Three Illinois correctional officers made their initial appearance in federal court this morning following their arrest on charges related to the May 2018 assault of an inmate who later died, at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, Ill. Those charged are Todd Sheffler, 51, of Mendon; Willie Hedden, 41, of Mt. Sterling, and Alex Banta, 28, of Quincy.
The indictment alleges that on May 17, 2018, Sheffler, Hedden and Banta assaulted an inmate, who was restrained and handcuffed behind his back at the time, during an escort to another prison unit, in violation of his Constitutional protection to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The victim, identified as Larry Earvin, suffered multiple broken ribs, a punctured colon, and other serious internal injuries, and died in June 2018. The indictment alleges that each defendant falsified incident reports to omit any reference to the assault and that they misled agents of the Illinois State Police by denying any knowledge of the assault of Earvin that each participated in and witnessed.
“Our laws protect the civil rights of all,” stated U.S. Attorney John Milhiser. “Every day, correctional officers report for public service that is often demanding and under-appreciated. However, our criminal justice system requires that those who perform these difficult duties do so lawfully. Those responsible for the deadly assault of Mr. Earvin must be held accountable.” Milhiser commended the Illinois Department of Corrections for its cooperation and the FBI and Illinois State Police for their thorough investigation of this tragic incident.
Sean M. Cox, FBI Special Agent in Charge stated: “The FBI is committed to vigorously investigating allegations of Constitutional violations by law enforcement officers, including correctional officers, who in this investigation have been indicted with violating the civil rights of Mr. Earvin. This case should be a reminder that everyone, including individuals who are incarcerated, is afforded the same protections under the U.S. Constitution, and no one wearing a badge is above the law.”
“The people of Illinois must have confidence in the constitutional integrity of the criminal justice system from the streets, to the courthouse, to corrections,” stated ISP Director Brendan F. Kelly. “It is the mission of the Illinois State Police Division of Internal Investigations to work with our state and federal partners to hold accountable those who betray that trust.”
The defendants were arrested late yesterday, Dec. 5, by the FBI and Illinois State Police, and appeared today for arraignment in federal court before U.S. District Judge Sue E. Myerscough. The indictment, returned by the grand jury this week, remained sealed pending the defendants’ arrest and court appearance. An initial trial date of Feb. 4, 2020, has been scheduled. Detention hearings for the defendants have been scheduled for this afternoon.
At the time of the alleged crimes, Sheffler was a lieutenant at Western Illinois Correctional Center (WICC); Hedden was a sergeant, and, Banta was a correctional officer, subordinate to Sheffler and Hedden. Inmate Larry Earvin, who was 65 years old, was an inmate at WICC and would have been eligible for parole in September 2018.
According to the indictment, on May 17, 2018, Sheffler, Hedden, and Banta participated in the forcible escort of Earvin from his residential unit to the segregation housing unit. During the transport, Earvin was physically assaulted, without legal justification, while he was restrained and handcuffed behind his back and posed no physical threat to the defendants or other correctional officers. The indictment alleges that Sheffler, the lieutenant, and most senior officer, and Hedden, the sergeant and senior officer to Banta, failed to intervene to protect Earvin from the assault.
Following the assault, Sheffler, Hedden and Banta each allegedly filed knowingly false incident reports that failed to disclose any assault of Earvin. The false reports allegedly included identical language used by Hedden and Banta that falsely stated that Earvin was delivered to staff in the segregation housing unit “without further incident” other than Earvin resisting the escort and refusing to walk. In addition, the indictment alleges that Sheffler, Hedden and Banta knowingly misled agents of the Illinois State Police during individual interviews by falsely denying any knowledge of the assault of Earvin that they participated in and witnessed.
Hedden is charged in an additional count of obstruction that alleges he persuaded a friend, a fellow employee at WICC, to delete a text message Hedden had sent to the friend following the May 17 incident, to conceal and destroy information relating to the offenses charged.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy A. Bass and Victor B. Yanz are representing the government in the prosecution. The charges were investigated by agents of the FBI-Springfield Division and the Illinois State Police Division of Internal Investigation with the cooperation of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Specifically, the indictment charges Sheffler, Hedden and Banta with conspiracy to deprive civil rights (one count); deprivation of civil rights (one count); and conspiracy to obstruct justice (one count.). Each defendant is charged individually with obstruction of the investigation: falsification of document (one count) and misleading conduct (one count.) In addition, Hedden is charged with destruction of a record or other object (one count.)
As charged, the statutory sentence for both conspiracy to deprive civil rights and deprivation of civil rights under color of law resulting in bodily injury and death is any term of imprisonment up to life. For each count of obstruction, the maximum statutory penalty is up to 20 years in prison.
Members of the public are reminded that an indictment is merely an accusation; each defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.