death, including the Illinois State Police and the FBI. They covered up the brutal beatings that took place and led to Earvin’s death six weeks later from blunt force trauma to his chest and abdomen, according to autopsy reports.

Documents obtained by the AP under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act indicate that none of the guards were punished for the cover-up. Although they admitted their indiscretions, the lieutenants. Matthew Lindsey and Blake Haubrich, sergeants. Derek Hasten, Brett Hendricks and Shawn Volk and Officer Richard Waterstraat thrived – three were promoted, one was on paid leave and, on average, they saw nearly 30% pay rises and benefit increases of retirement.

Even if they were laid off from their jobs now, they would keep the extra money from pay rises – tied to promotions or a contract deal – and the accompanying increases in pension benefits.

Phone numbers associated with agents are not connected or messages were not returned. None responded to a request through the Correctional Service to speak to them.

Corrections spokeswoman Naomi Puzzello said an internal review of the Earvin incident has been postponed until the federal investigation is complete. She promised that corrections would take “all appropriate measures” to punish misconduct. But it does not have the power “to take an employee’s former wages or interfere with a pension”, she said.

Banta and Sheffler are in federal custody, awaiting sentencing – Banta on Tuesday and Sheffler on January 6. Hedden’s sentencing has not been set.

Hedden testified in April that he attributed to ‘Western culture’ which called for roughing up troublemakers while escorting them to the segregation unit used to discipline inmates who break rules or threaten security from jail.

Western’s manager was replaced in 2020 as part of efforts that Gov. JB Pritzker said last spring were part of culture change, which also included initiatives to address the use of force and establish a more positive approach towards inmates.

Accountability, however, also matters, said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog.

“There is a disturbing lack of transparency around staff discipline as it relates to corrections,” Vollen-Katz said. “It’s really hard to have faith in culture change…when you have staff behaving like that and there seems to be little or no repercussion.”

The Department of Justice also has an interest. Lying to the FBI is a crime. Timothy Bass, the U.S. attorney’s lead prosecutor handling the case, said he couldn’t say if there would be any further prosecutions.

Officers whose stories only changed as the investigation intensified were clear about their reasons when they testified under oath at the trials.

“There’s an unwritten rule, the saying that ‘snitches get bitten…'” Volk said, explaining his lying interview with Illinois State Police the week after the Earvin incident. “You’re part of a brotherhood with everyone else and you don’t want to be the swinging guy.”

Lindsey was in charge of segregation that day and testified that he saw Hedden, Sheffler and Banta bring Earvin into the segregation unit vestibule, where there are no security cameras. He was among several witnesses who reported seeing Earvin punching, kicking and stomping before motioning for Sheffler through an interior window to stop.

Lindsey didn’t tell anyone what he saw. When the FBI called in late summer 2018, he lied for “fear of retaliation”, according to his recent testimony.

Since May 2018, Lindsey has been promoted and his salary has increased 42% to $105,756, according to records leaked by Corrections.

Hasten also said he was “just afraid of retaliation”, adding that his wife also worked at the prison. His salary rose 17% to nearly $79,000, even after he voluntarily changed to a lower-paying job at Western.

Hendricks and Volk were also in the segregation vestibule along with Sheffler, Hedden and Banta. Hendricks testified that he was shocked by the violence against Earvin, who was handcuffed behind his back and face down. But when asked why he lied to investigators, he admitted, “I didn’t want to report my colleague.”

Hendricks has since received a promotion and pay raises totaling almost 30%.

When state troopers spoke to Haubrich, they focused on Earvin’s brutal treatment that began in his lodgings. They were unaware that this had continued in the entrance to the segregation. But like Hendricks, Haubrich said nothing of the brutality he saw because he “covered the backs of my fellow officers and brothers.”

Haubrich has been on paid leave from prison since May 2018, seeing his salary rise nearly 30% to $96,396. This is also the case of Lieutenant Benjamin Burnett, escorted out of prison a few days after the attack with Haubrich, as well as Hedden and Banta.

Waterstraat, who was promoted with a 44% pay rise, did not come clean with authorities before facing a grand jury.

AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.

Follow political writer John O’Connor on https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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