State Thwarted Brutality Probe at Corcoran Prison, Investigators Say
For seven years, the state of California turned a blind eye to the deadliest prison in America, where 50 inmates were wounded or shot dead by guards.
Gov. Pete Wilson and the man who wants to succeed him, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, finally launched an examination of Corcoran State Prison that ended last year. The result was a whitewash--a pair of investigations that never probed any of the seven deaths or the other serious shootings, The Times has found.
The Wilson administration blocked efforts to investigate brutality by officers and mismanagement by top officials in the Department of Corrections, according to investigators assigned to a special corrections team. The agents said the powerful prison guard union, which has contributed nearly $1 million to Wilson and Lungren since 1989, was allowed to stymie almost every attempt to question key officers about a range of alleged crimes at Corcoran.
“The union and the governor’s office ran the investigation,” said Jim Connor, the corrections agent who supervised the team. “We would try to question a witness, and the union was there blocking us. The [union] even told us how many interviews we could do, and our bosses in Sacramento backed them. This was no independent inquiry. It was just a sham.”
Top state officials deny any cover-up, each one pointing the finger at another, although aides to both Wilson and Lungren now concede that their administrations didn’t do nearly enough to watch over the nation’s most violent prison. The union president declined to talk.
Tucked away in the middle of California’s cotton fields, this prison is where 43 inmates were wounded and seven were killed by officers firing assault rifles from 1989 to 1995. While local and state watchdogs looked the other way, rival gang members were pitted against each other in human cockfights watched over by guards--and then shot if they didn’t stop fighting.
But the governor’s point man on the 1997 probe ordered corrections investigators to steer clear of the shootings and the policies sent down from Sacramento that led to the violence, according to agents. Investigators were told they could not compel key officers to talk about their knowledge of any brutality or cover-ups, including firsthand accounts that problem inmates were purposely locked into a cell and subjected to repeated rapes by an inmate enforcer nicknamed the “Booty Bandit.”
The parallel investigation by the attorney general’s office was even more limited. Even though Wilson requested an expansive probe, Lungren’s office investigated only one case of alleged brutality and possible cover-up by a union official. Lungren’s top investigator then took a higher-paying job with the Corrections Department, the very agency he was assigned to investigate.
Wilson declined requests for an interview, but his top aides said they were surprised to hear that agents were hamstrung in their attempts to investigate the prison.
“Was there a whitewash or cover-up from the governor’s office? No, absolutely not,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary. “Was there a whitewash or cover-up from the Department of Corrections? . . . This is the first we’ve heard of a conspiracy or attempt to cover up.”
George Dunn, the governor’s chief of staff, said The Times’ findings were “fresh and new and disappointing.”
Lungren defended his investigation, saying any insinuation of a whitewash was “a bunch of crap.” When asked why his office had delved into just a single case, he cited an FBI probe into civil rights abuses at Corcoran that has been ongoing since 1994.
“We weren’t going to duplicate or interfere with what the feds were engaged in,” Lungren said. “It’s a matter of not screwing up another investigation.”
But federal authorities say their probe was focused on only one shooting death and that there was a broad range of alleged misconduct at Corcoran--enough to keep both state agents and the FBI busy.
The alleged abuses were first detailed in a 1996 Times article; shortly after, Wilson and Lungren launched their investigations.
The Times has since obtained 10,000 pages of internal corrections reports and has interviewed dozens of guards, state investigators and others whose insider accounts provide new and disturbing details of Corcoran’s violent breakdown and cover-ups. A three-month Times investigation shows a pattern of neglect at every level of the local and state bureaucracy responsible for overseeing the San Joaquin Valley prison.
From the day Corcoran opened in 1988, the escalating violence failed to set off alarms--not at the district attorney’s office, not at the Department of Corrections, not at the attorney general’s office or at the governor’s office.
And when the Corrections Department and attorney general finally did step in--seven years after the first death--their probes were either so restricted or so toothless that it became virtually impossible to ferret out wrongdoing.
