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Bail bondsmen testify
Mar 24, 2004 12:00 am
Two Lebanon bail bondsmen can be added to the list of local officials subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating claims of prisoner abuse within the Wilson County Jail.
Johnny Knowles of Knowles Bonding Co. and Danny Tidwell of Tidwell Bonding confirmed yesterday that they testified before a grand jury earlier this month in Nashville.
Both men – who have operated bail bonding businesses locally for decades – said they were asked questions about the physical condition of prisoners.
"I obeyed the subpoena and testified," Knowles said. "They asked me if I'd ever seen any acts of aggression or mistreatment of prisoners."
Knowles said his subpoena ordered him to testify March 11, but he made his grand jury appearance a day early.
Tidwell, when contacted by telephone, confirmed he too testified before the panel, adding the U.S. Attorney's office interviewed him prior to his testimony.
Tidwell – like Knowles – said he was asked only if he had witnessed violence against prisoners inside the jail.
"They asked me whether I'd seen any abuse at the jail," Tidwell said.
He and Knowles indicated questioning was limited to the condition of prisoners and did not extend to the financing of jail bonds or the bondsmen's relationships with sheriff's department officials.
"The bottom line is they wanted to know if I'd seen any abuse," Tidwell said.
The businessman also offered a bluntly harsh assessment of the 14-month-old U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the jail, one he said he shared with federal authorities.
"All they're doing is messing up a bunch of young boys' lives," Tidwell said. "Other than the one thing that happened, they're getting these boys in trouble over how they filled out their reports. I think it's a bunch of crap, and I told them so."
The incident reports filled out by jailers detailing their altercations with inmates have apparently been a key part of the probe so far, with one of two former guards pleading guilty to falsifying reports after being charged as a result of the investigation.
That former officer, Travis Bradley, is scheduled to be sentenced later this year. He pleaded guilty in November along with former guard William Westmoreland, who is charged with assaulting a prisoner.
The issue of jailer incident reports was raised more recently with the abrupt resignation of Officer John McKinney, a patrolman at the time of his departure who formerly worked as a jailer.
In confirming that McKinney's resignation was a "direct result" of the probe, Sheriff Terry Ashe referred to "paperwork" filed by the officer.
"I'm saddened by the resignation of yet another employee who didn't fill out proper paperwork as it relates to dealing with some inmates," Ashe said. "If it had been brought to our attention, we might could have done something about it a year ago."
The grand jury investigation – which has included considerable testimony from sheriff's department officers and other officials – was triggered by the January 2003 head injury death of inmate Walter S. Kuntz. The 43-year-old inmate lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered during a seven-hour stint in the jail following his arrest by Lebanon police on charges ranging from resisting arrest to leaving the scene of an accident.
An autopsy by the state medical examiner labeled Kuntz's death a homicide and indicated he sustained injuries consistent with a beating.
Sheriff's department and Lebanon police officials promptly contacted District Attorney General Tommy Thompson seeking an independent inquiry into the inmate's death, leading to the federal investigation.
Though little is known about their testimony due to the strict confidentiality surrounding federal grand jury activity, a number of local officials have appeared before the panel since it began hearing testimony. Local officials appearing before the grand jury include former jail supervisor David Hemontoler, Chief Deputy Larry Bowman, Lt. Eddie Fitzpatrick and judicial commissioner David Hale, a former Wilson Emergency Management Agency director who briefly examined Kuntz in his cell before an ambulance was summoned.
Hale is the father of Cpl. Gary Hale, a jailer on duty the night Kuntz was arrested who has emerged as a target of the investigation. His attorney, Frank Lannom, has repeatedly said he expects Hale – who was suspended without pay shortly after the probe began – to be exonerated of any wrongdoing.
The primary target of the investigation is widely believed to be former second shift Sgt. Patrick Marlowe, who resigned shortly after the investigation began, telling superiors he was "tired of the hassle" it created.
Not only have numerous sources identified Marlowe as a target of investigators, but FBI statements detailing the charges against Westmoreland and Bradley prominently mention the former jailer. The statement allege Marlowe joined Westmoreland in assaulting a prisoner in 2001 and later entered another inmate's cell – while off-duty – and struck him repeatedly. Bradley was charged for failing to mention Marlowe in an official report he filed on the incident.