I cringed in shock as I talked with a nervous man some 12 years ago.
He told me he had watched jailers beat an inmate without provocation and then torture him into unconsciousness while he was restrained.
It was hard to believe, but the evidence I gathered confirmed the claims.
The man, Paul McBee, had agreed to a videotaped interview with me, and what he said happened at the Harrison County jail booking room proved true 18 months later in the dead silence of a federal courtroom.
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Video surveillance of what happened on Feb. 4, 2006, showed exactly what he had described.
McBee had been arrested that day on a misdemeanor. Jessie Lee Williams Jr. had been arrested on three misdemeanors. Jailers had ordered them to stand against a wall in the booking room before the hideous acts began.
Williams was kicked, slapped, punched, pepper-sprayed under a hood that covered his face, stunned with a Taser, hogtied with handcuffs, wrapped in a blanket, and, as McBee put it, “carried like a suitcase” and “thrown down twice” on the way to a restraining chair.
Williams soon slipped into a coma, and later died.
“I wake up from nightmares hearing and seeing it,” McBee told me. “I hear him screaming. I hear him saying ‘I quit, please stop,’ over and over.”
He was afraid they would come after him next. And the more I learned and reported, the more I wondered if someone would come after me.
By the time Sgt. Ryan Teel was found guilty of killing Williams in August 2007, nine former jailers had pleaded guilty to related federal charges.
Getting the story
While I’ve never aspired to be an investigative reporter, then-Sun Herald Executive Editor Stan Tiner allowed me to devote 18 months to reporting — from the time Williams died until criminal cases ended and the civil lawsuit was settled. He pushed and encouraged me to ask hard questions, dig for answers, and interview experts on the use of force, levels of force and inmate rights.
It took a toll on me. I received many hateful calls and emails from people who couldn’t believe I had the audacity to question Sheriff George Payne or his staff.
Others appeared surprised that I’m white (as if a white reporter wouldn’t take on a civil rights investigation of a black man’s death) and that I’m a woman.
And a city employee personally attacked me in a meeting with officials. First, how dare I make the beloved sheriff and his jailers look bad? How dare I write stories of what witnesses claimed before it went to trial?
I liked the sheriff. I enjoyed working with him. But he wasn’t re-elected to a third term.
When all was said and done, the lead criminal investigator and federal prosecutors told me they wouldn’t have had nearly the criminal case without information I had come up with.
Here’s a timeline of how the case unfolded:
- Anonymous callers on Feb. 5, 2006, told the Sun Herald an inmate had been antagonized and abused by jailers.
- Payne told the Sun Herald the inmate had a history of fighting with police, and said he was told jailers pepper-sprayed the inmate, which “cranked him up even higher, which it does when they’re on crack or meth.”
- On Feb. 6, 2006, the coroner declared Williams brain-dead, and Payne released Williams’ name. He was in a coma when he was taken to a hospital. He tested negative for drugs and was not legally drunk.
- The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI took the allegations seriously.
- The Sun Herald filed public records requests for a copy of booking-room surveillance tapes and documents. Most of the requests, including one for the video, were denied. But the Sun Herald received a copy of the video after Ryan Teel’s trial, and published it online on Aug. 27, 2007.
- Some 500 people — of all races and cultures — showed up in Gulfport for a vigil, a “Justice For Jessie” rally.
- Attorney Michael Crosby, the Williams family’s attorney, introduced me to McBee and to a female jailer who was fired after the killing. The woman told me she had warned jail officials that someone would die if they didn’t do something about a specific jailer. She urged others who witnessed jailhouse abuse to come forward.
- Several did. I interviewed former inmates whose claims of abuse were then proven in court. I wrote dozens and dozens of news reports, including one involving an inmate whose booking mug showed his face was beaten to a pulp.
- I interviewed Williams’ children. He’d had run-ins with police before, but nothing major. His family and friends loved him. Williams was “mouthy” as a prosecutor told jurors, but being mouthy wasn’t a reason to attack him, she said.
I sat behind Williams’ family during the trial. I saw their pain, heard their quiet sobs and I heard the voice of U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola crack with emotions as he ordered Teel to prison with two life terms plus 20 years. Referring to the restraint chair, Guirola said, “I don’t know what happened to the restraint chair, but it has no place in a civilized society.”
All but two of 10 people indicted accepted a plea deal and, in some cases, described Teel as a brute who took delight in scaring and hurting inmates, and in creating a culture of abuse.
Then-Capt. Rick Gaston was found not guilty of involvement. He admitted he had a confrontation with an HIV-infected inmate who spat on him, but he was not on duty when the various cases of abuse occurred.
It’s a shame it took all of this to bring about changes and to remind jailers of their responsibilities. It’s a shame Jessie Williams had to die. One could say reactions to his death helped stop the madness.
It was the roughest 18 months of my career. I lost 15 pounds, went through a divorce and answered phone calls related to the investigation when I was off-duty. I won reporting awards, but the accolades were tempered with the sadness of seeing so many people affected and people in a position of trust brought down by their own doings.
Harrison County borrowed $2.5 million to help pay a $3.5 million wrongful death lawsuit, and taxpayers are still paying for it — a few dollars a month. The city of Gulfport settled for an amount paid for by its insurance.
One last thing: Williams’ family was kind to me. Their thank-yous meant a lot. But former jail supervisor Dedri Caldwell did something that caught me off guard. I knew her casually because I had spent years going to the jail first thing each morning to look at the docket. And she had my maiden name, which often caused us to joke that we’re related (even though we have different skin colors).
When Caldwell pleaded guilty in court to turning a blind eye, she told the judge she wanted to thank Robin Fitzgerald of the Sun Herald “for always being fair” to her.
It humbled me. If there comes a time that I can’t report fairly, it’s time to shut down my computer.