More claims hit Hillsborough jail

Seven people now allege abuse.

By Thomas Lake and Justin George, Times Staff Writers
Published March 1, 2008

TAMPA - Already the captives had complained of arm-breaking, of wheelchair-dumping, of blows to the head and brain damage. Now this.

In the growing alarm over guard-on-inmate violence at the main Hillsborough jail, Friday brought an unsettling new image: a man in a cell, bound to a chair, head covered in a mask.

The man was a teacher. He was the sixth inmate in February to publicly claim abuse at the hands of Hillsborough jail deputies. And a seventh would surface by early afternoon. There was talk of a class-action lawsuit.

The teacher was Paul King, 40-year-old Canadian living in Temple Terrace. He had resigned from the Hillsborough public-school system after a DUI arrest.

On July 7, 2007, he was arrested for the fourth time in a two-month period. The charge was disorderly intoxication.

King was booked at the Orient Road Jail, where cameras record much of what happens. Sheriff David Gee installed the system shortly after he took office in 2005 because inmates complained of stolen money.

Now the cameras are providing evidence for inmates whose claims of abuse might otherwise be ignored by the media.

In footage obtained by his attorney, John Trevena, and made public Friday, as King stood against the wall of a holding cell, a deputy seemed to hurl him to the floor. Trevena said the action was unprovoked.

"The one element of it that's going to be completely indefensible," he said, "is when he's taken from the glass and thrown."

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But an incident report from the Sheriff's Office says that when a deputy tried to escort him to the intake counter for a pat-down search, King grew belligerent. Deputies moved him to a holding cell, where they tried again to search him. The report says he refused to face the glass.

Deputy Brett Strohsack put King's right arm behind him. The report says that when another deputy tried to remove King's shoes, King pushed off the glass and tried to turn around. Strohsack took King to the floor. Deputies put him in handcuffs and leg irons and fastened him into a restraint chair.

The report does not mention this, but the video appears to show a deputy holding King by the neck for more than a minute.

The report says King spat on the glass. The video is unclear on this. The report says he spat blood at a deputy. King denies spitting at anyone. In any case, a deputy covered King's head in a whitish mask known as a spit mask or a spit sock. Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said it is breathable. King said it gave him breathing trouble.

The video shows King, masked, in the restraint chair. The camera's view is partly blocked by a door frame. Papers are taped to the glass. When a deputy adjusts their position, they further block the camera's view of King.

What happened next is not listed in the incident report, which mentions nothing more until 3 a.m. This leaves a gap of about four hours in the written record. King claims that during this time, deputies beat and ridiculed him.

"They made me say vile things about myself just to humiliate myself, and the other deputies laughed," he said.

The report says King was removed from the restraint chair at 3 a.m., nearly four hours after he had been placed there. A jail detective later reviewed the video, interviewed King and the deputies involved, and concluded force was justified to "gain control of a violent subject."

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King was not the only inmate to make a public abuse claim Friday. At the same news conference, attorney Bethany Jackson said Hillsborough deputies improperly transported a disabled inmate named Nick Joseph Molfetto last August.

Molfetto, whose arrest record runs 22 pages, was going from prison in Lake Butler to a Hillsborough jail to await a court hearing. He had a spinal injury that made a wheelchair necessary. But, Jackson said, Hillsborough deputies made him lie on the floor of a transport van for the entire three-hour trip, despite his repeated protests. She said a doctor concluded that the ride inflamed the staples in his back so badly that his court date had to be postponed.

Jackson said the agency has a van that could have transported him correctly, in his wheelchair, but deputies declined to use it.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the agency will look into Molfetto's claims.

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King was hired as a special education teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary in south Hillsborough in September 2003. He got good evaluations at first. But in fall 2006, colleagues said he seemed severely depressed.

King left Cypress Creek, transferring to an office job in the district administration. His behavior alarmed those around him.

"He was in a very agitated, unstable condition," co-worker Angela Jones wrote in a statement for district investigators. "He appeared to be a time-bomb waiting to go off."

Arrested five times between May and July, he was in jail for most of the fall. On Nov. 14, he appealed for help.

"I have written the Jail Detective numerous times with no result," he wrote in an inmate-request form. "I was beaten by deputies in Orient Road Jail booking. Incident is on video. I wish to press formal criminal charges."

He got a response from Sgt. Rene Fortner the same day.

"The incident has been reviewed," Fortner wrote, "and formal criminal charges have been filed against you."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Alexandra Zayas and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.