West Virginia jail officers plead guilty to conspiracy charge in fatal assault on inmate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Two West Virginia corrections officers pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony conspiracy charge stemming from the fatal beating of an inmate in a case that has brought scrutiny to conditions and deaths at the jail.

Southern Regional Jail officers Andrew Fleshman and Steven Wimmer entered the pleas during separate hearings in U.S. District Court in Beckley. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Their sentencings have been set for Feb. 22.

The officers were charged in a criminal information that they conspired to deny Quantez Burks' right to due process of law. Burks, 37, was a pretrial detainee at the jail in Beaver who died less than a day after he was booked into the jail in March 2022 on a wanton endangerment charge.

According to court documents, Burks tried to push past an officer in order to leave his housing unit. Burks then was escorted to an interview room, where Wimmer and Fleshman assaulted Burks while he was handcuffed and posed no threat. Burks then was taken to a prison cell in another housing unit where he was assaulted again, prosecutors said.

The state medical examiner's office attributed Burks’ primary cause of death to natural causes, prompting the family to have a private autopsy conducted. The family's attorney revealed at a news conference last year that the second autopsy found the inmate had multiple areas of blunt force trauma on his body.

Earlier this week a federal magistrate judge cited the “intentional” destruction of records in recommending a default judgment in a lawsuit over conditions at the Southern Regional Jail. The order followed a hearing in early October in which former and current corrections officials, including some defendants in the lawsuit, said that no steps were taken to preserve evidence, including emails and documents, at the jail.

Following the order, the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Justice fired two officials in the state Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security spokesperson Andy Malinoski confirmed Thursday they are Division of Corrections and Rehabilitatoin Executive Officer Brad Douglas and Homeland Security chief counsel Phil Sword.

In the 2022 class-action lawsuit, current and former inmates described jail conditions as inhumane. The suit referenced a lack of access to water and food, as well as overcrowded conditions and fights that were allowed to continue until someone was injured.

Justice has said Homeland Security told him the investigation he ordered into jail conditions found no evidence of inhumane treatment. Burks' mother, Kimberly Burks, told Justice during a town hall meeting earlier this year in Beckley that the state’s findings were “a lie.”

News outlets have reported there were more than a dozen deaths at the Southern Regional Jail last year.

State Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy retired in July and was replaced by Mark Sorsaia, an assistant prosecutor in Putnam County.