In The Deep South rape charges unearth a system in disarray
by Jim Mulvaney
April 18, 1994
Jackson, Miss. - In November, 1992, a 15-year-old prisoner told police she had been raped by a guard in the city's juvenile jail. She went on to say she wasn't the only one; three other juvenile female prisoners said they had been raped by four different male guards. It seemed to be a straightforward case. Detectives gave one guard immunity, and he gave a confession and statement that corroborated the girls' claims. The other three guards were arrested, arraigned and freed on bail awaiting trial.
Since then, things have gotten complicated. The rape case has stalled, but the investigation at the aging jail with the leaky roof and drafty halls has unearthed a tangle of allegations ranging from theft, corruption, drug dealing and illicit sex with underaged male and female prisoners.
The cases remain active as police try to obtain investigative assistance.
The district attorney has not prosecuted the jail guards, and the rape case sits in limbo. The local FBI office refused to open an investigation into any of the juvenile jail problems for nine months, claiming lack of jurisdiction. When Justice Department officials in Washington finally ordered a civil rights investigation last fall, FBI agents were dispatched, and they sent a case file to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. A Justice Department source played down the police case, saying it was as much "hyperbole" as fact. But police have questioned the extent of the FBI effort, and Newsday has learned that the FBI agents never interviewed key jailhouse victims.
"If they have investigated the matter, I can't imagine how they haven't contacted me to talk to my client," said J. Peyton Randolph II, a local attorney who filed a $ 3-million lawsuit on behalf of one of the 15-year-old girls allegedly raped by guards three times. "I don't know how you can do a civil rights investigation, a rape investigation without talking to the victim."
Beyond the rape case, the police investigation has grown and raised questions about the actions of the district attorney and the chief of the FBI's Mississippi office. The district attorney refused to prosecute the boss of the juvenile jail based on police allegations he had misused public employees. The district attorney subsequently hired the man as an investigator. The FBI supervisor rebuffed police requests for investigative assistance for nine months before his decision was overruled by his supervisors in Washington. Shortly after FBI headquarters ordered a civil rights investigation to proceed, the supervisor retired from the bureau.
The full scope of the investigation has never been revealed beyond a public squabble among local law enforcement officials. Newsday obtained hundreds of police documents, ranging from interview transcripts with witnesses and victims, to arrest records, autopsy reports and vituperative correspondence between police and federal investigators.
The highlights of the police investigation include:
Statements from victims and witnesses and the confession of a guard detailing the multiple rapes of 15 and 16-year-old female inmates in the juvenile detention facility. Police also discovered evidence they said indicated theft, extortion and corruption. Three guards were arrested by police in November, 1992, on sex charges and a fourth on larceny charges two months later. Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters has failed to institute any court proceedings against the first three defendants and dropped charges against the fourth without consulting police.
Police obtained statements from janitors who contended that the head of the jail, Frank Bluntson, had ordered jail employees to do private work for him while on the city payroll. Police say that Peters refused to entertain their criminal complaint. Peters subsequently hired Bluntson as a confidential investigator in the district attorney's office.
Joseph Jackson, special agent in charge of the state's FBI operations, refused to give investigative assistance to local authorities for nine months and took the unusual step of airing his complaints against the police chief in the press. After Jackson was ordered by Washington FBI officials to cooperate, police sent Jackson copies of police files. Included were complaints by two juvenile male prisoners who said they had been sexually molested while under the foster care of Frank Melton, a local television station owner.
Ten days after police sent that report to the FBI office, Jackson announced he would retire and accept an executive job with Melton.
Jackson told Newsday that he "didn't need to" investigate the allegations against Melton before taking the job because he had previously checked similar rumors and believed they weren't true.
The source of the police complaints were two accused juvenile criminals, who made the statements to police after they were arrested themselves. Both of those complainants have since been murdered in what appear to be drug-related shootings.
Melton, who received an anonymous copy of the same report in the mail, denied the allegations, and said none of more than two dozen other foster charges had ever accused him of improper behavior. He said the charges were raised by police only after he had broadcast editorials criticizing the police chief for mishandling a drug investigation.
"All of this mess jumped out after I did my first commentary about the police chief," Melton said in a telephone interview Friday denying the charges. "In my view, he is incompetent."
Jackson is a city of 200,000 people, the majority black. It is the capital of Mississippi and served as a focal point of the civil rights movement as well as the resistance to it. While a sense of decay hangs like Spanish moss from dying trees in its fading downtown, commerce is booming on the city's pastoral outskirts where split-level houses, strip malls and fancy restaurants bloom where there once stood cotton fields..
