New York, NY - March 25, 2014 - Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director in Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced today the arrest of Terrence Pendergrass, a correction officer and former captain, for deliberately ignoring the urgent medical needs of a Rikers Island inmate who had ingested a corrosive disinfectant and later died, in violation of the inmate’s rights under the United States Constitution. Pendergrass was taken into custody this morning and is expected to be presented this afternoon in Manhattan federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Jason Echevarria should not have died. As alleged, Terrence Pendergrass abused his power as a Rikers Island captain in charge of a vulnerable population of inmates with mental health issues by denying Echevarria access to medical care despite his obvious and urgent medical need for it. The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including prison inmates at Rikers. The kind of conduct alleged today cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system.”
FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos said: “The public’s trust in law enforcement officers to enforce the law and ensure justice should never be abused. Sadly, as alleged, Mr. Pendergrass took his authority as a supervisory correction officer to the extreme and violated the rights of an inmate in his charge to the point that it resulted in death. The FBI is the lead federal agency to investigate such abuses of power and it remains one of our top priorities.”
According to the allegations contained in the complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:
Rikers Island is a jail complex, located in the Bronx, New York, maintained by the New York City Department of Correction. At the time of his death, Jason Echevarria was an inmate incarcerated on Rikers Island in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates, a unit housing inmates who have committed infractions while incarcerated and who have been identified as needing mental health treatment.
On the afternoon of August 18, 2012, Echevarria swallowed a powerful disinfectant/detergent combination in powder form, commonly referred to as a “soap ball,” sometimes provided to inmates to assist in the cleaning and disinfecting of cells. Echevarria had been given the soap ball by a new correction officer for the purpose of cleaning Echevarria’s cell following a sewage backup. The soap ball contained, among other things, ammonium chloride, a corrosive chemical that is life threatening if ingested.
After Echevarria swallowed the soap ball, other inmates heard Echevarria banging on his cell door and asking for medical help. Echevarria also told a correction officer that he had swallowed a soap ball and needed medical attention. That correction officer in turn informed Pendergrass, the captain—a supervisory correction officer—on duty at that time. Pendergrass responded that the correction officer should only call on Pendergrassif he needed help with the extraction of an inmate from a cell or if there was a dead body. A short time later, the same correction officer told Pendergrass that he saw vomit in Echevarria’s cell, and Pendergrass responded that Echevarria should “hold it.”
Later the same day, a pharmacy technician assigned to distribute inmate medication saw that there was vomit in Echevarria’s cell, and that Echevarria’s skin appeared discolored. The pharmacy technician learned from a second correction officer, who was serving as an escort, that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball, and Echevarria told both the pharmacy technician and the second correction officer that he needed medical help. The pharmacy technician informed the second correction officer that Echevarria could die if he did not receive medical attention. The second correction officer then informed Pendergrass that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball and needed medical help. Notwithstanding this report, Pendergrass failed to contact any medical personnel about Echevarria’s condition. In fact, Pendergrass told the second correction officer that perhaps the officer had simply misheard Echevarria’s request for medical help, which the second correction officer responded was not the case.
The next morning, Echevarria was found dead in his cell. An autopsy revealed that Echevarria died as a result of injuries caused by the ingestion of a caustic substance, consistent with the ingestion of a soap ball. Echevarria had internal burns and scarring along his esophagus and into his trachea, indicating that he suffered aspiration of vomit into his lungs. At no point prior to his death was Echevarria provided with any medical assistance to treat his ingestion of the substances contained in the soap ball.
Pendergrass, 49, of Howard Beach, New York, is charged with one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The maximum potential sentence in this case is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of the FBI. Mr. Bharara also thanked the New York City Department of Correction, Investigation Division, and the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office for their assistance in the ongoing investigation.
The case is being handled jointly by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit and Public Corruption Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lara K. Eshkenazi and Daniel C. Richenthal are in charge of the prosecution.
The charge contained in the complaint is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.