ELYRIA — A corrections officer fired from the Lorain County Jail last year after jail officials discovered he’d been fostering a years-long “inappropriate relationship” with a mentally ill inmate — including securing an early release for the man — was granted his job back last month, jail officials said. Robert Cruzado, 59, of Lorain, also will be paid up to $58,000 for his troubles — the approximate wages he would have earned over the past 18 months had he never been fired, said sheriff’s Capt. John Reiber.
Cruzado was ordered rehired last month by an arbitrator who reviewed a union grievance the corrections officer filed shortly after his January 2006 termination.
The arbitrator, Virginia Wallace-Curry, of Pepper Pike, said in her 22-page ruling that she agreed with the sheriff’s findings — Cruzado had, in fact, violated a number of major and minor rules at the jail — but she felt his actions “were not proven to be dishonest or morally reprehensible.”
As such, Wallace-Curry suggested Cruzado should have been suspended for 60 days, though jail officials say the longest suspension they’ve ever meted out without firing someone is 30 days.
Cruzado was rehired July 18, but he’ll also be paid for the time he didn’t work over the past 18 months, minus the 60 days for the suspension. In addition, any money he earned while working other jobs in the past year will be subtracted from the $58,000.
Jail officials say they have to accept Wallace-Curry’s ruling, and they’re still calculating just how much of the $58,000 they’ll have to pay Cruzado.
“You have to accept the arbitrator’s decision, whether you like it or not,” Reiber said. “We can’t refuse to take him back. As long as he does his job, everything will be fine.”
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A childhood friend of county Sheriff Phil Stammitti and a brother-in-law to county Common Pleas Judge James Burge, Cruzado was hired at the county jail in 2001, his personnel file showed.
Jail officials began investigating Cruzado in December 2005 after an inmate — John Strother, now 37 and released from jail — complained that a years-long friendship with Cruzado had soured, investigators’ reports said.
Strother, a paranoid schizophrenic housed in the jail’s special-needs pod, had been in and out of prison for years. From 2001 to 2004, he was imprisoned for robbing an Elyria gas station, and it was during that time that he met Cruzado at the county jail.
At the time, Strother had a lawsuit pending against the state after being sexually assaulted by a guard at a correctional facility in Orient, Ohio. The Orient guard was sent to prison for the incident, though the lawsuit was dismissed.
From Dec. 8, 2005, to late January 2006, jail officials who investigated Cruzado said they discovered he had, in fact, befriended Strother and violated a number of jail policies.
Ultimately, in late January 2006, their investigation led to Cruzado’s termination for assisting Strother with legal matters and providing him favors, as well as conspiring with the inmate to “stall, impede or otherwise mislead” jail officials during their investigation.
Specifically: Cruzado arranged for his brother-in-law, Burge, then a defense attorney but now a county Common Pleas judge, to secure Strother’s early release from prison.
Jail officials said corrections officers are forbidden from interacting with inmates outside the jail, and inside the jail they can’t provide inmates with special favors or gifts that could make life more comfortable — including their freedom.
In a May 2007 response to Cruzado’s termination appeal, jail attorneys wrote: “Grievant (Cruzado) gave Strother one of the biggest favors anyone can give an inmate — his freedom. By asking his brother-in-law to arrange for a judicial release for Strother, grievant (Cruzado) stepped completely outside the realm of professionalism for a corrections officer.”
Before he was fired last year, Cruzado admitted to jail investigators that he’d allowed his sons to provide Strother a ride to a Beachwood attorney who was representing Strother in the lawsuit, which was still active at the time.
To this day, Strother maintains that Cruzado befriended him only because he learned about his lawsuit. Jail officials asked Cruzado during their investigation if he was helping Strother in return for money from Strother’s lawsuit, but Cruzado denied the accusation.
When questioned by jail officials during the investigation, Cruzado said he was trying to do a “good deed” by arranging for Strother’s early release from prison, and the only connection he had with the lawsuit was arranging for Strother’s trip to the attorney’s office.
