Probe of inmate's death stirs more accusations Harford sheriff, executive at odds

May 12, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

The Harford County executive and the sheriff exchanged accusations yesterday over the handling of an investigation into the suspicious death of an inmate last year at the Detention Center.

Sheriff Robert E. Comes, whose office has been harshly criticized for the way the investigation was conducted, called a 10 a.m. news conference to say that the Maryland attorney general should look into the way state, federal and other county officials have dealt with the case.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann held her own news conference an hour later to respond: "It's apparent the sheriff is attempting to move the focus away from the Detention Center, while he still seems to have some problems out there."

The war of words stems the investigation into the death of William M. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington whose family maintains he was raped and murdered in the jail.

Mr. Ford, who was serving 30 days for drunken driving, was found dead in his cell on March 1, 1992, with a pillow case knotted around his neck. Two days later, the Sheriff's Department issued a statement saying Mr. Ford's death was a suicide by strangulation.

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

Since Mr. Ford's family made its accusations earlier this year, leading the county to settle a threatened lawsuit for $400,000, several problems with the initial investigation into Mr. Ford's death have come to light.

Chief among them were that his clothing and bed linen were washed, and that the cell in which he died was scrubbed and disinfected, before they could be examined for evidence by investigators.

In the wake of those revelations, Ms. Rehrmann and county State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly asked the state attorney general to investigate the jail, focusing on the handling of the investigation into Mr. Ford's death. Ms. Rehrmann and Mr. Cassilly also cited alleged sexual misconduct by jail guards and unspecified management problems.

The initial investigation into Mr. Ford's death was handled in-house by the Detention Center. Subsequent investigations have been conducted by the county state's attorney's office and the FBI, although neither agency has released results.

At his news conference yesterday, Sheriff Comes went on the offensive, saying it is possible others who took part in the investigation did not handle it properly. He said he had notified the governor and asked the state attorney general to take a broader look.

Sheriff Comes, however, did not provide any details of what, if any, reason he has to believe other agencies may have mishandled their investigation of Mr. Ford's death.

But he did reiterate his contention that the jail's operation is one of the best in the state. The operation of the Detention Center "is and has always been conducted with the safe-keeping of any inmate our utmost concern," he said.

But Ms. Rehrmann has made it clear that she is not convinced that Sheriff Comes is capable of running the Detention Center properly.

She has begun drafting legislation that would take control of the Detention Center away from the Sheriff's Office and has appointed a task force to study whether most of the sheriff's law enforcement duties should be shifted to a county police force.

The first of four public meetings on the study is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow at the county administration building in Bel Air.

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