What really happened in jail incident that left inmate dead?
By Kristen Swing
Stewart Peppers died following an incident at the jail on April 29.
His family has filed a $20 million lawsuit in federal court against the Washington County sheriff and several WCDC employees.
The suit claims Peppers died because of injuries he sustained in an alleged 20-minute beating by corrections officers at the jail.
Peppers’ parents say their son endured an initial beating when officers entered his cell, then was strapped to a restraint chair and again beaten even though he was unable to move.
Some inmates corroborate the claims being made by Peppers’ family, but a series of affidavits filed by WCDC employees last month portray a much different scenario.
Trouble with Peppers appears to have begun almost as soon as he arrived at the jail.
Peppers was brought there on April 26, charged with aggravated assault, weapons possession, simple possession of steroids and the manufacturing, sale or delivery of marijuana.
At the time of his booking, Peppers looked like a body builder, Lowe said. (A YouTube video of a man who looks like Peppers and claims to be him is cited. In the video, Peppers says he is a body builder and senior nutrition major at East Tennessee State University. He then goes on to remove most of his clothing and flex his muscles for the camera.)
Peppers refused to respond to his actual name while being booked, instead referring to himself as “Hercules” or “the Chosen One,” according to affidavits.
He reportedly flexed his muscles and made what could be perceived as threatening comments to jail employees.
Officers placed the 21-year-old in a cell in the booking area by himself where Peppers then allegedly conducted a “warrior chant” and did push-ups and sit-ups.
Three days later, on April 29, Lowe said he arrived at work and was informed Peppers still had been acting in an unusual manner, even stripping naked at times.
According to the affidavit of Corrections Officer Mitch Cornett, Peppers began shouting profanities at two female inmates brought in around 5:25 p.m.
When one of the inmates responded, Peppers allegedly slammed his head against the metal cell door and screamed, “I am going to kill all y’all!”
Concerned for Peppers’ safety, Lowe said he entered the cell along with five other corrections officers.
Corrections Officer Michael Garmer was among those who entered the cell.
According to Garmer, Lowe had his Taser drawn and instructed Peppers to sit down on his cell bed. Instead, Peppers reportedly charged Lowe.
Lowe shot the Taser, but despite hitting Peppers, it did nothing to stop the inmate, according to WCDC employees.
“I stepped forward to stop his charge but he was able to knock me back twice even though I am 5’11” and weighed approximately 250 pounds at that time,” Gamer writes. “Mr. Peppers punched Sgt. Cornett and then grabbed me. He pulled me off my feet and onto the bunk of the cell. Once he was on top of me, he began trying to control my neck and head by wrapping one of his arms around my chin.
“At that point, I began to fear for my life.”
Several other officers reportedly began trying to pull Peppers off of Garmer. Then, a second round with the Taser seemed to subdue Peppers.
“As soon as the Taser was removed, he pushed off the ground with all four officers holding him, screamed, and yelled that he would kill us all,” Lowe writes.
Chemical spray seemed to have no effect on Peppers, either.
Shackles were brought in as well as a restraint chair, but officers struggled to fully secure Peppers in the chair.
“We were able to get shoulder straps on Mr. Peppers, but he was bracing up and out of the chair preventing us from being able to strap him down and fully restrain him. As he continued to fight against us, he was able to move the restraint chair like a sled and was able to force Sgt. Cornett’s leg between the restraint chair and toilet area,” Lowe writes. “At that point, I was very concerned that if we did not get him into the chair, he was going to get out of the straps and if he got free, he would kill someone.”
In order to force Peppers’ body into the chair, Lowe said he struck the inmate several times in the abdomen, which proved ineffective.
“In an attempt to keep him from bowing up out of the chair, I then struck him several times with palm strikes in the groin area, but that appeared to have no effect at all on Mr. Peppers either,” Lowe writes. “As we were still trying to strap down the restraints... he suddenly stopped all movement. Mr. Peppers’ head dropped to his chest and he made a snoring sound.”
A nurse on the scene checked Peppers and determined he had stopped breathing.
The officers reportedly removed Peppers from the chair and began CPR. EMS crews transported Peppers to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
“The other officers and I used appropriate and reasonable force to try to restrain Mr. Peppers. We did not take any action to try to intentionally injure Mr. Peppers, but instead acted only to restrain him and protect ourselves while doing so,” Lowe writes. “I have no doubt that Mr. Peppers would have severely injured or killed me or other officers if he had gotten free from us.”
An investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into Peppers’ death is ongoing.