By MICHAEL GOLDBERG and EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS (Associated Press)
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Six white former law enforcement officers in Mississippi who called themselves the “Goon Squad” pleaded guilty Thursday to a racist assault on two Black men in a home raid that ended with an officer shooting one man in the mouth.
The officers entered the house without a warrant on Jan. 24, assaulting the men with a sex toy and using stun guns and other objects to abuse them over a roughly 90-minute period, court documents show. After one victim was shot and wounded in a “mock execution” that went awry, the documents say the officers conspired to plant and tamper with evidence instead of providing medical aid.
The Justice Department launched its civil rights probe in February. The Mississippi attorney general’s office announced Thursday it had filed state charges against the six former officers, including assault, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
“The defendants in this case tortured and inflicted unspeakable harm on their victims,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said, adding that they “egregiously violated the civil rights of citizens who they were supposed to protect.”
The civil rights charges come after an Associated Press investigation linked the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead and another with lasting injuries.
“It’s kind of a partnership in crime,” U.S. District Judge Tom Lee said about the conspiracy charges unsealed Thursday.
Court documents said the officers took on the Goon Squad nickname “because of their willingness to use excessive force and not to report it.”
Those who were charged and pleaded guilty in the case are five former Rankin County Sheriff’s Department employees — Christian Dedmon, Hunter Elward, Brett McAlpin, Jeffrey Middleton and Daniel Opdyke — and former Richland police officer Joshua Hartfield, who was off duty when he participated in the raid.
The two victims, Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Rankin County in June seeking $400 million in damages. Elward shoved a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and fired. The bullet lacerated his tongue and broke his jaw before exiting his neck.
Dedmon, Elward and Opdyke also pleaded guilty to three federal felony offenses for a separate incident. Prosecutors said that on Dec. 4, Dedmon beat a white man, used a Taser on him and fired a gun near his head to coerce a confession, while Elward and Opdyke failed to intervene.
The men walked into the courthouse with family members. Federal marshals took all six into custody and they entered the courtroom with shackles on their wrists and feet.
“They became the criminals they swore to protect us from,” said U.S. Attorney Darren J. LaMarca. “Now, they’ll be treated as the criminals as they are.”
Lee said the men will be sentenced in mid-November. Dedmon and Elward each face a maximum of 120 years plus life in prison and $2.75 million in fines; Hartfield faces 80 years and $1.5 million; McAlpin, 90 years and $1.75 million; Middleton, 80 years and $1.5 million; and Opdyke, 100 years and $2 million.
The former officers are scheduled to plead guilty to the state charges on Aug. 14, said Mary-Helen Wall, a deputy state attorney general.
The documents identified Opdyke and Dedmon as the ones who assaulted the two men with the sex toy.
The officers initially went to the home in Braxton because a white neighbor had complained that Black people were staying with a white woman who owned the house. The court documents say Parker was a longtime friend of the homeowner and was helping care for her.
Officers used racist slurs against the two men during the raid and “warned them to stay out of Rankin County and go back to Jackson or ‘their side’ of the Pearl River — areas with higher concentrations of Black residents,” the documents say.
Before the raid, the officers agreed to enter without a warrant if they could avoid being spotted by the home’s security cameras. They also planned to use excessive force ahead of time — but not in the face, agreeing to “no bad mugshots,” the documents say.
The deputies threw eggs on the handcuffed victims and forced them to lie on their backs while pouring milk, alcohol and chocolate syrup down their mouths. They forced the men to strip naked and shower to remove the evidence.
The officers also repeatedly electrocuted the victims with stun guns to see whether the sheriff’s department or police department weapons were more powerful.
One deputy, Middleton, offered to plant an unregistered firearm at the scene.
The victims are identified in the court documents only by their initials, but Jenkins and Parker have discussed the episode publicly.
Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey announced on June 27 that all five deputies involved in the episode had been fired or resigned. Hartfield was later revealed to be the sixth law enforcement officer, and was also fired.
At a news conference, Bailey said he first learned “the real truth” of everything that happened to Jenkins and Parker when he read unsealed court documents Thursday.
“This is the most horrible incident of police brutality I’ve learned of over my whole career, and I’m ashamed it happened at this department,” Bailey said.
Malik Shabazz, one of the attorneys representing Jenkins and Parker, issued a statement Thursday thanking the Justice Department.
“These guilty pleas are historic for justice against rogue police torture in Rankin County and all over America,” Shabazz said in the statement from Black Lawyers for Justice. “Today is truly historic for Mississippi and for civil and human rights in America.”
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.