Enquirer Herald

York Sheriff: 2 employees receive reprimands after inmate release

Two employees of the York County Sheriff’s Office received written reprimands following an investigation into a convicted murderer’s accidental release from the York County Jail.

The disciplinary actions--along with the creation of several new policies to prevent similar incidents--followed the sheriff’s month-long probe into the mistaken release of convicted murderer Thomas Aaron Whitlock from the York County Detention Center.

Whitlock was brought to York County from North Carolina on Feb. 8 for a hearing on a drug charge. On Feb. 27, he was sentenced for that drug charge to time already served in York County’s jail. He was then accidentally released by detention center officers, who did not know he was supposed to return to North Carolina to finish his sentence of up to 14 years for shooting and killing a Charlotte man. After a four-day manhunt, authorities captured Whitlock at his girlfriend's house near Dallas, TX, where he went to see his child.

The Herald obtained the reprimands and other documents from the sheriff’s office’s investigation under South Carolina’s open records law. The documents include emails detailing changes the sheriff’s office immediately put into action after the error.

The investigation revealed a series of missed opportunities to identify Whitlock as a North Carolina inmate, poor communication, and a lack of specific procedures--written or verbal--for handling prisoners from other agencies who are brought to York County to resolve charges.

The York County agencies that collaborate to bring an inmate to York County all moved to employ new policies designed to avoid the error. The agencies include the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, the sheriff’s department and the detention center.

Initially, York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant had planned to issue written reprimands to all employees involved in bringing Whitlock to the York County Jail, according to Kristie Jordan, attorney for the York County Sheriff’s Office.

But Bryant reconsidered based on the investigation’s findings that there were no clear written or verbal policies related to the transport of inmates, Jordan said. Without the clear policies, employees could not have knowingly violated them, Jordan said.

Bryant instead met with the remaining employees involved in Whitlock’s transport to “talk through what had happened and draw it to a conclusion with them,” Jordan said, adding that he did emphasize that everyone could do better.

Disciplinary actions

Bryant issued one reprimand to Captain Allen Brandon.

Brandon, who oversees inmate transports, “failed to communicate transport instructions that were sufficiently detailed to avert” Whitlock’s release, Bryant wrote on the April 10 disciplinary form.

Brandon, who Jordan said has always been a “good captain,” joined the sheriff’s office in 1985 and has never been disciplined, records show.

The solicitor’s office, which handles all legal paperwork for an inmate’s transport to York County and back again, informed Brandon that Whitlock was a North Carolina inmate and a convicted murderer who needed to be returned to North Carolina after his York County charges were resolved.

But that information wasn’t clearly communicated to the several employees who were involved with Whitlock’s transport after Brandon, according to the investigation report.

Interviews conducted during the investigation show that the deputies who transported Whitlock had questions about the transport process, specifically what, if any, documentation they needed to bring back.

One deputy said he asked North Carolina officials twice if there was any official documentation for him to take back. He also asked for Whitlock’s inmate I.D., which North Carolina officials refused to give him.

The investigation revealed that the deputies received two documents from N.C. authorities that amounted to print-outs from the prison computer system that had information about Whitlock’s status there.

Worried about building up overtime after a long day traveling to Windsor, N.C., and back, the deputies called a sheriff’s office sergeant and asked if another deputy could meet them at a sheriff’s station in the Fort Mill area to complete the transport to the York County Detention Center. They handed Whitlock off to the deputy, who took him to the jail along with the papers.

When interviewed, the deputy who completed the transport recalled some discussion that Whitlock had a murder charge, but couldn’t recall whether other details were communicated. The deputy also said he didn’t read the papers but passed them to another deputy when he arrived at the jail.

While documents delivered by the deputies contained clues that Whitlock was currently serving a sentence in North Carolina, that information wasn’t clearly communicated. And the deputies had no directive to interpret the documents or pass on that information, Jordan said.

New procedures establish standard documents that will be used to identify inmates coming from other jurisdictions as well as clearer procedures for transporting and booking those inmates.

The other reprimand went to Deputy Grady Gonzales, one of two transport deputies who brought Whitlock back to York County.

Gonzales has been employed with the sheriff’s office since 2008 and has only received one other reprimand, in 2010, records show. The discipline was for driving too fast, Jordan said.

While traveling back to York County, Gonzales allowed Whitlock to make a phone call using Gonzales’ county phone--a violation of policy, but not one that had anything to do with Whitlock’s accidental release, according to a comment the deputy’s supervisor wrote on the disciplinary form.