JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Men who had sworn an oath to protect and serve were huddled on the back porch of a Mississippi home as Michael Corey Jenkins lay on the floor, blood gushing from his mutilated tongue where one of the police officers shoved a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
As Jenkins writhed in pain, the six white officers devised a scheme to cover up dozens of stunning acts of brutality that they had just carried out during 90 minutes of terror against Jenkins and a second Black victim.
The officers planted drugs. They stole surveillance footage from the house. They tried to dispose of other evidence. They agreed on a set of lies that would further upend their victims’ lives.
And that was just the cover-up.
Careful to avoid security cameras at the house, they burst in without a warrant, starting the physical, sexual and psychological abuse. They handcuffed Jenkins and his friend Eddie Terrell Parker and poured milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup over their faces. They forced them to strip naked and shower together to conceal the mess. They mocked the victims with racial slurs. They shocked them with stun guns.
The officers had meant to torture the men without leaving physical scars. But one shot Jenkins in the mouth. Miraculously, Jenkins survived.
The six officers pleaded guilty Thursday to a long list of federal civil rights charges. The Mississippi attorney general’s office announced afterward that it had filed state charges that include assault, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Law enforcement officers are seldom charged for crimes committed on the job, and it’s rarer still for them to plead guilty.
The charges follow an investigation by The Associated Press that linked some of the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries.
The officers included Christian Dedmon, Hunter Elward, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton and Daniel Opdyke of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and Joshua Hartfield, a Richland police officer. They pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy against rights, obstructions of justice, deprivation of rights under color of law, discharge of a firearm under a crime of violence, and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The terror began on Jan. 24 in a racist call for extrajudicial violence that felt like it was from a bygone era.
A white neighbor phoned Rankin County Deputy Brett McAlpin and complained that two Black men were staying with a white woman inside a Braxton home. McAlpin told Deputy Christian Dedmon, who texted a group of white deputies so willing to use excessive force they called themselves “The Goon Squad.”
“Are y’all available for a mission?” Dedmon asked. They were.
Opdyke “admits he was wrong for his part in the horrific harms” and “is prepared to face the consequences of his actions,” attorney Jason Kirschberg said in a statement.
Hartfield’s attorney said Vicki Gilliam while he “cannot change what he did, he has shown that he is ready to accept consequences.”
Attorneys for the other men did not respond to requests for comment.
The deputies were under the watch of Sheriff Bryan Bailey, who called it the worst episode of police brutality he has seen in his career.
Black residents on Friday expressed revulsion at the former officers’ actions, gratitude toward Jenkins and Parker for speaking out about their treatment, and relief that the officers were being brought to justice.
“When the people that you expect to protect you are the people who are hurting you and killing you, there just are no words to describe how it has affected the mindset, the mental state of our people,” said Angela English, the county’s NAACP president.
Law enforcement misconduct in the U.S. has come under increased scrutiny. The 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police ignited calls for sweeping criminal justice reforms and a reassessment of American race relations. The January beating death of Tyre Nichols by five Black members of a special police squad in Memphis, Tennessee, led to a probe of similar units nationwide.
In Rankin County, the brutality visited upon Jenkins and Parker was not a botched police operation, but an assembly of rogue officers “who tortured them all under the authority of a badge, which they disgraced,” said U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca.
The majority-white county is just east of the state capital, Jackson, home to one of the highest percentages of Black residents of any major U.S. city. A towering monument topped by a Confederate soldier stands across the street from the Rankin County sheriff’s office.
Federal court records detail what happened.
As Jenkins lay bleeding, the officers knew the “mission” had gone too far. Instead of coming clean, they devised a hasty cover-up that included a fictitious narcotics bust and threats.
The officers warned Jenkins and Parker to “stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or ‘their side’ of the Pearl River,” court documents say, referencing an area with higher concentrations of Black residents.
Kristen Clarke, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the trauma “is magnified because the misconduct was fueled by racial bias and hatred” that recalled that a sheriff’s deputy was also involved in one of Mississippi’s most notorious crimes — the 1964 kidnapping and killing of three civil rights workers by Ku Klux Klan members.
After Dedmon summoned “The Goon Squad,” the officers crept around the ranch-style home to avoid a surveillance camera. They kicked down the carport door and burst inside without a warrant.
Opdyke found a sex toy, which he mounted on a nearby BB gun and forced into Parker’s mouth. Dedmon tried to sexually assault Jenkins with the toy. The officers used stun guns on them, comparing whose weapons were more powerful.
Elward forced Jenkins to his knees for a “mock execution,” intending to fire the gun without a bullet. But it was loaded, and discharged, cutting Jenkins’ tongue, breaking his jaw and exiting through his neck.
As Jenkins bled on the floor, the officers devised a cover story for investigators: Elward brought Jenkins into a side room to stage a drug bust over the phone and said Jenkins reached for a gun when he was released from handcuffs.
Middleton offered to plant an unregistered gun, but Elward said he would use the BB gun. Dedmon volunteered to plant methamphetamine he had received from an informant.
Prosecutors in Rankin County initially charged Jenkins with a felony based on the methamphetamine. That was later dropped.
Opdyke put one of Elward’s shell casings in a water bottle and threw it into tall grass nearby. Hartfield removed the hard drive from the home’s surveillance system and later tossed it in a creek.
Afterward, McAlpin and Middleton made a promise: They would kill any of the officers who told the truth about what happened.
The officers kept quiet as pressure mounted from a Justice Department civil rights probe. One came forward in June, said Sheriff Bailey.
Bailey said Thursday that he was lied to and only learned the truth when he read unsealed court documents. McAlpin and Elward worked under Bailey for years and were sued several times for alleged misconduct.
The sheriff said the deputies violated existing body camera rules by not wearing them when in uniform. He promised to mandate body cameras be turned on with fewer exceptions and said he was open to more federal oversight. He also called the officers “criminals,” echoing federal prosecutors.
“Now, they’ll be treated as the criminals they are,” said U.S. Attorney LaMarca.
– Written by Michael Goldberg
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.