Oregon Prison Guard Freed on Sex Charge, Victim Detained as Material Witness
"She was in chains,” said Betsy Rawls, an attorney representing a former prisoner who was incarcerated as a material witness against the prison guard who sexually abused her. “Belly chains and shackles. And she’s the victim.” The guard, meanwhile, was released on bail.
Brian Balzer, 42, was hired by the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) in 1999 and began working at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), Oregon’s only women’s prison, in 2011. Two years later he abruptly resigned and let his law enforcement certification expire in December 2013. ODOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt refused to say why.
The reason for Balzer’s resignation finally became clear when he was indicted by a grand jury on November 25, 2015. He was charged with one count of first-degree custodial sexual abuse and one count of supplying contraband at CCCF. The contraband charge alleged that Balzer gave perfume samples to a prisoner.
Soon after her 2014 release from CCCF to a halfway house in Eugene, Oregon, Brandy Lee Buckmaster, 41, told a staff member that she “wanted to spend the night” with Balzer, according to court records. Balzer planned to visit her while in Eugene on business for AFSCME, a union that represents government employees.
Balzer and Buckmaster stayed in contact by email and Facebook messages after she was released from prison; the messages included photographs of Balzer and a “peculiar Celtic theme.” Some were of a romantic and sexual nature.
Buckmaster, who spent two years in CCCF’s mental health unit, disclosed her relationship with Balzer to investigators and testified before the grand jury. She admitted to having sexual contact at CCCF, including kissing, masturbation and oral sex. She also turned over a letter written by Balzer under the pseudonym “Kalvin K. Kane” that he had sent to her at the prison. In the letter, he complained that he could not see her whenever he wanted, according to court records. His fingerprints were found on the letter’s envelope.
Balzer was arrested and released on $2,000 bail on December 3, 2015. In the months after his arrest, Buckmaster violated her parole by dropping out of drug treatment, testing positive for methamphetamines and failing to report to her parole officer.
In June 2016, Washington County Deputy District Attorney Dan Hesson requested a continuance of Balzer’s trial, noting that investigators could not locate Buckmaster. The court reset the trial for October 4, 2016 but warned it would not be postponed again.
Hesson also sought a material witness warrant for Buckmaster, because he feared she would not appear as a witness against Balzer.
Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann noted that material witness warrants are rare, and even more so when the witness is a victim. Prosecutors in his office are required to seek supervisor approval before requesting one. “It needs to be a significant case because obviously it’s a drastic measure,” Hermann said.
Oregon law allows a judge to confine a material witness until they testify. Such holds typically last less than a week, but Oregon law does not limit how long a witness can be held. In one case, a Washington County judge ordered Benito Vasquez-Hernandez held for more than 905 days as a material witness against his son, who was facing murder charges. That case prompted legislation allowing judges to order video depositions in lieu of confining material witnesses.
Buckmaster was taken into custody on August 16, 2016. During a hearing on the material witness hold she made an emotional, but unsuccessful, plea for release.
While admitting that she “fell apart” after her grand jury testimony, Buckmaster told Judge Charles Bailey that she was trying to stay clean, was not hiding from authorities, had cooperated with the investigation and would return to testify against Balzer.
“He manipulated and took advantage of me and I felt obligated. Degraded,” Buckmaster told Judge Bailey. “I want to see him be held accountable for what he did to me and some other people. That’s what I want.”
Buckmaster’s attorney, Betsy Rawls, argued that courts rarely detain victims on material witness holds. “It’s always a concern when the state can hold someone in custody when they haven’t committed a crime,” she said. Rawls offered several alternatives to confining her client, including electronic monitoring, home detention, daily reporting to her parole officer or a video deposition.
Hesson objected to the deposition and told the court he did not want to jail Buckmaster but did not see any other viable options. Citing Buckmaster’s drug problem, Judge Bailey agreed and ordered that she remain in custody at the Washington County Jail with bail set at $50,000 – 25 times the amount of Balzer’s bond.
“I’m being punished,” Buckmaster stated. “I’m the one in jail. I feel like I’m the one being accused of something.”
Buckmaster had served several prison sentences since 1996, but said the 50 days she spent in material witness confinement was different. “This time is the most difficult because I didn’t do anything wrong,” she observed. “I’m not the one to blame.”
Balzer was convicted of first-degree custodial sexual misconduct at trial, and sentenced to 60 days in jail on November 28, 2016. He was also ordered to participate in sex offender and mental health treatment, to have no contact with Buckmaster and to complete three years of probation.
Ironically, his victim served almost as much time in jail as a material witness as Balzer was ordered to serve for sexually abusing her.