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Friday, September 26, 2008
BY SHANE HOOVER SHANE.HOOVER@CANTONREP.COM
CANTON The woman’s screams echoed in the isolation cell.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. What am I here for? What are you doing?” Hope Steffey yelled as male and female deputies pinned her to the cell floor and stripped away her clothes.
The deputies told her she was going on suicide precautions, and they documented the incident on video. But when a Cleveland TV station aired a portion of that video in February, more people had questions: Why did this happen? How did an alleged assault victim end up naked in a jail cell?
Criticism, outrage and even death threats against sheriff’s deputies poured in from around the country and overseas.
A state investigation and grand jury review found no criminal wrongdoing, but prompted more questions: Was the probe thorough? Was there another side to the story?
The incident occurred in October 2006, but those questions remain as Sheriff Timothy A. Swanson runs for re-election.
A review of video and audio recordings and more than 600 pages of documents obtained by The Repository through public records requests sheds more light on the case, now in civil litigation in federal court.
The case can be broken into three parts: Steffey’s arrest, her incarceration and the state’s subsequent investigation.
Steffey, 42, of Salem, and her attorneys deny that she was suicidal and accuse sheriff’s deputies of assaulting her, illegally strip-searching her and leaving her naked for six hours in a cell. Her attorneys declined to be interviewed for this story, but their complaints are outlined in documents filed in U.S. District Court, in which they say Steffey has lasting physical and emotional injuries.
The sheriff’s office says Steffey was combative and had to be placed on suicide and homicide precautions to prevent her from harming herself or others. Forcibly removing an inmate’s clothing and belongings in that situation doesn’t constitute a strip-search because the purpose is not to find evidence or contraband, Swanson argues.
The story begins Oct. 20, 2006, just south of Robertsville on Weimer Drive SE in Paris Township.
A female cousin allegedly assaulted Steffey. Steffey had a cut on her nose and was missing a patch of hair, but she declined a dispatcher’s offer to send an ambulance, according to a 911 call made by another of Steffey’s relatives.
Deputy Richard T. Gurlea Jr. arrived around 8:15 p.m.
His in-cruiser video system wasn’t activated. What we know of the incident comes from Gurlea’s description of the arrest in a written report and testimony from witnesses at Steffey’s criminal trial on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Gurlea, a deputy for six years at the time, said people at the scene, nearly all of them Steffey’s relatives, told him that a female cousin had assaulted Steffey. While he went to get a camera from his car to document her injuries, Steffey started yelling obscenities toward her alleged attacker.
Steffey appeared to be highly intoxicated, Gurlea said. Other witnesses said she had been drinking, and at trial she admitted to having five beers over the course of several hours that day in addition to her prescription anti-depressant medication. Steffey also said at trial that her cousin knocked her unconscious, suggesting that a concussion might have influenced her behavior.
“She was just like a thousand emotions must have been going through her,” said witness Scott Preston during Steffey’s criminal trial. “She was really distraught.”
Gurlea told Steffey to calm down, according to his account, a point supported by the testimony of other witnesses, including Steffey, at her criminal trial.
The deputy said that’s when Steffey started yelling at him.
Steffey and her cousin, Trinette Zorger, told a different story. Zorger testified that Gurlea “kept pushing (Steffey’s) buttons” and didn’t warn her that she could be arrested.
Steffey told a jury she was upset because she accidentally gave Gurlea the driver’s license of her deceased sister, and he taunted her about it, saying, “Shut up about your dead sister.”
In his report and at trial, Gurlea said he warned Steffey that she faced arrest if she didn’t stop yelling. When she pulled out her sister’s ID, Gurlea turned his attention to Zorger, but Steffey interrupted them. That’s when Gurlea arrested her for disorderly conduct, according to his report.
The deputy said he pushed Steffey 5-foot-5, 113 pounds against his cruiser, took her to the ground when she continued to struggle, placed his knee on her back and handcuffed her, according to his report and testimony.
In her lawsuit, Steffey said Gurlea 5-foot-11, 230 pounds slammed her against the car, chipping one of her teeth, then put her face-down over a mud puddle.
Gurlea didn’t activate his cruiser video until after he took Steffey to the ground. He also called for backup.
The deputy later said he started the camera when he heard a man at the scene say, “Get the video camera, he’s beating … her,” according to the state investigation.
On the cruiser recording, Steffey can be heard screaming obscenities while Gurlea repeatedly tells her to calm down.
“I just want to talk to you,” Gurlea said. “I don’t want to get rough with you. I don’t ever want to do that.”
