After a guard told him he had a visitor in room 10, Newlin strolled toward me and looked through the window. Then he picked up the phone, squinted, and cocked his head to the left as if to say: Who the hell are you?
When I told him I was a reporter, the handsome 28-year-old with a penchant for sports cars and speeding leaned back and looked over his shoulder. No one around. He grinned expectantly and hunched forward. "Have I got one hell of a story for you," he said, his nose inches from the glass. "Negligence, homicide, it's all here."
Newlin and a fellow inmate named Joe Buck both witnessed the untimely death of Charlie Osborne, who was mangled and killed on March 12 while working on a prison work detail on U.S. 27 in Weston. Both men, as well as Osborne's family, claim that the Broward Sheriff's Office was negligent in the 62-year-old man's death and that BSO has tried to conceal details of the incident. Newlin is in jail for a DUI conviction, while Buck is serving time for refusing to submit to a DUI test. Both men spoke to New Times in jailhouse interviews during late April. Neither has a lengthy criminal record or an apparent incentive to lie.
Osborne's death was the first for the sheriff's Inmate Work Unit, which was created more than a decade ago. The unit employs prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses who have fewer than 90 days left to serve and no record of escape. They clean up roads or help build homes for the needy. According to the sheriff's office, the unit saves Broward County taxpayers about $1.2 million per year. Service does not reduce sentences; many inmates volunteer to escape the monotony of jail.
Comparisons to chain gangs are unavoidable. Although participants in the unit are not shackled, they do wear yellow T-shirts that identify them as inmates. Amnesty International has argued that putting prisoners in public view and exposing them to possible insult and publicity constitutes "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." But Amnesty has never commented specifically on Broward's unit, which is similar to dozens of other state and county programs.
To participate in Broward's work program, inmates must meet medical and physical requirements. Osborne apparently met those standards -- even at age 62.
One requirement that Osborne -- and the two witnesses -- apparently didn't meet was the BSO regulation that all inmates wear seat belts when traveling on county business. Buck claims this rule was generally ignored in the Inmate Work Unit. In fact, on the day Osborne died, Buck and Newlin were riding in the bed of a pickup truck.
Osborne, of course, was no angel. From 1997 to 2002, the Fort Lauderdale man was arrested and charged four times in Broward County for possession of cocaine or drug paraphernalia. On January 31, 2002, police found him with a crack pipe, records show, and on August 14 of that year, he was picked up for possession of a small crack rock. Osborne pleaded guilty to the August charge and accepted a ten-month sentence.
"He wasn't a bad guy," Osborne's nephew Jeffrey Taylor contends. "He had a vice."
Citing an ongoing investigation, BSO won't comment on Osborne's case. Based on interviews with Newlin and Buck, however, New Times has put together a description of the events leading to the inmate's death.
Manning a dump truck, Newlin, Osborne, and Buck had worked together for about a month with Deputy Frank Iovino when, on March 12, they were assigned to clear illegally dumped tires from the roadsides of U.S. 27. Jessie Thompson, a civilian who works for the Inmate Work Unit, joined the group that day with his pickup truck.
In the morning, Newlin, Osborne, and Buck began collecting the tires and throwing them onto the bed of Thompson's pickup. Osborne, the oldest and weakest of the group, concentrated on lightweight tire shreds. Each time they cleared an area, the men drove to another dumpsite along the heavily traveled road.
About a quarter-mile north of Griffin Road, at 11:45 a.m., Newlin and Buck were seated in the bed of Thompson's pickup, which was traveling about 35 miles per hour. Both men saw the dump truck speeding up behind them in the passing lane. Newlin heard the truck's engine shift, and then he saw Osborne hanging from the dump truck's passenger-side mirror. His hands clung to the bar connecting the mirror to the truck, his feet dangling a couple of inches above the roadway. As the dump truck passed, Osborne looked at his fellow inmates. Newlin leaned over the side of the pickup bed to take another look.
"I saw everything," Newlin told New Times. "He fell off." Buck, sitting on the passenger side of the truck bed, couldn't see Osborne fall.
Osborne's body was swept beneath the dump truck and run over, the rear tires grinding his lower body against the hot pavement. Panicked, Newlin turned to Buck. "Charlie fell," he told him.
Both vehicles stopped. Iovino jumped out of the dump truck and ran to Osborne. "Charlie, what did you do?" Newlin remembered Iovino saying.
