May 3—Kennebec County has settled a federal lawsuit brought by a man who said a jail guard used pepper spray on him and then assaulted him while he was confined in 2019.
Jonathan Afanador filed his excessive force complaint in the U.S. District Court of Maine in July. He sued the county and the individual guard, and both filed responses later that same month that admitted to some basic facts in the complaint but denied most of the claims. The parties then filed a dismissal in court last month, and lawyers representing them either did not respond to inquiries or said they could not talk about the case. An attorney for the county's insurer said the settlement amount is $30,000.
Sheriff Ken Mason said Willhoite no longer works at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility. Willhoite resigned his part-time position there and is now working for another law enforcement agency, he said, although he did not answer a question about which one.
"There was no disciplinary action taken on Officer Willhoite," Mason said. "Officer Willhoite did a great job for us while he was here."
Attorney John Wall, who represented Willhoite, did not respond to multiple inquiries about the case. Attorney Peter Marchesi, who represented the county, provided a signed copy of the release of claims in response to a public records request but said he was not in a position to speak about the case. Malcolm Ulmer, the manager of the Maine County Commissioners Association Risk Pool, confirmed the amount of the settlement.
Attorney Matthew Morgan, who represented Afanador, said he could not talk about the case or comment on the existence of a settlement. The signed release includes clauses for confidentiality and non-disparagement.
The lawsuit centers on an incident on August 18, 2019. The complaint says Afanador was awaiting trial at the jail at that time, and Willhoite and another officer removed him from his cell during a "full floor shakedown." The other officer directed a racial slur at Afanador in front of Willhoite. The complaint identifies Afanador as Black but does not indicate the race of either guard.
"This was not the first time Afanador experienced the use of racial slurs at KCCF," the complaint states.
The complaint says Afanador was then standing against a wall and reading a book when Willhoite grabbed his arm and pepper sprayed him directly in the face. Willhoite then spun Afanador around, slammed his chest against a table and pinned his arm behind him. The complaint says Afanador was placed in isolation and did not receive medical attention until the next day.
The lawsuit also says Willhoite acted "despite the absence of any physical danger and the presence of multiple other corrections officers."
The incident was captured on video. The answers filed by the county and by Willhoite admitted that the officer used pepper spray on Afanador, who was standing when the officers had ordered everyone to sit, and then "attempted to restrain" him. But they denied most other claims.
The original complaint also said Willhoite had a history of alleged racist and violent comments. However, Morgan said Monday that was an error, and the comments were incorrectly attributed to Willhoite.
Mason, the sheriff, also said law enforcement and corrections officers in Kennebec County maintain "high levels of professionalism" under increased scrutiny.
"We will continue to serve as safely and effectively as possible, prioritizing earning the public trust despite the negativity we encounter on a far too common basis," Mason wrote in an email.
Afanador, 26, is no longer listed as an inmate at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility. A Maine Department of Corrections database indicates that he was sentenced in May 2020 to four-and-a-half years in prison for two counts of aggravated drug trafficking.