FBI: Former warden, other Allegheny County Jail officers covered up abuse
A former warden and other top officers in the Allegheny County Jail helped cover up the 2010 brutal beating of an inmate, the FBI says in a secret file the Tribune-Review obtained.
Ex-Maj. James Donis, 50, was sentenced last week to eight months in a halfway house, plus five years' probation, for falsifying reports to hide how he physically abused Gary Barbour, 31, after the inmate's bungled April 6, 2010, prison escape.
The internal FBI file, containing more than 1,000 pages and photos, reveals that officers other than Donis sanitized incident reports; failed to investigate when alerted to the abuse; lied repeatedly to investigators; and allegedly retaliated against a guard suspected of telling on Donis, the fourth highest-ranking official in the jail.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton on Monday defended focusing prosecution on Donis but wouldn't say why the office did not prosecute others.
“The protection of civil rights is a top priority — this includes the civil rights of incarcerated prisoners who are protected under the law from beating and excessive force by prison guards,” Hickton said in a written statement to the Trib. “Mr. Donis was a major in the prison system and, as such, occupied a position of leadership and trust. The decision to prosecute him was based upon the law and the facts. He pled guilty. While we asked for a prison sentence, we respect the decision of the court, and justice was done.”
Hickton declined to comment on another explosive revelation that the file contains: A jail officer became FBI Confidential Source S-00032885, wearing a wire that recorded Donis and others inside the prison on two occasions.
To protect the informant's safety, the Tribune-Review won't disclose the name. Barbour, the inmate who was beaten, filed a federal civil suit seeking $1.2 million in damages for his physical and mental injuries allegedly resulting from his abuse at the jail.
His attorney, Ron Barber of the Downtown firm of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, cloaked the informant in new filings on Monday that allege a “vast and deliberate cover-up” by top jail brass.
Armed with what appears to be a copy of the FBI files, Barber wants to add a pair of past high-ranking jail officials to the complaint: former Deputy Warden Lance Bohn and Tom Leicht, the jail's former chief of Internal Affairs.
“Beatings like this, and the other ones that we've referred to in the complaint in this case, happen because the people involved believe that jail administrators and Internal Affairs won't do anything about it,” said Barber. “We are seeking to add Bohn and Leicht so that the next deputy warden and the next captain of Internal Affairs will actually perform their legal obligations and not simply stand by and watch.”
Jail officials, Donis and his criminal defense attorney, Charles Porter Jr., didn't return calls seeking comment.
Former Allegheny County Warden Ramon Rustin, 55, isn't named as a defendant in the lawsuit but his name peppers the latest filing and the much larger FBI dossier. In a written statement to the Trib, he said that the first time he heard that Donis had beaten Barbour was on Nov. 1, 2011, when FBI agents interviewed him. That was nine months after Rustin resigned his post to take a similar position at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, where he remains.
Rustin removed Leicht from Internal Affairs on Sept. 2, 2010, over allegations that the captain embellished his resume and lied under oath to convict Christina Korbe, the Indiana Township woman who pleaded guilty to killing FBI agent Sam Hicks in 2008.
Bohn, 42, of Swissvale lied to agents for months to protect his job, the reputation of the prison and Donis, the FBI said. On Aug. 4, 2011, he inked an immunity deal sparing him from prosecution. Bohn then told the FBI that he was in the prison's utility room in 2010 when members of the jail's Special Response Team found Barbour, who had shimmied through ductwork to hide in a dormant air conditioner.
Bohn said that Donis, who could bench-press 300 pounds, asked guards to pass the inmate, who weighed about 140 pounds, to him. Although a handcuffed Barbour wasn't resisting, Donis punched the prisoner “square in the face” so hard that a “loud crack” resounded, and he then bragged about it, the FBI file reveals.
Bohn's defense attorney, Phil DiLucente, praised his client for sacrificing his career in corrections to “do the right thing.”
“Lance Bohn believed in the system and he attempted to do his part, as best as he could,” said DiLucente.
Bohn told the FBI that Donis later brought him a draft report suggesting that he had struck Barbour to make him quit resisting arrest. Bohn asked Donis to erase incriminating details because he “worried about damage control,” according to the FBI report.
Bohn told the FBI that his boss, former Warden Rustin, asked him: “Is he going to change it?” When Bohn replied, “I think so,” Rustin said, “Good,” the files allege.
Bohn told the FBI that Rustin appeared to know “that Donis had beaten Barbour and was fine with this fact. This gave Bohn comfort, as Bohn did not believe that Rustin was going to come down on Bohn for knowing about it and not addressing the issue,” the FBI papers state.
During a meeting shortly after Donis beat Barbour in 2010, Leicht told Rustin that it looked like the prisoner's face went “through a meat grinder,” FBI records indicate. But Rustin told him that Donis had claimed the inmate fell and hurt himself during his escape attempt, prompting Donis to say, “Well, he fell.”
When Rustin laughed in response, Leicht said he took that as a signal to lay off Donis, according to his FBI interview.
“There's no way I would have said, ‘Let it go' or ‘Don't investigate that,' ” Rustin said in an interview on Monday.
When he talked to the FBI, Leicht disputed Bohn's recollection that he was in the utility room when Donis assaulted Barbour. Instead, he remembered seeing the major escorting the battered Barbour elsewhere in the jail.
Leicht, 50, the elected constable for North Versailles, raised nagging concerns about the beating with superiors Bohn and Deputy Warden William Emerick, 53, of Pitcairn, but they “looked at him as if he were crazy,” according to the FBI files.
Emerick declined comment.
In the latest lawsuit filings, Leicht is accused of failing to safeguard crucial jail video footage that might have documented Barbour's beating by Donis and other guards. Though it's true the FBI couldn't find the tapes when agents searched the prison in 2011, Leicht told the FBI and the Trib that he never would've destroyed evidence and that he suspected someone removed it once he left his job there.
Carl Prine is a reporter for Total Trib Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7826.