Sheriff, executive tangle

February 08, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County Sheriff Robert E. Comes and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann verbally attacked each other yesterday over the handling of the suspicious death of an inmate and a $400,000 civil settlement subsequently paid to the inmate's family.

In a news conference at the county Detention Center, Sheriff Comes said that a grand jury report issued Friday clears all jail personnel of criminal wrongdoing in the death of William M. Ford, adding that no jail policies or procedures were violated in the handling of Mr. Ford before or after his death on March 1, 1992.

Mrs. Rehrmann, seeking to defend her administration's settlement of a threatened federal lawsuit arising from the death, responded at her own news conference that numerous Detention Center policies were violated in the handling of the inmate and the investigation of his death.

Mrs. Rehrmann said the Ford matter presented "one of the worst cases of civil liability in the history of Harford County."

A 23-member grand jury concluded Friday, after an eight-month investigation, that Mr. Ford, had killed himself and was not sexually assaulted, as his family had alleged.

Mr. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington, Del., was serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving when he was found dead in an isolation cell with a pillowcase wrapped around his neck.

He had told his family the day of his death that he feared being raped and killed in the jail.

Alarmed, family members drove to the jail from Wilmington, but by the time they arrived, Mr. Ford was dead.

Yesterday, Sheriff Comes also said Mr. Ford never expressed any fear of being harmed by jail personnel.

But sources familiar with the investigation said that Mr. Ford, less than an hour before he was found dead, told a jail supervisor that he feared being harmed by a certain guard. The sources said Mr. Ford asked to be taken from the isolation cell and returned to an inmate dormitory.

The grand jury concluded that Mr. Ford either killed himself deliberately or while "faking a suicide attempt."

The grand jury also criticized the civil settlement as premature.

Sheriff Comes said the settlement was for the "political reasons. . . . She [Mrs. Rehrmann] sought to buy a scandal . . . as part of a scheme to establish a county police force."

Establishment of a county police force would reduce the functions of the sheriff's office to courthouse security and process serving.

"The sheriff just doesn't get it," Mrs. Rehrmann said at a news conference about about an hour after the one held by the sheriff. "The sheriff did not follow many of his own policies" in supervising Mr. Ford, she said.

"Whether it was a homicide or a suicide, this man died while in the custody of the sheriff," said Jefferson L. Blomquist, deputy county attorney. "In my opinion, the [jail] was a circus," he said.

Contrary to Sheriff Comes' statement yesterday that no policies were violated, Mr. Blomquist said the sheriff:

* Did not, as a rule, maintain adequate logs of keys to show which guards had access to Mr. Ford.

* Did not temporarily prohibit three guards from working with inmates after a lawyer for the Ford family alleged that guards had raped and killed Mr. Ford. In addition, the sheriff did not conduct his own investigation to determine whether the three guards should be allowed to work with inmates.

* Did not properly supervise Mr. Ford, who the grand jury said was a "very high candidate for suicide." Guards said they left Mr. Ford unsupervised in his cell for about 20 minutes, then returned to find him not breathing with a pillowcase wrapped tightly around his neck.

* Never investigated or disciplined any Detention Center personnel for failing to follow written procedures.

Mr. Blomquist and County Attorney Ernest A. Crofoot said the settlement, signed in April 1993, was based on the provisions of federal civil rights law.

Because of violations of procedures, the attorneys said, the county could not show that Mr. Ford was protected from himself or others.

At the news conference, the sheriff demanded that Mrs. Rehrmann apologize to the jail staff for accusations of misconduct and mismanagement.

Mrs. Rehrmann said no apologies were in order.

The grand jury's findings prompted an angry response from the Ford family attorney, William F. Gately Jr. of Towson, who called the panel's 19-page report a "travesty."

Carolyn Henneman, an assistant state attorney general who directed the grand jury probe, said the panel had conducted an exhaustive investigation and that "justice has been done."

The grand jury's findings contradict the conclusion of an autopsy that Mr. Ford's fractured larynx could not have been self-inflicted.

The assistant state medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Frank J. Peretti, said Friday that he still believes Mr. Ford's death was not a suicide or an accident. Dr. Peretti is now an associate state medical examiner in Arkansas.

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