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Joyce Endee

Commissioners overrule County Jail Superintendent at least three times

Multiple incidents raise questions about personnel policy at jail

THE CARROLL COUNTY JAIL. Jail Superintendent Jason Johnson has been overruled at least three times in his recommendations for disciplining jail personnel. (click for larger version)
November 21, 2012
OSSIPEE — "Nobody likes a tattletale," said Patrick O'Donnell, 41, as he left the visitation room at Carroll County House of Corrections. Inmate O'Donnell had agreed to an interview Nov. 14 but changed his mind. The plan was not to talk about his arrest in Tuftonboro or the $15,000 cash-only bail the judge placed on his freedom but rather what happened to him after he was brought by police to the jail Aug. 19. On the date of the interview, however, O'Donnell decided not to talk about the details, he said, because his court date was finally approaching and he didn't want to do anything that might hinder the possibility he could be released from jail Nov. 21.

After nearly three months of investigation including a review of publicly available county and court records, numerous interviews, and information gathered from several official as well as credible and anonymous sources, incidents of possible abuse against inmates have emerged, calling into question the handling of these incidents by top elected officials.

According to police documents, on the morning of Aug. 19, Tuftonboro Police Sgt. James Hathcock was called to 4 Union Wharf Road in that town on a report of a man trying to break into the home. The four-page affidavit spells out the encounter police had with O'Donnell including trying to get him to gather his belongings, his truck and his dog and move along. But he allegedly refused to move along quickly and that escalated into charges of loitering, resisting arrest, and simple assault. O'Donnell was stunned by police with a Taser "numerous" times then strapped down to a backboard, loaded into an ambulance, and taken to jail.

He reportedly arrived at the jail face down, strapped to the back board, handcuffed behind his back, and with his leg shackled. Jail officials declined a request to make the video tape of what happened next available. Reportedly, and O'Donnell acknowledged, that he was stunned with a Taser by a corrections officer, several times while he was still in handcuffs and leg shackles.

CCHOC Superintendent Jason Johnson refused to speak specifically about the case, citing personnel privacy laws that prohibit him from doing so. He did say that corrections officers receive training in the proper use of Tasers prior to being authorized to use them. He could not say when the corrections officer in question was trained in the use of the Taser. Likewise, the county's Human Resource Director, Janice Sullivan, cited personnel privacy laws when asked what, if any action, was taken by the county commissioners against the corrections officer. When asked if the N.H. Attorney General's Office was notified about the incident in regard to the possibility that excessive force was used against O'Donnell, Sullivan replied via email "it is my understanding that such notification did take place by Jail Personnel." When contacted by telephone Nov. 16, Associate Attorney General Jane Young said it is the practice of that office neither to confirm nor deny any investigations that may or may not be ongoing.

According to sources, Superintendent Johnson recommended to the county commissioners that the corrections officer be fired from his job following this incident. The commissioners voted against that recommendation. According to Sullivan, state law, NH RSA 28-10a gives the county commissioners the authority to fire or suspend county employees. The law also states that if there is a union agreement in place, and the county's policies and procedures for employee discipline and termination conflict with it, the union agreement prevails. The corrections officer was a member of the union at the time of the alleged incident.

At the time of O'Donnell's arrest police asked the court to order him held on $25,000 cash-only bail citing him as a flight risk with no ties to the area who would likely not attend future court hearings. O'Donnell's listed address is Los Alamos, Calif. The judge ordered him held on $15,000 cash.

Such high bail for the misdemeanor charges of loitering and resisting arrest seems out of the ordinary. A review of O'Donnell's court file reveals there may be more at issue than simply prosecutors being concerned about whether he'll show for a court hearing.

Judge Robert Varney noted in a Sept. 26 order that the probate court found O'Donnell incapacitated when he is "not taking his medication as prescribed." Despite O'Donnell's objection, his father was appointed by the probate court as his guardian "with express authority to intervene in these pending criminal proceedings" on O'Donnell's behalf.

It appears from the court file that O'Donnell's stay in the county jail was likely longer than necessary due to backlog at the state government department that conducts competency evaluations. Judge Varney refused to accept a plea bargain that had been worked out between O'Donnell and Tuftonboro Police and wrote, "unless and until it is either approved by the guardian intervener or the court is in receipt of the expert opinion that the defendant's capacity has been remedied. In the interim the defendant is to be referred to the office of the forensic examiner for a competency evaluation in light of the defendant's claim to have now returned to his prescribed pharmacological regimen. In view of contemplated delays inherent in dealings with this understaffed State Agency, the Court will entertain on an expedited basis, prayers for alternative expert assessment of the defendant's competency as may be available privately…The issue of capacity runs to the root of any adversarial criminal proceedings and cannot be shunted aside once raised."

