LYNCHBURG — A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced the former head nurse of the Rockbridge Regional Jail to 12 months and one day for falsifying an incident report related to an inmate’s medical care.
A federal jury found Gary Andrew Hassler, 59, guilty in July after a three-day trial in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg. Hassler was originally charged with two counts of falsifying a document with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence an investigation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The jury returned a guilty verdict on one of the charges.
The jail’s former superintendent, John Higgins, was indicted in August 2018 at the same time as Hassler. Higgins is charged with violating the civil rights of inmates by failing to protect them from physical abuse and failing to provide medical treatment. A superseding indictment issued in June added 15 more charges of mail fraud alleging Higgins had accepted bribes from inmates’ families and the jail’s medical supplier.
Higgins, who sits on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, faces 21 charges. His trial is set for December.
Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Norman Moon on Tuesday that Higgins was always their primary target in the investigation, but asked for Hassler’s sentencing to fall within the guidelines of 15 to 21 months.
Moon sentenced Hassler below the guidelines because of his health problems and lack of criminal history, but stipulated the offense was a serious one. Moon said Hassler should have risked his job to provide medical care to inmates who relied on him.
“They’re entitled to human respect and adequate medical care,” Moon said. “The only protection they have are the people who do their jobs and carry out their duties … And there has to be consequences for not doing the right thing.”
The charge against Hassler stems from an incident involving inmate Robert Eugene Clark, who was in jail on charges of rape, sexual battery and indecent acts with a child under the age of 13.
Clark admitted to sheriff’s deputies on Feb. 28, 2017, that other inmates had beaten him. He had deep purple bruising across his arms and legs and also had red scratches and older, yellow bruises on his chest.
Derek Almarode, who was a captain at the jail at the time, said he remembered Clark’s bruises nearly matched his navy blue uniform. When Almarode saw Clark’s injuries, he retrieved then-superintendent Higgins from his office. According to Almarode’s testimony, Higgins told Clark he wasn’t going to the hospital. Clark was not seen by a doctor that day.
Hassler maintained throughout the trial that he had not seen Clark, or the injuries on his face, until the next day, March 1. Hassler testified that Clark came up for his medication that day and that is when he noticed the severe bruising on his face. He asked Clark if he was OK. Clark replied he was fine. Hassler asked him if he wanted to step into the hallway for an exam. Clark said no. So Hassler asked if he wanted to come to the medical center for an exam, and Clark again said no.
Hassler said he forgot about the incident after that. Inmates often have bruises and they don’t like to snitch on one another. On Saturday, March 4, he received a call and learned that Clark had been sent to the hospital because he had been beaten. Hassler said during the trial he did not know the extent of Clark’s injuries until that day.
Hassler realized he had not documented the time Clark refused medical care. He went to the office on March 5, a Sunday, and filed an incident report that detailed the conversation he said he had with Clark on March 1, when Clark refused to be examined.
The jury found Hassler guilty of falsifying this incident report in order to impede the investigation into Higgins, who, according to witness testimony, denied Clark the medical care he needed.
Virginia State Police came to the jail on March 3, 2017, to begin an investigation at the request of the county commonwealth’s attorney, who said the investigation seemed more serious than just inmate abuse. State police began their investigation at 5 p.m. March 3, so prosecutors argued the incident report Hassler created on March 5 was to protect Higgins from charges of denying an inmate medical care.