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Department of Corrections obstructed Virginia's jail death investigator during power grab
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Department of Corrections obstructed Virginia's jail death investigator during power grab

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Josephine Gholson of Petersburg is the mother of Anthony Antwan Gholson, who died March 26 in the Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County of a fentanyl overdose.

When the high-profile jail death of Jamycheal Mitchell in 2015 exposed a systemic lack of accountability, state officials pledged progress.

Reforms followed public outrage over state agencies’ inability to determine exactly how the 24-year-old had been allowed to waste away in plain sight at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, where he was being held on allegations of stealing $5 in snacks.

A single investigator on part-time pay stepped in to do what state government had not: hold jails accountable and prevent abuse. The investigator, Steve Goff, reviewed nearly 140 deaths over three years, and his reports drove recommendations to close two jails he determined had repeatedly failed to keep people safe.

That’s what policymakers envisioned when they applauded in May 2017 as then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill to ensure a state board would fully review all jail deaths, and set aside money for the investigator.

As Goff worked to fulfill his mandate, state corrections officials worked to install one of their own as his boss late last year.

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That man, Ryan McCord, had been admonished by a judge eight months earlier for acting in bad faith and violating state open records laws, refusing to release information about how prison officials strip-searched visitors.

From his first communications with Goff in March, McCord made clear that the Department of Corrections was now in control.

Under pressure, Goff resigned.

Public records obtained through FOIA requests and interviews by the Richmond Times-Dispatch show:

  • The law called for the gubernatorial-appointed Board of Local and Regional Jails to appoint and employ an executive director, but most board members weren’t involved in the process, which was led by the Department of Corrections.
  • Most members of the jail board weren’t aware of who the finalists were for the job.
  • Dean Ricks at the DOC, who worked closely with McCord there, wrote the interview questions and took a leading role in the hiring process.
  • McCord told Goff he could no longer speak to the board he had been working closely with on jail death cases, saying information should now go only to McCord, who would consult his superiors in the Department of Corrections about what board members needed to know.
  • McCord forbid Goff from speaking to any third party, and Goff felt McCord had so obstructed his work that he kept secret that he was meeting with homicide detectives about a jail death case out of fear that McCord would interfere.
  • The office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, a cabinet post under Gov. Ralph Northam, told the jail board chairman in October 2020 that money had been budgeted for a second jail death investigator. But no one was hired until a month ago. New cases have built in the five months since Goff left, and officials couldn’t give clear answers about why they never hired a second person to help him.
  • There were 52 cases under investigation when Goff left, and 45 ready for board action. The numbers are now essentially the same at 92 open cases, according to the board.

Included in the backlog is the death of Anthony Antwan Gholson, who died of a fentanyl overdose in one of Virginia’s deadliest jails — Riverside Regional in Prince George County. It happened in March, about a month after a major security breach that allowed contraband to get into the jail through broken windows.

Gholson’s mother, Josephine Gholson of Petersburg, said her son was not the type to harm anyone except himself.

Larceny charges stemming from a yearslong drug addiction landed him in jail; he died two days after being transferred to Riverside from the Chesterfield County Jail, where he’d been held for three months.

His mother hoped jail would help him.

“I prayed that once he went to jail, he’d be safe from all the drugs,” his mother said. “I just can’t seem to move on.”

Prince George police investigators said in July that they couldn’t figure out how Gholson had overdosed.

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In 2013, McCord graduated from the Wake Forest University School of Law and then worked for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services on regulatory and legislative issues. He moved to the Department of Corrections doing the same work, supervising discipline and grievances of people held in state prisons and responding to FOIA requests.

McCord, who does not have a Virginia State Bar license, told jail board members in March that he did “a lot of ancillary legal work for the department before it made its way to the attorney general’s office.”

McCord and a superior at the DOC, Ricks, were among those involved in an embarrassment for the agency when a Norfolk Circuit Court judge found that they violated the letter and spirit of the state Freedom of Information Act in withholding records from the public related to prison strip-searches of visitors.

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper had reported on how DOC officials strip searched prison visitors, ages 1 to 83, and threatened to permanently ban them from visiting loved ones if they refused to be searched.

DOC officials refused to release information about a system used to track visitors, and the newspaper sued. Judge Junius P. Fulton III, who is now on the Court of Appeals of Virginia, found that DOC officials acted in “bad faith.”

The judge wrote in an April 2020 order that he found part of Ricks’ court testimony “difficult to believe.”

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 allowing for an executive director to work with the jail board on death investigations and other board duties. State auditors in 2019 recommended that as well as hiring another death investigator to reduce the case backlog.

