Grand jury nears end of investigation into Harford Co. jail inmate's death

December 03, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

A grand jury probing the suspicious death of an inmate at the Harford County jail is nearing the end of its investigation and may issue a report later this month, said several sources familiar with the case.

The 23-member panel has been hearing testimony since September about the death of William M. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington, Del., who was serving 30 days for drunken driving. He was found dead in his cell March 1, 1992.

Jail officials originally ruled his death a suicide by strangulation, but the case has received intense scrutiny since April, when the Ford family alleged publicly that he had been raped and murdered. The county paid the family $400,000 to settle a threatened lawsuit.

In the wake of those allegations, the Maryland attorney general's office was asked to take over the case and brought it before a grand jury.

The panel met as recently as Monday, when it heard from Lt. John M. Walker, a jail supervisor who led the initial, much-criticized investigation into Mr. Ford's death.

In addition, the sources said the grand jury has taken testimony from:

* Dr. John E. Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, who was one of two pathologists to sign Mr. Ford's autopsy report.

* Cindy Smith, a former guard who was working in the immediate area of Mr. Ford's cell at the time of his death.

* Michelle DeJesus, Mr. Ford's sister, who said her brother told her in a telephone conversation that he was going to be raped and killed in the jail.

George Dennard, a former Harford jail inmate who is serving a 10-year sentence at the Maryland House of Correction for a drug conviction, said yesterday that investigators working with the attorney general's office interviewed him for three hours earlier this week.

Dennard told an FBI investigator last fall that he had seen one guard choking Mr. Ford with a piece of cloth while two other guards restrained him on the same afternoon that Mr. Ford was found dead.

Investigators have raised numerous questions about Dennard's account, among them that he came forward only after losing a critical ruling in his own drug case.

The three guards identified by Dennard have denied any involvement in the death or declined comment.

The sources added that the grand jury has no plans to hear testimony from the other pathologist, Dr. Frank J. Peretti, who now works as an associate state medical examiner in Arkansas.

Dr. Peretti conducted the autopsy and listed the manner of death as undetermined. He has told investigators that he believes Mr. Ford was raped and killed.

The sources say investigators from the attorney general's office have been critical of Dr. Peretti's work on the case and his conclusions.

One key point in question is the manner in which Mr. Ford died. He suffered a fractured larynx, an injury that three independent pathologists who reviewed the autopsy earlier this year for The Sun said is almost never self-inflicted.

Dr. Peretti, sources say, searched medical literature to the 1940s and found no evidence of a person fracturing his own larynx in the manner jail officials said Mr. Ford did.

Jail personnel have said Mr. Ford was left unattended in an isolation cell for about 20 minutes, and that they returned to find him face down on his bed with a pillow case around his neck. He was moved to the isolation cell after expressing fears for his safety.

"The attorney general's office has openly disparaged [Dr.] Peretti before the grand jury when examining other witnesses," said William F. Gately, the Ford family attorney.

Dr. Peretti declined to comment on the grand jury investigation.

Mr. Gately, who has been conducting his own inquiry into Mr. Ford's death, said the grand jury has rejected his request to appear. "I am most disturbed and disgusted by your apparent refusal to receive my testimony," he wrote in one of several letters to the grand jury.

He said the grand jury forewoman responded that the panel would accept information from him in writing but not in person.

Carolyn Henneman, deputy chief of criminal investigations for the attorney general's office, who is handling the Ford case, has repeatedly declined to comment on the grand jury's work. She did not return several telephone calls this week.

Ralph Tyler, the deputy attorney general, said, "We are not going to comment on the grand jury."

Several sources, including Mr. Gately, said the attorney general's office is promoting the conclusion that Mr. Ford killed himself and was not raped.

Another central question in the case concerns the handling of the death in the first two or three days.

Sources say the attorney general's office, and presumably the grand jury, have examined how jail personnel responded to the death.

Harford Sheriff Robert E. Comes, whose agency runs the jail, has said that Mr. Ford's jail-issued clothing and bed linen from the cell in which he died were not preserved as evidence but were washed shortly after the death. The cell also was washed down before criminal investigators from outside the jail examined it.

Sheriff Comes has said the washing of the clothes and the cell were done under the assumption that Mr. Ford's death was self-inflicted.

Within several days of the death, detectives from the sheriff's office criminal investigation division began a separate probe, after receiving word from Dr. Peretti that Mr. Ford's death may not have been a suicide.

Several months after the death, the FBI began a separate investigation. The agency has presented a report, which is still secret, to the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington.

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