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Former Missouri Prisoners Awarded $20 Million for Sexual Abuse by “Resident Pervert” Guard

by Ashleigh N. Dye

On March 16, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit turned away an appeal by a former Missouri prison guard and affirmed a jury verdict against him for sexually abusing four state prisoners.

The verdict reached on April 28, 2022, awarded $5 million to each of the prisoners after finding they were sexually abused by Edward Bearden while held by the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) at Chillicothe Correctional Center (CCC) between 2012 and 2015.

One of the plaintiffs, Karen Keil, said that she reported the rape to social worker John Dunn, an employee of DOC’s privately contracted mental healthcare provider, MHM Services, Inc. – now a subsidiary of Centurion Health parent Centene Corp. Dunn was fired and later convicted of felony sexual assault on another prisoner in June 2018. [See: PLN, Mar. 2019, p.63.]

Two months later, Bearden stopped working for DOC, though the reason was not disclosed. He was not criminally charged and has denied all accusations. The four prisoners – Keil, Lynnsey Betz, Ashley Zieser and Trenady George – each filed separate suits, which were consolidated for trial by the federal court for the Western District of Missouri in November 2021. See: Keil v. Bearden, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 256236 (W.D. Mo.).

Keil alleged that Bearden’s assaults began with random pat-down searches shortly after her arrival at CCC in July 2011. Reportedly referred to by other prisoners as the “resident pervert,” Bearden eventually followed Keil to her work assignment in the prison laundry room in June 2012, where she said he pushed her against a wall and shoved his hand down her pants, digitally penetrating her. This recurred several times until January 2014, Keil added, when she was sent to a prison storage room to retrieve her TV that had been confiscated after she slept through head count one day. Bearden allegedly followed her there, bent her over and raped her.

After that, the guard was accused of finding excuses to confiscate other prisoners’ property, sending Keil to fetch it from the storage room and raping her again each time – 20 times in all, she estimated, between 2012 and 2015. After reporting the assaults to Dunn, he allegedly assaulted her, too, creepily asking as he groped and penetrated her, “Did Bearden do it like this?” Both assailants blamed their actions on their uncontrollable love for Keil, she said. Dunn stopped seeing her in 2013; records from MHM Services later showed the firm was aware of “familiarity” between the two, according to Keil’s complaint.

The other plaintiffs made similar allegations against the guard. His attorney called them untrustworthy, citing their convictions for forgery and fraud. But Keil provided expert testimony from former DOC Director Dr. Dora Schriro that “Bearden was in a unique position to assault and harass Plaintiff,” as the district court recalled in deciding on September 29, 2021, that the jury could hear it. See: Keil v. Bearden, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 256022 (W.D. Mo.).

Just before trial, on January 24, 2022, Plaintiffs won a motion to exclude testimony from another prisoner who alleged she heard Keil discussing plans to sue DOC after her release. Keil v. Bearden, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64380 (W.D. Mo.)

The jury then heard the case, returning its verdict for plaintiffs. Bearden appealed to the Eighth Circuit. But the Court found no abuse of discretion by the district court in consolidating the four prisoners’ cases for trial. Nor did the lower court abuse its discretion in excluding testimony about a phone call between Bearden and George after her release, since other evidence related to it was already admitted. The guard had also asked for remittitur of the verdict, but the Court denied that request, too, again finding no abuse of discretion, “particularly given the reprehensibility of Bearden’s conduct.” See: Keil v. Doe, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 6250 (8th Cir.).

Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys John J. Ammann, Susan W. McGraugh and Brendan D. Roediger of St. Louis University School of Law; Jenifer C. Snow of the Law Office of Joan M. Swartz in St. Louis; as well as Jessica E. Garland and Jonathan E. Taylor of Gupta & Wessler in San Francisco and Washington, DC. See: Keil v. MHM Svcs., Inc., USDC (W.D., Mo.) Case No. 18-cv-06074.

A fifth prisoner also lodged sexual abuse claims against Bearden in a suit filed in the same district court naming DOC Director Anne Precythe as a defendant. Terri Dean then defeated Precythe’s motion for summary judgment on September 13, 2021. See: Dean v. Bearden, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172960 (W.D. Mo.). Precythe appealed that ruling to the Eighth Circuit, which heard arguments in February 2023. PLN will update developments as they are available. Dean is also represented by Amman, McGraugh, Roediger and Snow. See: Dean v. Precythe, USC (8th Cir.), Case No. 21-3093.

Of the four plaintiffs who won the verdict and appeal, only Betz remains in DOC’s database of active offenders, where her status is listed on parole. That same database says that Dean remains in custody but has been transferred out of state.

Additional sources: Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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