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Lawyer criticizes Cass jail design

A public defender says his client, sentenced to a year for vandalizing the new Cass County Jail, through his actions "basically pointed out some fatal flaws in the facility."...

A public defender says his client, sentenced to a year for vandalizing the new Cass County Jail, through his actions "basically pointed out some fatal flaws in the facility."

Attorney Monte Mertz appeared before Cass County District Judge Frank Racek Thursday representing Peter Paul Zephyrin, who pleaded guilty to one felony and three misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief.

"If they built it properly, this wouldn't have happened," Mertz told Racek. "They just want to make examples out of these guys."

Zephyrin, a 24-year-old Valley City, N.D., man already headed to the North Dakota penitentiary for felony robbery, felonious restraint and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, is one of a handful of inmates charged for vandalism at the new jail.

Zephyrin was sentenced for his actions on three separate occasions since the $18 million facility opened in September near Interstate 29.


His actions included breaking ceiling-mounted sprinkler heads and at least 10 windows using a steel shelf torn from his cell wall.

"Somebody screwed up in building this jail," Mertz told Racek. "Somebody failed miserably in designing this facility."

Zephyrin is among five inmates to face charges for vandalism of the new jail. According to Sheriff Donald Rudnick, inmates have caused at least $12,000 in damages at the jail since it opened.

David Banton, Moorhead, was sentenced to a two-year prison term, in addition to other felony charges he faced, for separate vandalism incidents at the jail.

Mertz said "somebody should be sued" for what he contends are design flaws in the $18 million facility.

Mertz, who served as a prison guard at the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility in Crookston, Minn., and the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., prior to his legal career, said he never witnessed such dangerous design conditions at those facilities.

"If they had weapons, I'd be dead. My point is, to even conceive that an inmate can rip a metal shelf off the wall and use it as a weapon is mind-boggling," Mertz said.

Assistant States Attorney Tracy Jo Peters said Zephyrin alone is responsible for vandalizing the jail.


"Mr. Zephyrin should be held accountable for what he's done. No blame should be cast on the contractors or jailers," she said.

Zephyrin caused more than $10,000 in damages to the jail, she said.

Peters had asked for two-year terms on the vandalism charges.

Racek sentenced Zephyrin to one, one-year prison term on the felony charge and three one-year terms, all running concurrently, in exchange for his guilty plea.

The one-year time period will run consecutive to the 10-year sentence he received from District Judge John Irby last month for the strong-armed robbery of Red-E-Cash May 1.

Zephyrin, in October, was found guilty for crimes committed in that robbery. He walked into the Fargo business at 3060 25th St. S., and broke into the store's secured employee area. Zephyrin forced the manager into the store's bathroom, tied her up with rope, stole $2,930 and escaped in her pickup.

At his Dec. 16 sentencing, Zephyrin -- strapped into a chair, his head hooded with a pillow cover after spitting at prosecutors -- growled and thrashed throughout the proceedings.

Zephyrin's behavior was improved Thursday, as he entered a plea and was sentenced in a packed courtroom.


Attending court Thursday was a class of 5th grade students from Fargo's Roosevelt Elementary School.

"I was glad his behavior was under control today," Peters said.

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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