Several former correctional officers indicted after death of man in West Virginia jail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Five former correctional officers in West Virginia were indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday in connection with the 2022 death of an incarcerated man who was beaten while handcuffed and restrained in an interview room and later a jail cell.
All five officers, as well as a former lieutenant, are also charged with trying to cover up their actions, the U.S. Justice Department said.
The indictments in West Virginia’s southern U.S. District Court come weeks after two different West Virginia corrections officers pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge stemming from the fatal beating of the same inmate, 37-year-old Quantez Burks.
Burks was a pretrial detainee at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver who died less than a day after he was booked into the jail on a wanton endangerment charge in March 2022.
The case has drawn scrutiny to conditions and deaths at the Southern Regional Jail. Earlier this month, West Virginia agreed to pay $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by inmates who described conditions at the jail as inhumane. The lawsuit filed last year on behalf of current and former inmates cited such complaints as a lack of access to water and food at the facility, as well as overcrowding and fights that were allowed to continue until someone was injured.
Gov. Jim Justice’s administration fired former Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Executive Officer Brad Douglas and Homeland Security Chief Counsel Phil Sword after a federal magistrate judge cited the “intentional” destruction of records in recommending a default judgment in the lawsuit. That followed a hearing in early October in which former and current corrections officials, including some defendants in the lawsuit, said no steps had been taken to preserve evidence at the jail, including emails and documents.
The indictment handed up Thursday alleges that three former Southern Regional Jail correctional officers — 39-year-old Mark Holdren, 29-year-old Cory Snyder and 35-year-old Johnathan Walters — conspired with other officers at the jail to unlawfully beat Burks in an act of retaliation.
According to court documents, Burks tried to push past an officer to leave his housing unit. Burks then was escorted to an interview room where correctional officers are accused of striking Burks while he was restrained and handcuffed. He was later forcibly moved to a prison cell in another housing unit, where he was assaulted again.
West Virginia Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia said Thursday that the state worked closely with federal law enforcement to secure the indictments against the ex-corrections staffers.
“It’s important to note that we alerted the federal authorities to this matter and worked closely with federal authorities throughout the entirety of the investigation to assist in holding those responsible for unlawful acts accountable,” he said.
Sorsaia said the state has “no tolerance for abuse of any kind to be inflicted on inmates that are housed in our state facilities.”
Contact information for the indicted officers was not immediately available.
On Nov. 2, former officers Andrew Fleshman and Steven Wimmer pled guilty to a felony conspiracy charge stemming from the fatal beating. Their sentencings have been set for Feb. 22.
The state medical examiner’s office attributed Burks’ primary cause of death to natural causes, prompting the family to have a private autopsy conducted. The family’s attorney revealed at a news conference last year that the second autopsy found the inmate had multiple areas of blunt force trauma on his body.
Two other former corrections officers were indicted Thursday on a charge of failing to intervene in the unlawful assault, resulting in Burks’ death. All five officers, as well as a former lieutenant, are charged with covering up the use of unlawful force by omitting material information and providing false and misleading information to investigators.
Walters, Holdren and another officer submitted incident reports that contained false and misleading information, the indictment alleges. The indictment also charges Holdren, Snyder, and two other officers with making false statements to the FBI.