Jimmy Wilson came here to take over the police department in February, 1992. He was hired by Mayor Kane Ditto to fulfill a campaign promise to hire a black chief. There was some resentment of him as an outsider, and because his salary of $ 74,000 made him the highest-paid cop in the state. But he had an impressive resume: a Washington cop for 26 years, he had been the acting chief and headed the homicide squad, handling investigations ranging from the shooting of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, to the Air Florida crash, to the cocaine exploits of Mayor Marion Barry. During his first eight months in Jackson, Wilson forged strong ties with black political leaders. He said he was overcoming initial resistance in the white community, and his original 16-month job commitment was replaced by a four-year contract.
Wilson admits being a bit abrasive with the district attorney and FBI - something he attributes to the need to stake out his rightful territory - but said his trouble didn't start until October, 1992.
He issued a letter of reprimand to the juvenile jail chief, Bluntson, after allegations that he sexually harassed a female guard and failed to follow police procedures.
Bluntson, who is black, was well-known about town and a close friend of many city power brokers, including former mayor Dale Danks and District Attorney Peters, both whites. Bluntson hosted a popular weekly radio talk show.
Wilson has the support of mainstream black political and business groups, such as the NAACP and Jackson 2000. Bluntson is a longtime political envoy for the white establishment..
On Nov. 4, Wilson transferred Bluntson out of the jail and replaced him with a detective, Edna Drake. Within days, Drake was told that for at least several months, jail guards had allegedly been molesting female inmates. Drake questioned a number of girls who said male guards demanded sex for extra privileges ranging from candy bars to telephone calls and unsupervised visits from boyfriends.
One of the guards, Tyrone A. Williams, was given immunity, and he gave a detailed confession and statement that implicated several other guards. He added that guards were extorting cash from inmates and their families, taking as much as $ 100 a day.
Police arrested three guards on rape charges in November, and they pushed ahead with a separate track of the investigation that uncovered evidence that thousand of dollars' worth of property was missing from detainees.
In addition, detectives got statements from jail janitorial staff who said Bluntson routinely ordered them to do maintenance work on several buildings he owned privately during hours they were on the city payroll.
Bluntson quit his police job Nov. 19. Peters told police he didn't think Bluntson had done anything wrong and not only refused to present any case to a grand jury, but hired him as a confidential investigator.
Former mayor Danks, who is Bluntson's lawyer, said he didn't want his client talking to the press.
"We deny those allegations and I refuse to let you talk to him," he said in a telephone interview.
"That stuff you are referring to has been circulated all over this community. It has defamed Mr. Bluntson. The contents of those documents, if the same ones I have seen, are not substantiated whatsoever." Danks added that if the police believed they had a case, they could have arrested Bluntson without approval from the district attorney.
In December, Chief Wilson asked the FBI for help in investigating the jail, making the request formal in a Dec. 7 letter to Jackson. The FBI boss replied in a letter that the agency couldn't help without more specifics. On Jan. 5, 1993, Wilson sent a two-page letter with specific charges: Guards used their position of authority to have sex with underage inmates in the facility as well as after they were released; guards received bribes; jail employees stole money from detainees; guards supplied illegal drugs to inmates. Two days later, Wilson wrote to Jackson to say he had received information about an attempt to bribe a city official. Wilson says Jackson continued to refuse to investigate. In a telephone interview recently, Jackson said he never refused to investigate charges that were under the purview of the FBI.
The relationship between the two men deteriorated as Wilson pushed forward with his investigation.
On Jan. 7, detectives arrested Albirtha Collins, a female guard, on grand larceny charges for allegedly stealing inmates' belongings. Police sources said that although the case against Collins wasn't strong, police hoped that after being arrested, she would agree to cooperate with a broader investigation of the juvenile jail.
The district attorney's office refused to discuss the jail guard cases with police and on May 24 dropped charges against Collins for lack of evidence, without informing the police. Detectives first learned of the dismissal in July while reviewing paperwork on an unrelated case.
Having lost leverage over Collins, Wilson started to push harder, begging Jackson for FBI help. When it was clear none was coming, Wilson sent Jackson a letter dated July 14 saying he was pulling a detective out of a joint police-FBI task force named "Operation Clean Sweep" that had resulted in the arrest of 25 people on drug charges.
Jackson was infuriated and replied with a letter July 22:
"It is apparent that the real reason for your action is not the criminal problem outlined in your letter but a personal animus directed toward me because you have not been successful in obtaining federal intervention concerning criminal allegations involving personnel of the Youth Detention Facility. . .
"Your actions are unprofessional and detrimental to an effective, cooperative law enforcement approach to a very serious criminal problem and while I hope our agencies can continue to work together it is not possible for me to continue a professional association with you."
