The rumors spreading through the Union Parish Detention Center were too horrific for Warden Jerry Ward to contemplate. It was impossible, he told detectives, and the inmates claiming otherwise were "delusional."

The scandal began with the routine medical screening of a 17-year-old girl — a bi-polar inmate detoxing from methamphetamine in an isolation cell. A jailhouse nurse asked the girl, booked days earlier on burglary counts, whether she ever had been the victim of sexual assault.

"I was raped last night," the young inmate replied. "Check the cameras if you don't believe me."

The investigation that followed revealed a staggering collapse of security within the Union Parish facility — a chronically understaffed lockup that investigators said was made more perilous by poor training and the reluctance of jailers to report criminal activity to local law enforcement.

A state Department of Public Safety and Corrections audit conducted weeks after the alleged attack found that the jail, located in Farmerville, northwest of Monroe, had "several doors which should have been secured that were unlocked and allowed offenders to roam the hallways without strict security supervision." 

At least three guards were disciplined for policy violations following the alleged rape, including having their pay docked, according to records obtained by The Advocate.

But nearly two years after it took over the case from local prosecutors, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office last month said it would not bring charges against Demarcus Payton, a prisoner already convicted of rape who managed not only to enter the 17-year-old's cell but to remain inside for more than seven minutes without a single guard intervening, the records show.

The Advocate does not typically identify victims of alleged sex crimes. 

Payton, who was 28 at the time, admitted to having sex with the girl from the outset of the investigation but insisted it was "consensual." He later wrote a letter to her warning her that she could be carrying his child. In a separate correspondence, he crudely bragged to a friend about his conquest but said he was worried he might have contracted HIV.  

Less than two months before he entered the girl's cell, Payton had been found guilty of raping another woman he did not know at knife point, leaving her Claiborne Parish home only after one of her children woke up. In that 2014 attack, the victim had called police and hidden from Payton for hours after Payton spotted her on her front porch in passing and began making threatening comments, according to court documents. She called her ex-boyfriend to come stay the night with her, and Payton raped her shortly after the ex-boyfriend left the home around 5 a.m. 

Payton also was reportedly a suspect in at least two other sexual assaults in Claiborne Parish at the time he entered the 17-year-old's cell inside the Union Parish Detention Center. 

No charges filed

Last month, a grand jury in the 3rd Judicial District "determined that no charges should be filed" in the jailhouse incident after reviewing "all the evidence we had in this matter," said Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Landry.

"While we must respect the grand jury's decision," Wisher added, "it is important to note that our office stands ready to act should new credible evidence arise."

The grand jury was not asked to consider charges against a corrections officer accused of electronically opening the girl's cell so that Payton could walk inside. Detectives drafted an arrest warrant for the officer, Marc McCants, on a count of malfeasance, but a local judge did not find sufficient probable cause for his arrest.

McCants, who had been on the job less than three months at the time, was the only guard in the jail's control center when Payton pressed an intercom button and asked to be allowed into the girl's cell, according to a Union Parish Sheriff's Office report obtained by The Advocate.    

The lack of prosecution came as a surprise to Dusty Gates, the Union Parish sheriff, and to the lead detective on the case, who in 2016 had rebooked Payton on third-degree rape following an extensive investigation into the girl's claims and the dysfunctional state of the jail.

The detective, Cade Nolan, noted the girl had been not only intoxicated but confined to an isolation cell when the sex occurred. Third-degree rape in Louisiana entails a lack of consent but is also defined as sex that occurs "when the victim is incapable of resisting or of understanding the nature of the act by reason of a stupor or abnormal condition of mind produced by an intoxicating agent."

"I wouldn't have rebooked Payton if I felt it had been consensual," Nolan said in a telephone interview.  

Landry declined to comment on the "no true bill" handed up in the case, noting that state law requires the testimony and "all other matters" relating to grand jury proceedings to be kept secret. 

But the outcome appears to have been affected, according to lawyers involved in the case, by a lengthy video deposition the girl gave this year in connection with a civil lawsuit. The girl never wavered from her account that she was raped but made inconsistent statements and, at one point, said she did not immediately report the attack because she felt sorry for Payton, said several people familiar with the deposition.

An attorney defending the jail in the civil case suggested the girl assisted in opening the cell door after a guard "popped" it open — a claim the girl denied. The defense also questioned the girl at length about her history of substance abuse, which began when she was 13 and was being prostituted by her mother for drugs. 

Landry's office took over the criminal case in May 2016 after the local district attorney, John Belton, recused himself, citing his role on a commission that oversees the Union Parish Detention Center. The girl has sued that commission, claiming security lapses at the jail violated her civil rights and created an environment conducive to sexual assault.  

Payton is now serving life in prison for the Claiborne Parish rape. 

A history of violations 

Among other concerns, the criminal investigation turned up serious problems with the classification of inmates at the Union Parish Detention Center, a facility that typically houses more than 200 state prisoners, about twice the number of local pre-trial inmates it holds.

State corrections inspectors, in one of several audits following the alleged rape, noted an inappropriate "sight and sound protocol" for male and female inmates, "who were being detained in the same room for classification interviews."

The inspectors "met with Warden Ward and discussed the non-compliance of the above guidelines and that immediate correction must be initiated," one of the audits states.

The state removed about a half-dozen female prisoners from the jail following the alleged rape, and a Department of Corrections spokesman said last week that the lockup today does not hold any female state prisoners. 