What jail investigators did learn, however, was that Cruzado accepted a number of phone calls made to his Lorain home by Strother from state prison and the county jail.
It was one of those phone calls — recorded by jail officials — that triggered the entire investigation and lent some plausibility to Strother’s claims.
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On Dec. 8, 2005, a phone call was placed from the county jail by Strother to Cruzado at his Lorain home.
Sheriff’s department representatives said in their May 2007 response to Cruzado’s grievance: “The recorded conversation was eye-opening, not only to (investigators) but to every other officer in the chain of command at the Sheriff’s office, including Sheriff Stammitti. In fact, every officer testified that they couldn’t even believe (Cruzado) accepted the phone call in the first place, knowing it was from a jail inmate.”
In the recorded phone call, Strother warns Cruzado that jail officials “are on to us” and said he was being questioned about favors
Cruzado may have provided him. At one point in the conversation, Cruzado replies: “You know what to do.”
Strother’s reply: “Huh.”
Cruzado’s reply: “Stall them.”
Representing Cruzado, union officials said in a May 2007 report that the phone call was an act of “deceit” on the part of the sheriff, and it caught Cruzado off guard since he’d been sleeping when he received the call.
“It was a trap being laid by the Sheriff in the middle of a sound sleep through the use of an agent provocateur,” stated the union’s report.
In their own response to the arbitration, sheriff’s representatives said the inflection of Cruzado’s voice in the phone call showed “there was something between (Cruzado) and Strother — something that (Cruzado) didn’t want investigated.”
The arbitrator, Wallace-Curry, ultimately ruled that the phone call did “not contain any false or misleading information.
“In the context of the conversation, ‘stall them’ is at most ambiguous,” Wallace-Curry’s ruling said. “Stall them until what? It could have meant that Strother should not give out any more information until (Cruzado) had a chance to talk to someone at the Sheriff’s office or someone approached (Cruzado) about the phone call.”
Despite Strother’s warning to Cruzado that jail officials were “on to us,” Wallace-Curry added: “Certainly, (Cruzado) could not have impeded or stalled an investigation he did not know was taking place.”
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Prior to Cruzado’s termination, Burge, Cruzado’s brother-in-law, defended Cruzado’s actions in a report to the sheriff.
In it, Burge said Cruzado developed a relationship with Strother because Strother was an inmate who told him about infractions by other inmates.
But Burge also wrote that it was “undisputed” that Strother was mentally ill, had an extensive criminal record involving dishonesty, and
Strother’s credibility was such that “no law enforcement officer would rely on his statements under any circumstances.”
Which led jail officials to question why Cruzado would trust Strother’s accounts of other inmates’ infractions.
“By attacking Strother’s credibility, Mr. Burge also destroys (Cruzado’s) alleged excuse for developing the relationship with Strother,” jail representatives wrote. “Why would a corrections officer try to obtain (early release) for a ‘schizophrenic,’ dangerous, untrustworthy inmate?”
Other issues jail officials raised in their arbitration report:
“Why would a corrections officer who knows an inmate is considered dangerous by the jail and is a ‘special needs’ inmate, authorize his sons to transport Strother all the way from Elyria to (an attorney’s) office in Beachwood?”
“And, why after all of this had taken place, would a corrections officer take a telephone call from that inmate in the jail and advise that inmate to stall an investigation by (investigators), and further advise that inmate to ‘keep with the same story.’ ”
Jail officials said Strother was familiar with Cruzado’s residence because he knew where the house was and could explain its layout.
Wallace-Curry agreed that Cruzado had violated a number of the sheriff office’s policies, but added that his behavior also showed he related well with the inmates.
“This is a fine line that (Cruzado) appears to have walked, i.e., relating well to inmates, but separating himself from their problems,”
Wallace-Curry’s ruling said. “In this instance, he crossed over the line into a violation of policy.”
She continued: Because the incidents “were not proven to be dishonest or morally reprehensible, immediate discharge for a first offense is not required.”
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.