Deputy jailers charged with manslaughter in death of inmate

August 6, 2013

HAZARD—Two Perry County deputy jailers were indicted last week on charges of first-degree manslaughter relating to the death of an inmate at the Kentucky River Regional Jail last month.

Damon W. Hickman, of Hazard, and William C. Howell, 56, of Estill, were both indicted on one count each of first-degree manslaughter, a Class B felony punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Commonwealth’s Attorney John Hansen confirmed the indictments on Friday, saying the grand jury will continue to look into the matter.

“We’re not done yet,” Hensen said. “They (the grand jury) heard enough to feel they could indict with manslaughter.”

Hickman and Howell were placed on administrative leave on July 9 after being involved in an altercation with 54-year-old Larry Trent of Upper Second Creek, who was an inmate in the jail at the time, according to a report filed with the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

The altercation happened at around 7:30 a.m., according to the extraordinary occurrence report (EOR) filed three days after the incident by jail administrator Tim Kilburn. Trent was found unresponsive three to four hours later in his cell and pronounced dead at Hazard ARH at 12:20 p.m. that day.

Kilburn recorded the type of extraordinary occurrence in the report as aggravated assault on staff and the homicide of an inmate. Kilburn did not return calls seeking comment, but declined comment for the Hazard Herald’s initial story on this case on the advice of the jail’s attorney and insurance company.

The report, which the Hazard Herald obtained through an open records request with the DOC, lists the names of the witnesses to the occurrence as “several.”

In a short narrative included in the EOR, Howell described the details of the incident, citing the cause of the altercation as Trent having “items he was not allowed” in his cell, and when deputies tried to take those items from Trent, he allegedly initiated the altercation.

“Myself and Deputy Hickman opened the door to get the items. He (Trent) came out fighting. I tased him. He didn’t stop,” Howell wrote.

Howell wrote that Trent ran to the booking desk, at which point at least two other deputy jailers came to assist Hickman and Howell.

“We got him (Trent) to detox. He then took the Taser from my hand; we kept it under him till (sic) we could get it back and got him under control (and he) was placed in the cell,” Howell wrote.

One deputy jailer was apparently reprimanded after the alteration, according to the report. James C. Combs was sent home by Howell, his supervisor, and told to call the jail administrator because he allegedly would not help other deputies restrain Trent.

According to an employee warning report filed on the day of the incident, Combs is listed as being careless, violating the rules, and having unsatisfactory behavior. Howell wrote on the report that Combs “would not help in a fight (and) stood and watched, then walked off.”

Combs declined to sign the report before it was filed.

An observational log was included in the EOR for the hours between the altercation and Trent being found unresponsive. Hickman wrote that he checked on Trent every 20-30 minutes beginning at 7:40 a.m., and initialed each entry. He reported the “inmate seemed 10-4 at this time” until 9:38 a.m., at which time he recorded Trent was moving around the cell. A log for 10:36 a.m. gives no observation but is still initialed.

A preliminary report from the state medical examiner’s office on July 10 notes Trent had sustained injuries as the result of a “jail beating” which included “blunt impacts of head, trunk, and extremities with multiple skeletal and visceral injuries.” Officials with the Perry County Coroner’s Office said an official cause of death has yet to be determined and it could be several months before the medical examiner’s office is able to conclude.

Trent was being held for a DUI charge from July 5 and a bench warrant for charges from 2012. At his arraignment on July 8, the judge had set a $1,000 surety bond for Trent.

A $75,000 cash bond has been set in the case for both Hickman and Howell, who, as of press time, had not been arrested. Their arraignments are set for Sept. 12.