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$10 Million Settlement in Suit Over Oklahoma Sheriff’s Sex Abuse Scandal

by David M. Reutter

Members of the public typically have little concern over what happens in the jails and prisons in their communities. Taxpayers in Custer County, Oklahoma, however, are now very concerned following a $10 million settlement in a lawsuit involving female prisoners who were subjected to rampant sexual abuse.

A federal suit filed on behalf of 14 female prisoners at the Custer County Jail (CCJ) charged that former Sheriff Mike Burgess operated a sex-slave ring that consisted of Burgess using prisoners or people under the supervision of a drug court to commit sex acts for his own gratification.

In order to obtain medicine, cigarettes, ice, telephone privileges, toilet paper, personal hygiene items (including sanitary napkins), additional quantities of food and other items, female prisoners were reportedly required to bare their breasts – not they had much clothing on to begin with. Rather than being provided with standard jumpsuits, female prisoners at the CCJ were forced to wear men’s boxer shorts and tight T-shirts without a bra.

Burgess and other guards pinched the women’s breasts and buttocks with impunity, groped them, constantly subjected them to sexual harassment and sexually degrading comments, stared at them as they showered and held “wet T-shirt” contests.

Custer County operates a drug court that provides participants with special treatment. If they fail to meet the conditions of the program, however, they can be sent to prison. As a member of the drug court team, Burgess used his authority to force sexual favors from women involved in the program.

Brenda Brown, 44, was in transit to the CCJ on January 3, 2007, when Burgess pulled his truck off the highway near a roadside barn. He threatened to send her to prison for violating drug court rules if she did not “sodomize him.” She told a criminal jury that he forced her to perform oral sex.

On more than 30 occasions, Burgess “committed rape, sodomy, sexual battery, and blackmail” against prisoner Joy Mason. As with Brown, he threatened to send her to prison if she did not consent to his sexual demands. On two occasions he demanded that she violate her drug court terms by going to Oklahoma City to meet him at a hotel to have sex. One of those incidents occurred when Mason and other drug court participants were in Oklahoma City to give presentations to legislators about the program.

Prisoner Kimberly Smith was made a jail trusty after Burgess required her to perform oral sex on him twice in November and December 2006. When she refused a third time, he revoked her trusty status and hired another prisoner who consented to his sexual demands.

The lawsuit detailed the actions of several other CCJ employees who used their authority to force female prisoners to expose their breasts and participate in wet T-shirt contests, and groped them or coerced them into providing sexual favors. It also described incidents when women were stripped naked and placed in cold isolation cells while guards and male trusties took turns ogling them.

The 14 plaintiffs will share the $10 million settlement, reached in May 2010, as follows: Brenda Brown and Joy Mason each will receive $3.85 million; Melissa Espinosa, $2 million; Lauren McGowen, $100,000; Kimberly Smith, $50,000; Kerri Jennings, $26,000; Teresa Chagolla, Jennifer Slinkey and Tammy Baca, $20,000 each; Ivette Figueroa and Suzanne Elliot, $17,000 each; and Dana Estrada, Regina Oldbear and Kimberly Summers, $10,000 each. The law firms representing the women, Seymour & Graham LLP and the Garrett Law Firm, will receive half of the settlement payments in attorney fees and costs.

The settlement is to be paid by Custer County in three annual installments. The first settlement payment was made in 2011; the second installment is due in the summer of 2012 and the final payment in 2013. See: McGowan v. Sheriff of Custer County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:07-cv-01168-HE.

Burgess, 57, resigned as sheriff in April 2008 after a 35-count felony indictment was issued. He was convicted of 13 counts, including kidnapping, forcible oral sodomy, sexual battery and rape involving female prisoners and drug court participants, and was sentenced to 79 years in prison in March 2009. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.36; May 2009, p.1].

To pay for the settlement, property taxes in Custer County will increase. “I don’t feel sorry for the people of Custer County,” said Sue McDonough, Brenda Brown’s mother. “Those people voted him into office, and they knew what was going on at that jail. The deputies knew, the commissioners knew, everyone knew, and still they re-elected him.”

For Brown, it was a terrible experience that had an eventual positive result. “I used to have nightmares about Mike Burgess. After he raped me, I was afraid to go anywhere by myself. So I didn’t. You know, nobody ever stood up to him before. But now, he’s where he should be – in prison,” she said. “If anything good came out of this, it was that it scared me straight. I’ve cleaned up my life, and now I’m very happy.”

Another positive result was a focus on accountability. “There needs to be more oversight and help to the counties in overseeing the sheriffs’ operations,” noted Custer County commissioner Lyle K. Miller, who called the sex abuse scandal “a black eye to the whole county.”

“Mike Burgess?” said commissioner Darrel Dupree. “I hope I never see him again. Ten million dollars is a lot of money, and it’s a shame the people of Custer County will have to pay.”

Viewed another way, it’s a shame the people of Custer County elected a sexual predator as their sheriff and then failed to supervise what he was doing at the jail, such as running a prisoner sex-slave ring.

Another Oklahoma county recently settled a lawsuit involving female prisoners who were sexually assaulted by jail staff. Delaware County resolved a federal suit for $13.5 million in November 2011, and the county’s sheriff, Jay Blackfox, resigned two days later. Delaware County residents face a tax increase of up to 18 percent to pay for the settlement. De-tails related to that case will be reported in a future issue of PLN.

Additional sources:, Associated Press

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Related legal case

McGowan v. Sheriff of Custer County