Originally created 05/26/05

Crew escapee is convicted rapist



A Screven County jail inmate who escaped from a work detail Tuesday morning was a convicted rapist who had been put to work at a high school while class was in session. It was the third such escape in just over a year.

Billy W. Cheney, 49, was part of a crew cleaning up damage by vandals at the Screven County High football field. He slipped into the woods at about 9:30 a.m., then was captured south of Sylvania after a seven-hour search, according to a news release from the Screven County Sheriff's Office.

Mr. Cheney - or Chaney in various records and databases - was in the county jail awaiting a hearing on a felony theft by taking charge, stemming from a theft of tools and guns. He was arraigned May 4, and a plea hearing had been scheduled Wednesday, said Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard.

In January 1998, Mr. Cheney was convicted of rape in the first degree with a gun, sexual abuse in the first degree and burglary in the first degree in Warren County, Ky., according to that county's clerk of court's office. He was a registered sex offender in Kentucky until April 2004, when he moved to Stony Point, N.C., and was placed on inactive status.

He does not appear on the sex offender registry in North Carolina or Georgia. Mr. Cheney also served two prison terms in Georgia in the early 1980s and early 1990s, with a record that includes two escape charges, burglary, entering a vehicle and criminal damage to property.

Contacted Wednesday at his office, Screven County Sheriff Mike Kile refused to discuss Mr. Cheney or give details about his escape.

"I'm not going to make any statement on it," he said.

Last year, Sheriff Kile dodged possible suspension by Gov. Sonny Perdue by agreeing to clean up his inmate labor practices. An investigation by The Augusta Chronicle, published in September, found the sheriff had illegally put prisoners to work on private property and for private interests, including doing chores and yard work at his home, deputies' homes and at churches. The FBI is still investigating possible civil rights violations.

Working inmates at a public school is not illegal. Using an inmate who has not yet been convicted seems to fall in a gray area of the law, legal experts said Wednesday.

State law allows only county prisoners sentenced to misdemeanors to take part in work release programs, such as leaving the jail to work at a paying job, but the statute does not mention work details. Oliver Hunter, attorney for the Georgia Sheriff's Association, interprets language in the law saying inmates can work after sentencing to mean they can't work before sentencing.

Sarah Totonchi, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said a ruling in a 1997 case before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, can be interpreted to say that using pre-trial inmate labor for county purposes is acceptable.

But the practice is forbidden by the state's jail standards policy. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs' Standards for Georgia Jail Facilities, jails "shall not require unsentenced inmates to do work other than personal housekeeping ... "

Mr. Cheney's escape Tuesday marks the third time a Screven County inmate has eluded work crew guards since April 2004, when David Freeman drove off in a county work truck after planning his escape with his girlfriend by letter.

On May 29, 2004, Harold Cannon escaped from a detail cutting grass and clearing limbs at Arnett Enrichment and Recreation Center after-school program - private property - and three days later emerged in Statesboro and attacked a man with a machete, according to police reports.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.