That day he gave an interview to the Clarion Ledger, the city's sole daily newspaper, headlined "FBI head says Jackson chief playing games." He told the paper that Wilson had long threatened to yank the detective unless he got help with a probe of the jail. "I never thought he would really do that," he was quoted as saying. "To me it is not to the betterment of the community." Law enforcement officials said they could not recall an FBI boss going public with this type of police dispute.
Wilson was in Washington that day meeting with high-ranking Justice and FBI officials. He brought along a summary of his investigation, including several hundred pages of affidavits and police reports.
The next day, July 23, District Attorney Peters gave a statement to the newspaper saying, "We have no working relationship" with Wilson.
The next week, Jackson sent a letter offering police help with drug probes and sent a copy to the newspaper.
The feud cooled down and the two men met at an upscale private club Aug. 2.
Later in the month, FBI headquarters officials ordered Jackson to open an investigation into the jail and related problems. On Aug. 23, Wilson sent Jackson a 3 1/2-page investigation summary and several hundred pages of supporting documents. Besides the allegations involving the jail and Bluntson, the memo raised allegations mentioning Frank Melton, owner of WLBT-TV, the local NBC affiliate.
Melton was perhaps the most prominent private black citizen in the city. He was a well-known figure around town, especially for his activist work among street gangs and juvenile delinquents. The police document raised troubling allegations:
"Young boys complained that they were sexually molested by Melton after they were placed in his custody by" authorities. The report said the original case file was missing from the police file room and had been reconstructed from memory by detectives.
Ten days after police sent the report to Jackson, he announced he was retiring from the FBI and had been hired as Melton's chief operating officer to run the television station. His salary is believed to be $ 140,000 per year. Although Jackson had no television experience, Melton said he was merely interested in a manager.
Jackson said that he never saw the file and that his decision to retire was made before the date Wilson said he sent the file.
Jackson declined to discuss specifics last week but said there was no conflict in taking the job because, in response to rumors, he had previously investigated similar allegations against Melton and found them to be untrue. Jackson said he saw no need to reinvestigate.
John Kundts, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said there is no restriction on post-bureau employment regarding investigative subjects.
Melton, in an interview earlier this month in Jackson, said he had heard allegations that he had molested one of the teenagers. He denied the allegation. He said he had struck the boy once, but that was to get him off a "drug corner."
In a later interview, he said, the boy "came to my house one night so drunk that we had to put him in the shower." Melton said that was the only thing he can remember that someone might misconstrue as inappropriate contact. "I mean, that's something we did just to try and sober him up. Now if that's abusing him, I plead guilty."
Melton lives in Jackson several days a week, frequently with teenage gang members. The rest of the week he lives with his wife, a pediatrician, and their children in Tyler, Texas.
"My final observation: I've raised about thirty-five kids. Why in the hell does Wilson raise the cases where the kids are dead?" he asked, contending that the police fabricated claims that he had molested boys. "My kids are all over Jackson."
Wilson has tried to obtain juvenile court records to determine exactly how many boys Melton has under guardianship, but he has been denied access to the records.
Meanwhile, the state charges against the three guards are still pending.
Kundts said agents did pursue the civil rights case Jackson had been ordered to conduct. He would only say that the investigation was completed and forwarded to the Justice Department.
"The FBI was not remiss in not following [up]" said Kundts. "FBI investigations are not personality-driven."
Police said they were disappointed in whatever FBI probe was conducted. Investigators said agents didn't spend much time interviewing key witnesses, nor did they get a detailed statement from Wilson.
Melton has run a series of editorials, demanding the police chief's ouster, calling him "childish" and "ethnocentric." The Clarion Ledger has also called for Wilson's ouster, blaming him for the rising crime rate and problems with the 911 system.
Mayor Ditto has opened an office in police headquarters to "improve communications." Police sources said he has asked for Wilson's resignation, but the chief has declined. Sources close to Wilson expect him to be fired in the coming weeks.
Posted with permission of the author.
Did this alleged rape victim ever see justice?
Not that I've been able to ascertain. D.A. Ed Peters wouldn't take put it before a grand jury, even telling the media that the minors had "consented" as a reason.
hmm...does Peterson think it's possible to "consent" when you are a prisoner and someone else is a guard? That's not in my definition of consent. Jesus.
Peters, not Peterson. Times were different then. I'll see if I can find you his direct quote when I get a minute.
Ok, good. It is interesting to see that this wasn't deemed "worthy of investigation" and makes me wonder what is still going on at that place. Thanks for clearing up my confusion on Peters/Peterson.
Well, I'm sure the Youth Detention Center has been cleaned up and the kind of stuff discovered then is no longer going on. That does not, however, mean that anyone was held accountable for it. That's sad.
Did y'all see that former District Attorney Ed Peters has re-emerged to help defend and represent Frank Melton?
damn northern yankee outside agitators.