Inmate says he saw Harford guards attack prisoner Man died in jail on the same day

officers deny any involvement

June 06, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

A former inmate at the Harford County jail says he saw one guard choking William M. Ford with a piece of cloth while two others restrained him on the same afternoon Mr. Ford was found dead in his cell last year.

Jail officials initially called the death of Mr. Ford, who was serving 30 days for drunken driving, a suicide by strangulation. But it is now under investigation by the Maryland attorney general's office.

George Dennard, the former inmate, told the FBI last fall that he witnessed a violent attack on Mr. Ford on the day of his death, March 1, 1992. He repeated his account of the events Thursday in an interview with The Sun.

Mr. Dennard, who is serving a 10-year sentence on drug charges, passed an FBI polygraph test, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

But investigators have raised numerous questions about his account -- among them, that he did not talk to the FBI until months after the attack, that he came forward only after losing a critical ruling in his own drug case, and that two other inmates in the area at the time say they did not see Mr. Dennard there.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dennard's account supports autopsy findings suggesting that Mr. Ford's death was not a suicide, as the Harford County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, announced two days after the death.

The autopsy said Mr. Ford suffered a fractured larynx. Three independent pathologists who reviewed the report for The Sun said such an injury is almost never self-inflicted.

Mr. Dennard's version of events, however, is squarely at odds with the accounts of at least four guards questioned in Mr. Ford's death, according to several people who read confidential statements the guards gave to investigators.

The guards said no one was in the jail's booking room, where Mr. Ford was being held in an isolation cell, between 4:15 p.m. and 4:35 p.m. on March 1, 1992. They said they returned at 4:35 p.m. to find Mr. Ford dead, with a white pillowcase wrapped around his neck.

During a 90-minute interview with The Sun at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, Mr. Dennard described what he says he saw on that afternoon.

Mr. Dennard said that shortly after 4 p.m. that day, he was escorted to the booking room to make a telephone call to a female friend. He said he saw Mr. Ford sitting in the isolation cell and spoke to him briefly.

Moments after he began talking on the telephone, Mr. Dennard said, one of the four guards in the booking room abruptly ordered him and two other inmates, who were there preparing to serve the evening meal, to leave.

The inmates were moved into an adjoining hallway, but the door to the booking room was not completely closed, Mr. Dennard said. That allowed him to see into the isolation cell several feet away from the door.

Mr. Dennard said he heard a "commotion" that caused him and the other inmates to look through the partly-open door. He said he saw two guards holding Mr. Ford, a burly man who weighed 244 pounds and stood 6-foot-4, face down on the floor while a third was pulling up on the inmate's neck with what appeared to be a white towel.

Officers deny account

Mr. Dennard identified the guards restraining Mr. Ford as Officer Richard Minnick and Sgt. Edward Donald, and the guard choking the inmate as Officer Alonzo Cloud. Through their lawyers, Officers Minnick and Cloud denied Mr. Dennard's account. Sergeant Donald's attorney referred questions to the sheriff.

Mr. Dennard also said that Officer Cindy Smith, who no longer works at the Detention Center, was in the room where the alleged attack occurred but did not participate. Attempts to locate her were unsuccessful.

"You could see officers holding him down" on the floor of the isolation cell, Mr. Dennard said. "I said, 'Why are you all doing that? Why don't you leave that man alone?'

"They told me to mind my business," Mr. Dennard added. "Then I said: 'That is my business. You all should leave that man alone.' "

Mr. Dennard continued, "You could hear the man screaming, 'My neck, my neck.' The next thing I know, you didn't hear him no more."

Moments later, Mr. Dennard said, the guards called for medical assistance. A short time later, Mr. Dennard said he and the two other inmates were taken to their quarters.

Mr. Dennard said he knew of no motive for the attack.

"To this day, I'm trying to figure out what . . . was the reason for them doing what they did to him," said Mr. Dennard, who was at the jail while awaiting trial on drug charges stemming from an arrest on I-95 in Harford County.

Mr. Ford had told his family on the day he died that he feared he would be gang-raped and murdered at the jail. Mr. Dennard, however, said he saw no sexual assault. The autopsy report said semen was found in Mr. Ford's rectum.

Blood samples taken from three guards -- including Officers Minnick and Cloud -- have been sent to a Colorado laboratory for DNA testing to see if they match semen recovered from Mr. Ford.

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