SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky jail officials allegedly ordered and covered up attack on inmate

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The official incident report from a vicious assault of a LaRue County inmate in May 2015 contained just a few sentences.

Joshua Salle was beaten up by nine other inmates and hospitalized after he made racial slurs, according to a jail report obtained under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

One of the inmates even wrote a letter to jailer Johnny Cottrill the next day – and co-signed by the other inmates involved in the attack – that accused Salle of twice using the word “ni**er."

The investigation recommended the jail should add more cameras to “catch these things before or as soon as they happen.”

But an investigation by the Kentucky Department of Corrections and subsequent federal lawsuit suggest a different series of events: Officers told inmates to beat up Salle, then the jailer covered up the attack.

“I don’t think you have a greater or clearer example of a blatant cover-up,” said attorney Greg Belzley, who represented Salle.

In fact, several of the inmates told state officials a jail officer put a “hit” out on Salle and told them if they beat him up, they would get tobacco, according to a Sept. 4, 2015, summary of the state investigation obtained in an open records request. Officers ignored Salle’s pleas for help during the beating, which broke his nose and jaw and sent him to the hospital, inmates said.

And they told state investigators that Jailer Cottrill asked them the next morning who could write the best and had that inmate write the letter about the racial slurs.

“All stated the jailer entered the cell the day following the incident and insinuated to them the cause of the incident was the use of the N word that would be the catalyst of the fight and injury to Salle,” a state investigation concluded.

There is no evidence state officials interviewed Cottrill or his deputy jailers at any point during their investigation or that law enforcement was ever contacted to see if any crime had been committed.

Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said the state did not refer the case to law enforcement because one of the jailers involved was terminated and another was “ready to separate employment from the facility."

“Based on those actions, it appeared the Jailer was taking proactive steps to address the issues as they were arising,” she said.

Lamb did not respond to an emailed question about Cottrill’s alleged role in the cover-up. However, she said if the inmates involved “wished to pursue charges” against Cottrill or the officers, “they could have done so at any time.”

Belzley, a long-time advocate for inmates, said it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the safety of inmates and notify city officials and police of possible wrongdoing.

In decades of representing inmates, he said he has “never seen any real enforcement mechanism in action,” by state officials over local jails.

In addition, another LaRue County inmate, Timothy Rollin, made a similar complaint in 2015 to the state, claiming he was beaten up by fellow inmates at the behest of an officer, in exchange for tobacco. Belzley also represented Rollin and settled that case this year for $55,000, according to records obtained from the Kentucky Association of Counties.

In that case, WDRB could find no evidence that the Department of Corrections did an investigation.

LaRue County Judge-Executive Tommy Turner said he was never alerted about the Salle investigation by the DOC.

Hodgenville Police Sgt. James Richardson said that while the allegation didn’t surprise him, his department had no knowledge of the incident. State police also said its Elizabethtown post wasn’t aware of it.

“The voters ought to know about Mr. Cottrill’s conduct and performance in his job,” Belzley said. “I think it’s worthy of note that an elected chief law enforcement officer of LaRue County would engage in behavior like this.”

Jail investigations have "little teeth"

Salle’s problems inside the LaRue County jail began on May 14, 2015, when he climbed through a ceiling of the jail to enter the commissary storage area.

Salle fell through the ceiling and damaged a fire alarm system, a separate state investigation found.

After the state received a tip about the incident and learned the fire alarm was no longer working, Cottrill was ordered to have his staff conduct a 24-hour a day fire watch until the system was fixed, according to the investigation.

An investigator wrote that the situation was “completely unsatisfactory and a huge safety violation.”

In addition, Cottrill was asked if an incident report had been completed, as it was supposed to have been done within 48 hours. Cottrill responded that Deputy Chester Shoffner was working on it.

The investigation also noted that after the incident, Sallee had been the victim of an assault by other inmates for using racial slurs and causing the commissary to be closed for two weeks.

But inmate Terrell Fulton sent a letter to the state saying that what happened the night of the beating, May 28, 2015, was a “set-up” and he did not feel safe in the LaRue County jail.

After being transferred to the jail in Hardin County, Fulton told investigators why Salle was beaten up and disputed his use of the racial slur.

“Look, I am black, if he said something like that, I would have been upset, but he did not say anything that would have offended someone and nothing that deserved the beating he got,” Fulton told investigators, according to the investigative summary. “It was a hit, period.”

Fulton said he contacted the state after learning that he was punished for the fight, losing a good time credit.  After interviewing Fulton, the state moved the other inmates out of LaRue County and interviewed them as well.

In his interview, Salle claimed Deputy Schoffner “put a hit” out on him after he tried to sneak into the commissary. After first being put in isolation, Salle was released back into the general population. He claims he was then approached by a large inmate and told “Get on the door,” meaning move towards the door of the cell.

He denied using any racial slurs.

When Salle returned to the jail, with a metal plate and screws in his lower jaw, he was told the beating was punishment for making the jail look bad. Salle said Cottrill came to his cell and told him to “sign some papers” and cursed and threatened the inmate when he asked to have an attorney look them over first. Salle eventually filled out the paperwork.

Another inmate, Christopher Payne, told investigators that after Salle was removed from the cell and taken to a hospital after the beating, tobacco was brought in in an ice cooler. Tobacco is not allowed in Kentucky jails.

Inmate Lanard Brown told a state investigator that a different officer talked with the inmates about giving them tobacco for beating up Salle, but that Schoffner had put the “hit” out. He also said a cooler of tobacco was brought to the cell after the fight.

And Brown said Cottrill came to the cell the next day and told them to “write something up that he (Sallee) came into the cell and started using the ‘N’ word,” according to a summary of the interview. “It was all a cover up.”

One inmate wrote in a letter that Sallee banged on the door of the cell yelling for help while he was being beaten, but no officers came.

While Fulton, Brown and Payne were all punished by the jail for the fight, state investigators determined a video of the incident showed the men had no contact with Salle.

And that appeared to be extent of the state’s actions after the investigation. There are no summaries of interviews with jail officials.

However, Lamb, the spokeswoman for DOC, said the jailer and an officer were “both spoken to on numerous occasions, but it was not documented.”

She declined to comment further.

State records show the Corrections Department does inspections at local jails twice a year.

But Belzley said there is “little teeth” to the inspections.

“The lack of an enforcement mechanism needs to be addressed,” he said. The Salle lawsuit settled earlier this year for $90,000.

Meanwhile, Belzley has a lawsuit pending against the LaRue County jail, claiming Cottrill overruled the recommendation of a nurse to send an inmate who couldn’t walk to the hospital.  Two days later, by the time the inmate was sent to the hospital, he was a quadriplegic, Belzley claims.

Belzley said he knows of no investigation of this incident by the state.

“If there's not a mechanism that can effectively address that type of situation, then I think the lack of a mechanism that needs to be addressed,” he said. “There is no place in a county in Kentucky that is responsible for more of their citizens than the local county jail.”

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