Sheriff Accused of Covering Up Hazing Death
George Ward died on May 22, 2013, after being rushed to a local hospital’s trauma unit from a physical assessment test administered by the sheriff’s office.
In a complaint filed September 2, Ward’s family says former Sheriff Thomas Brown refused to allow his mother, plaintiff Lorraine Fredericks, to see her son’s body in the hospital, and gave the, very few details about his death.
“This is the first time that such an incident has occurred during my 12 years as a sheriff,” Brown told the local CBS affiliate shortly afterwards.
However, the training video released to the public by WSB-TV nearly seventeen months later challenged Brown’s vague assertions about the incident, the family says.
The complaint alleges Brown actively took steps to cover up the hazing that caused Ward’s ultimately fatal injuries, as well as the initial lack of medical attention provided the recruit after his extreme physical distress became obvious.
“At one point … George laid down on the ground in agonizing pain due to his physical inability to stand. Other recruits were instructed to place flowers around his body and simulate a mock funeral,” the complaint says.
Ward’s family also claims that officers forced their loved one to wear pink clothes while taunting him with insults and nicknames like Pinky.
The complaint says the video release prompted the DeKalb Medical Examiner to alter Ward’s cause of death from “natural causes” to “undetermined” in November 2014.
Autopsy reports do not include record of the pink clothes worn by Ward in the video just moments before he became unresponsive.
According to the complaint, Brown ordered the Office of Professional Standards not to investigate the death and to “just let George Ward’s death go.”
Brown also allegedly conspired with other agents and officers to conceal details surrounding the incident, encouraging a “really simple and almost vague” report be compiled investigators.
WSB-TV reported that the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council met in late March 2015 and suspended the DeKalb County sheriff’s authority to train recruits.
POST Director Ken Vance saw the GBI report and told WSB-TV, “There is a lot about this case that borders on hazing. There is no way to spin this that makes it look right and appropriate.”
According to the Virgin Islands Free Press, Ward was a corrections officer in the Virgin Islands for several years before moving to Atlanta. At the time of his death, he was living with a cousin while preparing to move his children and fiancé to Georgia.
Ward’s family is seeking $20 million in damages on claims of civil rights violations, fraud, and conspiracy.
It is represented by Harry Daniels of Daniels & Cauble in Newnan, Ga.