Tarrant chief deputy over jail says retirement unrelated to deaths in sheriff’s custody

Read the latest in our coverage of the death of Anthony Johnson Jr. and other issues in Tarrant County jail.

The executive chief deputy of confinement for the Tarrant County Jail has retired from the Sheriff’s Office, he said Wednesday.

The departure of Charles Eckert, who had been with the Sheriff’s Office for 32 years, “marks a significant but necessary first step in addressing the alarming rise in jail deaths in the Tarrant County Jail,” Tarrant County Commissioner Alisa Simmons said in a Wednesday night news release.

Eckert told the Star-Telegram in a phone call Wednesday evening that his departure from the Sheriff’s Office is simply retirement and has nothing to do with deaths at the jail or any sort of dissatisfaction or feeling unsupported. He said he was eligible for retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic but didn’t want to leave those under his command while they were dealing with the increased difficulties that came along with the spread of the virus.

“This is a great agency. It’s just after 32 years, I felt like it was a good place to retire,” Eckert said in the phone interview. “If I had retired in the middle of COVID, I would have been called a coward — they would say I was running away.”

He added that the jail passing inspection and his winning an award for administrator of the year in Texas seemed like a good place to leave his career.

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Eckert will be missed and they wish him the best in his retirement.

“He retired very honorably and we were blessed to have had him serve TCSO for 32 stellar years,” the statement read. “He just won administrator of the year in Texas and has many other positive accomplishments during his tenure.”

Simmons’ release did not specify why Eckert was leaving and left room to imply that his departure from the Sheriff’s Office might be a result of the jail deaths. Eckert told the Star-Telegram that could not be further from the truth.

A series of jail deaths

Eckert’s retirement from the jail comes more than a month following the death of 31-year-old Marine veteran Anthony Johnson Jr. after a large, heavy jailer put his weight on Johnson’s back with his knee.

Detention Officer Rafael Moreno was fired over the use of force and a supervisor, Lt. Joel Garcia, who filmed footage of part of the altercation was also let go. Both Moreno and Garcia were reinstated last week and placed on administrative leave.

Randy Moore, an attorney representing Garcia, told the Star-Telegram he suspects the reinstatement and immediate assignment to administrative leave indicates the Sheriff’s Office wants to terminate their employment the right way by following civil service rules, something he said wasn’t done when they were initially fired.

Simmons said there is more work to be done to address problems in the jail.

“While the long-time jail chief will be leaving after 32 years, systemic problems within the jail remain,” Simmons said in the release. “The ultimate responsibility for these issues lies with Sheriff Bill Waybourn.”

‘Not a political pawn’

Eckert told the Star-Telegram the news release from Simmons was a shock and that it was almost enough to ruin the first day of his retirement. He spent the day looking through old photos and files on his computer and moving them to a hard drive. Any insinuation that his retirement has something to do with his experience at the jail is wrong, he said.

Eckert was promoted in December 2020 by Waybourn after several suspicious deaths, including the death of a newborn whose mother was an inmate. The Star-Telegram reported in October 2022 that the number of deaths in the jail had declined under Eckert’s leadership.

Eckert told the Star-Telegram that he is not a politician and doesn’t want his retirement to be used for any political purposes.

“I’m very disappointed that she put that out that way,” Eckert said in the Wednesday phone call with the Star-Telegram. “I’m not a political pawn in any way.”

On May 23, Simmons supported calls for Waybourn’s resignation.

Simmons said Waybourn “must lead the effort to implement meaningful reforms that ensure the safety of those in custody and uphold their civil rights.”

She wrote that she and the other county commissioners also bear responsibility for the deaths and other problems in the jail and must work together to ensure the safety of the facility, the adequate training of staff and that constitutional rights are protected.

Video of Anthony Johnson’s death

On May 16, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office released partial video footage of the moments leading up to the death of Anthony Johnson Jr. on April 21. One video shows Johnson in an altercation with jailers, during which Waybourn said one jailer accidentally pepper sprayed himself. Officers also used pepper spray on Johnson.

A second video shows Moreno put his knee on Johnson’s back while Johnson was already handcuffed. Moreno stayed there for 90 seconds as Johnson made wheezing and gasping noises and at one point said he couldn’t breathe. When Moreno stood up, Johnson was unresponsive.

Moreno’s attorney has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Star-Telegram.

Both videos were combined and cut down before they were released. The edited video released by the department was just over 5 minutes. Johnson’s family has said the full version of the video, which they’ve viewed, is around 15 minutes. They said the full version is worse.

Simmons noted that inmates awaiting trial in the jail are presumed innocent until they plead guilty or are convicted of a crime.

“No one should have to fear that a loved one’s arrest for a low-level offense (or any offense) is a possible death sentence,” Simmons wrote. “These people are in our custody and control, and we have a legal and moral obligation to guarantee their well-being.”

She said the commissioners should work together to prevent any further deaths and restore trust in the jail and the county’s justice system.

The funeral for Johnson took place Friday. Three days later a woman died in Tarrant County Jail custody. Autopsy results are incomplete for both that inmate, Chasity Bonner, and Johnson.