Man Jailed for Child Support Beaten to Death in Jail

March 5, 2000
Inmate says man who died was beaten at jail
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 a beating.

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 was released.

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 release.

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 speaking out.

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 believed happened.

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 said.

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 daughters.

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 inmates.

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.