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Published: Thursday, 4/16/2009

Prosecutor gave case to feds because probe named sheriff

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bates Bates
DAVE ZAPOTOSKY / TOLEDO BLADE Enlarge

A year before the federal indictment of Lucas County Sheriff James Telb and three of his employees, local prosecutors reviewed the 2004 death of a jail inmate and determined there was not enough information to charge anyone in the death.

But Prosecutor Julia Bates said yesterday that because the sheriff's name was mentioned in the inquiry, she felt it was necessary to turn over jurisdiction to federal authorities.

Sheriff Telb was indicted Tuesday on two felony charges of making false statements and covering up a crime.

The charges stem from the 2004 death of Carlton Benton, who died while awaiting trial in a double homicide.

"This case came to us preliminarily about one year ago and after looking at it, we were concerned about a conflict of interest," Ms.

Bates said.

The prosecutor's office made "two determinations," she said.

"One, the coroner needs to be notified about the change of facts and we personally did that," Ms. Bates said. "Two, we sent all the information we had available to the assistant U.S. attorney to look at. We felt it was appropriate for us not to be involved in this when it involved a client."

The county prosecutor is the lawyer for the county sheriff.

An investigation last year into Mr. Benton's death was sparked when a former corrections officer, Tina Hill, told sheriff's officials that she witnessed a murder in the jail.

Sheriff's investigators looked into the allegations and provided a verbal report of the facts in the case to the prosecutor's office.

Included in that report was the determination by the coroner's office that Mr. Benton's death was not a homicide but instead caused by a seizure disorder. Despite new information given to her at the time, Deputy Coroner Cynthia Beisser said she would not change her ruling.

John Weglian, chief of the Special Units Division for the prosecutor's office, said yesterday that he had a meeting with sheriff's investigators about the allegations about a year ago and based on the information he was given, advised the department that there was not "sufficient evidence to pursue criminal allegations."

"I was told that there was an inmate who was unruly and that he was subdued by one of the officers using a sleeper hold on him," he said, adding that he was not told that the inmate was choked. "I was also told that the coroner determined that the cause of death was natural causes."

In a press conference held Tuesday, Sheriff Telb denied charges that he attempted to hide information about the incident, saying the case was reviewed and cleared. He also said allegations that he lied to FBI agents were unfounded.

Jail Administrator Jim O'Neal said the sheriff's statements about the case were a result of his understanding that the prosecutor's office determined not to pursue criminal charges in the incident.

"Shortly after [the meeting with the prosecutor], Internal Affairs got a letter that the FBI was taking over the investigation," Mr. O'Neal said.

In the 12-count federal indictment released Tuesday, federal authorities charged Sheriff Telb and Capt. Robert McBroom with making false statements and misprision of a felony. Former Sheriff's Sgt. John Gray and Deputy Jay Schmeltz were each charged with multiple counts, including deprivation of rights under the color of law, falsification of documents, and making false statements.

The men are each slated to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Toledo May 1.

If convicted, Sheriff Telb and Captain McBroom face up to three years in prison. Mr. Schmeltz faces up to 10 years in prison and Mr. Gray could be sentenced to life in prison, if convicted.

Although the prosecutor's office will pursue charges against county employees, the law requires the office to represent "all county officials, boards, and agencies," Ms. Bates said.

The office is defending the county and the sheriff's office in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Mr. Benton's family but would not defend the sheriff in any criminal case.

Because an initial investigation revealed information that "may or may not have implicated the sheriff," Ms. Bates said she immediately sent the case outside the office.

"Did something happen and if it did, did the sheriff know about it? These were questions we felt we should not be answering against our client," she said yesterday.

In a letter dated April 28, 2008, to Assistant U.S. Attorney David Bauer, Ms. Bates wrote that her office was forwarding a "report relative to an incident at the Jail in 2004."

"I am the statutory attorney for the Lucas County Sheriff and as such have a conflict in any further investigative involvement in this matter," her letter stated.

In addition to sending information to federal authorities, the prosecutor's office had correspondence with the Lucas County Coroner's Office, once on April 16, 2008, and again on Oct. 10.

In the April 16 letter written by Steven Papadimos, chief of the prosecutor's civil division, the coroner's office was advised that more information may be available regarding Mr. Benton's death.

"The Lucas County Sheriff's Department representative has advised our office that the decedent, while an inmate of the Lucas County Corrections Center, was subjected to physical force which may be considered violent, suspicious, and or unusual," the letter stated. "Our office has been advised that the physical force applied to the decedent was not known by your office at the time of death nor taken into account in determination of the cause of death."

Sheriff Telb said Tuesday that the investigation will lead to his exoneration. He continues to have support in the community.

"I have known Jim Telb for 52 years. ...Throughout all those years I have never had a single occasion to doubt his truthfulness - his integrity. And, I don't today," Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said in a statement released by his office. "I'll be at Sheriff Telb's side when his integrity is fully recognized by his accusers and the court system."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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