The Case of the Vanishing Videotape

A workhouse inmate claims he was wrongly beaten, and city officials scramble to get their stories straight

Inmate Jamar Welch and guards at the St. Louis workhouse may be the only people who'll ever know what really happened.

The way Welch tells it, he was beaten for no good reason during an inmate uprising on August 12, 2002, at the medium-security institution at 7600 Hall Street. Guards say they used the minimum amount of force necessary to quell a riot. While one guard admits hitting Welch on his arms and legs, he insists he struck no other blows and acted only after the inmate refused orders to lie on the ground.

Welch, who is now serving a ten-year sentence for stealing at the Ozark Correctional Center in Springfield, says he was attacked after a major, who'd had some sort of liquid thrown at him, warned that the inmates would suffer the consequences if the culprit wasn't identified. Corrections officials dispute that claim, countering that inmates had spread water and baby oil on the floor and were tossing chairs, soap and dominoes after being denied television and telephone privileges. The prisoners, they say, tied their cell doors shut with sheets and challenged guards to come get them. Guards used batons, mace and a fire hose to restore order.

One thing is clear: Welch emerged from the fracas with sutures in his scalp and post-concussion syndrome. But after Welch sued city officials for cruel and unusual punishment, a videotape that could help prove who's telling the truth has disappeared. Corrections officials have also given conflicting statements about reports that are supposed to be filed by every guard who uses force or witnesses force being used by colleagues -- first saying the use-of-force reports were completed, then saying they never existed.

"This is getting a little bit crazy," said U.S. District Court Judge Carol Jackson on Monday after hearing from corrections officials whose statements under oath often contradicted sworn testimony they'd provided earlier. "There are some serious problems in this case with the credibility of some of these witnesses. I am very concerned about this. What I expected was witnesses to come in here to fill in the blanks. What I didn't expect was witnesses to come in and testify completely differently than they did in their depositions and affidavits. This is pretty ridiculous, and it should not happen."

Jackson called the hearing after guards and corrections supervisors retracted sworn statements in which they asserted that guards had completed the required reports and forwarded them to supervisors, who had read the documents. The judge noted that officials had sworn in affidavits that they'd searched for the reports. "If these use-of-force reports were not prepared, what were you looking for?" the judge asked. "I haven't seen an affidavit from any defendant saying, 'I know for a fact these weren't done.'"

Early in the proceedings, Jackson said she expected testimony to match sworn statements. "I hope they will testify consistently with their affidavits, because if they don't, that's going to create an even bigger problem," the judge warned associate city counselor Thomas J. Goeddel. "These are affidavits. These are supposed to be the words of those who signed these documents under oath. They aren't supposed to cover all the bases. They're supposed to be the truth."

But time and again corrections officials told stories that differed from what they'd previously stated. Stella Elliott, the guard who made the videotape, testified that she'd never searched for it, even though she'd sworn in an affidavit that she had done so. Jacqueline Gammill, secretary to former city corrections commissioner Dora Schriro, said she hadn't spent much time looking for the missing videotape because one of her bosses had told her it wasn't important.

Gammill also contradicted sworn statements by Schriro, the last person to admit possessing the tape. After viewing the video, Schriro said in an affidavit, she sent it back to the workhouse, most likely in care of Gammill, as was her usual practice. Gammill insisted that didn't happen, adding that Schriro, who is now director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, had never given her any videotapes during the time she was employed by the city. Meanwhile, Gary Hayes, an investigator for the city's Department of Public Safety, told the judge that he started asking Schriro for the videotape shortly after the uprising so he could formally close his investigation into the matter. Despite repeated requests, Hayes testified, Schriro never produced the video, nor did she ever tell him that she'd returned it to the workhouse or given it to her secretary. Under workhouse policy, tapes made to discourage misbehavior by guards and defeat false claims by inmates are supposed to be preserved for five years.

Schriro did not return a telephone call from the Riverfront Times, nor did she appear at Monday's hearing. Jackson declined an offer from the city's attorney to have her testify by telephone. "There's some credibility issues here," the judge said. "I'm not entirely comfortable taking testimony by telephone when I want to have the opportunity to see the witness."

The judge's frustration appeared to increase with each witness. Guard LeRonald Loper, who admits to striking Welch on his legs and arms with a baton, told the judge he never wrote a use-of-force report and that he'd "misunderstood" the inmate's lawyer when he'd asserted otherwise during a July deposition. Kevin F. Hormuth, Welch's attorney, then read Loper's deposition into the record:

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