Walla Walla County sued over jail beating

A former inmate claims officials failed to protect him from a gang member.

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WALLA WALLA — A man who was beaten by a gang member while they were incarcerated in the Walla Walla County Jail in 2010 has filed a federal lawsuit against the county claiming numerous violations of his constitutional rights.

Erik Kessack is seeking an unspecified amount of money to compensate him and punish the county for allegedly failing to protect him.

He also lists former Sheriff Mike Humphreys and former jail Capt. Jim Romine as defendants, as well as named and unnamed correctional officers.

The suit was filed June 5 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

The county is in the process of reviewing the allegations.

At a meeting Monday, county commissioners approved requests to provide legal defense for Humphreys, Romine and others involved in the lawsuit.

The requests, presented by Lucy Schwallie, county personnel and risk manager, were approved by commissioners Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins. Commissioner Perry Dozier was absent.

On or about Aug. 1, 2010, Kessack was a Walla Walla County Jail inmate, awaiting trial on various criminal charges. He had been “having trouble with gang members in the jail,” felt threatened and fearful, and told jail staff of his concerns numerous times, according to his court complaint.

He claims his Walla Walla attorney, Jerry Makus, also phoned jail staff and specifically asked that Kessack be kept away from gang members.

But the following day, Kessack was placed in a two-man cell with inmate Fernando Saenz Jr., an admitted gang member who later was sentenced to 28 1/2 years in prison for stabbing two men in a bloody melee outside a Center Street residence the preceding March.

Kessack’s lawsuit says he and Saenz were playing cards in their cell Aug. 8, 2010, when Saenz became irate. “Saenz threw off his shirt, broke a piece of metal off the cell door and beat Kessack into unconsciousness.”

Kessack contends he signaled an emergency call light three separate times over a 45-minute period before he received medical attention.

He later was diagnosed at Providence St. Mary Medical Center with more than a dozen facial fractures that required surgery and suffered continued blurred vision and numbness in his face.

Kessack maintains that either intentionally or with indifference by authorities he was exposed to danger by being placed in a cell with Saenz, officials ignored warnings and risks, and withheld necessary medical care. He also claims the defendants breached their duty of care owed to him and failed to supervise Saenz.

As part of a plea agreement Saenz entered into with the prosecution in the Center Street case, he was not charged with beating Kessack. Saenz currently is serving his prison time at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, according to the Department of Corrections website.

Kessack, now 24, ended up pleading guilty in Walla Walla County Superior Court in September 2010 to charges of taking a motor vehicle without permission and possession of methamphetamine, and was sentenced the following month to two years in prison.

He currently is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, apparently as the result of criminal activity in Pierce County.

Union-Bulletin reporter Andy Porter contributed to this report.

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