News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 10, 2014

UPDATE: Putnam deputy indicted

Feds allege sheriff's deputy, city councilman violated civil rights of 4 people in custody

TERRE HAUTE — A Putnam County Sheriff’s deputy who also serves as a Greencastle city councilman has been indicted by a federal grand jury on allegations of deprivation of civil rights in his police duties, and he has been placed on administrative leave as a deputy.

Terry Joe “TJ” Smith, 37, appeared in federal court in Terre Haute on Monday where Magistrate Craig McKee ordered that Smith remain in police custody pending a detention hearing to be conducted Thursday.

Smith appeared in court wearing street clothes, but wore handcuffs and leg shackles as he was led into and out of the federal courtroom by U.S. marshals.

He was arrested at 7:30 a.m. Monday at his Greencastle residence as the culmination of a four-month investigation after a citizen tip alleged that Smith had injured four people in police custody on separate occasions while he worked as a sheriff’s deputy.

If convicted, Smith could be sentenced to up to 10 years in federal prison on each of four counts. He could also be fined up to $250,000 on each count, and be on federal supervision for up to three years following release from prison.

Smith was being held in the Vigo County Jail.

In a news conference after Smith’s appearance in court Monday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Blackington said he requested Smith’s detention in the interest of public safety.

“Smith was not restricted in any way by the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department a month ago, and they took no authority to suspend him or place him on desk duty, and so he still remained able to carry a gun and was a danger to society,” Blackington said. “So we felt it best to ask for his detention.”

According to the grand jury indictment:

• On Nov. 6, 2011, near a downtown bar in Greencastle, Smith is alleged to have used a taser on a person other police officers had secured.

• On Sept. 7, 2012, near West Stardust Road in Cloverdale, Smith is alleged to have punched a person in the face after other officers had secured the suspect, resulting in injury to the suspect.

• On June 26, 2013, in the Lazy Acres trailer park southeast of Greencastle, Smith is alleged to have thrown a person to the ground while the person was handcuffed, and then to have driven a knee into the individual’s back while the person remained handcuffed and prone on the ground, injuring the person.

• On Dec. 28, 3013, at the Cloverdale Truck Stop in Cloverdale, Smith is alleged to have thrown a woman to the floor inside the truck stop and applied pressure to her such that she had difficulty breathing. He then reportedly took the woman outside of the truck stop and, after placing her facedown onto rocks in below freezing temperatures without proper clothing, held her down on the rocks with his body for an extended period of time, resulting in injury to her.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Hogsett said that the sheriff’s department was aware that Smith was being investigated by the FBI on four instances of federal civil rights violations that occurred at four locations in Putnam County.

Hogsett said that law enforcement officials are subject to criminal prosecution whenever evidence exists that they knowingly abused their authority and deprived individuals of their constitutional rights to be free of unreasonable force. Such acts of alleged misconduct are known as acts committed under “color of law.”

Putnam County Sheriff Steve Fenwick told the Tribune-Star on Monday afternoon that he had not spoken to federal investigators about Smith or the allegations of unreasonable force before Smith’s arrest.

“They never spoke to me,” Fenwick said. “They requested some records, which we provided. It’s not like I can suspend someone without knowing he’s under investigation. We heard that an investigation was going on, but they didn’t give us anything to act on.”

He also noted that because his is a small sheriff’s department, there is no assignment of “desk duty” for any deputies.

After consulting with the county attorney, Fenwick said, the sheriff’s merit board will be asked to place Smith on administrative leave while the case is active.

Smith’s status as a city council member was unclear Monday afternoon. A request for information about his status was made to the Greencastle city attorney. Smith is a two-term councilman, serving the city’s Fourth Ward.

FBI Special Agent Robert A. Jones stated that color of law violations are egregious because they erode the community’s trust.

“The vast majority of police officers are well-trained, professional and exceedingly careful with the use of force,” Jones said. “Those few that violate their oath to protect and serve will be held accountable.”

Smith began his employment with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department several years ago as a jailer, and he has been employed as a merit deputy for almost four years.

Hogsett said that whistleblowers play a significant role in prosecutions of public corruption, and he praised the FBI’s investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s Public Integrity Working Group, which was launched in April 2012 to investigate allegations of public fraud, waste and abuse by public officials in Indiana.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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