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Ex-Deputy pleads guilty in jail probe
Apr 13, 2004 12:00 am
Just two days after he was said to be "cooperating" with federal authorities, a former sheriff's department officer pleaded guilty to charges arising from a lengthy, ongoing investigation into allegations of brutality within the Wilson County Jail.
Former officer John McKinney yesterday became the third former sheriff's department officer to plead guilty to charges resulting from the 14-month-old U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which began when the January 2003 head injury death of inmate Walter S. Kuntz, 43, was ruled a murder by the state medical examiner.
On Wednesday, McKinney's attorney, Travis Hawkins of Nashville, admitted his client was "talking with the U.S. Attorney's office" and "cooperating with the investigating authorities." Saying "things are going on" with the probe, the attorney repeatedly declined to comment on the case, remarking "Everything is going to be a matter of public record eventually, but out of courtesy for my client I really can't comment on it at this time."
Attempts to contact the defense attorney as well as federal officials were unsuccessful late yesterday.
McKinney, in pleading guilty, "admitted observing fellow correctional officers assault a jail inmate in September 2002, and submitting a false Wilson County Sheriff's Department report concerning this incident in which he intentionally did not report the assaults he witnessed," according to a statement released late yesterday by the DOJ.
McKinney joins former officers William Westmoreland and Travis Bradley as the three sheriff's department employees charged so far due to the investigation, though at least two others have been identified as targets of the probe by defense attorneys as well as numerous sources close to the inquiry.
Westmoreland and Bradley entered guilty pleas in November and like McKinney are free pending sentencing. McKinney is slated to be sentenced in July while Westmoreland and Bradley are scheduled to be sentenced the following month, in August.
Bradley admitted allegations similar to those filed against McKinney, pleading guilty to charges of submitting false incident reports regarding altercations between jailers and inmates and lying to federal investigators about the documents. Westmoreland pleaded guilty to assault charges for joining other officers in assaulting a prisoner.
McKinney – who is formally charged with misprison of a felony – faces a maximum potential penalty of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Bradley faces a potential sentence of five years in prison plus a $250,000 fine, while the potential maximum penalty for Westmoreland is a 10-year prison sentence and a $2,250,000 fine.
McKinney, who spent over three years with the department, formerly worked as a jailer but was a patrol officer when he abruptly resigned last month.
At the time, Sheriff Terry Ashe described the officer's departure as a "direct result" of the investigation and alluded to documents he filled out while on duty.
"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 at the time. "If it had been brought to our attention we might could have done something about it a year ago."
Hawkins said earlier this week that the investigation "has been a hard thing" for McKinney, calling the probe "a big mess."
"It's sad for a lot of young officers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were untrained," Hawkins said.
Local bail bondsman Danny Tidwell – one of numerous local residents who have been subpoenaed before the grand jury hearing evidence in the case – recently expressed a similar sentiment, calling the inquiry "a bunch of crap" and accusing federal authorities of "messing up a bunch of young boys' lives… they're getting these boys in trouble over how they filled out their reports."
A wide range of current and former sheriff's department employees have also made grand jury appearances, including the former head of the jail. Also called to testify was a judicial commissioner and former WEMA employee – whose son is considered one of the targets of the investigation – who examined Kuntz in his cell after he was found to be unconscious.
All who have confirmed their grand jury appearances have indicated that questioning has basically centered on whether any instances of abuse or excessive force were witnessed.
Federal authorities have maintained the official silence that always enshrouds such grand jury investigations, steadfastly refusing to comment on the case since the inquiry began – with the exception of FBI statements entered into the court record when Bradley and Westmoreland pleaded guilty.
In those statements, investigators said the probe has "primarily focused on the second shift at the jail" and has included "allegations of excessive force and obstruction of justice by jailers."
The two other jailers identified by numerous sources as targets of the probe were both second-shift employees. One, former Sgt. Patrick Marlowe, resigned shortly after the investigation began, reportedly telling superiors he was "tired of the hassle" created by the probe. The second, Cpl. Gary Hale, was suspended with pay shortly after the probe began though his attorney, Frank Lannom of Lebanon, has repeatedly said he expects his client to be exonerated.
Also believed to have testified before the grand jury recently are the two Lebanon Police Department officers who arrested Kuntz on a variety of charges ranging from driving under the influence to resisting arrest following a traffic accident on South Cumberland Street.
Though LPD officials have refused to comment when asked if the officers have appeared before the grand jury, neither of the two are believed to be targets of the probe.
The two as well as jailers admit in official documents that they were forced to struggle with Kuntz but LPD and sheriff's department officials steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, asking District Attorney General Tommy Thompson for an independent inquiry into the prisoner's death. A subsequent autopsy by the state medical examiner's office ruled the death a homicide and indicated Kuntz died from injuries consistent with a beating.