CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) - A state police investigation has found the chief of security at Wyatt Detention Center may have destroyed video evidence that he put a correctional officer in harm's way just before the officer suffered a serious head injury.
According to court documents obtained by Target 12, Major Christopher Coburn - Chief of Security at the Wyatt - ordered a subordinate to handcuff an inmate's wrists in front of his body. The order is "contrary to facility policy" that calls for inmates to be restrained with their arms behind their back, according to a state police report from the court files.
As a result, the inmate was able to lift his handcuffed wrists in the air and slam them on the head of Lt. Scot Belford who lost consciousness and sustained a serious laceration, the report concluded.
"Major Christopher Coburn, who contrary to written facility policy, gave a direct order to his subordinates, which put them in harms way," states the report. "The result of this flagrant disregard for policy resulted in a severe head injury, to an experienced correctional officer, which could have been avoided."
The inmate – Christopher Morales – was charged Friday with two felony counts of assault and battery by the Rhode Island Attorney Generals Office. He is being held at a federal prison in Pennsylvania on a conviction from a separate case and will be returned to Rhode Island later this year to face the new charges, according to Captain Michael Winquist of the state police.
At the heart of the investigation is videotape evidence of the assault which mysteriously became damaged in the weeks following the incident, the report found.
The police narrative, written by Detective Matthew Salisbury Major Coburn was "evasive and ambiguous" when questioned what happened to the evidence.
"Circumstantial evidence obtained through interviews, suggests that Major Coburn's lapse in judgment caused him to destroy evidence of the assault, thereby obstructing justice," Detective Salisbury wrote in the report.
Coburn was not charged with a crime in this case and is still working at the Wyatt Detention Center, according to the facility's lawyer Margaret Lynch Gadelata.
"We have great respect for the State Police investigation and their findings and we will take those into consideration as we conduct our investigation," Lynch-Gadaleta said. "Our warden has zero tolerance for any bad behavior and if there is such behavior it will be dealt with accordingly."
She went on to say the prison has been holding off on an internal investigation until the state police probe was completed.
Beflord, who is still out of work, said through his attorney he is grateful the state police and Attorney Generals office pursued the investigation.
"Lt. Belford is relieved that the person responsible for causing him significant injury as a result of a violent assault will be held accountable for his criminal behavior," attorney John Grasso said in an email.
On April 9, 2011, Lt. Belford and several other guards were called on by Major Coburn to remove Morales from his cell after the inmate damaged a sprinkler head causing his cell to flood, according to the state police investigation.
Morales was described as combative and refused to leave the cell unless he was handcuffed to the front. Inmates are handcuffed by placing their hands through a slot in the cell door before it is opened.
"Aware of the detainee's past violent tendencies Lieutenant Belford communicated his concerns to Major Coburn who ordered the detainee be handcuffed with his hands in front of his body and removed from the cell," Salisbury wrote in the report.
Belford followed orders handcuffing Morales to the front, then opened the cell door. The report states a short time later Morales lunged "with his handcuffed wrists raised over his head and drove them into the top of Lieutenant Belford's skull."
"To this day Lieutenant Belford continues to suffer from complications as a result of the injury," the report states.
The Rhode Island U.S. Marshals and the Office of Inspector General originally investigated the incident but declined to prosecute based on "improper handling of evidence," according to the report.
As Target 12 first reported, Belford became frustrated by the prisons lack of action in disciplining Morales and retained attorney Grasso who asked the state police to launch their own investigation.
"Lt. Belford is hopeful that this incident will result in further investigation that will ultimately answer the question that has troubled him since his assault - why neither the U.S. Marshals nor Wyatt administrators took the initiative to investigate this criminal wrongdoing after one of their uniformed officers was violently assaulted in the line of duty," Grasso said in an email.
The prison routinely has officers videotape inmate extractions to be used as training. Detective Salisbury stated in his report that the video was in working order when it was handed over to Major Coburn, according to the officer who videotaped the incident.
"Major Coburn could not provide a definitive answer if he had damaged the tape when he removed it from the camera," Salisbury wrote in his report. "In conclusion, after interviewing Major Coburn, I found that many of his answers were inconsistent with the facts presented and the manner in which he responded to questioning suggested that he was being less than truthful."
The state police sent the damaged videotape to a FBI lab in Quantico Virginia but it was unable to be repaired, according to the report. Investigators relied on surveillance video from inside the facility as well as interviews to charge Morales with the crime.
Morales, 22, of Boston, is a week away from completing his sentence on federal gun charges. After the incident at the Wyatt he was transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania and is scheduled to be released at the end of the month.
Captain Winquist said he expects the U.S. Marshals to transfer Morales to the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston when he completes his federal time. He will be arraigned sometime after that date.
Copyright WPRI 12
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