This isn't the first time the detention center has been criticized for policy violations. In 1992, a few months after the facility opened, the state pulled prisoners from it after 38 of 47 work-release inmates tested positive for drugs. At the time, a private company called Capital Protective Resources Inc. operated the jail for the state.

The detention center is unusual in that it is not overseen by a sheriff or the state corrections department but a legislatively created body known as the Union Parish Detention Center Commission, which includes two members of the Union Parish Police Jury including the president, the sheriff and district attorney of Union Parish, and the Farmerville police chief.

The jail receives its funding from the police jury, which also is in charge of hiring, said Belton, the district attorney. Ward, the warden at the time of the alleged rape, who has since stepped down, told investigators that he lacked the resources to safely staff the facility. 

"Due to his staff shortages, there were not enough guards to supervise the inmates while they were doing pill call," Nolan, the detective, wrote in his investigative report. "Ward said they lack supervision over there and don't have a way to regulate who comes in and out." 

Gates, the sheriff, said the detention center has "changed drastically" since the alleged rape, revamping its policies and hiring a new warden. But there have been new signs of trouble as recently as last month. 

Days after the grand jury considered the jailhouse rape case, the U.S. Justice Department ordered the Union Parish Detention Center to pay $27,500 to an inmate who had been held in isolation for six months because he has HIV. The jail staff also "posted information on the detainee's cell door from which passing nonmedical staff and other detainees could infer his HIV status," the Justice Department said. 

"Segregation of detainees with HIV in jails or prisons is unlawful, (can) subject individuals to unwarranted stigma and harm and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department," John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. 

Ward, the former warden, did not respond to requests for comment. The new warden, Gary Copes, also did not return messages seeking comment.

A captain who answered the phone at the detention center on Friday said "no one here knows anything about" any policy changes Copes has made or the alleged rape of the 17-year-old girl.  

'Highly intoxicated' 

Detectives reviewed hours of surveillance video and found footage that contradicted Ward's protestations that the 17-year-old lied about Payton entering her cell. Nearly a week after the alleged sexual assault, Ward "continued to say he did not see how this was possible," Nolan wrote in his report.

The footage showed Payton leering into the girl's cell window, pressing an intercom on the wall and then entering the isolation cell, where he remained for several minutes. Not a single guard took notice, the report says, including an officer who briefly stopped by the cell to hand the girl some medicine. Payton later told investigators he hid in the corner at that point to avoid detection. 

"She said she told (Payton) to stop several times, but he did not physically hurt her," Nolan's report says. "(She) said she could not remember if she was capable of making good decisions or not during this time."

The girl still seemed "highly intoxicated at the time" of the attack, Nolan wrote in his report. She had been so distressed following her burglary arrest days earlier that, before jailing her, deputies took her to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

During a screening there, medical records show, she had been making rambling threats to "random people" and told nurses she believed she was "pregnant with fire."

When she first reported the sexual assault, the girl was so disoriented she could not even recall Payton's race, jail records show. "Called for help but got no response," an officer wrote in an initial report about the alleged rape. 

W. Lloyd Grafton, a former federal agent and expert on law enforcement policy, said the surveillance footage from the jail, which he reviewed as part of the girl's civil lawsuit, gave him "heartburn." He also questioned why it took Landry's office nearly two years to bring the case to a grand jury. 

"At the absolute least, this was gross negligence on the part of the people who worked there," Grafton said. 

"Even if it were consensual, it would still be a PREA violation" he added, referring to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003

Another male inmate, Darandall Boyette, followed Payton into the girl's cell but left less than a minute later, the footage showed. He later told investigators he watched Payton have sex with the girl and intended to do so as well but decided to leave because he "had a bad feeling," the report says.

The surveillance footage alarmed investigators on several fronts. It showed inmates meandering about the facility without any supervision.  

"During this video, there were also numerous inmates walking up and down the hall, in no particular order, and (they) seemed to have free range on where they could go," Nolan, the lead detective, wrote in his report.  

One jail official, Capt. James Levingston Jr., who had been in charge of security at the detention center at the time, told Nolan that he "did not know that it was protocol to contact the Sheriff's Office when he found out a possible sexual assault had occurred." Levingston told the detective that "it was opposite in the corrections industry that he was used to, and they did not normally contact (the Sheriff's Office)" to investigate such crimes. 

Payton later wrote that he had been eyeing the 17-year-old since she was booked into the jail. During one of his unsupervised jaunts through the facility, Payton can be seen on the video pulling back a paper covering that said "Female" on Cell 56.  

He told investigators the girl had been exposing herself for him and enticing him. On the day of the alleged attack, he told detectives, he knocked on the door of the girl's cell until she woke up. Payton claimed the girl had asked for help "in getting a shower and he told her he couldn't help her," the report says. 

Payton said he then pressed the intercom on the wall and said "open 56." Under jail protocol, the guards in the control center are supposed to open cell doors only after a jail official has radioed in and identified himself or herself. Nolan said detectives determined that the cell could have been opened only by a jail official. 

McCants, the only officer in the control center at the time, was interrogated three times and denied allowing Payton into the cell. McCants could not be reached for comment last week. It's not clear whether he is still working at the detention center. 

Payton told detectives that, after having sex with the girl, he stood on her bed and pressed the intercom inside the cell, asking to be let out. "What the (expletive)? How did you get in there?" came the response, according to Payton.

"You let me in here," Payton replied.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.