Public records show Ricks moved to take charge in the process.

“Regarding the two board positions, will they report through me?” he wrote to his boss in October 2020. “I would love to have some involvement with creating and filling the Executive Director position.”

The relationship between the jail board and the Department of Corrections is convoluted. The jail board was previously called the Board of Corrections, and it oversaw jails, the local facilities run by sheriffs or regional jail administrators for people awaiting trial; as well as prisons, the state facilities where people serve long sentences.

The General Assembly stripped prison supervision from the board in 2011, eliminating civilian oversight of state prisons. The nine board members who oversee jails are volunteers appointed by the governor, but the people they work with — jail inspectors and investigators — are employees of the Department of Corrections and money is budgeted through the department.

Jail board chairman Vernie Francis Jr., a retired sheriff of Southampton County, planned to work with the DOC to hire the two new jail board positions, records show. He deferred to Ricks at the DOC on most of the process.

Ricks determined how DOC officials narrowed down the list of applicants for executive director. Out of 26 applicants who met the qualifications, four became finalists. Interviews were done in December 2020 by Ricks; Francis; another board member, Charlie Jett, a retired Stafford County sheriff; and Jacquelyn Katuin, an assistant secretary of public safety and homeland security.

The job description asked for considerable experience in leadership in a jail or correctional setting, with a preference for successful experience as a jail superintendent or assistant superintendent.

“One of the most important factors that I am looking for is the experience the candidate has operating a jail,” Francis wrote to Ricks during the hiring process.

Ricks crafted the questions for the four finalists’ interviews. Among the finalists: McCord, who did not have experience running a jail, but did have experience working for Ricks.

The other finalists were Tony Pham, a lawyer who was the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the final months of the Trump administration; and William T. Wilson, who had been superintendent of the RSW Regional Jail near Front Royal, a director at Riverside Regional Jail, and previously supervised Virginia jail inspection oversight.

A fourth finalist was identified in records as Ryan Anderson, which is a common name. Attorneys and aides to the governor would not identify him for this story.

According to public records, someone on the panel suggested they keep searching.

Ricks addressed that to the panel in a late December email: “The question had been asked when we all last spoke about readvertising the position. I spoke with DOC staff and we believe that readvertising is not a prudent option given that there are qualified applicants in the existing pool.”

The panel opted to go with McCord, and an email in January went out in the Department of Corrections announcing that he would fill the position. His salary increased from $79,628 to $96,151.

Francis declined to say whether he suggested readvertising the position.

By the time the board was granted authority to hire an executive director and second investigator, most board members deferred to Francis. They didn’t know who the four finalists were. McCord was introduced to them during an electronic meeting in March.

Four jail board members and two former members did not respond to requests for interviews for this story. Two members — John Anderson and Bobby Vassar — declined to comment and cited a board policy of referring media questions to Francis.

Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, said by email for this story that he was not involved in selecting McCord, but approved the unanimous decision of the interview panel of Katuin, Ricks, Francis and Jett.

Goff always faced a backlog of jail death cases. He was allotted roughly 28 hours a week to investigate deaths at dozens of jails across the state. A second investigator would help close the backlog, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission wrote in September 2019.

It’s unclear, though, why the board did not hire a second person when Goff was still working.

Katuin, the assistant public safety secretary, emailed Francis in October 2020 to tell him that funding was now available for the executive director and a second investigator. She declined to be interviewed for this story, requesting questions by email.

Records show she worked with the DOC to move forward on hiring an executive director, but didn’t mention moving forward with an investigator position. Asked why, Katuin said the executive director was the priority and it was the board’s job to hire an investigator.

Records show Francis told DOC officials that he wanted to work with the agency to hire both positions. But then, public records show, the people involved stopped talking about hiring an investigator.

Francis said he did not remember a specific discussion of hiring a second investigator last fall, then in a follow-up interview echoed Katuin’s comment that hiring a director was the priority. And board members are just volunteers, he noted.

“I don’t spend eight hours a day ... five days a week doing board business,” he said. “I have other things to take a lot of my time.

“For whatever reason, you know, it just didn’t happen.”

***

Goff was a retired commander at Virginia State Police and spent eight years as the head of investigations at the Richmond law firm Allen & Allen.

In what became his retirement job, he revealed problems with monitoring of people in jails, health care failures, record transfer failures, and falsified or missing records. And his work culminated in the jail board recommending closure of the two especially deadly jails — Riverside Regional and Hampton Roads Regional, where Jamycheal Mitchell had died.

A man tasked with uncovering secrets and exposing wrongdoing was making progress.

