LYNCHBURG — A federal jury on Friday found the former head nurse of the Rockbridge Regional Jail guilty of falsifying an incident report relating to an inmate’s medical care, but not guilty of a companion charge.
Gary Andrew Hassler, 59, was tried over three days in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg on two charges of falsifying a document with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence an investigation of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Sentencing on the guilty verdict is set for Oct. 17.
The jail’s former superintendent, John Higgins, was indicted in August at the same time as Hassler. Higgins is charged with violating the civil rights of inmates by failing to protect them from physical abuse and failing to provide medical treatment. A superseding indictment issued in June added 15 more charges of mail fraud alleging Higgins had accepted bribes from inmates’ families and the jail’s medical supplier.
Higgins, who sits on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, faces 21 charges total. His trial is set for December.
The first count against Hassler alleged he falsified an inmate’s medical log by writing the inmate refused medication on Feb. 28, 2017. The second count alleged Hassler falsified an incident report that said the inmate refused medical care on March 1, 2017.
The inmate, Robert Eugene Clark, was in jail on charges of rape, sexual battery and indecent acts with a child under the age of 13.
On Feb. 28, Clark’s cellmate, Matthew Kessinger, climbed on top of a cage enclosure, held a pen to his throat and threatened to jump off and kill himself. Officers talked him down, and Kessinger told them he was severely beaten by other inmates in his cellblock. Kessinger was examined by Hassler, who ordered he be sent to the hospital after seeing large bruises on Kessinger’s torso.
But Kessinger was first brought to speak with investigators from the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, who were called to assist with the investigation because of the seriousness of the beating and because Kessinger said he thought he had been poisoned. While deputies interviewed Kessinger, he told them the other inmates also had beaten Clark.
Deputies then interviewed Clark, who at first tried to hide his injuries under long-sleeve shirts and made up excuses that he hurt himself in the recreation yard. He eventually admitted that other inmates had beaten him with a bar of soap they put in a sock.
Deputies examined and photographed Clark’s face, arms, chest, torso and legs. Clark had deep purple bruising across his arms and legs and also had red scratches and older yellow bruises on his chest.
Derek Almarode, who was a captain at the jail at the time, said he remembered Clark’s bruises nearly matched his navy blue uniform. When Almarode saw Clark’s injuries, he retrieved then-superintendent Higgins from his office. According to Almarode’s testimony, Higgins told Clark he wasn’t going to the hospital. Almarode tried to argue with Higgins, but Higgins ordered Almarode to take Clark back to a new cell on block 606.
Clark was not seen by a doctor that day.
The next morning, Hassler completed “pill call” at 8 a.m. During these medical rounds, the nurse, accompanied by an officer, stands behind a locked gate and inmates are called to come out of their cells and take their medicine. When they do, both the nurse and the inmate write their initials for each medication that was distributed.
Prosecutors introduced the medication administration report as evidence. It showed Clark had signed for his medication on Feb. 28, the same day of the incident with Kessinger. The attorneys argued this proved Hassler had seen Clark’s facial injuries and Clark had indeed taken his medication.
But on the witness stand, Hassler testified that he forged inmates’ signatures on the medication administration reports. He said he did this to be more efficient and usually forged the initials of inmates who were slow to come out of their cells for medication. Hassler said he had been doing this for about six years.
Prosecutors pointed out the report showed Clark had refused his medication four days prior, on Feb. 24, so Hassler didn’t seem to have forged Clark’s initials that day. Hassler replied that he didn’t always forge initials and sometimes would go back to the reports and correct them. He admitted to the court that this was a “sloppy” practice.
Later, prosecutors argued to the jury that Hassler lied. They said he couldn’t have forged Clark’s initials because Clark’s initials looked the same throughout the whole report — even when a different nurse was administering the medication. Prosecutors asked Hassler if he filled out the inmates’ initials for the whole month ahead of time. He said no. They asked him if he switched pen colors because the sets of initials alternated pens. Hassler said no.
Hassler maintained throughout the trial that he had not seen Clark, or the injuries on his face, until the next day, March 1. Hassler testified that Clark came up for his medication that day and that is when he noticed the severe bruising on his face. He asked Clark if he was OK. Clark replied he was fine. Hassler asked him if he wanted to step into the hallway for an exam. Clark said no. So Hassler asked if he wanted to come to the medical center for an exam, and Clark again said no.
Hassler said he forgot all about the incident after that. Inmates often have bruises and they don’t like to snitch on one another. Hassler was off the next few days and even got married that Friday.
On Saturday, March 4, he received a call and learned that Clark had been sent to the hospital because he had been beaten the same day the inmates attacked Kessinger. Hassler said in court he did not know the extent of Clark’s injuries until that day.
Hassler realized he had not documented the time Clark refused his medication on Feb. 28 or when he refused medical care the next day. Hassler said he was trying “to cover his own butt.”
He went to the office on March 5, a Sunday, while he and his wife were on their way to church. He updated Clark’s medical log and added two late entries. The first late entry said Clark refused medication on Feb. 28. The second detailed the conversation Hassler had with Clark when he said he didn’t want an exam.
The first count alleged that Hassler falsified this record by adding the late entry that Clark refused his medication. The jury ruled Hassler was not guilty of this charge.
On March 5, Hassler also filed an incident report that detailed the conversation he said he had with Clark on March 1, when Clark refused to be examined. The report says this interaction happened on cellblock 500, where Clark had been beaten and removed on Feb. 28. At the time of that interaction, Clark would have been on cellblock 606. Prosecutors argued this was proof Hassler lied about the interaction.
The incident report is the focus of the second count, and the jury found Hassler guilty.
Prosecutors argued Hassler filed the incident report to cover up for Higgins, who, according to witness testimony, denied Clark the medical care he needed. Virginia State Police came to the jail on March 3, 2017, to begin an investigation at the request of the county commonwealth’s attorney, who said the investigation seemed more serious than just inmate abuse. State police began their investigation at 5 p.m. March 3, so prosecutors argued the incident report Hassler created on March 5 was to protect Higgins from charges of denying an inmate medical care.
Higgins saw the injuries that day in February and declined to send Clark to the hospital even after members of his staff argued with him. Multiple witnesses testified that Higgins kept tight control of the jail and had the final decision on when inmates could leave.
Hassler testified Higgins often came up with ways to avoid paying for an inmate’s medical care by having them furloughed, going to court to change their bonds from secured to unsecured or transferring them to another facility.