Officer accused of discarding vital evidence Grand jury expected to hear testimony in Harford jail death

September 05, 1993|By Bruce Reid and Joe Nawrozki | Bruce Reid and Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writers

State investigators have been told that a Harford County Sheriff's Office supervisor discarded crucial evidence from an autopsy on an inmate whose family says he was raped and murdered in the county Detention Center last year, sources say.

The Maryland attorney general's office also is investigating reports that more than a ton of documents from the Detention Center were burned at the county incinerator in late April -- three days before an acting warden took over after allegations of mismanagement and about two weeks before state investigators began an inquiry into the inmate's death.

Dr. Frank J. Peretti, a former assistant medical examiner, has told criminal investigators that on March 3, 1992, Lt. John M. Walker of the Detention Center threw the evidence in a trash can at the medical examiner's office in Baltimore, sources close to the investigation said.

The evidence, described by a source as "crucial," consisted of swabs sealed in paper envelopes that contained fluids from William M. Ford's rectum and mouth. The fluids are being used to determine who might have sexually assaulted him.

Mr. Ford died on March 1, 1992, while serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving.

The sources said that Dr. Peretti said he immediately recovered the swabs from the trash. The swabs were claimed as evidence by a Sheriff's Office detective the next day.

The swabs eventually were sent to an FBI laboratory for DNA testing, but sources say the results were inconclusive.

Blood samples from three county jail guards also were sent to the FBI lab and a private laboratory to see if they matched semen recovered from Mr. Ford's rectum. Test results from the private lab are pending.

Dr. Peretti, who declined to comment on the alleged actions of Lieutenant Walker, is expected to testify this month before a grand jury in Harford.

Dr. Peretti, who performed the autopsy on Mr. Ford's body, now works as an associate state medical examiner in Arkansas.

Sources say that on March 3, the day of the autopsy, an angry Dr. Peretti scolded Lieutenant Walker, then a sergeant, for discarding the swabs. The sources say that Lieutenant Walker, a veteran Detention Center supervisor with formal police training, responded that the swabs were not needed because Mr. Ford had killed himself.

fTC Four months after he was assigned to conduct the initial investigation into Mr. Ford's death, Lieutenant Walker was promoted from sergeant to his current rank and appointed director of operations at the Detention Center.

Lieutenant Walker, contacted last week, would not comment.

"I cannot make a public comment on the investigation because of the current order by the sheriff," he said, referring to a gag order on all Sheriff's Office personnel.

The grand jury is investigating how Mr. Ford died and allegations that Detention Center staff intentionally destroyed evidence pertaining to his death.

Two days after the death, Detention Center officials declared that Mr. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington, Del., strangled himself with a pillowcase while in an isolation cell. But the manner of death, still listed as "undetermined" by the state medical examiner, and how it was handled have been the subject of local, state and federal investigations.

The administration of County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann agreed to compensate the Ford family with a $400,000 settlement after it threatened to sue the county.

Detention Center officials say they put Mr. Ford in the isolation cell several hours before his death because he had said he feared being raped and murdered.

"If I'm dead tomorrow, I didn't commit suicide. They did it, and they will try to cover it up," Mr. Ford's sister, Michelle DeJesus, recalled her brother saying in a telephone call five hours before he was found dead. Family members say Mr. Ford never said who "they" were.

The autopsy showed that Mr. Ford suffered a fractured larynx, an injury that independent pathologists say is almost never self-inflicted.

Harford Sheriff Robert E. Comes has denied allegations of a cover-up. He has acknowledged, however, that Mr. Ford's jail-issued clothing, bed linen and cell were washed before detectives began a criminal investigation, on the assumption that Mr. Ford killed himself.

The county prosecutor, Joseph I. Cassilly, said last spring that investigators were handicapped by the failure of Detention Center officials to preserve evidence.

Christopher J. Romano, chief of the state attorney general's criminal investigation division, which has been conducting the inquiry into Mr. Ford's death since this spring, would not comment on Dr. Peretti's reported allegations about the swabs.

"I'm not going to comment on whether it occurred or didn't," Mr. Romano said last week. "We are looking into the entire situation that occurred [at the Detention Center], not only the events relative to Mr. Ford's death, but events subsequent to that."

One allegation is that documents from the Detention Center were burned at the incinerator in Joppa this year.

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