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Trouble Behind Bars is a months-long investigation into Kentucky jail deaths. We found preventable deaths that provoked little to no follow-up, as well as failures at all levels of government. Who is dying in your local county jail? Not even the state Department of Corrections has a true, accurate and updated accounting.

Former Jail Deputy Pleads Guilty To Fatal Beating

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Damon Hickman was admonished for abusing an inmate in July 2005, just two months into his job as a deputy at the Kentucky River Regional Jail.

Before the year was up, Hickman had been fired for wrongly releasing another inmate. But soon after, Hickman was rehired at the jail -- as a maintenance man, court records show.

Despite the prior violations, he was eventually allowed to reclaim a deputy’s job. That would prove to be a fatal, and very expensive, mistake.

Hickman pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this month to fatally beating inmate Larry Trent. Less than two weeks before the plea, prosecutors alleged that Hickman also was involved in assaults on two other inmates in 2011 and 2012.

Hickman’s guilty plea marks the latest chapter in a long saga of abuse in a Kentucky jail, and underscores the costs of such misconduct. For Larry Trent’s 2013 death alone, the Kentucky River Regional Jail’s insurance carrier paid$2.375 million in a legal settlement, one of the largest legal-claim payouts since 2000 involving a jail. An additional $600,000 has been paid to settle nine other lawsuits alleging an array of abuse and neglect at the KRRJ during the past decade.

From 2000-2015, the regional jail in Perry County ranked third in total dollar settlements among 21 jails of similar size in the state, according to data obtained by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. (Read "Trouble Behind Bars: When Jail Deaths Go Unnoticed")

And more payouts could be on the horizon. Late last week, another jail deputy, Kevin Asher, was indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with one of Hickman’s assaults. Asher was charged with injuring the inmate and then attempting to cover up the incident by falsifying records.

In a series of stories last year, KyCIR revealed myriad problems in jails across the state, including preventable inmate deaths, inadequate or nonexistent health care and oversight failures at all levels of government.

In 2015, two years after Trent's death, the state Department of Corrections’ own records characterized Trent’s death as an “altercation” and listed the cause of death as “pending.” As with numerous other jail deaths, there appeared to be little or no inquiry or follow-up by the department after Trent’s death.

Hickman now is mostly restricted to his home in Perry County. The charges on the non-fatal jail beatings are to be dismissed when he is sentenced in February. He faces up to 40 years in prison.

Hickman’s attorney, Eric Ashley of Louisville, said neither he nor his client would comment.

In federal court documents, Hickman is portrayed as a brutish man who lifted weights, took jujitsu classes and wrestled.

According to the plea agreement, he and and another deputy, William Howell, repeatedly kicked and punched Trent before leaving him bleeding on the floor from a head wound.

The deputies then failed to provide him with any medical care. Several hours later, a maintenance worker found Trent in his cell, not breathing. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.

Trent had visible boot prints on his torso and face, according to court records.

Hickman’s abusive history didn’t appear to be of great concern to Tim Kilburn, the jail administrator from 2005 until his firing last year.

“I don’t believe Damon Hickman was involved in anything more than any other deputy that’s worked at this jail,” Kilburn said in an October 2014 deposition.

Kilburn further testified that although inmates’ complaints of abuse by deputies supposedly were sent to law enforcement for investigation, he never followed up to determine the outcome.

It could not be determined what if anything came of those investigations.

Kilburn did not respond to repeated requests from KyCIR for an interview.

Perry Judge-Executive Scott Alexander declined to discuss details of Kilburn’s firing except to say that the local board overseeing the jail, which is jointly operated by Perry and Knott counties, “decided to go in a new direction.”

David Fugate, who replaced Kilburn as jail administrator, refused to be interviewed.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Lexington said the federal investigation of the jail is “ongoing.”

Criminal proceedings against Howell, another deputy, were delayed after his attorney argued that he is not mentally competent to stand trial.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

[documentcloud url=https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2501360-hickman-damon-indictment.html format=normal sidebar=false ]

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.