Investigation to focus on 3 Harford jail guards Dead inmate's kin say he was killed

May 01, 1993|By Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh | Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writers

Three guards at the Harford County Detention Center are the focus of an investigation into the suspicious death of a Delaware man, whose family alleges he was raped and killed at the jail last year.

Blood samples taken from the guards have been sent to a Colorado laboratory that will perform DNA tests to see if they match seminal fluid recovered from the dead man, said several individuals close to the investigation being conducted by the county state's attorney's office.

Two guards gave their blood samples last year, and preliminary DNA tests done by the FBI proved inconclusive -- although the sources said the FBI's tests are not as sophisticated as those performed at the Colorado lab.

Those two samples -- along with one taken in recent weeks from a third guard -- are being sent to the lab for more thorough testing. Results are expected in six to eight weeks, the sources said.

DNA, the substance in cells that determines an individual's genetic makeup, is unique to each individual -- except for identical twins -- and is frequently used in criminal investigations to identify or rule out suspects.

Inmates at the Detention Center near Bel Air were ruled out early on as suspects because the three guards whose blood samples were subpoenaed were the only people who had access to an isolation cell in which the inmate was confined, the sources said.

William M. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington who was serving a 30-day sentence for driving while intoxicated, was found dead in his cell on March 1, 1992, with a pillow case knotted around his neck.

The autopsy indicates he died of strangulation and had suffered a fractured larynx -- an injury several independent pathologists have said is almost never self-inflicted. The autopsy also revealed the presence of semen in Mr. Ford's rectum, suggesting that he had been sexually molested.

Two days after his death, the county Sheriff's Department issued a statement saying Mr. Ford's death was a suicide by strangulation.

Attention has been focused anew on the case in recent weeks because his family threatened to sue, alleging that he was raped and murdered in the jail, and reached a $400,000 settlement with the county.

A number of problems with the initial investigation into Mr. Ford's death have come to light recently:

* His jail-issued clothing and bed linen from the cell in which he died were not preserved as evidence but were washed within 24 hours of his death, said William F. Gately, the Ford family attorney. His assertion was confirmed by other sources.

* The cell in which Mr. Ford died was scrubbed and disinfected before being examined by investigators, said Lt. Col. Thomas P. Broumel, chief deputy to Harford County Sheriff Robert E. Comes.

Colonel Broumel said the washing of the clothes and cell was done under the assumption that Mr. Ford's death was self-inflicted.

* The pillowcase found around Mr. Ford's neck was not taken to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore along with the body, Sheriff Comes confirmed. It arrived at the medical examiner's office at least one day after the autopsy. Sheriff's Office personnel initially said the pillowcase was lost.

Mr. Gately recently recounted a phone conversation he had in June with Mark W. Nelson, the assistant state's attorney handling the Ford case. Mr. Gately said Mr. Nelson told him that the initial stages of the investigation were "horribly screwed up" by the Detention Center staff.

Asked yesterday if Mr. Gately's recollection of the conversation was correct, Mr. Nelson said: "If there was a mishandling of the case at the very early stages, and I'm not saying there was, then that would also be the subject of any criminal investigation, and therefore I shouldn't comment on it."

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, Mr. Nelson's boss, said investigators now working on the case "would have more to work with" if they had been called in immediately and the scene of Mr. Ford's death had been preserved.

Sheriff Comes, in a prepared statement to The Sun this week, said media coverage of the Ford investigation had created a public perception that there was "cover-up" of events surrounding the death.

"While some procedural errors may have occurred, investigations date have not substantiated any of the allegations that there were any attempts to hinder or cover up this unfortunate incident," he said.

Earlier this week, the sheriff said he was not aware of any specific procedural errors in the initial probe. But, asked yesterday about the washing of Mr. Ford's clothes and cell and the delay in getting the pillowcase to the medical examiner, Sheriff Comes said: "If any of these things did happen, it was not done intentionally."

Still, the sheriff and other high-ranking staff conceded that they would not handle an investigation of a jail death today in the same manner as Ford's.

"We saw there were ways to improve the procedures that were taken and even before a grand jury had asked the state's attorney to look at our policy for handling such an incident, we had already rewritten our policy manual," Colonel Broumel said. The new policy calls for detention center staff to immediately notify the Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigation Division when any death occurs in the jail.

Criminal investigators were not notified of Mr. Ford's death for at least two days.

Apparently, an assistant medical examiner was the first to alert criminal investigators that Mr. Ford's death may not have been a suicide.

The location of a jail death "is going to be sealed, just like a crime scene," Colonel Broumel said. And, added Frank Messina, a consultant to the Sheriff's Office, there will be no in-house investigations of a jail death.

"You never have the keeper investigate [jail deaths]," Mr. Messina said.

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