FBI launches investigation into death of Md. inmate

Federal agency asks state for documents related to Iko, who died at Allegany prison

September 10, 2004|By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes | Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

The FBI has launched an investigation into the April 30 death of inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko at Western Correctional Institution in Allegany County, a bureau spokesman said yesterday.

"We do have a preliminary inquiry open," said Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI's offices in Baltimore.

Iko, 51, a Nigerian immigrant, died after a violent confrontation with correctional officers - a death later ruled by the state medical examiner's office a homicide by asphyxiation.

In an internal investigation, Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services found no wrongdoing by prison staff. An Allegany County grand jury reached the same conclusion in July after a two-day investigation.

Maddox declined to say why federal officials decided last week to begin looking into the events surrounding Iko's death. He said that complaints from a victim's family, whistleblowers or "any number of sources," including news media reports, can trigger an investigation.

Mark Vernarelli, a Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman, said it has been several years since the FBI has been involved in an incident involving the state agency.

"We don't know the circumstances that brought them, but we're happy to cooperate with them," he said. "We always have an open door policy in assisting the FBI if they ask to be involved in something."

In a letter to a legislator, Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar said she was notified of the FBI's inquiry last Friday.

"The FBI has requested copies of all investigative materials and reports, as well as video tapes, relating to [Iko's] death," Saar wrote state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Hearing scheduled

Frosh had set a committee hearing for Wednesday to explore questions The Sun raised in articles about the department's handling of Iko's death.

Saar wrote Frosh that she does not believe it would be appropriate to discuss specific details of Iko's death at that hearing "inasmuch as it may potentially interfere with the FBI investigation and prejudice any potential court proceedings regarding this matter."

She did say she would be willing to brief committee members regarding "general procedures and protocols for the handling of inmates" within the prison system.

Frosh said that after discussing the issue with the state attorney general's office, he sees no reason the hearing can't proceed as planned.

"I talked to the AG and nothing prevents [public safety officials] from discussing this situation with us and telling us what they know," Frosh said. "At a minimum, I think we can explore what the policies were, what they are now and how this kind of bad outcome can be avoided in the future."

A review of a 911 tape, accounts of inmate witnesses, an autopsy report and other sources raised troubling questions about how prison officials handled Iko's death.

On April 30, Iko had been refusing to leave his cell in WCI's segregation unit so he could be taken to a special observation unit for psychological evaluation, those accounts show.

Pepper spray, mask

His cell was sprayed with three cans of pepper spray - far more than prison guidelines call for - before a half-dozen officers in riot gear forced their way in and shackled him.

A mesh "spit mask" was placed over his face at that point, and he was taken in a wheelchair off the cell block, apparently unconscious.

When an ambulance was called two hours later, there were physical indications he was already dead although he was handled as if he were still alive.

If Iko had been declared dead inside the prison, officials there would have been required to follow detailed procedures to secure the scene and preserve evidence.

Iko had been in state prison since 1991, when he began serving a three-year sentence for a drug-distribution charge. The next year, he received an additional 20-year sentence for stabbing and biting a correctional officer in an Eastern Shore prison.

Gary Adler, a Washington attorney who represents Iko's family, said they welcomed "any objective investigation" into the death.

"There's still so many questions that remain unanswered that clearly could not have been answered in a two-day convening of the grand jury," he said.

Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. was unavailable for comment yesterday afternoon. Ron Leverette, a Correction spokesman, said: "The FBI involvement into cases like this is certainly not unusual and [Commissioner Sizer] is quite comfortable with their involvement, and they can expect his full cooperation."

Free of influence

But Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland law school professor, said it has become "increasingly rare" for the FBI to investigate allegations of criminal conduct among law enforcement officers.

He said one advantage a federal investigation has is that it is presumably "more free of local prejudice, of having too close of a relationship with local law enforcement."

Colbert called the FBI's involvement "just the first step."

"Certainly no one should read anything more in this decision than that federal investigators are reviewing the allegations," he said.

It's not uncommon for the FBI to take an interest in investigating allegations of civil rights violations among individual inmates in Maryland prisons, although virtually all the cases never progressed further, according to sources with knowledge of investigations in state prisons.

In conducting such a probe, federal investigators will typically review all the reports and documentation that investigators with the Internal Investigative Unit completed on a case and gauge whether their work was sufficient.

Then the FBI will decide whether to open a wider investigation, these sources said.

Previous articles about the death of Ifeanyi A. Iko, plus an audio clip of the prison's 911 call, are online at baltimoresun.com/inmatedeath.

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