The Pulaski County sheriff’s office has confirmed that the jail inmate found dead Tuesday of an apparent suicide at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center was the victim in a high-profile rape allegation that got a Pulaski County deputy fired in January.
Jessie Edwards, 28, was found hanging from a sheet in her cell at around 4 p.m. Tuesday, three hours after arriving at the jail. She had been ordered held on a contempt of court charge by Circuit Judge Chris Piazza after testing positive for drugs in violation of her terms of release on previous charges related to attempting to obtain prescription drugs by fraud.
According to a sheriff’s investigation concluded in January, Edwards told police that on Dec. 18, 2009, while she was being held in the basement cells at the Pulaski County Courthouse awaiting a hearing, Pulaski County Deputy Willie Owens first groped her, then followed her into a cell and had sex with her. Edwards said the sex was not consensual, but that she didn’t resist because she was too frightened. Edwards told investigators that when Owens left the room to get a cloth for her to clean up with, she took some of his semen and wiped it on her bra to keep as evidence. Later, the State Crime Lab matched the fluid on Edwards’ bra to DNA swabs collected from Owens during the investigation. In January, Owens was arrested on one count of rape — a charge that could send him to jail for up to 10 years. He pleaded not guilty, and was released on $50,000 bail. He was later fired from the Sheriff’s Department after an official hearing.
Lt. Carl Minden, spokesperson for the Pulaski County sheriff’s officet, said the investigation into Edwards’ death will soon be wrapped up, and that it still appears to be a suicide. Asked whether foul play could have been at work in Edwards’ death, given that she would have soon been the the key witness in criminal proceedings that could send a former jail guard and sheriff’s deputy to prison, Minden said that the video of the catwalk outside Edwards cell shows no one going in or out during the time she was incarcerated there. This leads investigators to conclude she must have killed herself. She was found dead, hanging by a sheet tied around her neck. Minden said there are no cameras installed in individual cells, and that Edwards wasn’t on suicide watch. It wasn’t immediately clear how often cells are checked by guards
Minden said that while it would be up to prosecutors, the case against Owens could go on without the victim, given that DNA evidence and affidavits taken from Edwards at the time of the investigation.
— David Koon