Six former correctional officers at a West Virginia jail are facing federal charges in the death of an inmate who was assaulted by a group of guards and died last year, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The inmate, Quantez Burks, 37, had been at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, W.Va., for less than a day on March 1, 2022, when he was beaten by a group of officers and died the same day, said Matt Harman, a lawyer for Mr. Burks’s family.
According to the indictment, which identified Mr. Burks only by his initials, an officer had called for help after Mr. Burks “tried to push past a correctional officer” while going from a jail pod to a hallway.
Mr. Burks was then taken by three officers to a “blind spot” inside the jail that was not monitored by security cameras, according to charging documents. There, they assaulted him “in retaliation” for trying to get past the officer, prosectors said.
According to the indictment, one of the officers, Mark Holdren, told the other officers to lie to investigators and say that Mr. Burks had suffered a heart attack and that he had been fighting with officers. He also told officers to avoid telling investigators that he and other officers had assaulted Mr. Burks, prosecutors said.
Mr. Burks had been booked into the jail after he fired a gun on his property and had been charged with wanton endangerment and obstruction of justice, Mr. Harman said.
The six former correctional officers — Mr. Holdren, 39; Cory Snyder, 29; Johnathan Walters, 35; Jacob Boothe, 25; Ashley Toney, 23; and Chad Lester, 33, a former lieutenant — were each charged with conspiring to cover up the use of unlawful force by omitting material information, and they were individually charged with various counts of giving false and misleading information to investigators, federal prosecutors said in a statement on Thursday.
Mr. Lester, along with Mr. Holdren, Mr. Snyder, Ms. Toney and Mr. Boothe were also charged with making false statements to the F.B.I. about the death of Mr. Burks.
Lawyers for the six former officers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday. It was unclear whether the officers had been fired from the jail or whether they had resigned.
The top charges the former officers face carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
The charges brought against the former officers on Thursday came as the Southern Regional Jail has faced scrutiny in a class-action lawsuit that claims inmates at the facility had been subjected to “inhumane” and “deplorable” treatment and conditions. That lawsuit is in the process of being settled, according to federal court documents.
An initial autopsy on Mr. Burks, performed by the state, concluded that he had died of a heart attack, but members of his family later had questions about his death when they saw his bruised and beaten body, according to Mr. Harman. The family paid for a private autopsy, which concluded that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, neck, torso and extremities, as well as cardiovascular disease, Mr. Harman said.
It is unclear whether the state has revised its initial autopsy. The West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office did not immediately respond to a phone call on Thursday.
“They beat this poor guy to death,” Mr. Harman said, adding that the charges were “an important step in finding out what really happened to Quantez and who’s responsible for it.”
Mark Sorsaia, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement on Thursday that his office, the governor’s office and the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation had alerted the federal authorities to the death of Mr. Burks and had assisted in the investigation.
“We have no tolerance for abuse of any kind to be inflicted on inmates that are housed in our state facilities,” he said.
Mr. Harman said he was “imploring” Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia to unseal all records and recordings related to Mr. Burks’s death.