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Story Publication logo March 19, 2024

'Goon Squad' Officer Is Sentenced to 20 Years in Mississippi Torture Cases

A scene in a small town with a cemetery in the foreground and a church and water tower in the background


'Goon Squad'

A sheriff's office unit beat, tortured, sexually assaulted, planted evidence, and falsely charged...

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Multiple Authors

From left, Eddie Parker; Malik Shabazz, a lawyer; Trent Walker, a lawyer; and Michael Jenkins during a news conference in Jackson on Monday. Image by Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today.

Six officers pleaded guilty last year to assaulting two Black men and shooting one of them in the mouth during a raid on their home.

Two former law enforcement officers who were part of a self-styled “Goon Squad” that tortured, sexually assaulted and beat residents of a Mississippi county were given hefty prison sentences on Tuesday for brutally attacking two Black men last year.

A federal judge ordered Hunter Elward, who shot one of the victims in the mouth, to serve 20 years in prison. Jeffrey Middleton, a former lieutenant who supervised the Goon Squad, was sentenced to nearly 18 years.

Mr. Elward broke down in tears as he turned to face Eddie Parker, 36, and Michael Jenkins, 33, and apologized for what he had done to them.

“I hate that I was involved in this,” he said. “I hate what’s happened to them.”

As Mr. Elward left the podium, Mr. Parker stood up and said that he forgave him.

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Outside the courtroom, Mr. Jenkins, the man Mr. Elward shot in the face during what was described as a mock execution, said that he did not forgive Mr. Elward. “If he wouldn’t have gotten caught, he would still be doing the same thing,” Mr. Jenkins said.

Four other officers will face sentencing this week in the federal courthouse in Jackson. All of them pleaded guilty this summer to federal civil rights offenses related to their brutal treatment of Mr. Parker, Mr. Jenkins and a white man, Alan Schmidt, who was assaulted in a separate incident in December 2022.

So far, charges against officers in Rankin County have been narrowly focused on these two incidents, but residents in impoverished pockets of the county say that the sheriff’s department has routinely targeted them with similar levels of violence.

Last November, The New York Times and Mississippi Today published an investigation revealing that for nearly two decades, deputies in the Rankin County sheriff’s department, many of whom called themselves the Goon Squad, would barge into homes in the middle of the night, handcuff people and torture them for information or confessions.

In pursuit of drug arrests, the deputies rammed a stick down one man’s throat until he vomited, dripped molten metal onto another man’s skin and held people down and beat them until they were bloody and bruised, according to dozens of people who said they had witnessed or experienced the raids.

Many of those who said they had experienced violence filed lawsuits or formal complaints detailing their encounters. A few said they had contacted Sheriff Bryan Bailey of Rankin County directly, only to be ignored.

Sheriff Bailey, who has denied knowledge of the incidents, has faced calls to resign from local activists and the N.A.A.C.P. He has said that he will not step down.

The sheriff’s department in Rankin County, a suburban area just outside Jackson, came to national attention last year after five Rankin County deputies and a Richland police detective raided the home of Mr. Parker and his friend, Mr. Jenkins, following a tip about suspicious activity.

The officers handcuffed the men and tortured them by shocking them repeatedly with Tasers, beating them and sexually assaulting them with a sex toy. Mr. Elward put his gun into Mr. Jenkins’s mouth and shot him, shattering his jaw and nearly killing him.

“They tried to take my manhood away from me,” Mr. Jenkins said in a statement to the court on Tuesday morning. “I don’t ever think I’ll be the person I was.”

The officers destroyed evidence and, to justify the shooting, falsely claimed that Mr. Jenkins had pointed a BB gun at them, federal prosecutors said.

During the hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Elward said that he had witnessed brutal conduct by other deputies throughout his seven years at the department, which his lawyer, Joe Hollomon, said was “the culture of Rankin County sheriff’s department.”

During Mr. Middleton’s portion of the hearing, a federal prosecutor revealed that deputies under his supervision had carried commemorative coins printed with the words “Goon Squad.” Early versions of the coin had an image of a confederate flag on one side and a noose on the other, said the prosecutor, Erin Chalk.

Brandon, Miss., in Rankin County. Image by Rory Doyle/The New York Times.

She also said that deputies had repeatedly shocked Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Parker with their Tasers, as if they were playing “Taser hot potato,” competing to see who could inflict the most damage.

Mr. Middleton apologized to the victims and his community. “I have failed every law enforcement officer in the United States because my actions have tarnished the badge,” he said.

Judge Tom Lee of U.S. District Court chastised Mr. Middleton for not stopping the attack or taking responsibility for the actions of the men under his command.

“Mr. Middleton was not a mere bystander,” he said. “He’s the superior officer. He knew what was happening. He could have stopped it.”

Both Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Parker said they were satisfied with the sentences handed down by Judge Lee.

Alan Schmidt standing next to Interstate 20 in Jackson, Miss., where he said Rankin County sheriff’s deputies assaulted him in December 2022. Image by Rory Doyle/The New York Times.

Over the next two days, the other officers involved in the incident, who each could be sentenced to a decade or more in prison, will appear in federal court in Jackson. Prosecutors are expected to detail the officers’ violent actions, and victims will have an opportunity to share their stories.

Two of the department’s deputies will also be sentenced for violently attacking Mr. Schmidt, 28.

Malcolm Holmes, a professor of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Wyoming, said that the Goon Squad case was “going to be one that finds its way into the chronicles of history.”

“There’s so much well-documented evidence that this is a pattern of behavior,” he said, noting that the case revealed “something we’ve covered up for a long time, particularly in rural America.”

The sentencing hearings this week are expected to reveal more details about violence perpetrated by Rankin County deputies, including what happened to Mr. Schmidt.

In an interview with The Times and Mississippi Today last week, Mr. Schmidt spoke publicly for the first time about what happened in December 2022 when a Rankin County deputy pulled him over for driving with an expired registration.

According to the federal indictment, the deputies Christian Dedmon, Hunter Elward and Daniel Opdyke arrived at the scene shortly afterward. Two other deputies, including the one who pulled Mr. Schmidt over, were also present throughout the arrest, Mr. Schmidt said; neither has been criminally charged.

Mr. Schmidt said the deputies had accused him of stealing tools from his boss, and then Mr. Dedmon pressed a gun to his head and fired it into the air before threatening to dump his body in the Pearl River.

“I thought this was it,” Mr. Schmidt said. “I’m never going to see my family again.”

Mr. Dedmon and the other deputies punched Mr. Schmidt and held his arm in a fire ant hill, then shocked him repeatedly with a Taser, Mr. Schmidt said.

Mr. Dedmon also pressed his genitals against Mr. Schmidt’s face and bare buttocks as he yelled for help and kicked at the deputy, Mr. Schmidt said.

“It still goes through my head constantly,” he said of the experience.

District Attorney Bubba Bramlett of Rankin County has begun to review and dismiss criminal cases that involved Goon Squad members, his office confirmed last week, but Mr. Bramlett declined to share details about the cases under review.

State lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would expand oversight of Mississippi law enforcement personnel, allowing the state board that certifies officers to investigate and revoke the licenses of officers accused of misconduct, regardless of whether they are criminally charged. Lawmakers have said that the Goon Squad and several other incidents of police misconduct in Mississippi helped prompt the bill.

The Mississippi House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to pass the bill last week. The State Senate is expected to vote on the measure in the coming weeks.


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