Horror Story in Harford

May 01, 1993

The horror story reads like a modern Gothic tale set in a southern backwater. A young man looking forward to marriage is sentenced to 30 days in jail for drunken driving. He phones his family, crazed with fears of being raped and killed. Soon afterward, he is found strangled in a solitary cell, a rape victim. The sheriff quickly calls it suicide and 14 months later, investigating authorities will only say that the cause of death is "undetermined."

That brutal outrage occurred in Harford County last year. Incredibly, investigations into the death of William M. Ford of Wilmington, Del., by the county's state's attorney, the sheriff's department, the state medical examiner and the FBI have failed to reach a public conclusion.

Only when the dead man's family threatened to sue did the county call for an inquiry by the attorney general and moved to take control of the detention center from the sheriff. It paid the survivors $400,000 to settle allegations that jail guards BTC murdered, raped and sodomized the inmate.

The long suppressed autopsy report, given to The Sun by the dead man's family, shows evidence of rape. Mr. Ford's larynx was broken, a fact the state medical examiner admits he has never seen in a suicide. Other forensic specialists agree that injury is highly unlikely in such a suicide. The victim was found with his right arm tightly wedged between his bed and the cell wall, only one hand was free to strangle himself with the pillow case.

Public confidence in authority has been severely undermined by the lack of progress in and, indeed, the apparent lack of priority given this case.

If the survivors' lawyer can make a case strong enough to pry $400,000 of taxpayer money from the county alleging guilt of jail guards, there is surely evidence to advance the criminal inquiries. But State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said last month that he was still not sure it was homicide or suicide -- after a year of inquiry.

Complications hindered the initial investigation, including the elimination of basic evidence from the crime scene. The cell was washed and scrubbed, and sheets and bedding laundered a week before Sheriff Robert E. Comes decided to investigate the death.

The attorney general will also look at management problems of the 20-year-old detention center, some of them previously discussed but never addressed. Changes are happening. After Mr. Ford's death, a county grand jury told the sheriff to investigate promptly all deaths at the jail. The county is moving to take over the jail's management.

With responsible management at the detention center, the nightmare that became reality for Mr. Ford could have been avoided. It is up to the county and the state to assure it never happens again -- and that those responsible are brought to justice.

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