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Jail closet rape claim costs MDC $680,000

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Bernalillo County has settled for a reported $680,000 in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a woman inmate who was allegedly raped by then-Metropolitan Detention Center guard Andres Verdugo in June 2014, the Journal has learned.

It is yet another case of alleged rape and sexual abuse of women inmates by corrections staff at the massive lockup.

In her lawsuit, the woman claims Verdugo took her into a closet and raped her, harassed and spied on female inmates, and threatened them with death if they told anyone.

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At the time of the alleged assault, the woman was in jail awaiting release into a treatment program.

VERDUGO: Also faces criminal charges

VERDUGO: Also faces criminal charges

Court documents reflect the case settled earlier this month, although they do not include the dollar amount and final filings aren’t due until July. The Journal has learned, however, that the amount to be paid is $680,000.

Criminal charges based on the same incident are pending against Verdugo, whose next court date is in October.

Verdugo resigned two months after the incident, according to MDC spokeswoman Nataura Powdrell. He was arrested June 19, 2014, in the midst of an internal investigation by MDC and a separate criminal investigation by law enforcement, she said.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this year by attorneys Laura Schauer Ives and Jennifer Wernersbach, said allegations of sexual misconduct by staff and inmates at MDC have been common for years – to the extent that a 2008 Department of Justice report found it had the third-highest rate of inmate sexual victimization and staff-on-inmate sexual victimization in the nation.

Ives said Thursday in a statement that she could not discuss terms of settlement.

But she said Verdugo – a longtime MDC employee – had used his position to harass, intimidate and sexualize female inmates, including demands for them to sexually perform for him and threats to kill them if they reported his conduct.

Persistent problems

“This assault did not happen in a void,” Ives said. “MDC’s incidence of sexual assault is, even on a national scale, noteworthy. Still, Verdugo was permitted unfettered, unsupervised access to a female pod.

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“We hope that Verdugo is punished for his crimes and a message is sent to corrections officers that the victimization of a particularly vulnerable population is disgusting and intolerable,” she said.

Neither attorneys for Verdugo nor Tom Swisstack, deputy county manager for public safety and the jail’s former acting director, responded to a request for comment.

An MDC spokeswoman has previously said the county has changed its hiring process and added psychological evaluations for corrections officer applicants.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmate Rebecca Baca, noted that another case highlights persistent MDC problems.

In that case, three women alleged in civil lawsuits against Sgt. Torry Chambers that they had been raped by him and MDC settled the women’s claims for almost $1 million in July 2012.

Last year, Chambers was charged with multiple counts of rape. He is still employed by MDC.

The County Attorney’s Office has said that, because of the initial handling of the case, he cannot be fired unless he is convicted of the criminal charges.

Two other jail employees were arrested this year on charges of raping female inmates.

Enock Arvizo, 31, is accused of raping an inmate in an elevator at the 2nd Judicial District Courthouse after escorting her from a sentencing hearing in April.

And this week, Jeremy Bowman was arrested and charged with 10 counts of rape after he admitted he has been involved with a number of female inmates.

By law, guards can’t have sex with inmates, regardless of whether it is consensual.

’56 women at my disposal’

According to Baca’s lawsuit, she was arrested on a probation violation on Dec. 17, 2013, and taken to MDC. District Judge Angela Jewell, who handles probation violations as a pro tem judge, sentenced Baca to reinstatement of her probation two months later on the condition that she remain in custody until she was accepted into a treatment program.

Baca was still waiting on a program in June when Verdugo, a seven-year corrections officer who supervised inmates in their housing units, became the sole officer assigned to a pod at any given time.

In early June, Verdugo began covering overtime shifts on one of the all-female pods, including Baca’s unit. The lawsuit says that, on the first night in the pod, he gathered the women in the pod and reportedly said, “I’ve got 56 women at my disposal, tell me, why is the word (expletive) so offensive?”

He told Baca she should wear tight uniforms so he could see her nipples, watched inmates shower and regularly stood inside the doors of cells to watch while they showered or used the toilet, the complaint says.

When another officer relieved Verdugo on the first night, an inmate reported Verdugo’s actions to the relief officer.

The next night, Verdugo took Baca to a library closet, away from security cameras, and forcibly had sex with her, according to the lawsuit.

Inmates, including Baca, were afraid of the officer and his position, especially when, a few days later, he gathered up inmates from their cells and told them he knew some had complained about him.

He allegedly threatened to “take them out to the mesa and burn them in a car” if they messed with his paycheck or his family, according to the lawsuit.

Baca, her cellmate and another female inmate reported Verdugo’s threats and behavior to two female corrections officers on June 12, 2014, and Verdugo was placed on administrative leave.

He was subsequently charged with second-degree criminal sexual penetration, to which he has entered a not guilty plea.

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