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Recoil From Prison Shooting : Father Demands Explanation of Erroneous Report on Indian Son’s Death

Times Staff Writer

The telegram arrived June 2 telling Joe (Tony) Nieto that a Folsom Prison corrections officer had shot his son in the chest and killed him that day in a melee among Latino inmates.

Nieto accepted the version in the telegram and a subsequent telephone call in which prison officials said 26-year-old Anthony Nieto was shot because he was making stabbing motions against another inmate.

But a few days later, Nieto, 56, who is half Apache Indian and half Mexican and an ex-convict himself, was troubled by letters from other inmates who said the younger Nieto was shot not in the chest but in the back, and that he merely was trying to protect himself from punches being thrown.

An Explanation Demanded

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Nieto called prison officials and demanded an explanation. “I called four times, and each time they insisted that my son was shot in the chest,” Nieto said. “They also said my son stabbed another inmate.”

Nieto wrote the Sacramento County coroner’s office and requested an autopsy report. Since then he has been obsessed with learning the true fate of his son, a self-styled activist for Indian causes serving 10 years for armed robbery.

“When I read the coroner’s report I cried,” Nieto said in an interview at his modest home in Riverside. “It said my son was shot in the back.

“Look, I’m no goody-two-shoes Indian and neither was my son,” added Nieto, who in 1981 began serving a 16-month term in state prison for burglary. “If they would have told the truth from the beginning, I would have gone for it. But they lied from day one.”

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Tito Torres, a San Francisco lawyer hired by Nieto to take legal action against the prison, said he plans to file a lawsuit “within a month” that will call into question Folsom’s shooting policies.

“We will question whether the shooting policies at Folsom are unconstitutional and contributed to the man’s death,” Torres said. “Was it necessary to shoot in this case?”

The discrepancies surrounding the case prompted state Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), chairman of the joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, to request an investigation by the Sacramento County district attorney’s office.

In a letter sent to county prosecutors Aug. 19, Presley asked for “a copy of your findings in the case as to whether the inmate’s death was justifiable under the circumstances.”

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Al Locher, supervising deputy district attorney, said that his office investigates all officer-involved shootings at the prison. He added that his probe into the Nieto shooting should be completed “within a few weeks.”

A Question of Motive

“I can’t think of another case when I’ve had a discrepancy like this at the prison,” said Locher, referring to the conflicting assessments of Nieto’s bullet wounds. “But,” he added, “I don’t see any motive for the prison institution to falsify the assessment of where the wounds were if the body was going to the coroner’s for an autopsy by a competent pathologist.”

In a telephone interview, Folsom Prison spokeswoman Cammy Voss acknowledged that the prison physician erred in his assessment of the entry wound. But she insisted that the shooting was justified, although “our shooting policy is to disable and not ever to kill an inmate.”

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Voss said Anthony Nieto was observed “making striking motions at another inmate” in a melee involving six members of rival Latino prison factions, one of which Nieto “sympathized” with.

Voss said that Nieto failed to heed an oral warning to cease the attack before the corrections officer, about 50 feet away, fired two shots from a .223-caliber rifle. The corrections officer involved in the shooting, who has been identified only as officer M. Guerrero, could not be reached for comment.

No Weapon Found

Voss said an internal investigation failed to locate an inmate’s weapon in the area of the shooting.

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The fact that Nieto was shot in the back was unavoidable, she said. “When he (Guerrero) fired his rounds he couldn’t control the inmate’s movements,” Voss said.

Beyond that, Voss said, Anthony Nieto, who went by the name Angry Bear, was anything but a model prisoner. “He could not have been a model prisoner because he was in the security housing unit,” Voss said. “Inmates are put there based on inappropriate behavior, in this case possession of an inmate-manufactured weapon.”

Voss said corrections officer-involved shootings have increased at Folsom Prison, which houses 6,800 prisoners, 40% of whom are serving life terms.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 39 shots fired by corrections officers in the prison, Voss said. “I cannot tell you how many inmates have been hit, I don’t count direct hits,” she said. However, she added, “most have resulted in leg injuries.”

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Fewer Stabbings

Meanwhile, inmate-involved stabbings have decreased, she said. In 1987, there were 136 reported stabbings at the prison between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15. That compares with 95 stabbings during the same period this year.

Voss said Nieto was the only inmate shot and killed by a corrections officer this year.

Anthony Nieto went to state prison for the first time in 1981 when he pleaded guilty to an arson charge in Riverside Superior Court, authorities said. He was paroled in December, 1983, only to be returned to prison the following year on a new conviction--armed robbery. A fight with Latino prison gang members in 1986 caused him to be transferred from the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi to a security housing unit at San Quentin.

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There, he studied law and became a “jail house lawyer” who frequently helped other Indian inmates with their legal problems, according to his father. He also wrote protest songs and poems about the historical mistreatment of Indians in the United States. “He played guitar and performed his songs for the inmates,” his father said.

Charges of Bias

In May, 1987, Anthony Nieto, who earned a high school diploma in prison, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco federal court against San Quentin officials for discriminating against him as an Indian, and for depriving him of law books, correspondence, personal religious articles and medication.

In July, 1987, he was transferred to Folsom. In January, prison officials discovered a homemade knife in his guitar and placed him in the high security unit where he was shot to death, authorities said.

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Sacramento County coroner’s spokesman Robert Bowers said the prison doctor who treated Nieto after the shooting made a mistake.

“The doctor out there . . . didn’t know an exit wound from an entry wound,” Bowers said. “It certainly was an error and they (prison officials) certainly did release the wrong information.”

Indeed, the coroner’s autopsy report described the entry wound as a small circular abrasion on Nieto’s back located in the gothic-style “R” of a large tattoo that said “Red Power.” The exit wound was decribed as “a gaping hole which measured 1 inches in diameter” in a chest tattoo of a face of an Indian wearing a feather.

‘Why Lie?’ Lawyer Asks

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Torres, Joe Nieto’s attorney, said, “Anyone with even a little forensic experience would know that the entry wound was in the back.

“If it was a good shooting, why lie about whether he was shot in the front or the back?” Torres asked. “It seems obvious that someone was trying to justify the shooting.”

Standing over a box of his son’s keepsakes, letters and poems in the living room of his home, Joe Nieto agreed and said, “Any idiot knows that the entry hole is the small one.”

Nieto then recalled a conversation he had with his son last year just after he had filed the lawsuit against San Quentin. “He said, ‘Dad, I don’t think I’m going to make it out. The man (prison authorities) is going to off me.’

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“Inmates considered Angry Bear a leader,” Nieto said. “But he felt he was a threat to the system because he was always fighting for Indian rights.

“The man hated him because he fought for those rights,” Nieto said. “I will not rest until this case is settled the way it should be.”

For Nieto, that means filing a lawsuit to obtain an accurate accounting of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, and to punish, if necessary, those responsible.

“I’ll keep fighting, I’ll keep praying,” he said. “I’m not giving up.”

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