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The Justice Department told County Executive Chris Collins that Erie County fails to protect inmates from harm, violating their constitutional rights.
Derek Gee / Buffalo News

Jail torment affirmed by inmate story

January beating led to firings by county

News Staff Reporter

Guards will beat inmates or pit them against one another as ways to maintain order, the U.S. Justice Department said in its 2009 report on Erie County’s jails.

Those themes run loudly through an inmate’s sworn statement about his experience in the Holding Center in January. The statement triggered an investigation that led to the recent firing of three jail deputies and unpaid suspension for three more.

Stephen Heilmann, who was punched in the ribs when surrounded by deputies in January, added the statement to a notice of claim he filed against Erie County and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to protect his right to sue.

The statement, obtained by The Buffalo News, offers one inmate’s view of jail torment — during an unprecedented period of federal scrutiny into the Erie County jail system.

Heilmann was arrested on drug-related charges after neighbors on Grand Island reported that he and others might be making methamphetamine.

He had been jailed for a week when five or six deputies awakened him one night. It was at about 12:20 a.m. Jan. 17.

“They said someone told them that I had contraband of some sort in my room. For three days prior, there was a heavy smell of weed in the pod where I was, Foxtrot South,” Heilmann wrote. “So I knew that was what it was about.”

Heilmann, 33, said he told the deputies he had only a couple of books and his standard-issue items: a towel, sheets, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a pillowcase and soap. He told them he had no marijuana.

“I hope so, for your sake,” a deputy responded.

Heilmann wrote that he was taken to a shower room and strip-searched while the other deputies went through his cell in an apparent hunt for the marijuana.

“They ripped my sheet, tied my other one in knots, stomped on my soap, put my toilet paper in the toilet and then back on the counter, took my pillowcase and my newspaper and my lawyer’s card, and then when they were done they brought me back upstairs where everything was in the middle of the floor.”

He said the deputies vowed to return the next night, expecting Heilmann to tell them who had the contraband. If he did not, he would be “going to the hospital on a stretcher,” one said, according to Heilmann’s statement.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Heilmann responded.

“No. We are going to slap the s--- out of you. See you tomorrow,” he was told. And soon after, one filed paperwork citing him for ripping up his bedsheet.

The deputies returned just after midnight the next day, he said.

“This is what’s going to happen,” one told him, according to his statement. “You are going to tell us who has the weed in here, or you’re going to the hospital tonight.”

Heilmann said he tried to object, and when he did, a deputy threatened to search nearby cells and tell those inmates that Heilmann had snitched on them.

“So you are getting a beating from one of us tonight,” a deputy said, meaning either jail deputies or inmates. “Which is it going to be?”

When Heilmann again balked, some deputies left to search another cell, telling the other inmate that Heilmann had implicated him, according to his statement.

The deputies ended the search empty-handed.

“Seeing as how you made us get our hands dirty for nothing, you get to pick which one of us is going to give you a gut shot,” the deputy leading the group told Heilmann, according to the statement.

Again Heilmann hesitated, and the lead deputy said that would be OK: If Heilmann didn’t want to pick one of them to throw the punch, the deputy would pick two.

Heilmann said he tried to say he wanted no trouble. He was to be released from jail in just a couple of days — Tuesday, Jan. 19.

“Not if you assaulted one of my deputies. We can keep you here for up to one year for that,” the leader responded, according to the statement.

Heilmann estimated that four of the six deputies stood about 6 feet or taller and that each weighed more than 200 pounds. He picked a deputy who stood about 5-feet-10 and weighed about 220.

Heilmann said he followed orders to stand and lock his fingers behind his head. The deputy then took two steps forward and delivered a punch to the ribs.

Sitting on his bed to recover, Heilmann was told by a deputy that the episode would be repeated on a third night. Then he was warned not to seek medical care or report what occurred because “it will be way worse when we come back.”

The next morning, he heard other inmates yelling toward his cell: “Rat,” “Snitch,” “You’re dead.”

However, a new shift of deputies had reported for duty, and Heilmann was moved to another pod until his disciplinary hearing over the ripped bedsheet.

He said he went before a lieutenant, Jacqueline A. Kretzmon, who reported that she had never seen an inmate accused of destroying county property by ripping his own sheet. When told what happened, she dropped the charge and encouraged him to draft a statement, he said.

He was placed in protective custody until his release later that week. He wrote out his seven-page report Jan. 22. In it, he offered to take a lie-detector test and described the six deputies, including their tattoos, mannerisms and speech patterns.

“I WILL PICK ALL OF THEM OUT OF A LINEUP,” he wrote, choosing capital letters.

The Justice Department’s 50-page report on the county Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and Correctional Facility in Alden described beatings by guards, and guards either looking the other way when inmates fought or pitting inmates against one another. The Justice Department told County Executive Chris Collins that Erie County fails to protect inmates from harm, violating their constitutional rights.

County Attorney Cheryl A. Green and the sheriff responded to the Justice Department’s report in two ways: They said the reports of beatings were difficult to confirm and might be exaggerated, if not falsified; and Howard’s administrators over the years disciplined staff members whenever wrongdoing had been confirmed, so therefore county leaders were not indifferent to inmates’ needs.

“If we receive credible evidence of wrongdoing by our staff, it is investigated thoroughly, and proper action is taken,” Brian D. Doyle, the sheriff’s chief of administration, said this week. “The information and rules are in place. If violations are discovered, we have a long history of taking appropriate action.”

Heilmann’s statement kicked off an internal investigation. Last month, the Sheriff’s Office announced the results: Howard fired a sergeant and two deputies, mainly for lying to investigators. A fourth deputy was suspended for 30 days, and two others for 10 days each.

“The three who didn’t lie admitted what happened, and because of that, they were able to save their careers,” Doyle said at the time, without identifying the employees. “We put a priority on telling the truth.”

This week, Doyle added that the Heilmann episode, though it occurred during a period of federal scrutiny, reflects poorly on one “aberrant supervisor” and “speaks well of the management staff who discovered the behavior and took quick and decisive action.”