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.
U.S. Attorney John Milhiser, who is prosecuting the case, commended the Illinois Department of Corrections for its cooperation and the FBI and Illinois State Police for thorough investigation into the incident. The investigation was headed by FBI Special Agent Sean M. Cox. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy A. Bass and Victor B. Yanz are representing the government in defense.
The defendants were arrested late yesterday 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 February 4th 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; Hedden was a sergeant, and, Banta was a correctional officer and a 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 and Hedden 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. 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. Indictments are simply accusations and each defendant is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.