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The wife of Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer convicted in the murder of teenager Laquan McDonald, cried Wednesday as she described learning that he was attacked in prison after he was unexpectedly transferred to an out-of-state lockup.
"I don't know how safe he is. I don't know the extent of his injuries," Tiffany Van Dyke said, flanked by her husband's attorneys at a news conference. "At the end of the day, I want my husband home. I want him to be safe. I don't need people to go into his cell and attack him ... I cannot bury my husband."
Her emotional plea for her husband followed an interview Wednesday in The Chicago Sun-Times in which his defense team said the assault occurred at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a low-security prison that houses both men and women. (High-profile names, including singer Lauryn Hill and the late hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, have served time there for tax-related troubles.)
Jason Van Dyke, 40, was being held in an undisclosed state prison in Illinois since his sentencing Jan. 18 for second-degree murder, which carries a punishment of almost seven years behind bars.
But he was transferred to Connecticut on Feb. 5, which his family and attorneys didn't know until a day or two later, according to the Sun-Times.
While Jason Van Dyke was kept in isolation in Illinois, he was initially placed in the general population in Connecticut and was beaten up by inmates in his cell after he arrived, his lawyers said. He suffered injuries to his face and head.
One of Jason Van Dyke's attorneys, Tammy Wendt, said he first told his appellate attorneys about the attack two days ago. The conversation occurred during a conference call and with a prison guard present, which she said violated his attorney-client privilege.
Wendt said she was then told Wednesday about the attack, and she began contacting federal and state corrections officials, who did not tell her what happened.
She said she also received a confidential call from an employee at the Connecticut prison about what happened.
"He said, 'I know you haven't been told about the attack, and I wanted to let you know. And I'm very concerned about his safety.'"
Daniel Herbert, another of Jason Van Dyke's attorneys, said it is not unheard of for an inmate at a state prison to be transferred to a federal facility, but he would presume it is done to promote safety.
"In this case, it certainly didn't," Herbert said.
He added that he was not informed about plans to transfer Jason Van Dyke, and did not know if there was any malice or forethought by the prison guards in Connecticut to put the former officer in danger by forcing him to mingle with the general population.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed an attack occurred, but would only say it happened on Feb. 7 and resulted in "minor injuries" to Van Dyke.
"The BOP is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public," the bureau said in a statement, adding that allegations of misconduct in prisons are thoroughly investigated.
Lindsey Hess, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, confirmed his transfer, but said the agency would not provide details "for safety and security purposes."
Jason Van Dyke, who is white, shot McDonald, who was black, 16 times during an encounter on a Chicago street in October 2014. The incident was captured on a police dashboard camera, leading to racial tensions, a federal investigation and political upheaval in the city.
The last time a Chicago police officer was convicted of murder for an on-duty killing was more than 50 years ago.
Prosecutors had sought a minimum of 18 years for the shooting, but the judge's sentencing was based on a count of second-degree murder and not the 16 counts of aggravated battery, which would have carried more prison time. On Monday, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said he would challenge the judge's sentence, which activists criticized as being too lenient.
Tiffany Van Dyke said her husband's case was underlined by a "gigantic race issue," and that he was placed in a dangerous situation "because of the fact that he is a white man who harmed a black gentleman in the line of duty."
She added that she last spoke with her husband when he was sentenced in Chicago. Now, after the attack, she said, he's being held for 23 hours in lock down in a cell with one other person.
"He is fearful for his life," she said. "If they can get to him in general population, they can get to him anywhere."