Another abuse claim leveled at Hillsborough jail staffers

A paraplegic says he was left on cell floor.

By Abbie VanSickle, Times Staff Writer
Published February 28, 2008

TAMPA -- A second inmate who uses a wheelchair has complained of abuse by Hillsborough County jail detention deputies.

Benjamin Rayburn, 32, a paraplegic now serving 10 years in state prison, was dumped from his wheelchair and left to flail on a holding cell floor for an hour or more, his attorneys say.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that deputies moved to subdue Rayburn after he tried to stab a deputy with a glass crack pipe on Oct. 3, 2006. He then threw the pipe, which shattered and sent fragments flying at a deputy's head, according to a sheriff's report.

In what has become a familiar story in recent weeks, Rayburn's attorney, Heidi E. Imhof, said a video from the Orient Road Jail shows he was mistreated at the hands of guards.

"When you see this, there's like no way this guy could hurt you," Imhof said. "Why would you treat this guy like this, even if he's acting out?"

The Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that deputies handled the incident properly.

Earlier this month, Imhof heard the story of Brian Sterner, a quadriplegic inmate who was dumped from his wheelchair at the jail. In the Sterner case, Sheriff David Gee called the actions of 22-year deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones' inexcusable and accepted her resignation.

"I said, 'Wow, they can't keep doing this,'" Imhof said.

Imhof called Sterner's attorney, John Trevena, who took on the case.

"Initially, I was shocked to see the Sterner video, and I was shocked to see the other videos coming out, and it's almost becoming a routine," Trevena said.

Rayburn joins a growing list of inmates who have alleged abuse by detention deputies at the jail and who have provided videos to back up their claims. He is the fifth person to make such a claim this month.

Trevena said he is scheduled to meet with representatives from the Attorney General's Office today to discuss the treatment of inmates at the jail.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office declined to release the Rayburn video Wednesday, but spokeswoman Debbie Carter said it would be available today. Carter said she hadn't yet seen it and did not know how long Rayburn was left on the floor.

Imhof first heard about the incident in the fall of 2006 when she represented Rayburn, who was accused of shooting a man in a Rocky Point hotel room. He faced several criminal charges, including aggravated battery with great bodily harm, armed false imprisonment and aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer.

Rayburn told her that he was upset in the holding cell because he needed a new catheter.

He banged on the glass to try to get the attention of deputies, who came into the cell and knocked over his chair, she said.

Imhof said she took depositions of Brett Strohsack and Derek Shaw, both detention deputies, before she saw the video.

"The deputy's take on it was he was trying to attack him," she said. "However, when you watch the video, my client is waving his arms, but there's no reason that a 6-foot-tall deputy needs to be defending himself by pushing the chair backward."

Neither deputy could be reached for comments.

Imhof said she sent a letter to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office about the matter.

At that point, she said, the attorneys negotiated for a plea deal for Rayburn, who was sentenced to 10 years in state prison on a variety of charges, including the charge of aggravated battery that stemmed from the videotaped incident.

Imhof didn't pursue a complaint against the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office because Rayburn was still in custody and feared the repercussions, she said.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office released a statement on Wednesday evening, saying the deputies acted properly.

Deputies put Rayburn in the cell because he was disruptive with the medical screening staff, the statement reads. In the cell, he banged repeatedly on the glass door, refusing to stop.

When deputies told him again to stop he threatened them with a glass object, according to the statement.

Rayburn swung a glass pipe at Strohsack, trying to stab him, according to a Hillsborough sheriff's incident report provided by Trevena.

Then Rayburn threw the pipe.The incident report says that deputies "relocated Rayburn from his wheelchair to the holding cell floor."

"The use of force was justified by inmate Rayburn's efforts to assault a deputy," the statement reads.

After the incident, investigators charged Rayburn with aggravated assault, battery on a law enforcement officer and introducing contraband into a county detention center in the incident, according to the report.

Rayburn has been arrested 17 times in Florida since 1993, state records show.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

By the numbers

Information provided by Hillsborough Sheriff's Office from 2006 data, the most recent year available.