Columbus County jail beating highlights bigger supervision lapses, lawsuit says

By Sarah Nagem and Carli Brosseau 

Under former Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene, the supervision at the Whiteville jail was so lax that a man who had told authorities he faced a safety threat in his assigned pod was beaten nearly to death without detention officers taking any steps to intervene, a newly filed federal lawsuit alleges. 

Filed in the U.S. District Court in North Carolina’s Eastern District, the lawsuit echoes accusations made by District Attorney Jon David in his petitions last year to have Greene removed from office for misconduct. Citing the same beating, David said Greene “failed to properly supervise officers” and “permitted dangerous, and potentially deadly conditions to exist” in the jail. At David’s request, the State Bureau of Investigation looked into the assault and charged four people with attempted murder

The new lawsuit provides more detail about conditions inside the jail, asserting there was a “long-standing and well-established practice” of housing gang members together, regardless of their affiliations, and then providing no meaningful oversight. Those actions showed “a flagrant disregard for inmate safety and the legal requirements for North Carolina detention facilities,” wrote Paul Smith and Brad Bannon, attorneys with the firm Patterson Harkavy, who represent Joshua Johnson, the man who was attacked.

Johnson had spent five days at the Columbus County Detention Center before he was moved to HA-143, the pod housing gang members, on Aug. 3, 2022, the lawsuit said. Johnson was not affiliated with a gang, his lawyers say, so when detention officer Bernetta Crawford asked if he had problems with anyone on the pod, he said no. Once inside, however, Johnson recognized someone whom he said posed a threat and asked to be moved. Crawford told him to “deal with it.”

Johnson, who was jailed on misdemeanor charges and had yet to face trial, moved his mattress down a flight of stairs and placed it near the exit in an apparent attempt to show detention officers that he needed out of the pod. He pressed the emergency call button repeatedly in hopes of communicating with the guards. No one responded. 

Meanwhile, some other inmates took off their socks, a sign they were preparing to fight on the slippery floor. 

With no officers around, four inmates pulled Johnson into a cell at 2:16 p.m. and beat him so severely that he suffered broken bones and a traumatic brain injury. He defecated on himself during the assault. Each time he tried to crawl out of the cell, his assailants pushed him back inside. 

Eighteen minutes after the attack began, the assailants moved Johnson into the pod’s showers while some other inmates pressed, again and again, the emergency call button. 

It wasn’t until 2:45 p.m. that a detention officer who was returning from lunch glanced inside the pod and saw Johnson slouched on the floor, according to the lawsuit. Johnson had managed to make his way into HA-143’s common area and collapsed. 

Had corrections officers been monitoring the jail’s surveillance video, they would have seen Johnson being physically intimidated, dragged into a cell, then repeatedly staggering or crawling out, his lawyers said. They would have seen a group of men consulting behind a shower curtain wearing shoes and then later, Johnson toppling over while trying to brace himself against a stairwell, the attorneys said. 

There are two possibilities, Smith said: No one was watching or “they were staring at the monitor and didn’t really care.”

“[Johnson] suffered something nobody should ever suffer,” he said.

Former Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene, seen here in December 2022, is named in the lawsuit. Photo by Sarah Nagem

Former sheriff Greene said Wednesday that he spoke with the district attorney following the attack and supported an SBI investigation. He said the jail implemented changes as a result of the assault, including upgrading technology and putting in place “checks and balances.” 

“Supervisors would go and see if detention officers were doing their due diligence in checking the cells,” Greene said. 

He said the jail housed gang members in a single pod due to “limited space.” 

None of the other parties named as defendants in the lawsuit – current Sheriff Bill Rogers, detention officer Crawford and supervisor Trina Worley – responded to calls or written messages from the Border Belt Independent and The Assembly.

Supervision lapses

The day of the assault, detention officers had not done any of the twice-hourly supervision checks mandated by state regulations since their shift began at 7 a.m., according to the lawsuit. That left the pod without monitoring for almost eight hours.

The previous three days had similar supervision gaps, the lawsuit said. Detention officers waited more than eight hours to conduct rounds on two of those days. On the other, they waited more than 10 hours. 

A review of state inspection reports by the The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent found that the jail was repeatedly cited for deficient supervision both before and after the attack on Johnson. 

On June 19, 2018, while Greene was still campaigning to be sheriff, an inspector with the state’s Division of Health Service Regulation found the jail unable to provide any documents showing that correction officers had done rounds. 

At the next inspection, after Greene was sworn in, the jail was again cited for a supervision failure. “Inmates were hanging towels, sheets, blankets and/or jumpsuits around their bunks, which blocked the officers ability to directly observe each inmate as required,” the inspector noted.

On June 11, 2019, the inspector found another supervision problem: the main frame matrix board that operates the security cameras wasn’t working. The sheriff’s office promised to get the aging system fixed by the end of July. But it still wasn’t working when inspectors came back in December.

The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office in Whiteville. (Photo by Johanna F. Still/The Assembly)

The jail wasn’t cited for supervision failures during 2020 or 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, but that changed in 2022. 

On June 15, 2022, about two months before Johnson was assaulted, an inspector again found that towels and other textiles were blocking officers from directly observing people held in the jail.

Three months after Johnson’s assault, an inspector reviewed the logs reflecting corrections’ officers rounds on Nov. 23, 2022, which “indicated there were missed rounds at most locations at various times,” according to his report. 

‘A different person now’

Johnson, now 35, was airlifted to Wilmington following the attack, his lawyers said. Doctors didn’t expect him to survive. 

Today, Johnson continues to struggle physically and emotionally as a result of the assault, Smith said. Johnson worked many years for Smithfield Foods, and he also worked in construction to help support his children. He is now unable to work. 

“He can’t do what he used to do physically,” Smith said. “He suffers from significant anxiety and panic attacks. It’s very difficult for him to be in places with groups of people. He has terrible respiratory issues. And he has cognitive deficiencies that he did not have before.” 

Those who knew Johnson before the attack see the changes every day. 

“They absolutely describe him as a different person now as a result of his injuries,” Smith said. “His sister said, ‘That’s not my brother anymore.’” 

Smith said he believes more people in HA-143 have experienced violence that was ignored by detention officers. “It’s our expectation to start hearing from other people who have additional evidence,” he said. 

Smith said he hopes changes will be made under Rogers, who was appointed sheriff after Greene resigned facing both a criminal investigation and a bid by the district attorney to have a judge remove him from the job. 

Last month, Rogers presented plans to Columbus County commissioners for a 19,000-square-foot addition to the existing sheriff’s building, according to The News Reporter in Whiteville. Chief Deputy Jerome McMillian said the department also plans to spend more than $576,000 to make upgrades at the jail, including a new camera system. 

“Hopefully the things that we’ve done will stop some of the lawsuits and [improve] the safety of our detention officers as well as our inmates in the future,” McMillian said, according to the newspaper. 

Sarah Nagem is the editor of the Border Belt Independent. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for The News & Observer. Reach her at

Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The Assembly. She previously worked for The News & Observer, where she was an investigative reporter. Her work has been honored by the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and published by ProPublica and The New York Times.