“I’ve been an investigator for 10 years, and no one has ever told me before that I couldn’t talk to certain important people and couldn’t pursue certain key leads,” said Ben Eason, another supervisor on the corrections team. “If this was a search for the truth, how can you establish those parameters?”
The twin state probes ended last year without criminal charges being filed against a single officer. The corrections team utilized few, if any, investigative tools to compel officers to come forward about reports of beatings, torture and staged fights between handpicked gladiators.
Instead, they spent considerable manpower trying to dig up dirt on whistle-blowers--the officers who had reported brutality to the FBI, according to interviews and the internal reports.
In the end, state officials found only isolated incidents of staff misconduct at Corcoran, even though a federal grand jury in February charged eight officers with setting up fights for “amusement and blood sport.”
Federal prosecutors have taken the unusual step of accusing corrections officials and union representatives of trying to thwart the FBI probe and cover up wrongdoing. In recent weeks, the FBI’s investigation has broadened with two federal grand juries weighing allegations of obstruction of justice.
“We wouldn’t be doing this investigation if the Department of Corrections had their own effective procedures for doing an independent investigation,” said James Maddock, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento office.
State corrections officials also now concede that they should have paid closer attention to a prison that mixes some of the most dangerous inmates and gangs in California, a world where Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan share quarters with an ingenious killer from the Aryan Brotherhood and where mass murderer Juan Corona likes to grow chili peppers near the main yard.
Corrections officials offer a variety of explanations for Corcoran’s troubles, blaming other agencies for tying their hands, blaming predecessors for failing to do their jobs, blaming the societal breakdown that has resulted in the largest prison buildup in U.S. history.
For its part, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. contends that it is ridiculous to believe that officers at Corcoran engaged in a pattern of abuse that was covered up with union help.
Union President Don Novey did not respond to requests for interviews over a two-month period.
In its Peacekeeper magazine and in public rallies with loyal politicians, the union paints its mission simply as good guards walking the toughest beat in the state, a beat filled with a new breed of criminal, more animal than human. Union officials say the indicted officers are victims of a sneaky and overzealous FBI that chooses to believe the lies of these inmate predators.
But federal authorities see another Corcoran: good guards who did the right thing and blew the whistle on bad guards brutalizing inmates. Only after a handful of whistle-blowers went public, they point out, did the Wilson administration and corrections officials undertake key policy and personnel changes at Corcoran--changes that have stopped the deadly shootings.
“Since late 1995, there hasn’t been a rifle fired at Corcoran,” said Cal Terhune, corrections director since 1997. “And that’s a phenomenal record.”
Although the prison has managed to put a lid on the violence, it remains a volatile place with many lessons for California. The anatomy of Corcoran’s meltdown raises questions about the state’s ability to police its penitentiaries, even as California is on the cusp of a second prison building boom.
If Corcoran received such scant oversight, then what kind of scrutiny is now being afforded to other troubled prisons? If a place like Corcoran didn’t warrant high-level questions and intervention, critics say, then where?
“The fact that no one noticed seems to be the worst crime,” said Catherine Campbell, a Fresno attorney who has brought a civil rights lawsuit against the state in a 1994 shooting death. “Corcoran was given license to act out the worst impulses of our criminal justice system.”
A Recipe for Trouble
Even before Corcoran was conceived as a new model of “absolute control,” state officials were warned about the folly of concentrating prison gangs inside one institution. The year was 1985, and Folsom State Prison was exploding with violence.
In a report to the Legislature in the midst of the crisis, former San Quentin Deputy Warden Lewis Fudge traced Folsom’s troubles to the practice of forcing inmates side by side with sworn enemies.
“It is akin to forcing integration among the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland,” Fudge said.
Every feature Fudge warned against, corrections officials built into the architecture of Corcoran. Past five guard towers and through a dozen gates topped with razor wire stood a new prototype: the Security Housing Unit, a prison within a prison for gang members and others who refused to obey the system’s tough hand.
