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Sheriff and Guards Indicted: Sex, Misconduct and Contraband Scandal at Texas Jail

by Matt Clarke

On February 27, 2009, a grand jury in Montague County, Texas returned a 106-count indictment against former Sheriff Bill Keating and ten jail guards, four prisoners and two other people in connection with drug-related offenses, contraband smuggling and sexual misconduct at the Montague County Jail.

Keating, 62, a former police officer, also was indicted on a federal charge for coercing a woman into having sex with him. He reportedly told her she wouldn’t be arrested after being found with drug paraphernalia if she would “assist” him sexually. Keating pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation in that case on January 29, 2009, before the state indictments came down. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.1].

One of the first official acts taken by incoming Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham after being sworn into office on January 1, 2009 was to close the jail and send its prisoners to a facility in neighboring Wise County, citing unsafe conditions.

Under Keating’s tenure, prisoners had recliners and big-screen TVs in their cells and used drugs or smoked contraband cigarettes openly while chatting on smuggled cell phones.
Several surveillance cameras and two of the cell doors had been disabled, and prisoners were armed with shanks made from nails. One Associated Press reporter described the jail as “‘Animal House’ meets Mayberry.”

It took $1 million to repair the damage to the facility, which included painting over graffiti and replacing windows too scratched to see through – and that expense did not include the cost of relocating prisoners to Wise County. The prisoners were returned to the Montague County Jail on March 13, 2009 after the refurbished facility passed an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The conditions in the Montague County Jail first came to light in August 2008 after Luke C. Bolton, a former prisoner, was arrested and charged with kidnapping and raping his girlfriend, Darlene Walker, a Montague County jail guard. Bolton sent a letter to the Texas Rangers about misconduct at the facility, such as sexual encounters between women prisoners and jail staff, including Keating. He also discussed incidents in which Keating allegedly asked him to assault other prisoners, to teach them a lesson.

“It was a hit, in other words,” Bolton said of one such incident. “He said, ‘If you handle this, it’s two packs of cigarettes.’ ... I whipped [the other prisoner] down and stomped on his head.” Bolton also claimed that a drug ring operating at the jail included both prisoners and guards, and that Keating was getting a 10 percent cut.

“If you look at [Keating’s] victims, they’re all the same: prostitutes, drug users,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Calvert. “They were not people who were going to be believed. It’s certainly not far-fetched that these women would not come forward. If [Bolton’s] letter had not been written, very likely none of it would have been known.”

The FBI began an investigation, interviewing jail staff and prisoners. One female prisoner said she had a sexual encounter with Keating while they were parked in the woods, and that he had used a blue rag to clean himself and then thrown it out the window of his vehicle. “I instructed the FBI to search those woods, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t find that rag,” said Calvert. “It tested positive for semen. That’s when we knew it was happening, that these stories weren’t just being made up.”

While the federal investigation was ongoing, Keating lost his bid for re-election after serving a four-year term in office. He did not, however, end up serving any prison time despite his guilty plea. Keating was expected to receive up to ten years in federal prison at his sentencing hearing, which was scheduled in June. But on April 30, 2009 he had a fatal heart attack while working outside his home [See: PLN, July 2009, p.51].

State criminal charges filed against several of the 16 other Montague County defendants, including jail guards and prisoners, are still pending. In April 2009, former jailer Shawna Herr pleaded guilty to four counts of improper sexual activity and one count of providing a prohibited substance. She was placed on probation for five years and ordered to pay a $4,000 fine. Bolton, who alerted authorities to misconduct at the jail, and his girlfriend, former jail guard Darlene Walker, also face charges.

Sources: Dallas Morning News, Associated Press, Wise County Messenger

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