Whether two Hall County Sheriff’s Office employees were negligent or tasked with an impossible job was the focus of a termination hearing in November, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Times.
Former deputies Jack Dodd and Larry Henslee appeared Nov. 18 before the Civil Services Board after they appealed their termination following the escape of an inmate in their custody.
Dodd and Henslee spoke with The Times shortly after the board voted to overturn the termination, which the Sheriff’s Office has now appealed.
They stated they were told on multiple occasions to transport more inmates than policy allowed, and threatened with loss of their jobs if they did not do so. That, combined with an insecure area to load and unload inmates at the Hall County courthouse, led to a situation that made it impossible for the two deputies to properly watch over those in their custody, the men said.
They said that led to the July 16 escape of James Cantrell, who was able to hide in an alcove as inmates were moved out of the courthouse and into a minibus for transport. Cantrell was recaptured about a week later.
The Civil Service hearing is conducted much like a trial, with opening and closing statements and witnesses.
The 272-page transcript shows Dodd and Henslee stated their case first.
“We did not allow the prisoners to escape because of negligence or inattentiveness,” Dodd said. “It was just the fact that we could not handle that many prisoners. It was a violation of policy.”
Policy states that there should be a ratio of five inmates to one officer.
Dodd and Henslee were transporting 17 on July 16. Dodd led the inmates through the area to the minibus, while Henslee brought up the rear, escorting a female inmate and another inmate with a walker. Seventeen inmates were logged out of the courthouse.
Sheriff’s Office witnesses testified that Dodd and Henslee could have asked for help with the transport to meet the correct ratios.
“There’s been comments made many, many times that if they ever had an opportunity where they felt they were not comfortable with the transport ratio, that they should call me,” Sgt. Terry Baines said. “At that time I would make arrangements to have an officer, including myself, help with the transport.” Baines was the men’s supervisor shortly before the incident, though not on the day in question.
Dodd and Henslee maintained requests were made and help never given.
“In the mornings I’ve asked for help and the answer is, ‘I’m sorry boys, you’re on your own; there’s nobody to help you,” Henslee said.
A witness, Phil Peppers, who quit the Sheriff’s Office after he was relieved of transport duty shortly after the incident, also said he was told by superiors to break the ratio policy.
Moving that number of inmates through the courthouse also was an issue because one of the rooms was used for trash and gave inmates possible access to weapons like lead pipes or broken glass, Dodd said.
Once personnel opened the door to the outside, Dodd quickly went to unlock the minibus, requiring him to turn his back on the inmates.
Dodd said he had no choice but to try to move the inmates through the insecure areas as quickly as possible. He said he could not have them line up in the trash room due to the concern about weapons.
“The only reason we don’t get hurt or killed is because the prisoners didn’t want to hurt or kill us,” he said.
Henslee testified he could not see all of the inmates as he rounded the corner that day. The inmates were loaded and the two departed the courthouse.
Cantrell , meanwhile, had stepped away from the group and hidden. After the minibus pulled away, he emerged and eventually located a truck with keys in it and at some point fled to the Atlanta area.
Sheriff Gerald Couch and others testified during the hearing that the inmates were not under control and were moved too quickly through the rooms exiting the courthouse.
“First off, it’s your responsibility to make sure that those inmates — you have total control of them, that they’re not spread over three rooms,” he said when questioned by Dodd. “That’s ridiculous. That’s incompetent. That is negligence.”
Sheriff’s Office witnesses hammered on the control factor. County attorney Bill Blalock described the movement of prisoners as similar to a gaggle of geese.
“It was a gaggle (of) prisoners,” Blalock said in his closing. “They were just out like they were going on a picnic, and Mr. Dodd was leading the picnic.”
The Sheriff’s Office also questioned why Cantrell was not wearing shackles or a waist chain or leather belt. Both men said he had a knee injury and policy allows less restraint in such cases. They also noted that Cantrell could have escaped with the shackles on.
Once the deputies transported the inmates, Henslee unfastened inmates’ leg irons and handcuffs as another officer, Lisa Harris, took roll.
At some point Harris told Henslee three inmates were missing, two of which Henslee said were still at the courthouse. Henslee said the third, Cantrell, must be in his cell. Harris testified that she told Henslee Cantrell was not in his cell, but she assumed he must also be at the courthouse. The thought of him escaping never crossed her mind, she said.
Amid a busy day and environment, both Henslee and Harris left to perform other duties, neither apparently realizing Cantrell had escaped.
The Sheriff’s Office argued someone should have actually checked Cantrell’s cell. The time it took Henslee to notify a superior about the escape was questioned by the Sheriff’s Office, with Henslee not remembering exactly how the events unfolded, except that he did not know about the escape until a phone call from a superior.
Both Henslee and Dodd maintained the escape never would have happened if supervisors had listened to their requests for help with transport and a more secure loading area.
“I’m not saying that we’re angels with wings,” Dodd said. “Yes, we could have done this and we could have done that, and we could have taken a chance. We could have stopped him, lined them up along the wall right up next to all these weapons and stuff and the trash bin. There are other things that we could have done which would have put us in more danger, put the citizens in more danger. ... I don’t understand how they could say that we’re negligent. We were doing everything that we could possibly do.”
They questioned why, if they were doing something wrong, no superior ever said anything. Both men had good performance reviews.
Baines testified he didn’t know they were violating policy. Baines’ office was located in view of where the inmates pass through at the courthouse.
Sheriff’s witnesses testified the deputies did not ask for help and in any case should have had better control of the inmates.
Dale Long with the Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs division said he investigated the incident for about a week and determined the men violated policy and “police procedure 101.”
“The thing is that what we saw — there was just no control,” Long said of Dodd. “You didn’t turn around and look at them once.”
Couch testified he had no doubt about his decision to terminate the men’s employment.
Since the incident, the garage at the courthouse has been altered to allow vans to pull into the courthouse. Couch said the office was in the process of upgrading security at the courthouse when the escape happened.