Florida Home Confinement Program Criticized After Witness’ Murder
In internal investigation of a home confinement program in Orange County, Florida revealed widespread problems, including the failure of staff to report violations that could have led to the re-incarceration of a program participant accused of killing one person and wounding two others who were scheduled to testify against him. At least two county jail employees were suspended in the wake of the scandal and the program’s supervisor retired.
Bessman Okafor, 29, could face the death penalty when he goes to trial later this year for allegedly killing 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar and wounding his siblings, Brienna and Remington Campos. Police said each were shot in the head to prevent them from testifying at Okafor’s trial stemming from a violent 2012 home invasion.
An internal review of the home confinement program found that Okafor had violated curfew more than 100 times while in the program; although each violation could have led to his being returned to jail, they were not reported to a judge.
The investigation uncovered problems that included concerns that the home confinement program would be privatized and an atmosphere of leniency perpetuated and even encouraged by the program’s management.
Orange County jail field reporter Kenya Cox and case manager Margaret Hughes were each suspended without pay for 10 days after the internal review determined they had “repeatedly failed to respond to and document Okafor’s alerts by the end of the shift the alert was identified (as required by policy).”
Zaldivar’s father said the suspensions did not go far enough. “They are disgusting. These people need to be out of there,” stated Rafael Zaldivar.
Okafor and an accomplice, Nolan Bernard, were sentenced to five concurrent life sentences after a jury found the pair guilty of burglary, assault with a firearm, robbery with a firearm and aggravated assault for a May 12, 2012 home invasion. Prosecutors said Okafor and Bernard broke into a house, tied up the people inside and held them at gunpoint as they ransacked the place.
The day before the trial on the home invasion charges, on September 10, 2012, Okafor and two other men, Donnell Godfrey and Emmanuel Wallace, allegedly returned to the same home and opened fire, killing Zaldivar and wounding his two siblings. Godfrey and Wallace were convicted and sentenced to life without parole – in November 2014 and March 2015, respectively.
The investigation determined that in less than three months after Okafor was placed on home confinement following his arrest for the May 2012 home invasion he had 109 “curfew alerts,” though staff could not agree on exactly how many qualified as violations.
Investigators reported concerns about the home confinement staff’s quick acceptance of Okafor’s excuses without independent verification. For example, Okafor was required to wear an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements, but the telephone line needed for the monitoring was regularly out of service. Okafor blamed the problem on the phone provider, Bright House Networks, but investigators found that home confinement staff never confirmed the issue with the company. In fact, officials later determined that Bright House had permanently discontinued Okafor’s phone service months before he was placed on home confinement.
A public records request by the Orlando Sentinel and a subsequent news report, which prompted the internal review, found the tendency of program staff to accept such explanations without confirmation was nothing new. For example, field officer Milt Clark, Jr. was reprimanded for accepting without question that Okafor was at a doctor’s appointment during a lengthy curfew violation, and field reporter Cox failed to confirm that Okafor was actually at home when his sister said he was.
In a report detailing more than 100 pages of misconduct, investigators said they were told that home confinement staff pressured field reporters to not report violations. “We wanted our program to look strong ... so that we wouldn’t be possibly ... privatized,” said Cox.
“We were told we were going to ‘work with people’ and ‘keep our numbers’ up so [for] violations for drugs or ‘stuff like that’ we didn’t violate them,” added case manager Hughes.
“At best, [home confinement Supervisor Garnett] Hern created a level of acceptance in the eyes of his subordinate staff regarding the allowance of offenders to violate,” the internal review stated. “At worst, he may have encouraged it.”
At the time Zaldivar was killed and Brienna and Remington Campos were shot and wounded, Okafor was wanted by Polk County authorities for failing to appear at a court hearing. Home confinement staff were aware that he was wanted but merely advised him to “stay out of trouble.” When Cox dispatched Orange County sheriff’s deputies to arrest Okafor the next day, he was not at home. Investigators noted that his absence would have been justification for revoking his home confinement, but a judge was never informed of the violation.
The internal review concluded that Cox, Hern, Hughes and Community Corrections Manager Cindy Boyles, who received a written reprimand, had committed numerous policy violations. On May 15, 2013, only weeks after the report was made public, Hern announced his retirement.
Orange County’s home confinement program is still in operation.
Sources: Orlando Sentinel, www.wesh.com, www.baynews9.com, www.wftv.com
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