From the archives: Investigations launched into Ferguson beating
This story was originally published in Newsday on March 24, 1994.
A leaking roof at the Nassau County jail this week led officials to move accused LIRR gunman Colin Ferguson from a small tier to a larger, much less restrictive one where four inmates beat him Tuesday as he was returning to his cell, jail officials said yesterday.
Ferguson, who has been in protective custody since his arrest, was moved from a ward with only four other protective custody inmates - including alleged serial killer Joel Rifkin - to a tier with 22 other inmates, said Nassau Sheriff Joseph Jablonsky. Twenty of those inmates were only under mental observation, which meant they were allowed to congregate in a common area and not locked in their cells for most of the day like protective custody inmates.
"You would presume and would hope that with an officer right there, the inmates wouldn't do anything," Jablonsky said. But as Ferguson was making a telephone call in the common area Tuesday, he was beaten by four inmates and suffered a broken nose, black eye and facial cuts.
"The question is why was he moved to the unit in which he was placed," said Ronald L. Kuby, one of Ferguson's attorneys. "My suspicion is that he was being set up for something."
State and local investigations have been launched into the beating and allegations that guards were aware of the attack and watched as he was beaten. Ferguson was treated at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow Tuesday. Yesterday Ferguson was placed in a room adjacent to a jail lobby where guards are stationed, isolated from other prisoners at the jail.
No arrests have been made in the attack. A law enforcement source confirmed investigators have the names of the four inmates - three whites and one Hispanic - who allegedly were involved, but declined to identify them.
Ferguson's other attorney, William Kunstler, has said the attack was racially motivated and yesterday asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Ferguson's civil rights have been violated. Kunstler also formally requested the judge presiding over the case to move Ferguson to a federal detention center in Manhattan.
A key question in the investigations is why a high-profile defendant such as Ferguson was so accessible to other inmates who wanted to hurt him.
Under jail regulations and policy, an inmate in protective custody is confined to his cell as long as 22 hours a day, Jablonsky said. In the tier where Ferguson was transferred, the inmates not in protective custody are allowed to mingle in a long corridor that contains tables and a television. The corridor is bordered by cells on one side and a wall of bars on the other. Inmates are watched 24 hours a day by a corrections officer who walks the area adjacent to the bars.
"Protective custody means that I have to watch him," Jablonsky said. "It does not mean that I have to isolate him from everybody in the jail."
Ferguson was returning from the infirmary Tuesday when he was let into the tier, Jablonsky said. Ferguson made a call from the phone at the other end of the 100-foot-long corridor and was attacked as he headed back to his cell at 2 p.m.
The corrections officer walking the parallel corridor was at the other end of the tier when he heard the commotion, Jablonsky said. It took the officer about 30 seconds to go through the two locked doors separating the corridors and get to Ferguson, said Jablonsky.
"We don't have any indication at this point that there was any impropriety on the part of the staff," said Lt. Robert Anderson, a sheriff's office spokesman. Jablonsky said Ferguson had complained that he had no opportunity to talk to other imates or watch TV when he was in the smaller ward.
Kunstler alleged Tuesday that Jablonsky's office was informed of threats and harassment against Ferguson several hours before the attack. Kunstler wrote the U.S. Justice Department seeking an inquiry into whether Ferguson's civil rights were violated.
Kunstler sent another letter yesterday to Nassau County Judge Donald Belfi to request his client be transferred . Ferguson, 36, is charged with killing six people and wounding 19 others on the Long Island Rail Road on Dec. 7. Belfi would not comment.
Kunstler said jail officials were forewarned of the attack on Ferguson. He said he faxed a letter to jail and other authorities after Ferguson called him about 9:45 a.m. Tuesday and told him inmates were threatening and harassing him. An unidentified inmate called Kunstler twice Tuesday morning warning about the danger Ferguson faced. Kunstler said rather than make telephone calls, which he said tend to be forgotten, he faxed a second warning to authorities at 1 p.m. Kuby said the fax was appropriate because jail officials were aware of the danger.
Jablonsky, who has questioned why Kunstler would not have called if he thought Ferguson was in danger, said his office received the second fax at 1:2l p.m. Sgt. John Covais of the jail's internal affairs bureau then called Kunstler's office, but no one was available. Covais called about 1:40 p.m. to locate Ferguson and was told he was at the infirmary on a sick call. At that point, Covais headed to the tier to speak to Ferguson, but did not arrive before the attack, Jablonsky said.
A Hazardous Stay?
Some alleged attacks on inmates in recent years at the Nassau County Jail:
October, 1986: Joseph Porto of Bayville appeared in court with head wounds he said were inflicted by seven inmates at the jail. Porto was charged with, and later convicted of, criminally negligent homicide in the strangulation of his girlfriend Kathleen Holland, the 17-year-old daughter of a Nassau County detective sergeant.
May, 1990: More than 40 inmates attacked Willie Bright, of South Jamaica, Queens, and Vincent Marshall, of Hempstead, who were charged with kidnaping and raping a Roosevelt Field sales clerk. Marshall suffered severe head and neck injuries.
November, 1991: Steven Cozzolino, an Elmont man charged with first-degree manslaughter in the death of his 2 1/2-month-old son Vincent, was placed in protective custody. His attorney alleged that Cozzolino was punched in the face by another inmate.
October, 1993: Fortino Franco Perez, a Hempstead man accused along with his wife of burying a newborn baby alive in their backyard, appeared in a Mineola courtroom with two blackened and bloody eyes and cuts and bruises on his swollen face. His attorney said Perez was beaten by inmates at the jail the previous day - with at least one guard watching - and in a holding cell prior to that day's court appearance.