CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) - In the early morning hours of April 9, 2011, guards at the Wyatt Detention Center suspected inmate Christopher Morales was drinking from a bottle of homemade alcohol. When the inmate was questioned through his cell door, he became unruly; clogging his toilet and breaking off a sprinkler head, flooding the small room.
An extraction team was sent to remove Morales, but the inmate refused to leave his cell with his hands cuffed behind his back, according to a lawyer with knowledge of the incident. Morales would only leave if they cuffed him to the front.
Lt. Scot Belford, a member of the extraction team, contacted his superior officer in the prison's control room, who was watching everything play out on the in-house surveillance system.
Belford's attorney, John Grasso, said his client was ordered by the superior officer to get the job done and cuff Morales with his hands to the front.
"Scot questioned why he'd be doing that," Grasso said. "It seemed of all the inmates, this would be the inmate that you would not ever be deviating from protocol so he questioned the superior officer."
Grasso – a former police officer from Cranston – says detainees should always be cuffed with their hands behind their back for the guard's safety. But Grasso said despite his protests, Belford followed orders.
"When Scot turned his back to the inmate, the inmate raised his handcuffs over his head and then he brought them down on Scot's head causing lacerations and [what was] subsequently determined to be a concussion." Grasso said.
Belford was transported to the hospital and was out of work for months recovering from his injuries.
Grasso said he was contacted by Belford when the officer learned months after the incident the inmate had not been charged with a crime.
"Scot said 'I'm the victim of a violent crime and it appears that my own institution which has its own internal affairs and own internal investigatory authority, hasn'ttaken any action against this inmate who assaulted me," Grasso said. "So he asked if I could help."
What followed was a series of phone calls and meetings with the U.S. Marshals office in Rhode Island, the agency charged with investigating crimes at the Wyatt.
Grasso said during the course of those conversations they learned a key piece of evidence went missing after the attack went down.
Another guard was videotaping the attempted extraction of Morales that April morning, a common practice. Videos are often used in training and assessment of operations inside prisons.
Grasso said they learned the videotape – which he described as "operational" at the time – had somehow become damaged. He said they weren't told how it happened.
It was a troubling turn of events in the case because Grasso said the tape includes audio which could have backed-up his client's claim that he was ordered to cuff Morales behind his back.
Belford was then informed the federal government was not going to press assault charges against Morales.
"It was clear to me and my understanding of the law that this inmate had violated at least one criminal offense ...a felony assault," Grasso said.
So Belford turned to the state police for help.
State Police Colonel Steven O'Donnell confirmed they have an active investigation into the alleged assault. He acknowledged detectives are aware the incident was caught on tape, but would not comment further on the status of any evidence.
"We've been investigating it for a while, trying to get all the factors about a pretty egregious assault on a corrections officer," O'Donnell said.
Grasso said his client – who his still out on worker's compensation – insists this case was going nowhere had it not been for their aggressive pursuit for justice.
"He's a guy that wears a uniform to work everyday and does a pretty dangerous job and anyone who does that and then gets injured as a result would expect their agency to back them up," Grasso said."He has hard feelings."
A lawyer for the Wyatt disputes Belford's claims, saying the administration "followed the letter of the law" referring the case immediately to the U.S. Marshals.
"It is my understanding the U.S. Marshals referred it to the State Police," said Margaret Lynch-Gadaleta. "I think Belford's claim that there was a delay was incorrect."
Veteran prison investigator Aaron Aldrich said he was shocked to learn how long this case went without a charge. After 29 years working for the state at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, Aldrich retired and took a job as director of investigations at the Wyatt.
He said he deemed the attack on Belford a "priority one" investigation as soon as he stepped into his new role, some nine months after the incident.
"When these cases aren't handled aggressively and they are not responded to quickly, it leads to some dangerous assumptions by the inmate population and even the staff," Aldrich said. "The staff feels that they are expendable that they were diminished ... it leaves the inmates feeling possibly empowered that they can assault a staff member and not see the justice system follow through and hold the person responsible that committed the assault."
He said similar incidents at the ACI were placed on a 12-hour "briefing schedule," updating prison officials and keeping close contact with the state police detectives working a case.
He said an assault case – be it on a corrections officer or on an inmate – would not languish for months.
"Justice doesn't end at the front door of a prison," Aldrich said. "Both inmates and staff need to know that there is accountability in prisons."
Aldrich declined to comment about the videotape but said he didn't feel like the administration had the same urgency he had in the matter.
After only eight days on the job Aldrich resigned from the Wyatt but not before meeting with state police detectives about the attack on Belford.
He said a number of factors led to his departure, this case being one of them.
"I'm quite confident in the abilities of the state police that they will find out exactly what happened, and the delay in the prosecution," Aldrich said. "I also have the belief that the inmate that was responsible in this assault will be held accountable."
Lynch-Gadaleta expressed disappointment that Aldrich gave an interview about the case.
"It was completely inappropriate that he speak," she said.
She declined to comment about the videotape citing the ongoing investigation.
Morales, 22, of the Hyde Park section of Boston, was moved to a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Court records show he was convicted in September of one count of "felon in possession of a firearm" and is scheduled to be released in December.
According to court documents Morales has a criminal history with law enforcement in Massachusetts. He was arrested by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in May 2010 with a 9mm pistol and several rounds of ammunition.
If he is charged by the Attorney General's office in the Belford case, O'Donnell said he will have to return to the Rhode Island to go through state's judicial system.
Copyright WPRI 12