An attack last week against former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke in his Connecticut prison cell reflects “the mentality out there ... that people won’t rest until he is either given a life sentence or killed in prison,” his lead trial attorney said Thursday.
Daniel Herbert joined Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, in demanding to know why Van Dyke was transferred to an out-of-state federal prison and why he was placed in the general inmate population, where he was beaten in the face within days of his arrival.
“They put my husband in a setting to be harmed because of the fact that he was a white man who harmed a black gentleman in the line of duty,” Tiffany Van Dyke said at a news conference. “He is a police officer who was convicted for doing his job, and at the basic minimum they were supposed to keep him safe.”
Attorneys stressed the danger Van Dyke faces in custody — just days after prosecutors filed a legal petition before the state Supreme Court that, if successful, could significantly lengthen his sentence.
At turns defiant and emotional, Tiffany Van Dyke said she has lived in constant fear that her husband would be harmed while behind bars.
“I want my husband home, I want him to be safe,” she said. “I don’t need people to go into his cell and attack him. The next time this could happen they could kill him. I cannot bury my husband.”
Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the on-duty slaying of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He was sentenced last month to 81 months in prison and, until last week, had been serving his time in isolation in an Illinois prison.
The transfer and the attack left his supporters with more questions than answers.
His attorneys were told Feb. 5 that Van Dyke had been moved to Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, a low- to minimum-security facility. Two days later, shortly after he had been processed, several people attacked him in his cell, his attorneys said.
The federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed in an email Thursday that “an assault resulting in minor injuries” occurred Feb. 7 but declined to answer further questions, including whether Van Dyke was in the general population. The Illinois Department of Corrections confirmed that Van Dyke no longer is in its custody but would not say why.
The beating came to light this week after Van Dyke told his appellate attorneys. But much of the information Van Dyke’s trial attorneys cited Thursday came from an unnamed informant who works in the Connecticut prison, they said.
The prison employee sought out Van Dyke’s attorneys to give them details authorities had not, according to Tammy Wendt, another lawyer who defended Van Dyke at trial last year. Wendt expressed frustration that no one in a position of authority had informed them of the attack or answered basic questions about his safety.
“This man came forward to advise us of this attack on Jason when nobody else would,” she said.
Van Dyke was “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” Wendt said. Within hours of arriving at his new unit, a group of inmates “blindsided” him in his cell. Van Dyke suffered injuries to his head and face and was given medical attention at the prison, Wendt said.
Van Dyke then was moved from the general population to a segregated unit, his attorneys said.
The attackers had been hired by another group of inmates to beat the former officer, Wendt told reporters after the news conference, citing the lawyers’ informant.
Wendt said the attackers made it clear Van Dyke was being targeted because of the McDonald case.
Herbert appeared to suggest that Attorney General Kwame Raoul should intervene. On Monday, Raoul announced his intention to challenge Van Dyke’s sentence before the state Supreme Court.
“For those that have been elected … if their job is to promote justice, they need to look into the mirror and determine whether they have the fortitude and the integrity to do these jobs,” he said.
Tiffany Van Dyke, seated between attorneys Tammy Wendt and Daniel Herbert, speaks about her husband, Jason Van Dyke, who was beaten at a federal prison in Connecticut last week, during a news conference on Feb. 14, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, who was appointed special prosecutor to handle the murder case, issued a statement calling for authorities to ensure Van Dyke’s security.
“Mr. Van Dyke should be in a safe environment where he can serve his time and return to his family and community when he completes his sentence,” the statement read. “I expect those in charge of his custody to take the necessary precautions to fulfill that responsibility.”
McMahon had joined Raoul in filing a petition challenging the legal basis for the sentence handed down by Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan. The judge determined that the aggravated battery convictions should “merge” into the second-degree murder conviction for sentencing purposes, which the prosecutors argue was improper.
If they are successful, Van Dyke would be resentenced on the aggravated batteries instead — raising the possibility of much more prison time without the day-for-day credit he can earn for a second-degree murder sentence.
Van Dyke’s attorneys said they were not aware of any security threats or other incidents that would have prompted a transfer to a federal prison so far away. Illinois prison officials had declined to say where he was being held, citing concerns for his safety should his location be revealed.
After his conviction but before sentencing, Van Dyke was held in isolation at a Quad Cities-area jail. The move was part of an arrangement Cook County has with other jails to move prisoners who are either high-profile, dangerous or working as cooperating witnesses in other cases.
Van Dyke was charged with murder the same day as the court-ordered release of graphic police dashboard camera footage that showed him shooting McDonald 16 times as the teen walked away from police while holding a knife in his hand.
The video’s release, more than a year after the October 2014 shooting, led to months of protests and continuing political upheaval. It prompted a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department that concluded officers routinely violated the civil rights of minorities.
Van Dyke isn’t the first high-profile ex-police officer from Illinois to be attacked shortly after being moved into federal custody.
A month after his transfer to a federal prison in Indiana for security reasons, Drew Peterson was attacked in March 2017 by a fellow inmate armed with a food tray in the dining area, according to authorities.
Peterson, a former Bolingbrook police sergeant, was jumped in the chow hall of the maximum-security facility in Terre Haute. The convicted murderer was not seriously injured, and he was temporarily moved to a segregated unit away from the prison's general population after the incident.
At the time, Illinois prison officials declined to discuss the reason for his transfer. Documents later obtained by the Tribune through an open-records request showed the agency was concerned that his actions in a murder-for-hire plot posed an ongoing safety and security threat.
Chicago Tribune’s Christy Gutowski and Stacy St. Clair contributed.