COLUMBIA, S.C. - A former jail officer has filed a federal lawsuit against York County officials over an alleged cover-up of an inmate's death, saying his free speech rights were violated after he voiced concerns about the situation.
The lawsuit, first reported by The Herald of Rock Hill, was filed last month. In it, former jail officer Michael Billioni says the sheriff's department broke a South Carolina whistleblower law meant to protect employees from retaliation from their employer when they speak up about wrongdoing.
Billioni was fired in late October, days after the death of Joshua Grose. The 34-year-old inmate was pronounced dead about 3 a.m. Oct. 20 at a hospital after repeatedly hurting himself in jail. Authorities have said guards called paramedics after finding Grose unresponsive.
Grose had been booked several days earlier on charges of murder, attempted murder and grand larceny. Authorities said he ran over 53-year-old Sandra Thomas while trying to steal her car, then beat up and ran over his mother, 65-year-old Sandra Grose.
From his arrival at jail, authorities have said Grose was combative and uncooperative. Before his death, guards stopped Grose from drowning himself in his cell toilet and put him in a restraining chair after he repeatedly hit his head against the wall. When officers tried to put a helmet on Grose, they noticed a cut on the back of his head.
Paramedics were called but said the cut didn't require stitches, so Grose wasn't taken to a hospital. Because he was so combative, a full medical exam couldn't be performed, officials said.
But Grose was in cardiac arrest when paramedics were called back about a half-hour later, authorities said. An autopsy later showed he died from head injuries.
According to the suit, Billioni wasn't working when Grose died but, when he returned, watched a video in which he said he saw an officer striking Grose while in the restraint chair. Disturbed by what he saw, and feeling that officers had overstepped their bounds in striking Grose, Billioni went home and discussed the situation with his wife, who does research at a local television station.
Billioni's wife emailed station officials suggesting they investigate Grose's death. A reporter submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the video, and, according to the lawsuit, Billioni was shortly placed under investigation for "leaking information."
That week, Billioni was interviewed by and gave a written statement about his concerns to State Law Enforcement Division agents, who told him he had "broken no rules or laws by speaking with his spouse and by writing the report" about the case. Later that day, Billioni was fired.
"The Plaintiff was acting as a citizen to expose alleged official malfeasance to broader scrutiny," Billioni argues in the lawsuit. "By not enforcing rules prohibiting assaults on inmates and rules regarding proper use of the restraint chair, the York County Defendants effectively had a policy that allowed assaults and injury to inmates."
A sheriff's department attorney didn't immediately return a message seeking comment on the lawsuit, and the agency hasn't responded in court filings of its own.
Several weeks after Grose's death, Sheriff Bruce Bryant said an internal investigation showed that jail officers had followed department procedures. In June, prosecutors said no charges would be filed against York County jail personnel related to Grose's death.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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