Unequal Justice

At federal prisons across the country, guards are preying on inmates. FDC Miami is no different.

According to his testimony, he advised Ross to retain an attorney and to sue the federal government to get access to his case file. "The FBI was willing and eager to continue investigating other misconduct by Cole and the other correctional officers," Ross's attorney, Matthew Sarelson says. "But it appears the U.S. Attorney's Office was satisfied getting the lone conviction."

On December 4, 2005, Ross was released to a halfway house. Seven months later, she was set free and started to get her life back in order. At her request, New Times is not disclosing where Ross currently resides. She went to work as a waitress at a restaurant and she says she stayed away from the drug game. "I knew what was coming my way if I got in the game again," she says. "So I couldn't do that no more."

What Ross couldn't leave behind, however, were the things that happened to her at the federal prison in Miami, and she sometimes shared her story with diners she trusted. One regular customer referred her to Miami attorney Matthew Sarelson, a raspy voiced litigator who initially had trouble believing Ross's story. "I had serious doubts that what she was telling me was true," he says.

Pat Kinsella
Pat Kinsella

On March 12, 2007, Ross filed her civil complaint against the U.S. government, which was initially dismissed on a technicality. She had not submitted an administrative complaint with the Bureau of Prisons seeking damages, which she subsequently did on April 12, 2007. Seven months later, she re-filed her lawsuit against the government, seeking $5 million in damages. She accused the Bureau of Prisons of "negligent hiring" and "negligent supervision" that led to the sexual assaults she suffered at FDC Miami.

During her summer trial last year, Judge Altonaga heard Kaelin's testimony as well as the testimony of various prison officials, law enforcement agents, and prosecutors who either claimed not to have known about Ross's allegations or could not recall what they did when they received her complaints.

Prosecutor Soto, who handled the unrelated sexual abuse case against Cole, claims he never met Ross, but he admitted to taking a pass on her allegations once Cole pled guilty on the other case. On the stand, ATF agent DeVito, the lead investigator in the government's case against the North Carolina ex-con's prison buddy Avonda Dowling, claimed he never spoke with Ross about her being sexually abused and that he never received her letter.

Assistant U.S. attorney Karen Rochlin, who was one of the first people Ross turned to after the alleged abuse began, testified that she recalled receiving a letter from Ross alleging the guards' sexual abuse but could not remember how she handled it. "I don't have a specific memory," Rochlin said. "Do I believe I did nothing? The answer to that is no."

Through a department spokeswoman, FDC Miami vehemently denied that Ross's complaints were ignored. The prison turned down a request from New Times to tour the facility and would not make available any guards or supervisors at the prison for interviews. In a written statement provided by prison bureau spokeswoman Mercedes Feliciano, she said: "The Bureau of Prisons takes these types of allegations very seriously, and all allegations are investigated, and, where warranted, referred to criminal prosecution."

"In this particular case, FDC Miami was not made aware of the alleged incidents until one year after they allegedly occurred."

Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, told New Times on Feb. 26 that in Ross's case, "it appeared that the Department of Justice policy was not followed." The next day, Valle contacted New Times to amend her message. "Since this matter is several years old," she wrote in an email, "it has not yet been determined whether policy was violated in this instance."

The special counsel declined to discuss the case in any further detail.

"This is an internal personnel matter and will be handled accordingly," she wrote.

Today, Ross holds a lot of resentment toward Rochlin. "I was just her tool," she says, seething. "She didn't care about me. All she cared about was winning her case."

Adds Sarelson: "Rochlin knew what was going on and did nothing."

Former FDC guards Echevarria, Jenkins, and Pollack did not comment for this article. Cole denied Ross's claims. "She is a liar," he said. "And I got caught up in her lies." He declined further comment on the advice of his lawyer. He recently finished serving a one-year term for raping another inmate at FDC Miami during the time Ross was there.

Ross is trying to move on. Released from prison, she opened a beauty salon late last year in the town where she lives. Near the entrance to the shop, she has placed a handwritten journal documenting her life. "I leave it there so all the young girls can read it," she says. "I want them to learn from my experiences."

Her paranoia, she says, is worse than ever. "I lay awake until three or four in the morning. I pass the time writing down my thoughts. It is the only thing that gives me peace."

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