Two Florida state prison guards and a former corrections employee have been arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill an unidentified former inmate, the state attorney general said.
Thomas Jordan Driver, 25, David Elliot Moran, 47, and Charles Thomas Newcomb, 42 – who authorities say are members of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan -- were arrested Thursday, and each faces one count of conspiracy to commit murder, according to a statement from Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi.
The arrests were made after a months-long investigation involving an undercover FBI informant and a killing scene staged by authorities, according to officials and court documents.
The plot to kill the inmate began, Bondi said, after Driver and the inmate, who is black, fought in jail. In transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between the defendants and an FBI informant, Moran and Newcomb repeatedly refer to the former inmate using a racial epithet.
According to redacted arrest affidavits, Driver and the inmate had been involved in an altercation in August 2013, while the inmate was still in prison. In conversations with the FBI informant, Driver said he worried about contracting some kind of disease after the inmate bit him, and described the “mental stress” he felt, calling the inmate “dirty.”
“I would kick his freakin' throat out,” Driver told the informant, according to court records. “If it was me personally. ... I’d stomp his larynx closed and after I kicked his teeth out so he wouldn’t bite nobody ever again.”
This year, Newcomb, Moran and the informant drove to Palatka, Fla., to case the home where the inmate, who was out on supervised release, was living, Bondi said. Newcomb took two syringes that he said contained insulin and discussed a plan to inject the victim, killing him, Bondi said. To make it appear he had drowned, they would dump the body along with a fishing pole in a nearby river, she said.
According to court records, this conversation followed:
“Yeah, but does he fish?” Moran asked as they drove.
“It don’t matter,” Newcomb said. “I was trying to do it quietly, 'cause less attention to us.”
In case that plan didn’t work, court records say, Newcomb also had a gun.
Bondi said FBI officials had already been tipped off about the plot and had placed marked police vehicles down the block from the former inmate’s house to dissuade the men from attempting to carry out their plan.
The plan disrupted, the informant continued to discuss the plot with the defendants, arrest affidavits say, asking whether a “bullet to the chest” would suffice. Then, last month, the informant showed each suspect a cellphone photo of a staged crime scene, which appeared to show that the former inmate had been shot to death. Each of the men smiled upon seeing the image, court documents say. Driver and Moran shook the informant’s hand.
“I think the entire state of Florida is appalled,” Bondi said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “We will not tolerate nor will we ever remain silent about hatred.”
Bondi would not say whether other arrests were pending or whether these were part of a larger investigation in the corrections system.
The Department of Corrections said it was working with the state attorney general's office to assist in the prosecution. "Our department has zero tolerance for racism or prejudice of any kind," Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said in a statement, calling the men's actions "unacceptable."
Driver, Moran and Newcomb worked as guards at the Department of Corrections Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, Fla., according to Whitney Ray, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. Newcomb, who officials say was an Exalted Cyclops of the Klan, was fired from his job as a trainee correctional officer in 2013. Driver and Moran were fired Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Moran and Driver are expected to be booked into the Union County Jail later Thursday, and Newcomb has been taken to the Alachua County Jail. According to jail records, Newcomb is being held in lieu of $750,000 bond. All three are facing up to 30 years in state prison, Bondi told reporters.
According to the Department of Corrections, Moran was hired in 1996 and was promoted to sergeant eight years later. He received written reprimands in 1999 and 2006 for conduct unbecoming of a public employee, and received a supervisory counseling memo in May 2010 for abuse of sick leave.
Newcomb was hired in October 2012 as a trainee officer, and fired less than three months later for failing to meet minimum training requirements, the department said. Driver, hired in July 2010 as a correctional officer, received a written reprimand in April 2012 for willful violation of rules, and received another reprimand two months later for being absent without authorization.
A spokeswoman for the FBI, which assisted in the investigation, declined to provide additional details about when the inmate was released or how the suspected plot was uncovered, citing the ongoing investigation.
A woman who identified herself as Driver's mother told the Los Angeles Times by phone, "That is my son. I stand behind my son 100%." When asked about Driver's alleged ties to the KKK, the woman replied, "No comment."
The FBI, Florida Highway Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security were among the more than half a dozen law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation, officials said. Bondi’s office will be prosecuting the case in Columbia County.
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