SPRINGFIELD, IL. – Three former Illinois prison guards face life behind bars after fatally beating a 65-year-old inmate in 2018 in a case marked by impunity for lying to other corrections officers who continued to receive raises, records obtained by The Associated Press and court documents show.
A jury convicted Department of Corrections Officer Alex Banta in April and Lt. Todd Scheffler in August of federal civil rights violations largely due to the cooperation of a third sergeant. Willie Heden. Hedden is hoping for a lighter sentence – even though he admitted he lied about his involvement until he pleaded guilty 18 months ago.
But Hedden’s account of what happened to Western Illinois Correctional Facility inmate Larry Ervin on May 17, 2018, is not unique. Six other correctional officers still on the job at the Mount Sterling facility, 249 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, gave similar testimony.
Like Hedden, all admitted under oath that they initially lied to authorities investigating Ervin’s death, including the Illinois State Police and the FBI. They covered up the brutal beatings that took place and led to Erwin’s death six weeks later from blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen, according to the autopsy report.
Documents obtained by the AP under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show that none of the guards were punished for the cover-up. Despitea recognition of their imprudence, lieutenants. Matthew Lindsey and Blake Haubrich, Sgts. Derek Hasten, Brett Hendricks, Shawn Wolk and Officer Richard Waterstratt all had success — three were promoted, one was on paid leave, and they saw an average salary increase of nearly 30% and pension increases.
Even if they were to be laid off now, they would keep the extra money from a pay raise — tied to a promotion or contractual agreement — and the accompanying pension boost.
Phone numbers associated with the officers were not connected or messages were not returned. No one responded to a Department of Corrections request to speak with them.
Corrections spokeswoman Naomi Pucella said an internal review of the Ervin incident has been put on hold pending the completion of the federal investigation. She promised that corrections authorities would take “all necessary measures” to punish those who break the rules. But he does not have the authority to “take past earnings from an employee or impair a pension,” she said.
Banta and Scheffler are in federal custody awaiting sentencing — Banta on Tuesday and Scheffler on Jan. 6. Heden has not been sentenced.
Hedden testified in April that he attributed what he called a “Western culture” that required harsh treatment of troublemakers while escorting them to the detention center, which is used to discipline inmates who break rules or threaten prison security.
Western’s chief was replaced in 2020 as part of an effort that Gov. J. B. Pritzker last spring, were part of a culture change that also included initiatives to combat the use of force and establish a more positive approach to inmates.
Accountability, however, also matters, said Jennifer Wollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association for Prisons.
“There is a troubling lack of transparency in staff discipline when it comes to correctional facilities,” Wollen-Katz said. “It’s really hard to believe in a cultural change … when you have staff behaving like this and there seems to be little or no consequence.”
The Justice Department also has a stake. Lying to the FBI is a crime. Timothy Bass, the U.S. attorney’s lead prosecutor in the case, said he could not comment on whether there would be further prosecutions.
The officers, whose stories changed only with the intensification of the investigation, understood the reasons, testifying under oath at the courts.
“There’s an unwritten rule, a saying, ‘knockers get stitches…,'” Volk testified, explaining his false interview with Illinois State Police within a week of the Erwin incident. “You’re part of a brotherhood with everybody, and you don’t want to be the guy who reports.”
Lindsey was in charge of the detention center that day and testified that he saw Hedden, Scheffler, and Banta bring Erwin to the lobby of the detention center, where there are no surveillance cameras. He was one of several witnesses who reported seeing Erwin being punched, kicked and stomped on before waving to Scheffler through an interior window to stop.
Lindsey didn’t tell anyone about what he saw. When the FBI called in late summer 2018, he lied “for fear of retaliation,” according to his latest testimony.
As of May 2018, Lindsey received a promotion, and his salary increased 42% to $105,756, Corrections data show.
Hasten also said he was “just scared of retaliation,” adding that his wife also works at the prison. His salary rose 17% to nearly $79,000 even after he voluntarily transferred to a lower-paying job at Western.
Hendrix and Volk were also in an isolated vestibule along with Scheffler, Heden and Banta. Hendricks testified that he was shocked by the violence against Ervin, who was handcuffed behind his back and face down. But when asked why he lied to the investigation, he admitted: “I didn’t want to talk about my colleague.”
Since then, Hendrix has received a promotion and a nearly 30% pay increase.
When state police officers spoke with Haubrich, they focused on the rough treatment of Erwin that began at his residence. What they didn’t know was that it was going on in an isolated entryway. But like Hendricks, Haubrich said nothing about the brutality he saw because he was “covering the backs of my fellow officers and brothers.”
Haubrich has been on paid leave from prison since May 2018, seeing his pay rise nearly 30% to $96,396. This also applies to Lt. Benjamin Burnett, who along with Hadden and Banta were taken from the prison grounds a few days after the attack.
Waterstratt, who received a promotion with a 44% pay raise, did not respond to authorities until he faced a grand jury.
AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.
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