O'Donnell is set to appear at Third Circuit Court in Ossipee Nov. 21 at 9:30 a.m. to answer to the question of competency and to the charges against him. It is unclear as of press time whether or not O'Donnell plans to pursue any action against the jail. He did agree to an interview once the pending court matters are resolved.

Sneak attack

The second incident at the jail involved an inmate that was attacked by another inmate and it appears, at least in part, that staff negligence played a part in it.

In a jail interview Nov. 14, 29-year-old Carroll County Jail inmate Michael Petelis said the months since the incident have "been a blur." Despite this, he was able to recount the details leading up to and including the attack on May 26.

Petelis said he was let out of his isolation cell for "tier time." This is an hour a day when he was allowed out of his cell to spend time in one of the day rooms. A day room is a unit located behind sliding locked glass doors. The day room consists of a common area with a table, television, payphone, shower stall and the wall of the room is lined with individual inmate cells that have metal doors with small glass windows. Petelis said he was escorted to Day Room Three by a corrections officer who left him in there for his tier time. Petelis was standing outside one of the inmate's cells having a conversation with him through the cell door. They were talking about "a couple of phone numbers he wanted me to call" when suddenly Inmate Ombleo Daniels jumped out of the shower and attacked him. Petelis said he was knocked to the ground and Daniels was punching and kicking him. Petelis confirmed he did not fight back but rather tried to cover up and protect himself.

According to a police report obtained from Carroll County Sheriff's Department, that agency was called in to investigate the assault. Deputy Brian Argue reported that he observed Petelis had "numerous facial lacerations" to his right eye, head, and right ear. Argue reported he watched a security video, confirming Petelis' account of the incident, to see Daniels emerging from a shower stall and attacking Petelis, who did not "strike back at Daniels."

A fight between jail inmates does not seem out of the ordinary but how Daniels had access to Petelis does. Petelis was brought to the common area by a corrections officer. The officer's responsibility, according to sources, was to check all areas of the room including the shower stall and to make sure each of the inmates who were supposed to be in their cells were, and the cell doors were locked. That officer, who was a sergeant and has since been demoted, and who has many years' experience working at the jail, did not do that. He stood briefly by one of the inmate's cell doors then left the room, leaving Petelis with no way to avoid his attacker.

Daniels was supposed to have locked in to his cell but instead had shut the cell door and hid in the shower. Whether he was waiting specifically for Petelis is not perfectly clear. According to Argue's report, Daniels refused to give him either a verbal or written statement and said he "had no recollection of any incident that occurred between himself and Petelis."

When asked if he thought it was a set-up, Petelis said he didn't want to think so but "how else would he (Daniels) know I was coming down there?" Petelis said prior to the attack there had been no problems between himself and Daniels. When asked if he thought Daniels knew the crime he is accused of and therefore targeted him for that, Petelis said it could have been since it was "all over the news." When asked if he had any problems previously with the sergeant who delivered him to the day room, Petelis said, "not really just a couple of little things."

Though it was previously reported that Petelis suffered a broken nose in the attack, Petelis denied this. After his guilty plea Nov. 6 to the assault charge, Daniels was moved to NH State Prison to begin serving a one to three year sentence. Petelis remains in jail, unable to raise the $250,000 cash bail he has been held on since his May 2011 arrest. Petelis is being held on a charge of conspiracy to commit burglary but has not been formerly charged in connection with the murder of 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer of Maine. Dittmeyer was murdered by Anthony Papile of Ossipee in April 2011. His motive was to rob Dittmeyer of money and drugs. Prosecutors allege that Petelis conspired with Papile and another man, Trevor Ferguson, to commit the robbery. Dittmeyer's body was dumped in a snowmaking pond at Cranmore Mountain Resort. Dittmeyer's 14-month-old baby was found unharmed in her mother's car, which was parked nearby. Papile has pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to over 40 years in prison. Ferguson has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and hindering apprehension or prosecution and was sentenced to seven to 22 years in prison. Petelis did not talk about his alleged role in the crime during the Nov. 14 interview but sources say he has not been formally charged as questions about his competency remain unresolved.

As it turns out, leaving Petelis in the day room without thoroughly checking it first was not the only questionable thing that the sergeant is accused of doing that day. We have since learned that he left an inmate in a restraint chair without direct supervision, a violation of jail policy and also failed to thoroughly search an inmate brought to the jail for an overnight visit and therefore managed to have a cell phone during their stay.

