NEW YORK (AP) — As federal prosecutors tell it, the cover-up in Ronald Spear's death started immediately after he died from a brutal kick to the head from a guard at the Rikers Island jail complex, with correction officers taking advantage of a code of silence condoned by commanders and union representatives.
For a while it worked. Authorities say Brian Coll — the former correction officer who kicked Spear to death — once even bragged after learning the state declined to bring charges: "I beat the case."
But U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said his office cracked the code at the troubled New York City jail, eventually getting two guards to cooperate and learning new details about the death of the 52-year-old prisoner, a bespectacled man suffering from end-stage renal disease who usually walked with a cane, received regular dialysis and wore a bracelet warning he was a "risk of fall."
In civil rights cases, "Without a videotape or a cooperating witness and where a cover-up or code of silence prevails, they can be impossible to bring," Bharara told a news conference announcing the arrests Wednesday of Coll, 45, of Smithtown; corrections Officer Byron Taylor, 31, of Brentwood and a guilty plea by a cooperating former guard, Anthony Torres, 49, of New Rochelle.
The prosecutor said investigators eventually got to the truth in the killing of Spear with help from an inmate, a nurse and two guards who saw or participated in the attack in the jail's infirmary.
The attack and alleged cover-up were detailed in a court papers filed in Manhattan federal court. According to the papers, it all began at 5 a.m., Dec. 19, 2012, when a verbal argument between Coll and Spear escalated into a jabbing match before another guard helped take Spear to the ground, where Coll kicked him in the head repeatedly.
The attack continued even after then-correction officer Torres shouted "No!" or "Don't!" and tried to shield Spear's head from further blows, causing Coll's foot to strike and injure Torres' wrist, it said.
Afterward, several correction officers who were involved in or witnessed the attack agreed to falsely report that Spear had attacked Coll, who had been a guard for a decade, the papers say. Coll told investigators minutes after the attack that Spear had hit him in the stomach with a cane. The account, it said, was immediately confirmed to investigators by Torres, who never mentioned the kicks to the head.
As a medical team tried to resuscitate Spear, Coll sat together nearby with Torres and the other officer who eventually cooperated and agreed at the request of Taylor to leave Taylor's name off the reports even though he had helped restrain Spear, the complaint said. Shortly thereafter, the complaint said, representatives of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association escorted the three officers to a Rikers clinic where a union representative stressed the importance of "being consistent" on their use of force reports, a message repeated soon afterward by a union lawyer as the men received treatment at an outside hospital.
Norman Seabrook, president of the union, has said the union will defend their members to the fullest extent of the law. Coll's lawyer declined to comment.
The three men then returned to the jail where they sat in the cafeteria as they were presented blank use-of-force reports by a Rikers captain, who warned that if they "were not consistent, there were going to be issues," the complaint said.
Torres told investigators that Coll then stated out loud and in detail what he was writing in his report, leading him to believe that Coll was dictating what he should write in his report as well, the complaint said.
When the other guard who eventually cooperated tried to turn in a report that simply recounted that he had witnessed an altercation between Coll and Spear, the captain told him to re-do it and make it consistent with the others, the complaint said.
At his news conference, Bharara said that when no cane was found at the scene to support Coll's story that Spear struck him with a cane, "a new cane was simply procured from the supply room and passed off as the cane recovered from the incident."
The lies were repeated to Department of Correction staff and investigators, state and federal prosecutors and state and federal grand juries, the complaint says. Taylor continued to tell a false story to a federal grand jury as recently as April, it says.
Bharara praised the persistence of investigators.
"When correction officers violate inmates' Constitutional rights and when others cover for them under some misguided notion of loyalty and camaraderie, they commit federal crimes. And we will hold them accountable," he said.
Associated Press reporter Jake Pearson contributed to this report.