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Published: Wednesday, 4/15/2009

Lucas County Sheriff, 3 others accused of 2004 jail death cover-up


Lucas County Sheriff James Telb and three members of his staff including two former employees were indicted in U.S. District Court in Toledo yesterday on criminal charges related to the 2004 death of an inmate at the jail and allegations of a subsequent cover-up.

Sheriff Telb, 70, who recently began his seventh term in office, was indicted by a grand jury on one count each of making false statements and misprision of a felony, or the cover-up of a crime. He faces three years in prison if convicted.

The sheriff denied any wrongdoing, saying he is expecting to be vindicated on this.

He also said he would not step down from office.

This is serious stuff, but I m not backing away from it; I m not running from it, he said during a press conference at the sheriff s office.

At no time was there any attempt, or any effort, to cover up anything, he said, adding that he didn t think anybody did anything wrong.

Also charged in the 12-count indictment were John Gray, a former sergeant, Jay Schmeltz, a former deputy sheriff, and Capt. Robert McBroom, an investigator with the sheriff s Internal Affairs Department.

The four men are scheduled to be arraigned on the charges May 1 before Judge David Katz.

The charges stem from a federal investigation of the 2004 death of Carlton Benton, who died while in custody at the jail.

According to the federal indictment, filed yesterday, a handcuffed Mr. Benton was assaulted and strangled by Mr. Gray and struck and assaulted by Mr. Schmeltz on May 30, 2004, in the jail s booking area.

Mr. Gray is also accused of failing to obtain necessary medical care and treatment for [Mr. Benton], resulting in bodily injury and death to [Mr. Benton].

Sheriff James Telb said he had a long meeting with the FBI last summer about the 2004 jail incident. He said he did not remember every detail from years earlier. Sheriff James Telb said he had a long meeting with the FBI last summer about the 2004 jail incident. He said he did not remember every detail from years earlier.

The two men were also accused of writing false reports to conceal the incident and of making false statements to the FBI.

Mr. Gray and Mr. Schmeltz were each charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law, two counts of falsification of a document, and one count of making false statements. A second charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law was filed against Mr. Gray, who faces life in prison if convicted.

Captain McBroom was charged with one count each of making false statements and misprision of a felony and faces up to three years in prison.

Mr. Schmeltz faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Attorney Rick Kerger, who is representing Sheriff Telb, pointed out that two internal investigations were conducted one at the time of Mr. Benton s death and a second last year after a tip reopened the case. He said that in both cases, the investigation showed that no homicide occurred and so no criminal charges were pursued.

It basically means covering up a crime, which is hard to say when the sheriff s office conducted two investigations, Mr. Kerger said of the charge of misprision of a felony.

The men involved here are no spring chickens and nobody has suggested any reason to pick this incident to cover anything up. There may have been a misunderstanding, but there certainly is no wrongdoing here.

According to the indictment, Sheriff Telb is accused of making false statements to an FBI agent on July 18, 2008, when he said that he had no knowledge in 2004 that John E. Gray had used a sleeper hold on [Mr. Benton] prior to [Mr. Benton s] death. He is further accused of concealing what he knew of the incident and provided false and misleading documents to state investigators describing Mr. Gray s actions and suppressed an internal investigation into Mr. Gray s actions.

Under Ohio law, a sheriff is responsible for the neglect of duty or misconduct of his deputies if he orders, has prior knowledge of, participates in, acts in reckless disregard of, or ratifies the neglect of duty or misconduct in office of the deputy.

Ohio law also states that no one convicted of a felony, first-degree misdemeanor, or any offense involving moral turpitude may become sheriff. The statute would apply to a sitting sheriff as well.

The initial investigation into Mr. Benton s death was closed in 2004 after the county coroner s ruling noted that the death was natural and as a result of seizure disorder in association with bupropion [Wellbutrin] use.

It was reactivated last year when a former corrections officer, Tina Hill, told sheriff s officials that she had knowledge of an alleged homicide within the jail. Specifically, she told investigators that she saw sheriff s employees brutally beating a man, including stomping and kicking and punching and smothering his face and choking him.

In a report dated March 27, 2008, sheriff s Detective Mark Woodruff wrote that numerous interviews had been conducted including one with Mr. Schmeltz and concluded that there appear to be many inconsistencies with the incident as described by Tina Hill.

While the report noted that Mr. Gray apparently had applied some type of chokehold or sleeper hold to the neck of the inmate, the investigation revealed that no assault by means of kicking or punching appeared to have occurred.

As part of the investigation, Deputy Lucas County Coroner Cynthia Beisser was interviewed. She told investigators last year that with additional information she would have likely ruled the death as undetermined ; however, she said that she would not change the cause of death to a homicide.

