Guard Faces Federal Charges in Rikers "Soap Ball" Death

By Joe Valiquette
|  Monday, Mar 24, 2014  |  Updated 3:00 PM PDT
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Guard Faces Federal Charges in Rikers "Soap Ball" Death

BEHAR ANTHONY/SIPA

The FBI arrested a New York City correction officer Monday on federal civil rights charges in connection with the August 2012 death of Rikers Island inmate Jason Echevarria, who died after ingesting a corrosive disinfectant, federal prosecutors say.

Terrence Pendergrass, 49, a correction officer and former captain with the New York City Department of Correction, is named in a federal criminal complaint accusing him of deliberately ignoring the urgent medical needs of Echevarria.

Echevarria was being held at Rikers on a burglary charge and was being housed in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates when he swallowed a ball of laundry detergent containing ammonium chloride, a corrosive chemical that can be fatal if ingested, court papers say.

Prosecutors say a correction officer informed Pendergrass, a supervisory corrections officer on duty at the time, of Echevarria’s need for medical attention and that Pendergrass responded that he should only be called if an inmate needed to be extracted from a cell or if there was a dead body.

Later that day, a second correction officer informed Pendergrass that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball and needed medical help. Pendergrass failed to contact any medical personnel, prosecutors say.

Echevarria was found dead in his cell the next day. An autopsy determined he suffered internal burns and scarring along his esophagus and his trachea, indicating he suffered aspiration of vomit into his lungs. 

"The public’s trust in law enforcement officers to enforce the law and ensure justice should never be abused," FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos said. “The FBI is the lead federal agency to investigate such abuses of power and it remains one of our top priorities."

Pendergrass is expected to appear in federal court in Manhattan later Monday. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted.

Information on an attorney for him wasn't immediately available.

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