Deaths and Beatings in the County Jail: Tattooed Gang Roves Hallways

Two deaths and one savage beating this July have placed the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) under intense public scrutiny.

John Beckel, former co-owner of posh Montage restaurant, died of a head injury in a Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) holding cell following a struggle in which he was forcibly restrained by a detention officer. The Oregon Medical Examiner ruled Beckel's death was a result of a fall which took place on the street prior to his arrest, but many suspect that his death was caused either by the actions of the deputy, or the failure of MCDC staff to provide him with timely medical attention.

Shortly after Beckel's death, James Luoto died of a ruptured spleen in MCDC custody. Luoto had been arrested for drunk driving after slamming his car into a concrete pole, an incident described by medical officials as a "low impact accident" (Oregonian, August 27). Doctors who treated Luoto discovered bruises covering his body which were "inconsistent" with the nature of that accident (Willamette Week, August 23). Later, the Oregon Medical Examiner ruled Luoto died as the result of "use of force." But it didn't end there.

Within a few weeks of Luoto's death, Dennis L. Poe was savagely beaten by two or more Multnomah County officers. The beatings occurred when Poe, brought in on a domestic dispute, refused to comply with fingerprinting. The Willamette Week reports that* Poe was struck by Deputy Rodger Cross; then he was beaten by Sgt. Jeffery Ristvet and taken to the jail's shower for more abuse. After he was brought to isolation and strapped on a restraining board, he was beaten by an unidentified officer. Deputies Cross and Ristvet, along with James Borja and John Montoya were present during the incident. Cross was formerly in charge of training new hires in "proper use of force."

Shedding interesting light on the already disturbing story, a tattoo artist reported that Deputy Michael Foster had brought Borja and Montoya to be decorated by a tatoo with the emblem "Brotherhood of the Strong" just hours after Poe's beating. Foster, who came to Oregon bearing the same tattoo, appears to have been part of a group of rogue deputies in Hawaii.

Following public uproar, the FBI launched a Civil Rights investigation of the Multnomah County Detention Center. Montoya and Borja were placed on paid leave in July pending an internal investigation; Cross was placed on leave in August. Foster was fired for lying about his employment history. Video cameras have since been installed in MCDC's booking area. In addition, Ristvet has been demoted from Sergeant to Deputy and was charged with fourth degree assault, harassment, and first degree official misconduct. Ristvet's indictment marks the first time a corrections officer at MCDC has been charged with excessive force (Oregonian, August 26).

Unexplained deaths and violent beatings are by no account a new phenomenon in MCDC. Just three years ago, Reginald Gafford, a mentally ill man, was killed by Multnomah County Sheriffs (see PPR #13). His mother, Bonnie Flowers, was recently awarded $200,000 in a settlement against the Sheriff's Office, with written "regrets" (not technically an apology) pending at PPR deadline. In 1993, teenager Anthony Lacastro was beaten into unconciousness by Sheriff's Deputies after requesting clean sheets. Just last year, 189 complaints of excessive use of force were filed against the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office about the booking area alone. Only one of them was investigated (Oregonian, August 27).

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's IAD is currently investigating two additional use of force complaints and one complaint of improper sexual contact. No avenue of recourse for dissatisfied complainants exists. The jail and Sheriff's Office are not overseen--nor their procedures reviewed--by any external body.

To let the Sheriff know about your concerns, call him at 503-988-4400.

*note: the original version of this article stated that Willamette Week reported Poe was handcuffed when Deputy Cross hit him. That was not accurate. The People's Police Report apologizes for any confusion. (words "while handcuffed" removed 4/9/08)

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