Woman Sues Over Husband’s Death at Immigrant Center 

A Chesterfield County woman has filed suit against an immigrant-detention facility in Farmville, alleging that her husband, an employee, died after being made to participate a violent training exercise.

Lillian Snelling filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court on July 20. The suit alleges that her late husband, John B. Snelling Sr., died because he was "forced to participate in a violent and dangerous exercise simulating prisoner cell extractions without any medical clearance or appropriate training."

When he died Jan. 19, 2011, Snelling was working as the supply and procurement manager at the immigrant detention center operated by Immigration Centers of America-Farmville, a company based in Richmond. The $21 million private facility, operated under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, opened in Farmville in 2010 to house as many as 584 nonviolent, undocumented immigrants while they await processing in court.

Snelling took the job in March 2010 after being assured that he "would not be required to perform any security or corrections duties," the suit says. The 52-year-old commuted daily from his home in Chesterfield. One of his sons, Jason Snelling, is a running back for the Atlanta Falcons.

The lawsuit alleges friction between Snelling and Director of Detention Mark A. Flowers. "In the days before his death, Mr. Snelling was told by Flowers that he had a 'surprise' for Mr. Snelling and that Mr. Snelling should 'be prepared,'" the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, several rounds of the cell extraction training exercises were conducted Jan. 19, 2011. During one round, Snelling donned protective gear and was designated as the "shield man" who would lead a charge of four correctional officers into the cell. The part of the unruly prisoner was played by correctional officer Daniel Dean, a 275-pound mixed martial arts fighter, the suit says.

When the cell door was opened Dean charged forward into a shield held by Snelling while the four other officers pushed Snelling from behind, according to the suit: "Mr. Snelling was effectively crushed between the professional mixed martial arts fighter in front and the four correctional officers weighing a collective 800 to 1000 pounds from behind."

According to the suit, the "prisoner" was subdued after a several-minute struggle, after which Snelling removed his gear, went to get a drink of water and collapsed. He rose and then collapsed again, the suit says, but was ignored by other employees.

Snelling had a cardiac condition that resulted in stents being placed in his heart, but according to his cardiologist he was in "excellent condition," says Lillian Snelling's attorney, David Hudgins.

After 15 to 20 minutes an ICA trainer realized Snelling was in distress and began to administer CPR, the suit says. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he died. According to the lawsuit, Flowers didn't tell the doctors or Snelling's wife that he was involved in the training exercise, only that he had been a spectator.

It wasn't until last fall that Lillian Snelling learned about her husband's participation in the training. At that time, the Virginia Department of Labor conducted an investigation of the incident and found "multiple violations," the suit says. "It's pretty outrageous behavior," Hudgins says, "but no criminal charges were filed."

The suit alleges that ICA-Farmville, Flowers and Chief of Security Jeffrey D. Crawford "intended that [Snelling] be assaulted, intimidated and injured" during the exercise. The suit alleges wrongful death and assault, actual fraud, two counts of infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract. It seeks $20 million in damages, $350,000 in punitive damages and $80,000 for a life insurance policy that wasn't paid.

A call placed to Crawford on Monday wasn't returned. Hudgins says he hasn't received a response to the suit from ICA-Farmville, but expects a preliminary motion to be filed in early September.

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