When Zorger offered to calm Steffey, Gurlea accepted the help. He then placed Steffey in the cruiser.
“He just wants you to calm down, Hope. It’s the only reason why you’re in handcuffs,” Zorger said. “He just wants you to calm down.”
Gurlea lowered the cruiser window so that Zorger could keep talking to Steffey. Later, he opened the door so Steffey could vomit and refastened her handcuffs when she slipped out of them.
“She’s calmed down a little here. I do have her in the car. … I don’t know how long she’ll stay this way,” Gurlea told dispatchers.
After putting Steffey in the car, Gurlea interviewed bystanders and spoke with other deputies who arrived to continue the investigation. Then he took Steffey to the jail.
The cousin accused of assaulting Steffey denied starting the fight and was never charged.
GOING TO THE JAIL
During the 20-minute ride, Steffey’s mood shifted several times, alternating between silence, tears, anger and laughter, according to the cruiser recording.
She complained that Gurlea was driving too fast. She griped about her cousins. She tossed obscenities at Gurlea. She wasn’t a bad person, she said over and over.
The deputy didn’t respond, prompting Steffey to tearfully ask why he wouldn’t talk to her.
“Sit back and relax,” Gurlea said on the recording.
Steffey went on to talk about raising her granddaughter. Then she got angry about her husband not spending enough time at home.
“I’m trying the best I can,” she said, crying as the cruiser pulled into the jail.
She appeared to kick the seat, pleading with the deputy not to tell her husband that she had been arrested.
” … Please, I don’t want him to know. Please, sir,” she said.
On his way to the jail, Gurlea told dispatchers to have help standing by to deal with Steffey, but he wasn’t the one who decided she should be stripped. That decision fell to the medical and mental-health staff.
In the receiving area for prisoners, Steffey spoke with a nurse. The encounter key to what eventually happened to Steffey was captured on camera and audio.
The nurse wrote in a jail record that Steffey smelled of alcohol and stated, “You don’t need to know about my mental issues.”
The nurse asked Steffey if she ever had thought about harming herself.
“Sure, I have,” Steffey responded, according to an audio recording enhanced for clarity by the state but still difficult to hear.
“When was the last time you thought about harming yourself in any way?”
“Well, right now’s a good time.”
Given Steffey’s combativeness deputies said she tried to conceal her face from being photographed during booking and attempted to pull away and her statement about harming herself, the nurse contacted the on-call psychologist and placed Steffey on precautions per his order, according to jail records and information gathered by the state investigator.
Swanson said his deputies and corrections officers take direction from the medical and mental-health staff in such situations.
“We aren’t mental-health professionals, and we don’t try to be,” Swanson said.
Jail policy mandated that a prisoner’s clothes and personal belongings be removed as part of suicide precautions. Generally, an inmate got a quilted, tear-resistant “precaution suit,” unless the medical or mental-health staff decided against the suit and left the inmate naked.
Most willingly take off their clothes, Swanson said.
Steffey was one of 18 women that month, and 634 inmates that year a fourth of them women placed on suicide precautions at the jail, records show.
Deputies documented the incident with a written report and on video.
Around 9:30 p.m., deputies took Steffey to an isolation cell.
Jail surveillance cameras photographed Steffey leading up to the point when her clothes were removed. The only things not recorded are her actions in the booking room and the moment when deputies put her on the floor of the cell.
The sergeant in charge of videotaping the removal of Steffey’s clothes seen on tape holding a camera moments earlier told a state investigator that she thought the camera recorded the entire incident. She didn’t know why it hadn’t.
In her lawsuit, Steffey says deputies jammed her face into the concrete floor, a claim the sheriff’s office denies.
The video does show the jail’s Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) in the cell with Steffey. The team is trained to deal with difficult inmates and is used regardless of gender because jail personnel is limited in number, Swanson said.
Two male deputies restrained Steffey, while a female deputy and a female corrections officer removed her clothes. Deputies said Steffey was told she would have to give up her clothes and was given the opportunity to remove them voluntarily. But none could recall who made those statements, according to the state investigation.
Steffey contends she wasn’t given the option to voluntarily take off her clothes or told it was going to happen.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. What the (expletive) are you guys doing this for?” she screamed as her pants, underwear, shirt and bra were removed.
The deputies told her to take deep breaths.
“Just relax, OK,” they said several times, telling Steffey she was going on “precautions.”
The whole process took about four minutes.
