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Jail guards fired over racist texts

After inmates at the Camden County Jail complained that corrections officers had stomped on or torn apart personal photos during routine cell searches in November 2014, the internal affairs unit launched an investigation.

After inmates at the Camden County Jail complained that corrections officers had stomped on or torn apart personal photos during routine cell searches in November 2014, the internal affairs unit launched an investigation.

One of the officers involved in the shakedown then pointed to an even larger problem: Other officers, he said, were smuggling cellphones into the jail for personal use.

What investigators discovered next was shocking.

A group of white officers, for months, had exchanged racial, homophobic, and anti-Semitic slurs in group text messages. The messages included jokes about black people, crying inmates, and rioters in Ferguson, Mo.

And then there was the acronym: "HNIC."

It stood for "head n- in charge" - or what some of the officers called Warden David Owens, who is black.

The N word, in fact, was frequently used.

A copy of the 5,000-plus texts exchanged between September and December 2014, first obtained by the Courier-Post on Thursday through a public records request, led to the termination of nine officers at the jail. Two other officers who participated in the messages retired - and are receiving a combined $76,000 in pensions, according to the state.

Owens said Friday he allowed the officers, Chris Kelly and James Finley, each with more than 20 years on the job, to retire during the early stages of the investigation, when not all of the details were known.

"Had I known then what I know now, I may have made another decision," Owens said.

The actions from "a small group of rogue officers," Owens said, have appalled the jail's more than 340 employees, who he said are supposed to be like family.

"We have to trust each other, and our lives are dependent on each other," Owens said. "So I'm really frustrated about the entire incident."

The nine terminated officers have appealed the county's decision to fire them, though one lost his appeal in August. Owens said the nine had not received pensions. State officials did not respond Friday on whether the officers would be eligible for pensions if their terminations were overturned.

Before the Civil Service Commission ruled against him, Thomas McNulty testified to a judge that he used the N word to describe "someone who is arrogant" but said he didn't believe the comments were racist.

The messages also included pictures of corrections officers posing inside a cell, and of an inmate waiting for court. Some of the officers had sneaked in cellphones, which are prohibited in the jail.

The texts ranged in topic - from the Eagles to police shootings to the TV show Homeland - but often included slurs. In November 2014, the officers discussed the riots in Ferguson after a grand jury cleared a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

"I hope they bomb St. Louis," said an officer who went by the nickname "Batman" in the texts, a copy of which the county provided Friday. Owens identified the officer as Michael Jacob. The same day, according to the transcript, Jacob mentioned someone who he said was like "Michael brown and trayvon Martin. Therefore he is a guilty criminal that should be shot."

Other texts referred to minorities as "animals," joked about a disturbing scene in the movie American History X, in which a black man's face is stomped into a curb, and complained about encounters with black people outside work.

On Nov. 28, 2014, according to the transcript, officer Thomas Grosmick said to the group: "Ok I was at adelphias for a quick beer and the n- bouncer said I had to leave cause I had at hat on but the n- next to me can wear sweat pants." Jacob, the transcript shows, replied: "U should have shot him center mass."

On Christmas Eve, officer Kevin Crossan allegedly said, "Do you think the natives would be upset if I showed up to work tomorrow as black Jesus?"

On Christmas Day, the officers joked about a juvenile who was seen crying in his cell, with one officer replying, "Hahahaha" and describing the juvenile with a homophobic slur.

On another occasion, one of the officers called someone a "Jew Rat," though it was unclear to whom he was referring.

Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said the officers were suspended without pay in January, and terminated in February. He called their conduct "appalling."

"Actions and language of this nature have no place in society, let alone in the workplace," Keashen said.

None of the officers - Jacob, McNulty, Grosmick, Crossan, Kelly, Finley, Thomas McNellis, Lance McCarthy, William Leister, Daniel Purdy, and Albert Daniels - returned calls Friday.

Charles Schlager Jr., an attorney representing McNulty, declined to comment. It was unclear whether the others had sought representation.

Some of the texts came to light in August when the Civil Service Commission upheld the firing of McNulty.

According to a report on the decision, one of the officers, Jacob, tried to hide his cellphone on a shelf when internal affairs investigators confronted him late last year.

McNulty, before his firing was upheld, testified to Administrative Law Judge Sarah Crowley, who heard the appeal, that he and the other officers used the group chat to vent about work. But McNulty acknowledged that none of the officers involved in the group was black.

McNulty agreed the texts were derogatory "but refused to admit that they were racist," the report on the Civil Service decision said.

Crowley concluded his termination was "not only warranted, but is essential in this case."

Keashen said the county expected the commission would also uphold the terminations of the remaining eight officers who have appealed.

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