updated 5/1/2009 6:50:43 PM ET 2009-05-01T22:50:43

Former Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating, who had faced up to a decade in federal prison for a sexual assault and was accused of letting inmates have the run of his small-town jail, died of an apparent heart attack. He was 62.

After working in his yard late Thursday afternoon and telling his wife he felt lightheaded, Keating was found slumped over and not breathing, his attorney Mark Daniel told The Associated Press on Friday. Keating, who lived near Forestburg, about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth, apparently died of a heart attack, Daniel said.

His body was sent to the Dallas County medical examiner for an autopsy, but it appears Keating died of natural causes, said Montague County Chief Deputy J.T. Mitchell.

Residents of rural Montague County, near the Oklahoma line, were shocked in January when Keating pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights violation. Last fall while serving a warrant at a house, he told a woman she would go to jail on a drug charge unless she had sex with him.

Then in February, Keating was indicted on charges of official oppression and having sex with female inmates. The 106-count indictment involved 17 people, mostly former jailers charged with having sex with inmates or giving them drugs and cell phones.

For months or longer, the Montague County Jail had been “Animal House” meets Mayberry. Inmates had the run of the place, having sex with their jailer girlfriends, bringing in recliners, taking drugs and chatting on cell phones supplied by friends or guards, according to authorities. They also disabled some of the surveillance cameras and made weapons out of nails.

Prosecutor: Sheriff did 'whatever he wanted'
Some of the escapades dated to 2006 but had intensified since the spring of 2008, after Keating lost in the primary and could not run for a second term in November, authorities said.

“It was a mindset that he could do whatever he wanted for the last eight or nine months he was in office and use that power in any way he wanted, not thinking about the consequences because he thought, ’Nothing’s going to happen to me,”’ federal prosecutor Rick Calvert said. “And that attitude trickled down to many of his employees.”

Keating’s federal sentencing initially was set for Friday but had been postponed until June because of a conflict with his attorney’s schedule. His death means his case will be dismissed because the federal conviction is not considered final without sentencing.

“It will be as though it never happened,” Calvert said Friday. “But for those who say that he was never punished for his criminal acts, anyone would concede that he died indirectly from this case because of the stress effects on his health.”

Keating had not entered a plea on the state charges, which are expected to be dismissed as well.

Keating worked for at least seven law enforcement agencies in his 40-year career. Before he surrendered his peace officer’s license in January, it was never suspended or revoked and he had no disciplinary actions, though a complaint was pending, according to the agency responding to a Texas Public Information Act request from The Associated Press. No information was provided about the complaint.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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