Then, the gears of bureaucracy, with the Department of Corrections controlling the levers, slammed the brakes.

Tension between Goff and the new executive director started over a call from an FBI agent, public records show. The agent asked Goff for a summary of what the jail board did and what information it collected, saying the FBI — on the hunt for civil rights violations in jails — wanted to talk about a partnership.

Goff informed Francis of the inquiry and sent the agent a list of jail deaths at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Francis wanted to set up a call with Goff, McCord, their counsel from the attorney general’s office and the FBI agent to decide what information could be given to the FBI, records show.

Goff said McCord ordered him and the people who inspected jails to come to McCord before talking to the board, the board’s counsel or any third party.

“I need to be able to answer questions about things like why we are sharing confidential death information with the FBI when I am asked and I am currently unable to do so,” McCord wrote in an email.

But nothing confidential had been shared.

Goff replied to McCord and told him he thought he was misunderstanding.

“We are not sharing anything with them at this time. Vernie’s idea was for the 4 of us to get together ... to plan ahead.”

And Francis was interested in cooperating with the FBI, Goff wrote.

Goff emailed Francis on March 6 to outline his concerns about the DOC power grab. “I am not sure if you know, but I am told that Dean Ricks is actually Ryan’s supervisor and everything he does will go through Dean.”

Goff said he had taken pride in his job and worked full-time hours without pay because he felt it was for a good cause, but could not face such disrespect. He also wrote that the board’s secretary had been forbidden from consulting with the board’s counsel in the attorney general’s office.

That same day, records show, Ricks received an email alert about Goff’s hours.

Ricks emailed McCord, of Goff’s annual allotment: “Please ensure that he does not go above 1450 hours. You should track his hours weekly.”

By the end of March, Goff emailed Francis a more dire update.

“Dean Ricks seems to be running the show,” he wrote. McCord had said decisions would be made by McCord and Ricks, with possible input by Ricks’ boss, Joseph Walters.

Goff wrote that McCord told him “that is the DOC way.”

“Ryan’s imposed restrictions, and the DOC atmosphere, is making it really difficult for me to do my job,” Goff wrote.

Under the DOC edict, Goff was not supposed to be contacting Francis, the man he’d worked with for years on important investigations.

“I’m not supposed to contact you or [board member] Olivia Garland, but he does not have a clue as to what needs to be done.”

At the beginning of April, McCord also told Goff and staff they weren’t allowed to speak to members of the General Assembly.

Goff asked Francis to keep secret from McCord that Goff would be meeting with Portsmouth homicide detectives as part of an investigation. “Please do not bring it to Ryan’s attention, as he will manage to interfere with my source and impede my getting the information they have to offer,” Goff wrote.

After helping the board complete its work on the cases of the two high-profile jails recommended for closure, Goff resigned on April 21. He declined to comment for this story.

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In the months since, the board has backtracked on its April recommendation that Riverside Regional Jail be closed, even though a board committee found that jail conditions “represent a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the inmates.” On Wednesday, the board approved a consent agreement allowing the jail to remain open and avoid a hearing; the jail lawyer specifically thanked McCord for his work during what were private negotiations.

Francis declined to comment on the situation, but when asked about Goff’s work, he said:

“I knew Steve back many, many years ago when he was a young trooper and I was a young deputy sheriff because he worked our area. ... He’s a very good investigator. He’s an outstanding gentleman.”

In the emails he sent to Francis, Goff had a warning:

Goff wrote that if the board’s duties were now under command of Ricks at the DOC, “there are going to be major problems for the Board because you will be undermined at every turn of the corner.”

Ricks and McCord declined to be interviewed for this story. Ricks asked for questions in writing, which he did not respond to. Among questions they didn’t answer: Did Ricks recruit McCord for the executive director job?

The board has now hired two full-time jail death investigators who started Aug. 25, nearly two years after state auditors recommended more staff.

The mess resulted in a memorandum of understanding signed in August by Francis and Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, to clarify the relationship between the department and the jail board. It says McCord and the new investigators, for administrative purposes, are “employees of the DOC within its chain of command and subject to its policies.”

The DOC will handle McCord’s performance evaluations, and Francis gets to offer input.

Meanwhile, no one knows — or has at least publicly said — how Anthony Gholson overdosed on fentanyl in what is supposed to be a secure jail.

“They can’t control what’s going on in there,” said Gholson’s brother, Charles Gholson of Petersburg.

The 1,300-bed Riverside Regional is more like a warehouse providing paychecks to people, he said.

“They’re going to just keep it going like it is.”

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