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Fired deputies dispute allegations of negligence in inmate escape

Sheriff appealing men’s reinstatement

POSTED: November 22, 2013 12:43 a.m.

Terminated deputies Jack Dodd and Larry Henslee responded Thursday to what they said are inaccurate and unfair assertions of blame by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office for their roles in the escape of an inmate.

“If we had had five prisoners, or 10 prisoners, and that guy walked off ... I would have been right out the door and kept my mouth shut,” Dodd said, with Henslee seated to his right. “The fact is, we were overloaded. That’s what caused it — not negligence; not inattentiveness.”

“Our contention in all of this is that we should have had four deputies on that transport,” Dodd added. “It was way too much for us to handle.”

Dodd said the Hall County Civil Service board agreed. The board decided to reinstate Dodd, 68, and Henslee, 55, prompting the sheriff’s office to appeal the decision to Hall County Superior Court.

Both deputies remain off the job during the appeal process, and a court date has not been set.

The sheriff’s office said it had no comment on Dodd and Henslee’s allegations, citing a Tuesday written statement.

“Unfortunately, the facts surrounding the case clearly warranted terminating both employees,” the office said in the statement, adding, “Due to the pending appeal, no further information will be released at this time.”

On July 16, the day in question, Dodd said he and Larry Henslee were performing their daily duties of supervising the transportation of inmates to and from the Hall County Courthouse and Hall County Jail. As the 17 inmates were loaded onto a bus parked on Broad Street for transport back to the jail, inmate James Cantrell hid in an alcove.

Cantrell found a nearby work truck with the keys left inside and fled, evading capture for a week.

A day after his July 22 capture, Dodd and Henslee were both fired, with their superiors citing negligence and inattention in the notice of termination.

The two men appealed the decision the same day, and on Monday the civil service board held what Dodd described as a “quasi-judicial” hearing, where members listened to evidence, including testimony from several sheriff’s office officials.

After closing arguments, the board retired to make a decision and after about an hour and a half, Dodd said, returned with a unanimous decision.

“We felt the evidence was definitely in our favor,” Dodd said.

Cantrell’s escape was the culmination, Dodd said, of policy failings and human error, but not his or Henslee’s negligence.

“We were totally, absolutely overwhelmed. It was a violation by the sheriff’s office — not by us — of sheriff’s office policy and procedure,” he said.

It became a regular protocol breach to transport more than five inmates to a deputy, per the orders of superiors, Dodd said.

“If we objected, we were told we couldn’t do the job. There was intimidation at times,” he said.

Dodd said it was implied he would be fired or reassigned to jail duty if he refused to comply with breaking the policy.

“If you get put in the jail, that’s punishment,” he said.

In a July 23 news release detailing the internal affairs investigation, Sheriff Gerald Couch said several of the deputies’ actions led both to Cantrell’s escape and the delay in noting his absence. There was no mention of the ratio of inmates to deputies.

“Cantrell had apparently complained of a knee injury, and therefore was not placed in leg irons nor handcuffed behind his back,” Couch’s statement read.

Dodd said according to policy, officers are responsible for minding the inmates’ health and medical conditions for their safety, adding, “if you’re negligent, there’s a good chance of liability.”

“Cantrell had a knee injury. He was scheduled to have surgery,” Dodd said. “There is a clear exception for medical problems. We did not and should not have used leg cuffs.”

The sheriff’s office also said head counts were not performed correctly.

“A head count was conducted prior to exiting the courthouse, but the transport deputies failed to conduct a head count once the bus was loaded,” the release said.

Dodd said there was no protocol to conduct a head count both before and after loading the bus, and that a jail-assigned deputy was to blame for failing to account for the inmates at the jail.

Unaware of Cantrell’s absence, the two went about their day on other transports. When Dodd found himself back at the courthouse, and heard about the stolen truck, he got his first indication an inmate may have escaped.

“I called Larry and asked if anyone was missing. He said not that he was aware of,” Dodd said, and Henslee quickly returned to the jail to check. “He determined James Cantrell was missing for the first time.”

Dodd said the two then immediately reported the issue to superiors, which they had actually warned was a possibility because of the high volume of inmates in their custody and the logistics of the courthouse entrance area.

“Quite a few months back, we had been telling them we were going to lose someone,” Dodd said. “It’s a comedy of errors. The perfect storm waiting to happen.”

Dodd said the two did not have the burden to put their foot down on the problem of the inmate-to-deputy ratio, as it was not “illegal” — in violation of Georgia code, statute or case law — but a breach of policy.

“(If) the supervisor is giving you that order, and you say to that supervisor, ‘Sir, that’s against policy,’ he then has a chance to either retract that order, or correct it,” he said, shifting the burden, and responsibility of consequences, to the supervisor.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the jail administration is responsible,” Dodd said.

Henslee largely sat in silence as Dodd described the work culture, the two men’s actions on the day in question and their experience with the disciplinary process.

His only comment was brief, but to the point.

“I’ve worked for 15 years. That day that happened, I was doing my job to best of my ability,” Henslee said.

Dodd also cited his years of experience as his future in law enforcement hangs in limbo.

“Our name has been smeared big time with lies. The sheriff says we’re negligent and inattentive, and we weren’t,” he said. “It hurts, you know, being in law enforcement like I have almost 30 years and never ever having anything against me of any type, shape, form or fashion.”


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