Voice Exposé Leads to Indictment of 10 Jail Staffers, Including a Top Chief, For Brutal Beating of Inmate
Prosecutors in the Bronx will unseal indictments today of 10 Correction Department staffers for the brutal July 11, 2012, beating of an inmate and other misconduct, in a case first exposed by the Village Voice last August.
In addition, the Voice has learned that the Manhattan District Attorney's office is investigating an incident in which Correction staff allegedly planted evidence, which also took place on July 11 at the Manhattan jail known as the Tombs. The Justice Department is also said to be nosing around.
The indictments to be announced tomorrow and the Manhattan D.A.'s investigation center on a shadowy "anti-violence task force" or "special search squad." The unit roamed the island off the books, assaulting at least two inmates and planted evidence in at least one case. The task force was sanctioned by top uniformed officers in the DOC.
In a terse statement released late yesterday, the Bronx District Attorney's office said "a former high-ranking DOC employee and nine current DOC employees" will be charged with various offense stemming from the beating.
That inmate, the Voice has learned, is Jahmal Lightfoot, 27, who suffered two fractured eye sockets, a fractured jaw, and a broken nose in the beating, which took place at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers. Lightfoot had done nothing more than annoy the "search team."
"I've seen a lot of injuries, and that guy was beaten bad," a Correction source says.
The high-ranking official likely to be charged is Chief of Security Eliseo Perez, who allegedly ordered Lightfoot's beating. Perez put in his retirement papers on Friday. Sources tell the Voice his shield was confiscated and he was escorted from the island to DOC headquarters where he signed the papers.
Oddly, when Perez initially retired last year, Commissioner Dora Schriro is said to have asked him to stay on. Now, he has retired again, probably so the city can claim he was not indicted while on duty.
Among two captains who could be named in this morning's indictments is Captain Gerald Vaughn, who was a close confidant of former Chief of Department Carmine LaBruzzo and was allegedly involved in Lightfoot's beating.
LaBruzzo retired in January. Sources say he was called to the Bronx District Attorney's office twice to face grilling over the incidents.
The task force allegedly operated outside the rules, Correction sources say. The unit was not properly cleared to perform sensitive investigative work, and its members were improperly assigned to the unit and entered jails without following security procedures.
Lightfoot was being held at GRVC on a robbery charge. Two days earlier, there had been a slashing. Members of the task force arrived there and conducted a search. In his account, the 5-foot-11, 150-pound Lightfoot claimed he was singled out during the search because his pants were hanging down. Captain Vaughn, he claims, began cursing the inmates.
There was some kind of verbal altercation, and according to a Correction source and one of Lightfoot's relatives, Perez told officers to take him in a room and "knock his teeth out."
Lightfoot says he then was taken into a holding pen and ordered to place his hands behind his head. An officer took a swing at him. He dodged the punch. Multiple officers, allegedly possibly including Perez and Vaughn, then repeatedly punched and kicked his body and face.
Lightfoot was first taken to the clinic at GRVC, then to Bellevue Hospital, where he had surgery for facial fractures, including two fractured eye sockets and a broken nose. He transferred again to the North Infirmary Command, where inmates with serious injuries are held. Even though his family says he will need further surgery and the possible insertion of a metal plate, he is now at RNDC.
Meanwhile, the Correction staffers involved came up with their own claims about what led to the beating--a move that could result in charges of filing false reports and lying to investigators. They asserted that Lightfoot had cut an officer with a weapon of some kind, but people familiar with the incident view that claim with skepticism.
"First, they said he punched an officer with something in his hand, and then they said he got cut on his arm," a Correction source says. "It's a crock."
Lightfoot's brother, Kareem Burton, 35, told the Voice that after the beating, he didn't get immediate medical care. Instead, Lightfoot, in extreme pain, was thrown into a GRVC cell for some time until he was finally treated.
Burton says the family only found out about Lightfoot's injuries when a DOC staffer made an anonymous phone call to them. When they called the DOC for more information, they were stonewalled.
"He could have died," Burton says. "He has boot marks on his face, his bone structure is messed up, his breathing, his back--they just disfigured him. You can't even recognize him."
Burton says the task force came into the facility without identifying themselves. "All they said was that it was a special unit, no names, no nothing," he says. "They aren't saying who was in charge. Just saying a special unit came in, and my brother gets beat to a pulp, and no one has answers."
Lightfoot filed a complaint with the Inspector General. The IG interviewed Lightfoot and formally interviewed members of the task force, including Perez.
Lightfoot's lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said last year that the case is yet more basis for why an outside monitor of the jail system is needed. "The fact that it is alleged that the assistant chief of security was instrumental in this beating gives even more reason for the Justice Department to appoint a federal monitor to oversee what goes on there," Rubenstein told the Voice. "Obviously, the prison administration is not doing its job in keeping inmates safe."
At least one other inmate was beaten by the task force. Askia Hinton was was roughed up and threatened twice around the same time as the other incidents, once in GRVC and once after he had been transferred to the West Facility.
In the second beating, task force members entered the jail without formal permission and never filed a use-of-force report. Hinton has complained to the Inspector General about the alleged assault.
Hinton's mother, Tina, tells the Voice her son has repeatedly been targeted for beatings in the three years that he has been held at Rikers. Hinton, according to his mother, claims he was visited by LaBruzzo, Vaughn, and a third DOC staffer at the West Facility and threatened. "LaBruzzo tells him, 'This is what happens to guys who run their mouths,'" Tina Hinton says.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan D.A. may be close to announcing charges in the evidence planting incident, which also began after a slashing this time in an ultra-high-security unit at the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as the Tombs.
Under the security setup in the unit--which contains some of the most violent prisoners in the system--inmates are not supposed to have contact, and they are supposed to be moved with mitts and shackles. But somehow, two Blood sect leaders, Sean "Coolie Weezy" Henry and Elijah "Nuke" Mack, were able to get out of their cells and slash each other, suggesting a major security breach.
The task force showed up unannounced at the Tombs. Correction Department records show that on July 11 at 12:45 p.m., Violence Reduction Task Force Officer William Williams III claimed to have found a "scalpel blade wrapped in black electrical tape on the floor against the wall" in a vestibule on the ninth floor of the Tombs.
Correction sources say that, in fact, an inmate just entering the facility, Jarrett Frost, admitted he had a scalpel, but not the one used in the slashing. Members of the unit, including Vaughn, seized the blade and then allegedly filed reports claiming they had found the weapon responsible for the slashing in a common area, sources and records show.
But an enterprising investigator and the jail warden checked the video. It showed that the officer who claimed to find the blade never bent down and picked anything up.
Frost had just been sent to the facility and hadn't even been assigned a cell yet when he was searched by the task force, so that blade could not have possibly been used in the slashing, an attorney close to the case says.
"[The task force] were going around wherever they wanted to go and doing whatever they wanted to do," the attorney says.
The Inspector General ordered formal interviews of the task force members with their lawyers and began asking about how the task force came into existence. Frost also cooperated with the investigation.