Records: Lying officers unpunished in 2018 inmate death

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Three former Illinois prison guards face life behind bars after the 2018 fatal beating of a 65-year-old inmate in a case marked by the unpunished lies of other correctional officers who continue to get pay raises, records obtained by The Associated Press and court documents show.

Juries convicted Department of Corrections Officer Alex Banta in April and Lt. Todd Sheffler in August of federal civil rights violations owing largely to...

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Three former Illinois prison guards face life behind bars after the 2018 fatal beating of a 65-year-old inmate in a case marked by the unpunished lies of other correctional officers who continue to get pay raises, records obtained by The Associated Press and court documents show.

Juries convicted Department of Corrections Officer Alex Banta in April and Lt. Todd Sheffler in August of federal civil rights violations owing largely to the cooperation of the third, Sgt. Willie Hedden. Hedden hopes for a reduced sentence — even though he admitted lying about his involvement until entering a guilty plea 18 months ago.

But Hedden’s account of what happened to Western Illinois Correctional Center inmate Larry Earvin on May 17, 2018, is not unique. Similar testimony was offered by six other correctional officers who still work at the lockup in Mount Sterling, 249 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.

Like Hedden, all admitted under oath that initially, they lied to authorities investigating Earvin’s death, including to the Illinois State Police and the FBI. They covered up the brutal beatings that took place and led to Earvin’s death six weeks later from blunt-force trauma to the chest and abdomen, according to an autopsy reports.

Documents obtained by The AP under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act indicate that none of the guards has been punished for the coverup. Despite admitting their indiscretions, Lts. Matthew Lindsey and Blake Haubrich, Sgts. Derek Hasten, Brett Hendricks and Shawn Volk and Officer Richard Waterstraat have flourished — three have been promoted, one has been on paid leave, and on average, they’ve seen salary hikes of nearly 30% and increases in pension benefits.

Even if fired from their jobs now, they’d keep the extra money from salary hikes — tied to promotions or contractual agreement — and the accompanying boosts in retirement benefits.

Phone numbers associated with the officers are not connected, or messages weren’t returned. None has responded to a request through the Corrections Department to speak to them.

Corrections spokeswoman Naomi Puzzello said an internal review of the Earvin incident has been postponed until the federal probe is complete. She promised that Corrections will take “all appropriate steps” to punish misconduct. But it has no authority “to take past wages from an employee or impair a pension,” she said.

Banta and Sheffler are in federal custody, awaiting sentencing — Banta on Tuesday and Sheffler on Jan. 6. Hedden’s sentencing has not been scheduled.

Hedden testified in April that he ascribed to “the culture at Western” which called for roughing up troublemakers while escorting them to the segregation unit used to discipline inmates who break rules or threaten prison safety.

Western’s warden was replaced in 2020 in efforts that Gov. J.B. Pritzker said last spring were a part of changing the culture, which also have included initiatives to address the use of force and establish a more affirmative approach to inmates.

Accountability, however, matters, too, said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog.

“There is a disturbing lack of transparency around staff discipline when it comes to Corrections,”Vollen-Katz said. “It’s really hard to have faith in culture change … when you have staff that behave like this and there seem to be little or no repercussions.”

The Justice Department also has a stake. Lying to the FBI is a felony. Timothy Bass, the U.S. attorney’s lead prosecutor on the case, said he couldn’t comment on whether there would be further prosecutions.

The officers whose stories changed only when the investigation intensified were clear about their reasons when testifying under oath at the trials.

“There’s an unwritten rule, the saying that goes around that ‘Snitches get stitches…,’” Volk testified, explaining his untruthful interview with the Illinois State Police the week following the Earvin incident. “You’re part of a brotherhood with everybody out there and you don’t want to be the guy that snitches.”

Lindsey was in charge of segregation that day and testified he saw Hedden, Sheffler and Banta bring Earvin into the segregation unit’s vestibule, where there are no security cameras. He was among several witnesses who reported seeing Earvin punched, kicked and stomped before motioning to Sheffler through an interior window to stop.

Lindsey told no one what he had seen. When the FBI called in late summer 2018, he lied for “fear of retaliation,” according to his recent testimony.

Since May 2018, Lindsey has been promoted and his salary has increased 42% to $105,756, according to records disclosed by Corrections.

Hasten, too, said he “was just scared of the retaliation,” adding that his wife also works at the prison. His salary has grown 17% to nearly $79,000 even after voluntarily changing to a lower-paying job at Western.

Hendricks and Volk were also in the segregation vestibule with Sheffler, Hedden and Banta. Hendricks testified that he was shocked by the violence against Earvin, who was handcuffed behind the back and face down on the ground. But when asked why he lied to investigators, he admitted: “I didn’t want to tell on my coworker.”

Hendricks has since received a promotion and pay increases totaling nearly 30%.

When state police officers talked to Haubrich, they were focused on rough treatment of Earvin that began in his housing unit. They were unaware that it had continued in the segregation entrance. But like Hendricks, Haubrich volunteered nothing about the brutality he had seen because he “was covering the backs of my fellow officers and brothers.”

Haubrich has been on paid leave from the prison since May 2018, watching his salary increase nearly 30% to $96,396. That’s also the case for Lt. Benjamin Burnett, escorted off the prison grounds days after the attack with Haubrich, along with Hedden and Banta.

Waterstraat, who’s been promoted with a 44% pay increase, didn’t come clean with authorities until faced with a grand jury.

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AP Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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