Family claims cover-up in Walker County jail death

Picture of Vincent Rowell (Rowell Family Photo)
Picture of Vincent Rowell (Rowell Family Photo)

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JASPER, Ala. (WIAT) – A Birmingham family claims suspicious circumstances, a flawed autopsy, and unexplained injuries in the death of their 21 year old son at the Walker County Jail. CBS42 News has been investigating their claims for over a month. This week we learned the FBI is opening an investigation into the October 2009 death of Vincent Rowell. Their findings will be turned over to the Justice Department.

“To know he was tortured like that. I can’t imagine what he endured, the stuff they did to him,” says Linda Rowell of Birmingham. She claims her son received a brutal beating and jail authorities refused to get him medical help. She claims he was left to die on the floor of his jail cell begging for help. “I don’t know how they go home each night and not have any sympathy or compassion.”

Rowell tells CBS42 News the funeral home was so alarmed by the condition of her son’s body that they recorded a videotape. The video shows multiple injuries including a large bruised area on his pelvis and hip.

The chain of events that lead to Rowell’s death began when he stole a Birmingham city dump truck in September of  2009. He took it across the state line to visit friends. Driving back through Sumiton in Walker County an officer became suspicious and a chase began with multiple agencies.

Sumiton police officer Clint McKinney writes in part in his report:

“The suspect jumped out of the truck and hit the ground running.”

“I don’t know what happened in those woods.”

“One of the Marion County guys did advise me that they had to taser him.”

Once apprehended, Rowell was taken to Walker Baptist Hospital in Jasper. A number of medical tests including CT scans were run. The report reads in part: “This single view of the pelvis does not show any fracture, malalignment or other significant abnormality from trauma.”  Other tests on the abdomen, tibia fibula, and knees also detect no major problems.

From there, Rowell is taken back to the Sumiton Police Department. A Birmingham Public Works employee is there videotaping the recovered dump truck. In part of the video you can see Rowell getting out of the police car. Some four hours later he is transferred to the Walker County Jail to be booked in on felony charges.

On the written booking records it is noted: “Subject not able to stand/walk for booking process. Also had difficulty understanding subject for answering questions.” If Rowell was in some type of medical distress why is he not taken back to Walker Baptist for treatment? The family claims he was beaten at Sumiton Jail and taking him back to the hospital with additional injuries from his first visit after the chase may have raised questions.

Several days after Vincent Rowell’s arrest his parents first learn he is in jail in Walker County when he calls them. They say it ends abruptly after Vincent reports he needs help. “Sounds like the phone just slams down,” says his father Victor Pickett.

“He said they had tased and beat him, said he couldn’t breathe and was in pain and couldn’t catch his breath,” claims his father. His sister tells CBS42 News that she then tried to call the jail and was told Vincent was fine and was being check on every hour. She says they were told they could not see him for several days later until the designated visiting day.

According to court records, another inmate claims Rowell’s health was failing fast. In a sworn affidavit Andy Sanford says everyday Rowell would ask for help, but was denied it.

Six days after arriving at the Walker County Jail, Rowell was found dead on the floor of his jail cell.  “It tears me up everyday he’s gone. He will never get to know his son and watch him grow up. I feel like they’ve ripped him out of me,” says Rowell’s mother. Linda Rowell says whatever her son’s crime, he did not deserve to die.

In published reports when Rowell died, Walker County Sheriff John Mark Tirey is quoted as saying there were “no visible signs of trauma or injuries.”  The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences ruled the death an accident from “Injuries in Automobile Crash.” The injuries caused internal bleeding which lead to a blood clot that moved to the lungs.

But we could find no evidence of the dump truck Rowell was in actually crashing. Video of the dump truck obtained by CBS42 News from the City of Birmingham only showed flat tires. So where did Rowell’s injuries come from?

CBS42 News has been unable to gain access to many of the public records pertaining to this case or talk to any of the officers involved despite numerous requests. The jail did its own investigation into the death, but we were told that report is not public record.

Legal expert Richard Jaffe: “Obviously it’s extraordinarily suspicious if anyone in custody is checked out by the hospital, then the jail doctor and nothing found. Then these significant injuries are discovered.” Jaffe says inmates have a constitutional right to medical treatment.

The Alabama Bureau of Investigation says it routinely works jail death investigations, at the request of local sheriffs. ABI was not called into the Rowell death case. “When you have suspicious circumstances, ABI often gets involved. It is not required, but normal and usual,” says Jaffe.

Family members claim the Sheriff’s Department would never explain to them what happened or allow them to see the investigation report. The family has filed a $20 million dollar wrongful death lawsuit in Birmingham federal court. There is a long list of defendants including: Walker County Sheriff John Tirey, Jail Administrator Trent McClusky, Sumiton officers, and Walker Baptist, among others. CBS42 News made several attempts to get in touch with all parties in the case. No one from the defense side would agree to answer any of our questions.

“I’m not just doing this for my son, but for all families who’ve lost loved ones,” says Rowell. She says she hopes the FBI can get the answers she has waited years for.

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