Man Jailed for Child Support Beaten to Death in Jail
THE UNION LEADER AND NEW HAMPSHIRE SUNDAY NEWS
March 5, 2000
Inmate says man who died was beaten at jail
By NANCY WEST
Sunday News Staff
A Hillsborough County jail inmate has been transferred to
Belknap County Jail in Laconia after telling authorities he believes Brian
Armstrong was beaten by correctional officers. Just days later, Armstrong
died at Elliot Hospital in Manchester.
William H. Phillips, 37, of Manchester, said in a jail interview Friday in
Laconia that he saw several corrections officers drag Armstrong from his
cell into a maximum security unit room at the Hillsborough County facility,
also known as the Valley Street Jail on Jan. 13 or 14.
Phillips, serving two 12-month sentences for simple assault in a domestic
case, said he then heard screaming he believes was the result of a 15-minute
beating, then saw two nurses drag Armstrong off the tier.
"I witnessed Mr. Armstrong being beaten. He was strapped to a chair and
beaten," Phillips said, but when pressed, conceded he couldn't see directly
into the room with the restraining chair and only heard what he described as
The jail has a restraining chair, but officials say it is only used when
an inmate is out of control and poses a danger to himself or others.
Authorities have insisted Armstrong wasn't beaten at the jail, but say
there was a minor incident on the evening of Jan. 14 with a correctional
officer that caused Armstrong to fall and hit his head the day before his
parents posted bail.
Armstrong's mother has said that her son was covered with bruises when he
The few details released by authorities contradict some of Phillips'
version of what happened that evening. Phillips said officers dragged
Armstrong to a room near his cell with a restraining chair, but officials
say the incident took place in Armstrong's cell.
Armstrong, 41, of Milford, who was unemployed, was jailed for failing to
pay child support. He was semi-conscious the morning after the incident when
his parents picked him up after posting bail at the jail and were told to
take him directly to the hospital. Armstrong died three days after his
Senior Assistant Attorney General Mark Zuckerman, who interviewed Phillips
with state police, said the investigation into Armstrong's death, including
an official cause of death report, is almost complete. It is part of a joint
state and federal probe of the jail.
Zuckerman said correctional officers were in Armstrong's cell Jan. 14
"during the collection of some materials." The cell door was open and when
Armstrong headed for it, a correctional officer pushed him to stop him.
"That caused Mr. Armstrong to lose his footing and trip backward onto his
buttocks and strike his head against the cell floor. Our preliminary
findings indicate there were no other contacts between Mr. Armstrong and
correctional officers at that point that we're aware of," Zuckerman said.
He declined to address Phillips' version of the events because the
investigation remains open.
First U.S. Attorney David Vicinanzo said no conclusions have been made
regarding Armstrong's death.
"That individual (Phillips) and many others have been interviewed. We will
thoroughly assess the credibility of all persons we talk to before drawing
any conclusions. Nothing has been finalized," Vicinanzo said.
Phillips said when he was interviewed by Zuckerman and state police, he
sensed they didn't believe him, but he insisted he has nothing to gain by
He says he believes he may be in danger, that officers at Valley Street
Jail spread false rumors that he was a "skinner," or child molester, when he
is not, and that traveling to Laconia to visit him is a hardship for his
girlfriend in Nashua.
"They told me if I lied to them they were going to 'smoke' me. That's
their word," Phillips said. He said he is willing to take a lie detector
test to prove he is telling the truth.
Phillips said he was at the Merrimack District Court on Jan. 20 to appear
on a motion about allegedly violating a restraining order. Wearing shackles
in a holding room, a deputy sheriff showed him the newspaper containing an
article about Armstrong's death.
"I said, 'Yeah, that's the guy they beat last week,'" Phillips said.
"That's when I realized the guy they beat died."
That night he began writing letters to the American Civil Liberties Union,
The Union Leader, the Attorney General and the FBI detailing what he
Phillips said he still isn't sure if the incident occurred Jan. 13 or 14,
but is certain the man he saw was Armstrong. "Your time goes quicker if you
don't keep track of the days," he said.
He said Armstrong had flooded his cell by either stuffing toilet paper in
the toilet or the toilet accidentally overflowed, angering the correctional
officers. Phillips returned to his cell and couldn't see directly into the
room with Armstrong and the officers.
"I could hear. It lasted 10 to 15 minutes. He was screaming like he was
being beaten. There were at least 20 other people all down the pod and
inmates yelling at them to stop," Phillips said.
"He had long gray hair. He was white and skinny. He wasn't very big,"
Phillips said. Armstrong's hair was described as long and dark dirty blond
by his mother, Evelyn Armstrong.
"There was a whole chorus of people yelling to stop. I had this feeling of
being helpless. It was basically a scream, then like you were being hit,
then a scream, then a hit and a scream," he said.
"It was pretty evident what was going on in that room," Phillips said.
Phillips said after Armstrong was taken off the tier, he and two other
inmates who worked as cleaners helped clean up the water from the toilet. He
said while cleaning the room with the restraining chair, he saw a splatter
of what he believed was blood on the wall and cleaned it.
There have been no public statements indicating whether Armstrong bled
externally that night. Phillips said he was later told by a guard that
Armstrong went to "the hospital."
Phillips said another inmate yelled to Armstrong as the nurses were taking
him away, "Good move. Tell them your legs don't work."
Phillips said he was up at 6 the next morning and never saw Armstrong
again, learning of his death only days later in court.
Phillips' record shows he was convicted of simple assault. He said he has
11 more months to serve in the domestic case. He also admitted to several
assaults and two DWIs, mostly in his younger years, but his complete adult
criminal record was unavailable Friday.
He said he doesn't want to go back to Hillsborough County jail.
"If I went back to Hillsborough County, I don't believe I would have a
very good time . . . I don't think they would take care of me," Phillips
He said the Belknap County jail is a vast improvement over Hillsborough
County jail the food is better and the officers are more professional.
Phillips said he hasn't asked for any favors and doesn't expect anything
but trouble for speaking out about that night.
"I believe it's wrong what they did over there. I didn't think through the
hardships for me. I thought they would as least suspend the (guards), not
turn the finger at me for reporting," he said.
"I'm not gaining anything," Phillips said. He wants to serve his time and
resume his career as a painting contractor and eventually get to see his two
He said he risked being charged with filing a false report and
additional jail time because he is telling the truth.
"I would love them to try to charge me. . . . They would have to subpoena
people. Then the truth will come out," Phillips said.
Hillsborough County Jail Superintendent James M. O'Mara Jr. said he was
aware that Phillips was moved on the request of the state Attorney General's
Office, but hasn't been kept in the loop of the investigation.
"I had no idea who he was. How can I respond to something I'm not aware
of," O'Mara said.
Some of the correctional officers have obtained lawyers through their
union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and
have been cautioned against speaking publicly. Donna Lacerte, union
spokesman, said the union backs the officers and said they do not beat
Phillips said he identified the officers by name to the investigators and
also provided names of inmates he knew to be on the pod that night.
In the meantime, Armstrong's mother, Evelyn Armstrong, said she has
received a few anonymous calls and heard rumors that her adopted son was
beaten at the jail. She said he had problems with alcohol, but was living
with her and her husband hoping to get back on his feet.
She said when her son was first taken to the hospital, his body was
covered with bruises and she was told he suffered such a severe brain injury
he wasn't expected to live.
Mrs. Armstron said she just hopes to hear soon from authorities as to the
final cause of death and details about what led to it. And she has returned
to work to get her mind off the tragedy of losing her son. "I haven't heard
anything from the state.
"I'm just worn out," Mrs. Armstrong said.