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Feds accuse county's former top jail guard of beating, cover-up

| Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011

Federal prosecutors on Friday accused former top Allegheny County Jail guard James Donis of beating an inmate and then lying to the FBI and faking paperwork as part of the cover-up.

Donis, 49, of Shaler faces charges of depriving an inmate of civil rights, falsification of a document and making false claims to law enforcement stemming from an April 6, 2010, incident in which federal prosecutors say he beat an inmate who tried to escape.

Charles Porter, Donis' attorney, said the claimant is former inmate Gary W. Barbour, who filed a federal lawsuit last month contending that Donis and other members of the jail's special response team beat him severely after he tried to slip out through ductwork.

"(Donis) maintains his innocence and looks forward to trial," said Porter, who noted that people provided multiple versions of what happened that day. "The bottom line is that it was a felon attempting to escape from prison. I think that needs to be kept in mind."

The arrest occurred nearly five months after a federal probe at the jail came to light. Agents executed a search warrant at the jail in June. The county fired Donis last week.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton declined to say whether the investigation continues or if more charges would be filed against Donis or others.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly released Donis on a $50,000 unsecured bond, sparing him a trip to the Uptown lockup where the former major worked for 22 years. Donis told the judge he would live at home with his wife and daughter but declined to comment as he left the courtroom at the U.S. District Courthouse, Downtown. If convicted, Donis faces a maximum of 35 years in prison.

"We're going to go tell Gary right now," said Gary Barbour Sr., the inmate's father. "It's his (30th) birthday today. It should make him really happy."

Common Pleas President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel wasn't surprised by the charges.

"I suspected it was coming, but I didn't know," said McDaniel, who also is president of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board. "I don't really know anything more, and I can't comment on an ongoing investigation. It's not appropriate."

Other members of the jail board declined comment.

County Executive Dan Onorato was aware of the arrest, according to his spokeswoman, Judi McNeil.

"We're not commenting on it because it is a federal issue. We have to refer everybody to the attorney general's office," she said.

Barbour, who is serving a 19-month sentence at the State Correctional Institution in Woods Run for the escape attempt, claims he was attacked after he tried to escape by crawling through ductwork. He was discovered in the jail's mechanical room.

According to his lawsuit, Barbour said that after he was caught, several jail guards subdued him and forced him to his knees. Donis put on leather gloves, said, "I'm your worst nightmare," then started hitting him in the face, Barbour said.

According to the three-page grand jury indictment unsealed yesterday, authorities said Donis attempted to influence the beating investigation by falsely writing in an addendum report a year later that "(Barbour) was combative, attempted to break free of officers, and refused to follow orders."

Three days after the addendum report, Donis allegedly lied to an FBI agent by claiming Barbour resisted Donis' attempts to handcuff him.

Porter said he is not aware if there is video evidence of the alleged beating.

"Being a white shirt, you have some people who like you and some don't," Porter said. "This is a fairly devastating situation to have happen to somebody."

Donis was fourth in command at the jail and oversaw special operations. He was hired in September 1989 and, according to county records, his salary for 2011 was $68,631.

The jail's leadership has been in turmoil during the past 10 months, beginning with the departure of Warden Ramon Rustin, who left to head Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, N.M. Rustin said he was not forced out, even though he left amid scandal. He did not return a call for comment.

After Rustin left, the state Department of Corrections named Daniel Burns as interim warden. Burns took over as superintendent at Woods Run on Aug. 1; the state then appointed Trevor Wingard to act as interim warden while a search committee looks for a permanent warden.

In August, Deputy Warden Lance Bohn resigned to take a job teaching criminal justice classes; his position was filled by Deputy Warden William Emerick, who oversees operations. Deputy Warden Gregory Grogan oversees programs at the jail.

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