Two former employees of the White River Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Batesville — one a jailer with an explosive temper, the other a supervisor who later turned on his boss and tried to help the youths he oversaw — were sentenced Thursday for violating the youths’ civil rights.
In hearings before different judges, former jailer Jason Benton, 44, was sentenced to 2½ years in federal prison, while former supervisor Dennis Fuller, 41, was given a three-year sentence that was expected to be reduced because of his cooperation in an FBI investigation and the subsequent prosecution of others.
The men’s former captain, Peggy Kendrick, 45, who prosecutors said ran the lockup with an iron fist and ordered her jailers to inflict unnecessary pain and punishment on the youths for minor infractions, was also scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.
However, her sentencing was delayed to allow a snowed-in woman who was once a detainee at the facility to fly in from Montana to make a victim-impact statement. A new sentencing date hadn’t been set as of Thursday evening.
Benton pleaded guilty April 4, 2018, to two charges: deprivation of rights under color of law and falsifying documents. He admitted that on May 19, 2013, he used excessive force when he ordered a boy who wouldn’t be quiet to walk out of his cell with his mattress, and then sprayed the boy in the face with pepper spray as the boy was unable to shield himself.
Benton admitted that he held the boy down for several minutes in what the boy said felt like “a puddle of mace on the floor,” allowing the pepper spray to continue burning the boy’s skin. Benton admitted that he then falsified a report on the incident to justify the use of the pepper spray, falsely claiming that the boy had lunged at him.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Benton faced 30-37 months in prison. The penalty range took into account several incidents that other jailers reported, in which prosecutors said Benton “lashed out in anger at juveniles in his custody.” It also took into account a June 2015 misdemeanor conviction for striking his 9-year-old son in the face.
According to a sentencing memorandum, Benton underwent training on the use of force soon after he was hired in February 2011. He resigned on June 7, 2012, after other jailers complained about him grabbing a boy by the collar after the boy called him a name, throwing the boy to the ground, sitting on top of him, placing his hands around the boy’s throat and causing the boy to grasp for breath, then filing a false report claiming that the boy had taken a swing at him. But five weeks later, Kendrick re-hired Benton, placing him on the coveted first shift, which prosecutors said she did to commend those who followed her orders.
Benton’s attorney, Richard L. Mays Jr., said Benton suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, adjustment disorder, depressed mood, nicotine dependence and various personality disorders, which caused his behaviors. Mays also said Benton is remorseful and is undergoing counseling and taking prescribed medications.
Mays asked U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson to consider alternatives to prison such as community treatment or home detention. But, Samantha Trepel of the U.S. Department of Justice argued that Benton’s “uncontrolled anger” constituted “a pattern that has followed him throughout his life,” including when he was in the Marine Corps.
Wilson said Benton’s actions were “cruel” and “I’m confident he has emotional problems.” Wilson imposed a 30-month sentence, at the low end of the guidelines, citing Benton’s military service and honorable discharge after four years.
“If it weren’t for his Marine service and his son, I’d probably go for the top end,” Wilson said. Benton has sole custody of his son, who is now 12.
“Right or wrong, I can’t help but take that into consideration,” Wilson said of the military service. He ordered Benton to receive mental health counseling, with an emphasis on anger management, while he’s in prison and while serving two years of supervised release.
In Fuller’s sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., Trepel found herself in the unusual position of joining defense attorney Chris Tarver of the federal public defender’s office in asking for leniency.
As the chief deputy under Kendrick at the youth lockup, Fuller faced a higher penalty range of 46-57 months under federal sentencing guidelines for the crime of conspiring to violate the youths’ civil rights. But he also had his mother, Vivian Fuller; his wife, Candy Fuller; and the prosecutor speaking on his behalf.
His mother called him “the backbone of our family,” and his wife, who can’t work because of illness, said she feared she and their 6-year-old daughter would lose their home if he went to prison.
“He’s the best man I’ve ever met in my life,” Candy Fuller told Moody.
Tarver cited what Trepel had written in a sentencing memo — that after a whistle-blower told Fuller he was going to report the abuse of the detainees to the FBI, Fuller said he would tell them the truth — and then did just that.
When Fuller later took over the jail administrator’s position from Kendrick, the attorneys said, he implemented changes to improve conditions at the jail, including creating a rewards-based, rather than punitive, disciplinary system; improving meals and nutrition; and providing additional counseling for the inmates.
The facility, which is operated by Independence County, houses up to 75 juveniles between the ages of 5 and 21. The population consists of two groups — those who have been charged with crimes or adjudicated delinquent, and those from families in need of services, who haven’t necessarily been accused of crimes.
Trepel noted that Fuller was ordered by Kendrick to use excessive force — primarily pepper spray — on youths who talked loudly or banged on doors, or otherwise irritated Kendrick, but they were youths “just being kids” and didn’t deserve to be punished.
“I think, had there been different leadership, this never would have happened,” Tarver said. “He has a sense of loyalty to employers.”
Fuller, who testified in December against two other jailers, describing how he and they, at his direction, wrongfully pepper-sprayed detainees or placed them in a restraint chair. He told the judge, “I know what I did … directly and indirectly … was horrible and inexcusable, but I’m sorry every single day. I wake up ashamed of what I was a part of, and I will be that way until I die.”
Moody asked Fuller about his pepper-spraying of one youth, which was captured on video.
“In the first video, it looked like he was asleep,” Moody said. “Y’all woke him up to spray him.”
“Yes,” Fuller replied.
“It didn’t appear to me that he ever imposed a threat to you,” Moody said. “Why’d you do that?”
“I did it because I was told to by my boss, your honor,” Fuller replied, “and because, if you didn’t follow orders, you would lose your job. I’m ashamed of it.”
He also acknowledged falsifying reports to, in the judge’s words, “make it look like these kids did something to deserve what you did to them.”
Trepel, in asking Moody to sentence Fuller at the low end of the guideline range, said: “We do not think a long sentence is warranted here.”
Moody — who presided over the December trial of former jailers Will Ray, 27, and Thomas Farris, 48, who a jury acquitted of violating the youths’ rights — imposed a sentence of 36 months for Fuller — below the guideline range, to be followed by two years of supervised release.
Trepel’s sentencing memo indicated that she would seek a 50 percent reduction in Fuller’s sentence in exchange for his cooperation and testimony.
However, a hearing that followed the public sentencing was closed to the public, making it unclear whether a reduction was requested or granted.
Metro on 03/15/2019