After being placed in the cell, Steffey eventually appeared to go to sleep, according to a log kept by jail staff.
About six hours later, a nurse talked to Steffey again. She was cooperative and denied wanting to harm herself, the nurse wrote. The medical staff gave her a precaution suit to wear and examined her nose, which was bruised. Steffey denied having trouble breathing.
Steffey also called her husband on a recorded line. She said nothing about being stripped, just that she had been naked in a jail cell. They argued about her getting arrested.
Steffey was released that afternoon.
Four days after her arrest, Steffey filed a complaint against Gurlea, saying he used excessive force.
According to a report by Sgt. Ron Perdue, he interviewed Steffey and she admitted to being highly intoxicated and resisting arrest. Perdue also talked to Gurlea and declared Steffey’s complaint unfounded.
In June 2007, a jury in Alliance Municipal Court convicted Steffey of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A judge fined her $500 and ordered anger-management counseling.
A year after her arrest, Steffey filed a civil lawsuit in federal court. It was the first of two lawsuits involving female inmates placed on suicide precautions.
After WKYC Channel 3 aired the strip video of Steffey in February, Swanson asked the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation to look into the incident.
Senior Special Agent Christy S. Palmer obtained audio and video recordings, documents, jail inspection reports, training certificates, a transcript of Steffey’s criminal trial and conducted interviews with deputies and jail staffers.
Palmer found no violations of state law, nor substantive violations of jail policy or procedure.
A Stark County grand jury, which heard from Steffey, declined to indict the deputies.
Given Steffey’s behavior, the level of force used against her during the arrest and in the jail wasn’t excessive, and the deputies were orderly and calm throughout the process, Palmer concluded.
“It is certainly not for this agency to determine whether or not there are civil violations involved in the matter at hand,” she wrote. “However, it can not be emphasized enough that whatever else transpired, this incident can not be accurately or appropriately categorized as a strip-search.”
State law allows strip-searches, but only in certain situations and requires those performing the search be the same sex as the suspect.
As for the use of male deputies to restrain Steffey as female deputies removed her clothing, Palmer wrote “… the safety of an inmate and/or other inmates and jail staff clearly supersedes all concessions to modesty, especially in the medical area of corrections.”
Some CERT members, although none of those involved in this incident, are trained at the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center in Moundsville, W.Va.
Steve Morrison, the Center’s vice president, said proper suicide precautions start with a written policy.
Removing the clothing of an inmate who is suicidal is an option, but Morrison said he would want strong evidence that the inmate intended to harm herself before leaving her in a cell naked, and he would never allow members of the opposite sex to remove her clothing because it is a privacy issue.
At the same time, Morrison said he couldn’t second-guess the decisions of the deputies that night because he doesn’t have enough information about the case.
The debate will continue as the civil case churns on in federal court, where a trial date has yet to be set. Steffey, her husband and their attorneys are seeking monetary damages and changes in jail policy.
The main issues could be Gurlea’s use of force, whether a strip-search occurred and the nurse’s evaluation of Steffey that led to her going on precautions.
In one of their latest filings, Steffey’s attorneys say it was wrong to place Steffey on precautions after an interview by a licensed practical nurse and without the psychologist being present.
But in his own court papers, jail psychologist Thomas Anuszkiewicz denies simply going along with the nurse and says he took her information, opinions and evaluations and reached his own conclusion about putting Steffey on precautions.
Swanson continues to defend his deputies and policies.
“Unfortunately, we had to do what we did because of the circumstances we were presented with,” he said.
Those in law enforcement and mental-health treatment, and some lay people, understand what happened, he said. Others in the community do not.
The Repository reviewed more than 600 pages of documents, four audio recordings and five video recordings. Those sources included:
Steffey’s civil lawsuit and defendants’ written responses
Deputy Richard T. Gurlea Jr.’s written report concerning Hope Steffey’s arrest
Steffey’s excessive force complaint against Gurlea
Video recordings from cruisers of Gurlea and Sgt. Terry Curry
231-page transcript from Steffey’s criminal trial in Alliance Municipal Court
Recording of 911 call and transcripts of radio traffic
Jail admission records and housing logs
Sheriff’s policy on suicide precautions
Statistics on number of inmates placed on precautions
Video from jail’s stationary surveillance cameras
Video and written report on removal of Steffey’s clothes
Audio recordings from Gurlea’s cruiser and inmate receiving area, enhanced by Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission’s audio laboratory
Audio recording of Hope Steffey’s call to her husband
Summaries of state investigator’s interviews with jail staff