At that point, Iovino ordered Newlin to place flares on the road and direct traffic on U.S. 27. "I did everything but call 911," Newlin recalled.
As Newlin directed traffic, Buck approached Osborne. The bones in the injured man's arms and legs were exposed. Half of Osborne's buttocks was gone, leaving just tissue and white pus. Buck was amazed Osborne wasn't bleeding more severely. "I only saw two drops of blood," he said. "Two drops."
Buck removed Osborne's work gloves, then took off his own and placed all four under Osborne's head. "My feet hurt!" Osborne screamed. "Take my shoes off!"
Osborne could move his legs but not his feet.
The first ambulance arrived about 20 minutes after the incident, Buck recalled. A helicopter and a second ambulance followed. According to Buck, Iovino told paramedics he was driving 5 miles per hour when Osborne fell. A half hour after the accident, Osborne was transported to Broward Medical Center in the second ambulance, Buck remembered, and the helicopter took off.
Buck said he overheard a paramedic say that Osborne had gone into cardiac arrest. Later, Buck saw Iovino on the side of U.S. 27, his head in his hands, sobbing.
In the cab of the dump truck, Iovino explained to Buck and Newlin that he had told Osborne to climb inside. But the passenger window was up, Buck noticed. "I think he was trying to set an alibi right there," Buck commented.
According to a BSO press release issued March 13, Osborne died at Broward Medical Center. Buck, however, suggests that, because the helicopter left, he has doubts that Osborne made it to the hospital. "I think he died [at the scene]," Buck said.
On March 14, apparently following up on the press release, the Sun-Sentinel reported on Osborne's death, explaining that he "fell off a Broward Sheriff's Office dump truck on U.S. 27 and was run over." The article, by Shannon O'Boye, said Osborne was just five days from his March 17 release date and reported that Osborne's daughter, Charlene Gray, had planned to take him to Atlanta. BSO told O'Boye that witness accounts were conflicting; it was possible Osborne had been standing in the road when Iovino ran over him.
Asked about the Sentinel's article, Newlin commented: "It's bullshit. That was the story [the sheriff's office] wanted told."
Osborne's family is still trying to determine what happened. On March 13, the day after the incident, Col. James E. Wimberly, executive director of the sheriff's Detention and Community Control Department, visited the home of Osborne's sister, Zula Mae Osborne, in Fort Lauderdale. He would not discuss details of the accident, according to Taylor, Osborne's nephew. Wimberly declined to be interviewed by New Times.
What information Osborne's family has of the incident came from Newlin, who called them the day after the accident. Newlin and Buck both told BSO investigators their story on March 13, yet today, more than a month and a half after the incident, the agency still has not completed its traffic homicide investigation.
Because BSO has been so slow, Taylor suspects the agency is trying to conceal information. "I can't understand how you can take a 60-year-old man and put him on the side of a truck and expect him to hang on," Taylor said. "They're whitewashing the whole thing."
Added Taylor: "Every day goes by and something reminds you that he's no longer with us, and [BSO] haven't been up-front with us and come out and say, 'Hey, this is what happened.' He wasn't on death row. You're not supposed to die for a six-month possession charge."
The stonewalling doesn't surprise Buck. "It wasn't negligence; it was gross negligence," said Buck, 49. "The man's 62. Did they think he was a cowboy?"
BSO's foot-dragging suggests either gross insensitivity to the family or that the agency would prefer to let Osborne's body chill a bit before releasing its findings. Is there a cover-up? In the jailhouse interview, Newlin wouldn't answer that question. He claimed he's been transferred eight times since Osborne's death. BSO is trying to intimidate him, he said. Guards have threatened to charge him with a felony if he doesn't shut up about Osborne's death, he claimed.
Newlin, whose release date is set for May 18, worries that deputies will do something to stop him from meeting his friend Gary at Sonny's Stardust Lounge in Fort Lauderdale. That's where he plans to fix his car and skip town. Fuck Broward County.
You can't blame him for being skittish. After 15 minutes of speaking through a window with guards around the corner, Newlin ended the interview with New Times. "Call me May 18," he said. "I'll tell you everything." Then he turned and disappeared into the maze of hallways and security doors leading to his cell -- a small room not unlike the one where Charlie Osborne would have spent only five more nights before being freed.