Benton County jail officials are reviewing court security procedures and making some changes after one inmate recently broke free from officers and escaped, and another attacked a man who had just been sentenced.
The alleged assault by Brandon L. VanWinkle led the Superior Court judge to order the courtroom cleared until officers got control of him.
The day before, Gerald A. Hyde II was missing for nearly two hours after running from the courthouse until he was tracked down to a friend’s apartment two miles away.
Hyde has been charged with a felony and his bail bumped up from $7,500 to $100,000, while sheriff’s detectives are investigating the incident with VanWinkle. Jail officials have asked for him to be charged with assault.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Hyde and VanWinkle were only wearing handcuffs, and not belly chains or leg shackles, during the alleged incidents.
Commander Jon Law — who oversees jail operations, which includes the transport of inmates to court — said it is not the first time there has been an assault or an escape attempt, but noted it is a rare thing.
“We have a pretty good history of ensuring public safety in courtrooms,” Law told the Herald. “Anybody in custody can be volatile and unpredictable, but we do take all precautions to safeguard the safety of the public and court staff and judge and clerical staff, and the inmates as well.”
Law said courthouse security cameras captured both incidents, and he and his staff have watched the videos to analyze and critique what happened. They are working with court administrators to implement additional security features.
“Honestly, both of these things are events that we want to learn from and, yes, things could have been done differently and we will make those adjustments,” he said. “We want to do it right, not only for the taxpayers, but for our employees as well.”
Hyde was in custody for allegedly possessing methamphetamine during his Dec. 13 arrest on a warrant.
After his Dec. 16 arraignment, officers were walking Hyde out of the courtroom with a group of other inmates when the Richland man took off through an interior hallway and eventually found his way out of the courthouse, Law said. He was seen running out the front door while barefoot and wearing jail-issued pants.
Police got a tip that he was at a North Arthur Street apartment, and as they went to arrest him, Hyde allegedly tried to run again. He was caught.
Hyde now is charged with second-degree escape. He has pleaded innocent and is scheduled for trial Feb. 8.
The following day, VanWinkle was on the criminal docket for his own meth possession case. The 37-year-old man was brought into the courtroom alone, without other inmates, because of his assaultive and disciplinary history in jail, Law said.
VanWinkle has repeatedly claimed that he is Jesus Christ and he can do whatever he wants because it is his world.
Most recently, he served a three-year, seven-month prison term for spitting on the arm, face and head of a corrections officer in the Benton County jail. He was mad about being moved to a different cell for damaging jail property and spitting and throwing urine on other inmates.
VanWinkle was sitting in the jury box Dec. 17 as Luke R. Welch was sentenced for assaulting the three-year-old daughter of his girlfriend.
The toddler’s mother had pointed out to the court that Welch was looking at a negotiated sentence of five days, yet the clear hand print and other bruises that covered the girl from nearly head to toe lasted 11 days and the emotional scar will take even longer to heal.
Judge Alex Ekstrom, in going with the recommended jail term, said he recognized “there simply isn’t a number of days that would make this OK.” Since Welch had only done two days behind bars, Ekstrom sent him to jail to do three more.
That meant Welch had to be seated in the jury box until a court officer could take him to the jail.
VanWinkle did nothing as he walked past Welch to go before the judge for his own case. But after his short hearing, as an officer was walking him out of the courtroom to a holding cell, VanWinkle allegedly lunged at Welch in the jury box and struck him at least once.
VanWinkle yelled at Welch for hitting a little girl, saying “I’m going to f--- you up, punk. … I’ll f---ing murder you. … Welcome to the Lord’s house, b----.”
Some members of the audience cheered for VanWinkle, with one woman reportedly telling Welch, “You’re not safe.” Meanwhile, a court officer restrained VanWinkle on the ground inside the jury box until Welch could be taken out.
Ekstrom ordered the bailiff to get everyone out of the courtroom so the jail could get the situation under control.
Once back in session, Ekstrom learned that the one woman was unrelated to either case and was there for her son’s case. She tried to tell Ekstrom that five days wasn’t enough for the child assault, and the judge told the woman she was being removed from the courtroom for the day because she “egged” on VanWinkle.
Ekstrom further told the audience: “We have a system of law, and when people encourage assaults in a courtroom, it is contrary to everything this nation stands for.”