'If I'm dead tomorrow, I didn't commit suicide' Harford inmate told sister he expected assault and cover-up HARFORD COUNTY

June 29, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Five hours before his death in the Harford County Detention Center, inmate William M. Ford told his sister that he expected to be sexually assaulted by as many as 20 men and possibly killed, according to her handwritten notes of their conversation.

"If I'm dead tomorrow, I didn't commit suicide. They did it, and they will try to cover it up," Michelle DeJesus, Mr. Ford's sister, recalled her brother saying in a telephone call the day of his death, March 1, 1992.

"Those words haunt me every day," Mrs. DeJesus said in an interview. "I can hear him and his words over and over."

Jail officials originally declared Mr. Ford's death a suicide by strangulation, but it is now under investigation by a grand jury. His family maintains that the 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington, Del., was raped and murdered while serving 30 days for drunken driving.

The handwritten notes of telephone conversations Mr. Ford had with Mrs. DeJesus, another sister, his girlfriend and his mother are among the most powerful evidence supporting the family's claim. The notes were shared with The Sun by the family's lawyer, William F. Gately.

In an interview Friday, Sharon Ford, another sister, spoke of her brother's phone calls: "It was not just Billy being a little anxious about being there [in jail]. He knew exactly what they were going to do to him. . . . This was real-life terror."

"Listen to me and listen good," Mrs. DeJesus quoted Mr. Ford as saying in a phone call that began at 11:34 a.m. the day of his death. "Something is coming down. I'm going to be gang-raped by 20 men tonight. It was supposed to happen last night. But their plans were screwed up."

Family members assume that Mr. Ford feared being attacked by inmates, but he never said who was going to attack him or who would "cover up" an attack.

About an hour after Mr. Ford called his sister, Mrs. DeJesus said, she called him back. They ended the conversation quickly because a guard was coming to take him to an isolation cell for his protection, she said.

Family members insist that if Mr. Ford was raped before being moved to the isolation cell, he would have told them.

Within two days of his death, the county sheriff's office said publicly that it believed Mr. Ford had strangled himself with a pillow case.

Since then numerous questions have arisen about the way the sheriff's office, which runs the jail, handled the initial investigation.

Sheriff Robert E. Comes and others in his office have acknowledged that Mr. Ford's jail-issued clothing, bed linen and cell were washed before criminal investigators were notified by the state medical examiner's office that the death may not have been a suicide.

They explained that the clothes and cell were washed on the assumption that Mr. Ford killed himself. Sheriff Comes has denied the family's allegations of a cover-up.

The statements Mr. Ford made to relatives on March 1, 1992, and in the preceding 48 hours were recorded in 15 pages of notes written within two weeks of his death, family members said.

The general content of the statements -- that Mr. Ford feared being raped and killed in the jail -- has been known for months, but the notes provide chilling details.

Nevertheless, criminal investigators did not ask for copies of the notes until several weeks ago, family members said.

Relatives said three weeks ago they gave copies of Mr. Ford's statements to investigators for the Maryland attorney general's office. The investigators, who have consistently declined to comment on the case, have been directing the probe into Mr. Ford's death since early May.

Mr. Gately, the Ford family attorney, said he summarized the statements for attorneys for the county. In late April, after Mr. Gately had threatened to sue the county alleging that Mr. Ford's civil rights had been violated, the administration of County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann agreed to pay the Ford family a $400,000 settlement.

Before the settlement was agreed upon, Mr. Gately said, attorneys for the county told him that they were "convinced, as you are, that [Mr. Ford] was raped and murdered."

In an interview yesterday, Jefferson L. Blomquist, the deputy county attorney, declined to comment on the notes. He also declined to say if Mr. Ford's statements to his family influenced the settlement.

"We feel that this is all information that is important and an integral part of the criminal investigation," Mr. Blomquist said, adding that he didn't want anything he said to harm that probe.

In recent months, investigators have focused on three guards at the jail. Blood samples taken from the guards have been sent to a Colorado laboratory for DNA testing to see if they match semen recovered from Mr. Ford's rectum.

Last fall, a former inmate at the jail told investigators he had seen one guard at the jail choking Mr. Ford with a piece of cloth while two others restrained him on the same afternoon that Mr. Ford was found dead in an isolation cell.

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