Officer uses chain to strangle man in solitary confinement as guards watch, lawsuit says

Inside a solitary confinement jail cell in Georgia, a pretrial detainee restrained to a chair freed his right arm from a restraint.

When he did, four Appling County Jail corrections officers entered Tremar Harris’ cell to secure him again on Jan. 29, 2022, according to a new federal lawsuit. That’s when one of them used a chain to strangle him, the suit says.

Officer William Rentz wrapped an unused leg restraint around Harris’ neck and pulled it against his throat for about four seconds before letting go, according to a complaint filed April 16 in the Southern District of Georgia.

The complaint includes a photo from jail surveillance footage showing the chain around Harris, who had his eyes closed and mouth open. Rentz is seen standing over him, holding the chain around his neck, according to the complaint. The photo shows three other officers looking down at Harris.

As Rentz choked Harris, he’s accused of saying: “Gonna put you back in the cotton field with the other boys” in an apparent reference to slavery, according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, corrections officers Daydan Brannon, Cannon Mcleod and Ansley Fennell watched and didn’t try to stop or report the “unlawful use of force,” the complaint says.

Rentz was fired after the incident, according to the complaint. And the next month, he was arrested on charges of aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and one count of battery in connection with assaulting Harris as he was restrained, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced in February 2022.

In March 2023, Rentz was indicted on charges of simple battery and violation of oath by a peace officer, according to the indictment provided to McClatchy News by Cheryl A. DiPrizio, the executive assistant for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit’s district attorney’s office.

His criminal case is still pending, records show.

Four months ago, Harris sued Rentz in federal court over the strangulation incident, accusing him of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his constitutional rights, according to a complaint filed Jan. 19.

Now, Harris’ latest lawsuit names Brannon, Mcleod and Fennell, who are all employed by the Appling County Sheriff’s Office, as defendants. He accuses them of also violating his rights by failing to intervene on Jan. 29, 2022.

The Appling County Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News on April 17. Information regarding Brannon, Mcleod and Fennell’s legal representation wasn’t available.

Patrick T. O’Connor, an attorney defending Rentz in the civil case, told McClatchy News on April 17 that his client “did not choke Mr. Harris.”

“Mr. Rentz never made the offensive comments falsely attributed to him,” O’Connor also said in an emailed statement.

Harris’ most recent lawsuit says he feared he could potentially die as Rentz choked him.

At the time, Harris was detained at the Appling County Jail on a misdemeanor charge, specifically possession of a drug related object, his attorney Harry M. Daniels told McClatchy News.

In jail, Rentz is also accused of “excessively” shocking Harris inside his cell with a “shock shield” that delivers electrical shocks, according to the complaint.

Rentz did so hours before strangling Harris, according to the separate complaint filed against Rentz in January.

After Harris was repeatedly shocked, he was restrained in the restraint chair and left alone in his cell for hours, the complaint says.

The status of the criminal case

In December, Rentz pleaded not guilty to the charges against him in the criminal case in Appling County Superior Court, records show.

He was due in court for a calendar call on April 2, according to court records.

This “is often the last court date before jury selection at trial,” according to the Turner Law Firm in Savannah.

Attorney Hugh J. McCullough, who represents Rentz in the criminal case, told McClatchy News over the phone on April 18 that his client denies the allegations against him. Rentz also denies making the statements referenced in the civil cases, McCullough said.

It’s unclear when Rentz is due back in Superior Court. A trial date hasn’t been set as of April 18, according to McCullough.

As for Brannon, Mcleod and Fennell, Harris’ lawsuit says “they had the ability, opportunity, skill and time to prevent and immediately stop Officer Rentz from strangling (Harris).”

“Instead of doing their jobs stopping this unlawful, hateful and sadistic act, they chose to stand and watch as their fellow officer tortured a fellow human being,” Daniels said in an April 17 news release.

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