Specifically, she told investigators at the time that she made notes during the autopsy regarding the tissue of the neck and throat area and determined that there was not trauma to that area, according to a supplemental report filed by Detective Woodruff.

As the coroner s office has ruled the death a seizure disorder and is not inclined to change that ruling, it would appear that there are no criminal charges to pursue, the report concludes.

In early 2004, Mr. Benton, 25, was being held in the Lucas County jail on murder charges in lieu of a $1 million bond. He was accused in the Feb. 12, 2004, slayings of his paralyzed cousin and the cousin s wife in their North Erie Street home.

The North Toledo man was charged with two counts of aggravated murder in the death of Anthony Griffin, 42, and another aggravated murder count in the killing of Tammy Griffin, 40. All three counts included death-penalty specifications.

Police said Mr. Benton had confessed to the crimes.

According to information in his jail record, Mr. Benton died June 1, 2004, at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, two days after a Lucas County jail corrections officers found him in his cell not breathing. He had just returned from the hospital after he was taken there May 28, 2004, after suffering from seizures, authorities said.

At the time, his death was ruled natural.

According to a handwritten note in his file authored by former jail administrator Rick Keller, Mr. Benton was extremely aggressive prior to being discharged from the hospital and two officers used Mace on him in an attempt to restrain him.

The note states that Mr. Benton was taken to the medical cell and restrained with necessary force, not providing any details of the force used.

Several corrections officers involved in transporting Mr. Benton to the medical cell allege that a sergeant had a chokehold on him and kept it on him longer than he needed to.

The officers also claim they were told by another sergeant to only write reports concerning what happened at the hospital.

In December, Mr. Benton s family filed wrongful death litigation against the county, citing an eyewitness who came forward to say that the inmate had been struck several times while handcuffed and unable to defend himself.

In the seven-page document, Mr. Benton s family accused members of the sheriff s department of handcuffing the inmate to his bed and striking him leaving visible wounds on [Mr. Benton s] body [which the autopsy report notes, but then fails to relate to [his] death].

Attorney Joel Levin of Cleveland, who is handling the civil litigation for the family, said the family has cooperated with the federal investigation and is pleased to see that a step has been taken. He said the family, including mother Denise Coley, has declined to comment on the case and instead will watch and wait.

From the family s point of view, it has been a struggle to find out what happened and confirm suspicions, he said in an interview. We re not here to make statements about guilt or innocence. The long-term goal is compensation for a boy who lost his father.

That case is pending before U.S. District Court Judge Jack Zouhary.

The sheriff is an elected official but his budget is approved by the Lucas County commissioners. The county also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit over Mr. Benton s death.

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop said he was in favor of Sheriff Telb staying in office until the investigation is over.

Just like any other citizen, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, Mr. Konop said. Although Sheriff Telb has vowed to not resign, if he does county commissioners would have to appoint an interim replacement, Mr. Konop said.

We have known for some time there was a lawsuit and a federal investigation, so it was not completely a shock, he said.

Both commissioners Konop and Tina Skeldon Wozniak said it was important to keep the public s faith in the county public safety system as the case proceeds.

Commissioner Pete Gerken was unavailable for comment.

According to a release from the U.S. Department of Justice, the alleged cover-up surrounding Mr. Benton s death spanned four years.

Police officers are given tremendous authority and responsibility so that they can protect and serve the public trust, said Loretta King, acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division in the statement. Those who abuse that authority face serious consequences.

Sheriff Telb said yesterday that he had a lengthy meeting with the FBI last summer.

When I met with them and talked with them, the incident was over four years old. I didn t remember everything. I can t blame it on age but it does happen. You don t remember everything, he said. You don t remember every detail from something that happened four and a half, five years ago.

Attorney Joseph Westmeyer III, who is representing Mr. Schmeltz, admitted that the charges did not come as a surprise to those involved, noting that there s been an ongoing investigation that we have known about. He declined to talk about the case, only saying that we ll let the evidence come out as it becomes available.

Mr. Schmeltz, of Toledo, retired as a deputy sheriff this year, although Mr. Westmeyer said his departure was unrelated to the criminal case filed yesterday.

The attorney for Mr. Gray, Spiros Cocoves, called the charges in the indictment unfounded.

The evidence at trial is going to show that everything that Mr. Gray did was in conformity with department standards, he said.

Mr. Kerger, of Kerger & Hartman, said Sheriff Telb will continue to serve his community despite the obvious distraction.

He, just like everyone else in the country, is presumed innocent, he said.

Staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.

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