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Inmate sentenced for attack on deputy in Ore. detention center

Officials said the man punched a deputy, sat on top of him and slammed the deputy's head into a concrete floor


By Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A man who punched a Multnomah County sheriff's deputy while in custody and then sat on top of him and slammed the deputy's head into a concrete floor was sentenced Monday to 12 years and seven months in federal prison.

Nicholas James Cantrell, 28, deserves the long sentence, said Deputy Robert Ward.

Nicholas James Cantrell, 28, pleaded guilty to felon in possession of a firearm and assault of an officer. (Photo/Clackamas County Sheriff's Office)
Nicholas James Cantrell, 28, pleaded guilty to felon in possession of a firearm and assault of an officer. (Photo/Clackamas County Sheriff's Office)

"I almost got killed by Mr. Cantrell,'' Ward said.

The beating left him a different person, he said. A single father of two teenagers, Ward has been with the Sheriff's Office for 24 years.

Since the attack, he said he lives with the emotional and physical toll. He now angers easily and experiences anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

He suffered a concussion, bruising and swelling to his face and cervical strain in the beating.

"I used to play football for the Ducks, so I'm used to getting banged up. This took things to a whole different level,'' Ward said. "This case is bigger than me. Whatever happens today is going to set the bar for my co-workers.''

Cantrell pleaded guilty to felon in possession of a firearm and assault of an officer.

 On Aug. 2, 2017, Cantrell  "sucker-punched'' Ward, knocking him to the floor, and then sat on top of him, slammed his head against the floor and pinched his windpipe to cut off oxygen until another inmate stepped in and pulled Cantrell away, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Brassell.

"This is a defendant who is extremely violent and committed this assault unprovoked,'' Brassell said. "Other inmates need to be deterred.''

The attack occurred while Cantrell was held at the Multnomah County Detention Center, where he faced a federal hold for a firearms charge. He had been arrested after darting from Gresham police on May 22, 2017, and dropping a multi-colored bag that contained a Colt Target .22-caliber pistol. He was arrested the next day and admitted the gun inside the bag was his.

Prosecutors consider Cantrell a career offender based on his criminal history, including convictions for assault and domestic violence coercion. 

Cantrell's lawyer Alison Clark urged the court to send her client to prison for no more than eight years.  She gave the judge an extensive psychological evaluation of Cantrell, which she said shows "why we're here today.'' It described how Cantrell was neglected, abused and abandoned since age 4 to institutions that failed to provide him with any consistent support.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken read parts of the 19-page evaluation aloud in court. It revealed Cantrell's mother was using methamphetamine when she was pregnant with him and that he was removed from the home at age 4. His father has been in prison his entire life. 

Cantrell was placed in group homes, ran away, ended up in juvenile detention and adult prison. He never learned to respect authority, showed signs of impulsiveness from a young age and turned to drugs to numb his pain and insecurities, the evaluation said.

Cantrell told the evaluator that he wants help but acknowledged, "prison is easier.''

"That's an indictment of the system,'' Aiken said. "You are a poster child for every failure of every part of the system.''

Cantrell, wearing an orange-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, stood and apologized.

"I admit that I made a huge mistake. ... I acted foolishly and was wrong for what I did.''

He asked for a shorter prison term with long-term drug treatment and mentorship.

Aiken turned her remarks to the victim in the assault. "I hope you will look at Mr. Cantrell," she told the deputy, "and see a person who was born into a family who didn't give him a chance to have a productive life.''

Children exposed to drugs in utero who are later neglected and abandoned have become part of a "feeder system'' into state and federal prisons, and, "it's frightful,'' the judge said.

She noted that prosecutors didn't address any part of Cantrell's psychological evaluation and asked them to do so in the future. "That needs to be a conversation in all these sentencings,'' Aiken said.

Aiken excused herself for about 10 minutes before returning to the bench to issue her sentence.

She said she struggled with what to do in this case, but, in the end, accepted the prosecutors' recommendation. She also ordered Cantrell undergo a mental health evaluation and be placed in a drug-and-alcohol treatment program.

Aiken said she couldn't overlook the damage Cantrell caused or his extensive criminal record and felt she needed to issue the nearly 13-year sentence to hold Cantrell accountable. 

Yet Aiken added, "This is so unacceptable as a system. ... There should have been a successful intervention so many steps before it got to this sentencing.''

©2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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