Firing upheld of third deputy in pressure-washer incident at Houston County jail

WARNER ROBINS -- The termination of the third Houston County sheriff’s deputy punished following an incident in which an inmate was sprayed with a pressure washer also has been upheld after an independent review.

Sgt. Michelle Becham, Lt. Shannon Perry and Sgt. Ryan Burleson had appealed their suspensions without pay pending termination. Becham was the last to have a hearing before an independent review officer. Perry and Burleson’s terminations also were upheld.

The three were disciplined in connection with a June 9 incident in which an inmate smeared feces on himself, the wall and the floor of a cell. The inmate was not injured, and the water pressure was believed to be less than a regular garden hose because of a defect.

Perry was the lieutenant in charge of the shift and allowed the pressure washer to be used, Becham was the housing sergeant who put the plan into effect and Burleson gave directions to the detention officers who used the pressure washer, Chief Deputy Billy Rape said.

Warner Robins attorney Jeff Lasseter, who served as the appeals officer in the hearing, stated in his findings that testimony from an inmate at the hearing was that Becham had first asked about whether there was fuel for a gas-powered pressure washer.

The inmate testified during the hearing that Becham asked him to bring the electric pressure washer after learning that there was no gas for the other pressure washer, according to the findings.

The inmate testified that Becham told him the pressure washer was needed for an inmate, that it was the fourth or fifth time the inmate had smeared feces all over himself and the cell, and that she was fed up, the findings stated.

Becham admitted at the hearing to introducing the pressure washer into the incident but claimed she never gave orders for it to be used on the inmate or the cell and did not know it was being used on the inmate, the findings stated.

“Her testimony defies logic,” Lasseter stated in the findings.

Becham’s termination was upheld on the grounds she violated her oath of office to treat inmates humanely, the findings stated. Becham also violated standard operating procedures by conduct unbecoming an officer.

The other finding of willful mistreatment of a prisoner was withdrawn by the sheriff’s office because testimony was undisputed that the inmate was not hurt in the incident, according to the findings.

David Venable, a Hawkinsville attorney representing Becham, could not be reached for comment. A woman answering the phone at his office said he does not comment on cases.

The inmate was naked because of his prior actions of attempting to clog the drain with his clothing. Testimony during the hearings indicated the inmate was prone to outbursts, violence toward deputies and a risk to damage jail property.

A five-day suspension and 180-day disciplinary probation previously was upheld for Chester Prue, one of two detention officers who operated the pressure washer. In his testimony at his hearing, Prue admitted to washing the cell and the inmate with the pressure washer and that he was ordered to do so by his supervisor, the findings stated.

Chad Cuskey, who also operated the pressure washer and received a five-day suspension and 180-day disciplinary probation, did not appeal. Also, Sgt. George Horne and officer Mark Perry each received a three-day suspension for having knowledge of the incident but failing to stop or report it. Suspensions of three days or fewer cannot be appealed.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.