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ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The allegations began to surface in 2010.
First, one woman said that while she was an inmate at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, jail Sgt. Torry Chambers raped her. A second woman made the same claim, and a third woman alleged Chambers stood guard while she was raped by a male inmate whom Chambers had befriended.
Chambers and the male inmate allegedly raped the women between 2008 and 2010.
Chambers was arrested in December 2010 on rape charges, suspended without pay and sued in federal court by the three women. The county settled their claims for nearly $1 million.
Through it all, Chambers kept his job. And he was never prosecuted, as federal and state officials went back and forth over whether there was enough evidence against him to proceed with a criminal case and, if so, which agency should handle it.
But this past September, a fourth woman came forward with allegations Chambers had raped her while she was incarcerated at MDC, one of the largest county jails in the nation, in 2009.
On Monday, the alleged victims may finally get one step closer to having their day in court against the 38-year-old, 11-year-veteran jail officer.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office is taking a case against Chambers to a grand jury, where prosecutors will seek an indictment on three counts each of criminal sexual penetration of an inmate and, possibly, other charges associated with the alleged rapes.
It appears the most recent allegation tipped the scales.
“The new allegations certainly motivated us to reevaluate it and say: ‘You know, we can’t wait anymore. We need to just move forward,'” Bernalillo County DA Kari Brandenburg told KRQE News 13 on Wednesday.
Chambers’ attorney, William J. Cooley, said a call from KRQE News 13 on Wednesday marked the first time he had heard prosecutors planned to seek an indictment against Chambers.
“Wow,” he said. “Unbelievable. I thought that case had been settled – every part of it. We’re in 2014, and I find it very odd that they would bring this case now. I mean, the evidence hasn’t changed in five years, and I feel very strongly that Mr. Chambers is completely innocent.”
KRQE News 13 asked MDC Chief Ramon Rustin whether an indictment would mean termination for Chambers.
“Not necessarily,” Rustin replied.
A Troubled Time
The initial allegations against Chambers came up at a time when the jail – and much of the rest of Bernalillo County government – were embroiled in scandals.
At the massive West Side lockup, officials were dealing with a steady stream of inmate-on-inmate and guard-on-inmate beatings, many of which resulted in charges and discipline.
A key figure in the county’s house-arrest program had been fired after he was accused in a 41-count indictment of accepting bribes and stealing inmates’ personal information.
Three other MDC guards were charged criminally with having sex with inmates, which is illegal regardless of whether there is consent. Two of those guards resigned; the other was fired.
And the boss at MDC at the time, Ron Torres, was on his way out the door after news reports revealed he had numerous relatives working for him at the jail in violation of the county’s nepotism policy.
By Dec. 21, 2010, the day Chambers was arrested and locked up in the jail where he had supervised officers and inmates alike, Rustin already had accepted the top job at MDC. He took over the next month.
Among the minefields Rustin inherited was Chambers’ employment status: He’d been placed on leave without pay following his arrest, with the caveat that he could be fired if convicted of criminal charges. That prosecution, of course, never came.
What’s more, there was a problem with that arrangement: the contract for jail union employees didn’t allow for leave without pay pending charges. So after eight months, in August 2011, Chambers came back to work with modified duties that did not allow him to have contact with female inmates. The county also had to give him back pay.
An internal affairs investigation into the rape allegations against Chambers came back inconclusive, Rustin said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in early 2011, the DA’s Office was preparing to move forward with charges after a criminal investigation by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was set for grand jury presentation a number of times, but it was canceled,” Brandenburg said. “It’s our understanding … that we were working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in hopes that they would take the case.”
That never happened. The feds eventually prosecuted other MDC cases, but not Chambers.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said she could neither confirm nor deny whether federal authorities had a case pending against Chambers.
Chambers continued working, and the state criminal case sat dormant.
“This case: I think that it should have been resolved a lot quicker than it currently has,” Rustin said. “It does become a lot for the institution to bear. And I feel badly for our staff that has to read about this and hear about this when the allegations are five and six years old, and the case has still not been resolved.”
New life for prosecutors came on Sept. 18. That’s when another woman came forward to say Chambers had raped her when she was an inmate in 2009.
“I think that the more victims you have, the better the case looks,” Brandenburg said.
But she conceded that, if Chambers is indicted, it’ll be an uphill battle for prosecutors to win a conviction against him. That’s due, in part, to the difficulties presented by alleged rapes that weren’t reported until years after they took place.
The newly-reported allegations also left a fresh dilemma for jail officials: what to do with Chambers’ employment?
This time, they put him on leave with pay. That means he’s been collecting a paycheck – at $22.10 an hour – since September for sitting at home.
Rustin ordered up another internal investigation for the newly-reported allegation, this time through a contract private eye firm.
“It said that there was some correlation as far as the dates. However, they couldn’t substantiate whether there was an infraction or not,” the chief said. “For this negative issue to come up again, after it should’ve been resolved years ago, is very frustrating for a jail administrator.”
Details about the newly-reported allegation against Chambers were not available this week. That’s because the detective’s full report was not on file with the Sheriff’s Office.
Brandenburg and Rustin both confirmed that the allegation dates back to 2009.
There’s significantly more in the public record about the earlier allegations. Much of it is spelled out in the civil rights lawsuit filed against Chambers and others.
According to the lawsuit, Chambers raped one of the women in her cell and again in the MDC infirmary. Working in the infirmary at the time was Anthony Townes, who was at the jail awaiting trial on charges that, in 2007, he raped several female inmates while working as a corrections officer at Camino Nuevo Women’s Correctional Facility, a contract prison in Albuquerque.
Chambers and Townes, who is now serving 16 years in state prison for the 2007 rapes, had become friends, according to the lawsuit. Townes, the suit said, stood guard both times while Chambers raped the woman.
According to the lawsuit, Townes raped a second woman in her cell while Chambers watched out for him. That woman also alleged that Chambers raped her in an area in that jail that was sometimes used as a library.
Chambers also allegedly raped a third woman, according to the lawsuit, in the area that was used as a jail library. That woman said Chambers would sneak her contraband and demanded that she “pay him back” by performing oral sex on him.
The county paid $925,000 to settle the lawsuit.
“We’re doing things every day. We’re changing the culture, we’re improving, we’re changing policies, we’re improving policies,” Rustin said. “We’re just doing some very positive work … We’ve made a lot of progress with the operation of the jail and this just takes us a step backwards.”
In Chambers’ case, if he is indicted on Monday, he will remain on administrative leave – at a minimum, Rustin said.
“If everything lines up, possibly he could face termination,” he said.
Going forward, the chief said he wants to be able to act more quickly.
MDC has received a grant for compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was first passed in 2003. It took the Justice Department 10 years to release rules under the act for detention centers and prisons.
Implementing policies that comply with the act has created what Rustin said is a safer MDC. But he would like to go even further: to a “zero tolerance” policy for staff sexual assaults, inappropriate fraternization among staff and bringing contraband into the jail.
“With a zero tolerance policy, they know exactly what could happen,” the chief said, “you’ll be out of a job.”