It was recommended by top jail officials that the sergeant lose his job. That recommendation was brought to the county commissioners who recommended only a three-day suspension. Johnson added that the sergeant also be demoted back to corrections officer with no supervisory power. The sergeant filed a grievance about being demoted and it was that grievance, dated July 25 and read aloud publicly at a county commissioner's meeting that sheds light on who the sergeant is – Dean Perry. In that grievance Perry stated he was filing the grievance against Commissioners David Sorensen and Dorothy Solomon for their "abuse of authority." The grievance did not include Commissioner Asha Kenney because she, according to Perry, stated that the disciplinary actions recommended by Johnson were too severe and unjustified. "I feel Kenney is the only commissioner that has been fair and unbiased and has heard and understands my concerns. I feel that if the other two commissioners had her integrity and desire to lawfully deliver fair and just treatment to its county employees, I would have already been given a formal and unbiased investigation…" wrote Perry in the three-page grievance.

The airing of Perry's grievance turned into a fiasco this summer. He had come into a public commissioner's meeting and read off his three-page complaint about the two commissioners and requested that his complaint be handled openly. The public was shut out of a hearing on the whole matter, however, when Perry changed his mind when he learned that handling the grievance publicly would work both ways, with jail officials being able to discuss openly the things Perry had allegedly done that warranted their recommendation that he be fired. Additionally, because he was a sergeant, Perry was not a member of the union and therefore not protected by that contract or the union's legal counsel.

Once behind the closed doors, the Perry matter became a secret, protected by the commissioners under personnel privacy laws and attorney client privilege. The newly hired Sullivan was given the Perry investigation as her first order of business as human resource director, in order to save the county taxpayers money in legal fees. We have since learned that Perry was not terminated but was demoted. That may not last long however as the demotion was set to last six months during which he was supposed to receive county-funded managerial training and then be eligible to return to his supervisory role in December.

Three on leave

From what we have learned, the county commissioners did not follow Johnson's recommendation involving either of the above corrections officers. They again went against his recommendation when it came time to decide to put three corrections officers on administrative leave for their alleged involvement in providing alcohol to girls under the age of 21.

Back in October, Ossipee Police Department arrested William Lewis, 26, of Conway, Taylor Goddard, 21, of New Durham, and Michael Medina, 22, of Ossipee and charged them with prohibited sales of alcohol, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 fine and a year in jail. Police responded on a noise complaint to Medina's home where they say "Police arrived to find a party, where underage persons were determined to be intoxicated." The three girls, age 17 and 18, were taken into custody Sept. 7 and following a six-week investigation, the men were arrested and charged. The 18-year-old girl shares the apartment and is on the lease with Medina. The three men are scheduled to make their first court appearance for arraignment in December where they are expected to be formally charged by the court.

In the meantime, Johnson reportedly immediately placed all three on leave while he conducted an internal investigation. When that investigation was completed for the alleged crime that happened outside the jail facility, the men were returned to regular duty as corrections officers. On Oct. 31, two of the county commissioners met in a non-posted, non-public session with the county attorney and a deputy from the sheriff's department following which Sorensen demanded the three be placed on immediate leave from their jobs. Commissioner Kenney was not included in the session as it was not prescheduled and she was unaware it was going to occur and had already gone home for the day. The commissioners followed up with posting an official non-public session for Nov. 2 in which all three commissioners were involved, formally voting on the decision to put the three on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the court proceedings. Being charged with a misdemeanor does not mean the three will automatically lose their corrections officer certification. Under the standards set forth by N.H. Association of Counties, the board "may" revoke an officer's certification if the officer obtained the certification fraudulently, has been convicted of a felony, has been indicted on a felony charge, the certificate was issued through administrative error, or if the officer has been convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail for it. While the officers are out on leave, their shifts are being filled by other officers working overtime.

It is unclear why the county commissioners, who have made no public denouncement of Johnson's ability to manage the jail, appear to be going against his recommendations. Johnson declined to discuss any of the events in detail but did say they have given a "black eye or two" to the reputation of the jail. He said the jail staff are dedicated professionals who pride themselves on the ethical treatment of inmates and to their responsibility as certified officers.

In an ironic twist, on Friday, Nov. 16, an inmate who was released after serving out his eight-month sentence left a note for corrections officers. While stating that he would have much rather been at home, the inmate said "I don't view my stay here as a bad thing." He thanked the staff for being "fair and human" to him and said "the people here are great people and have gone the extra mile to stand by the mission statement that this facility has put forth."

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Varney Smith
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