An officer, who encouraged a “code of silence,” tried to keep a tasing incident quiet
By Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle, August 22, 2023
A sergeant at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility fired two taser prongs into the back of a corrections officer near his spine, telling other officers who watched their colleague slump to the ground: “What happens in training stays in training.”
As the tased officer, Michael Kilgus, convulsed in a seizure and collapsed on the gravel, then-Sgt. Antony Ruvalcaba and another officer who were in charge ignored his need for medical attention. Instead, they lectured five other trainees about the importance of trust and integrity, according to court and agency records about the 2018 incident. The documents show the senior officers were angry about a joke Kilgus had posted on social media about his training for a spot on the prison’s tactical team, which responds to security threats at Coffee Creek, Oregon’s only women’s prison.
Though such training events can sometimes involve volunteers who are tased, Ruvalcaba was not certified to train officers on using a taser, records show.
Kilgus, who remains with the agency, sued the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2020, alleging they violated his rights by targeting him for tasing because of the social media post and denied him medical care. The two sides agreed to a $38,000 settlement in March, records show. The settlement is relatively small compared to others. In April, a Marion County jury in April awarded a $2.4 million judgment to two corrections employees who alleged retaliation from their superiors.
But a Capital Chronicle review of court filings, documents from the agency’s investigation into the tasing and disciplinary records provides a glimpse of the prison’s culture, which a new state-commissioned report describes as “a punitive, para-military atmosphere.”
The Wilsonville facility, which houses about 870 female inmates, is now under scrutiny, with calls from Gov. Tina Kotek for improvements after the recent release of the state’s report and another report released in July by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. Both reports found harsh conditions for inmates and a retaliatory atmosphere with people who report wrongdoing punished.
In response, Kotek has put together an advisory panel and ordered the agency to make immediate changes.
The state’s report, released last week, also detailed staff input, which includes low morale and concerns about “inadequate training programs.”
Those same concerns about inadequate training surfaced in public records tied to the taser case, which show other officers reported Kilgus’ skin turned grayish-white and his eyes rolled back. As the agency investigated the case, officials faced a barrage of untruthful and misleading answers from Ruvalcaba, who is now retired, records show.
Kilgus is satisfied with the outcome of the case, said Juan Chavez, his attorney and director of the civil rights project at Oregon Justice Resource Center. In an interview, Chavez said law enforcement officers should perform at a higher standard because they have sworn an oath to follow the law.
In this case, he said, “even the good ones just felt powerless in the face of the larger edifice of the DOC work culture, which is ‘we don’t tattle that around.’”
Betty Bernt, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections, declined to comment on the settlement but confirmed Ruvalcaba is no longer an employee and Kilgus is still a corrections officer.
The tasing and its aftermath
Ruvalcaba conducted the tasing after seeing a social media post in which Kilgus had joked about being tased, records show.
Other officers discouraged him from firing the taser, as he wasn’t certified as a trainer, but Ruvalcaba did so anyway after confronting Kilgus about the social media post and telling him he needed to fix the situation, records said. Kilgus reluctantly agreed to be tased, worried he could lose his spot on the tactical team or face worse consequences if he resisted, records show.
After an investigation, the Oregon Department of Corrections fired Ruvalcaba in March 2019. His termination letter, obtained by the Capital Chronicle, cited his actions during the tasing and his untruthfulness with agency investigators as they looked into the case.
“As a team leader you fostered and encouraged an environment of ‘the code of silence’ attempting to keep knowledge of this incident within the team and to discourage reporting,” the agency said in his termination letter. “When you debriefed the team immediately following the tasing of Officer Kilgus that this incident was not to be talked about further and that it needed to stay with the team, you were encouraging a code of silence among TERT team members.”
Ruvalcaba couldn’t be reached for comment. He fought the case and was reinstated in his job in 2020 after an arbitrator determined the firing was too severe in light of his otherwise satisfactory career, according to a memo drafted by the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which certifies police and corrections officers.
New look at the case
The certifications agency reopened the case in 2022 to review the circumstances of his termination and reinstatement and banned him for life from being a certified corrections officer. He retired from the corrections department shortly before that decision.
State officials determined Ruvalcaba had misused his authority as the assistant leader on the tactical emergency response team, failed to follow safety protocols and was untruthful to investigators in “multiple instances,” including falsely saying it was Kilgus’ idea to be tased.
In its findings, the certification agency also noted he had worked since 1995 as a corrections officer and should know better.
Earlier in his corrections career, Ruvalcaba faced potential discipline after he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2004. At the time, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of probation and alcohol treatment, records show. In 2005, he was cited for driving on a suspended license, pleaded guilty and paid a $1,000 fine.
When the certifications agency weighed whether to take action in 2006 after those misdemeanor convictions, Ruvalcaba told state officials that he took responsibility for his arrest.
At the time, Ruvalcaba said he was forced to resign from his position on the tactical emergency response team because he didn’t have a valid driver’s license.
“This was (a) very humbling experience for me because of the high standards of performance that I demand of myself,” he wrote, according to the state report. “I was ashamed and disgusted for having put myself in that position. I was subsequently told that I would no longer be put in as an instructor for training.”
However, his letter also noted that he returned to the tactical emergency response team – before his driving privileges were reinstated.
Asked about the circumstances of that case, Bernt, the corrections spokesperson, said: “A driver license would not be essential to performing the duties on the TERT.”
In general, Bernt said, when a correctional officer is arrested, the agency investigates and during that investigation the employee is either put on administrative leave or reassigned.
FEATURED IMAGE: The outside of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. The facility is Oregon’s only women’s prison. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
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