By Aaron C. Davis, James Hohmann and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 30, 2008
A 19-year-old man accused of running down a Prince George's County police officer died yesterday in custody, less than 36 hours after he was charged in connection with the slaying.
Ronnie L. White was pronounced dead at Prince George's Hospital Center about an hour after he was found sitting on the floor of his cell beside his bunk, unresponsive and with no detectable pulse, officials at the county jail said.
White, of the 9100 block of Tumbleweed Run in the Laurel area of Howard County, had been charged with first-degree murder in Friday's death of Cpl. Richard S. Findley, 39. Two men in a pickup police believe was stolen hit Findley as they fled an apartment complex in Laurel. Police say White was the driver. Findley suffered massive head trauma and died a short time later.
Col. Gregory O. Harris, deputy director of operations for the county's Corrections Department, said he could not rule out the possibility that White committed suicide, but he stressed that there were no visible signs of trauma on him. He also said White had passed a medical and psychological evaluation when he entered the Upper Marlboro jail early Saturday and at that time "showed no signs of suicide or depression at all."
Ten members of White's family who gathered in the hospital's parking lot yesterday evening were visibly angry and said they were suspicious of authorities' explanations. Angela White, Ronnie White's mother, declined to comment, saying she wanted to consult a lawyer first.
White was being held in a maximum security cell, where he was not allowed to have cloth or ropelike material and was checked every 30 minutes, Harris said. He added that White was last checked 15 minutes before he was found unresponsive. An officer saw him sitting on his bed, awake and alert, at 10:15 a.m., Harris said, and at 10:30 a.m., White was discovered on the floor by an officer bringing him lunch.
An official at Prince George's Hospital Center confirmed that there was no sign of trauma on White's body or any visible cause of death. The person, who was not authorized to release information, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Vernon Herron, director of public safety for Prince George's, ordered county police to immediately begin investigating White's death. County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey also began looking into it.
White's body was taken to a medical examiner's office in Baltimore yesterday afternoon, the hospital official said. Harris said an autopsy will be performed.
White's death follows a series of problems for the county's correctional center. This year, a corrections officer was arrested on suspicion of supplying cellphones to inmates; another was charged with armed robbery and assault; several inmates turned up with handcuff keys; and a detainee was injured when he was attacked by seven gang members in a holding area. The director of corrections was fired June 4 after four handguns were found to be missing from the jail armory.
Corrections officers told the Prince George's County Council in January that the jail is increasingly violent and so crowded it can't be fully locked down. Union officials said that officers are ill-equipped and undertrained and that the facility is badly in need of renovation.
White was booked into the jail at 12:42 a.m. Saturday, about 12 hours after he was apprehended during a search involving dozens of officers.
Harris said that normally, White would have been moved to a jail outside Prince George's because his alleged crime involved county law enforcement officers. But because White was arrested late on a weekend night, when most administrative staff members are not working, the county didn't follow that standard protocol, Harris said.
Mark Brady, a spokesman for the county's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the department received a call at 10:38 a.m. yesterday from the Department of Corrections. The call indicated that CPR was in progress on an approximately 20-year-old male, and paramedics and an ambulance from the Upper Marlboro station were dispatched. Brady said the paramedics took over lifesaving efforts, continuing CPR while they took the man to a hospital.
Harris also said that to his knowledge White had not complained of his treatment by police or corrections staff since being arrested Saturday morning.
On Friday, Findley and other officers from an elite squad had been attempting to box in two suspects in a blue Chevy Silverado when White rammed Findley's cruiser, according to the charges. When Findley got out of his cruiser, White hit him and dragged him on the front and side of the truck while hitting other vehicles and an iron fence, police said.
Maj. Dwayne Preston, commander of the 6th Police District, where Findley was assigned, said the officer's family, which has not spoken publicly since the incident, was told of White's death yesterday afternoon. Findley was married and had two young daughters.
"I don't know if it's justice or not," Preston said of White's death. He and three other high-ranking police officials said they had been told that White had committed suicide but had no information to corroborate that. "We're really more focused on laying Corporal Findley to rest," Preston said.
James Penn, a chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministries who works at the Prince George's jail, said he called White's mother, Angela White, and was the first to inform her of her son's death. "She was stunned, didn't know how to take it," Penn said. "She just kept asking where he was, where the body was."
Online, White's friends began flocking to a memorial page created on MySpace. Several of the friends also had MySpace links to the Laurel area gang known as Curupt Mindz.
Preston confirmed that White was believed to be connected to Curupt Mindz. He said the gang is a known problem in the Laurel area. Two alleged members of the gang are awaiting trial on robbery charges, Preston said, and members are suspected in carjackings and other robberies in shopping centers near where Findley was hit.
A police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because three other people detained during Friday's search are still under investigation, said members of Curupt Mindz are also known drug dealers. He said that drugs were found in an apartment but that detectives were still trying to determine whether the drugs belonged to the suspects. An electronic log of radio communications from Friday's search showed that an officer reported finding four pounds of marijuana and an assault rifle in an apartment.
Court records show that in 2006 White was charged with first-degree assault and armed robbery; the case was dropped. Last year, he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and, in a separate case, to drug possession. On Nov. 28, he was sentenced to more than six months in prison. It was unclear when he was released.
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda and Rosalind S. Helderman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.