The SHU was built on the premise that harmony inside California prisons depended on walling off 1,500 or so of the most volatile offenders. Its purpose was not unlike that of a toxic landfill, taking the state’s most dangerous chemicals and mixing them into one confined chamber, hoping it wouldn’t explode.
“That’s what we were there for. We were going to take the garbage from everybody else,” George Smith, who served as warden from 1992 to 1996, told state agents.
Local and state watchdogs had every reason to be on high alert. Corcoran was opening amid a decade-long construction boom that saw California add 16 prisons to accommodate a rise in street gangs and tougher sentencing laws. Veteran officers were hard to come by. So nearly 70% of Corcoran’s staff was fresh out of the academy. Six weeks of training and suddenly they found themselves staring down assassins for the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family.
Former Sgt. Paul Lytton recalled that “the officers weren’t ready. You had fresh staff, fresh supervisors, a fresh facility, and the programs weren’t even in place. The only ones who had seniority were the inmates.”
When it came time each day for SHU inmates to go to their respective exercise yards--two at a time, 20 to a yard--the prison packed bitter rivals into the same cramped concrete funnel. If a fight broke out, a gunner stood overhead ready to stop it with wood blocks from a 37-millimeter gas gun or bullets from a 9-millimeter assault rifle.
The bureaucratic rationale for mixing rival gangs in the confines of Corcoran’s SHU was that they needed to learn to get along--an important first step to eventual return to the larger prison setting. Although integration was never a written policy, corrections officials sounded at times like idealistic social workers, talking up the virtues of a multihued prison society.
On the front lines, guards grumbled that the whole notion sounded naive, the idea that by sharing an exercise yard 10 hours a week, enemy gangs would find a way to reverse a lifetime of bad blood.
“I don’t really know where [the integration policy] started,” Smith told state agents last year. “I think it sounded good if you said it real fast.”
Internal memos and court declarations by corrections officials reveal a deeper purpose behind Corcoran’s policy. Integration didn’t mean an exercise yard where different races got along. Integration meant mixing Mexican American gang members from Southern California with Mexican American gang members from the north in the same yard. Once there, prison code compelled them to fight.
By forcing such explosive combinations and cultivating an atmosphere of fear, corrections officials believed that the gangs would brutalize each other into submission, according to internal memos and interviews with SHU staffers. Integration, they said, would bust the gangs.
A Level of Violence Never Seen Before
The first month the SHU opened, the integrated yards broke out in gang warfare.
In a 1989 internal memo that offers a glimpse into Corcoran’s psychology, the administrator in charge of the unit acknowledged the violence and then reiterated his support for the mixed yards. “The integrated yards are doing just exactly what they were intended to do,” Associate Warden Gary Lindsey wrote, “and the inmate gang structures are left in confusion since they cannot get together.”
Lindsey said his gunners were justified in resorting to the 9-millimeter rifle for those inmates who had ignored verbal and wood-block warnings. He said he understood the consequences of what he was advocating--the serious injury or death of an inmate who carried on a fistfight too long.
“Sooner or later, a shooting will occur which will be questionable and an inmate seriously injured because he was simply a participant in a physical altercation with no weapons.”
Eight weeks later, the first body was wheeled out of Corcoran.
The next seven years would be a struggle between two forces: a bureaucracy unwilling to admit that integration was tearing the prison apart and the reality of the front lines where the policy was causing deaths and injuries to inmates and severe emotional trauma to some guards.
In its first year, Corcoran tallied more than 1,500 fights, 662 discharges of the gas gun, 47 discharges of the carbine rifle, 204 injuries by either bullet or wood block, and one death.
Daniel McCarthy, the retired director of California corrections, couldn’t believe the numbers. The level of violence was “absolutely the highest I have ever seen in any institution anywhere in the country,” he testified in one court case. “That’s totally unacceptable.”
Corcoran conducted internal reviews of each shooting that ended in death or injury. The guards always gave the same paradoxical reason for resorting to deadly force: They were trying to stop fights from turning deadly. In all but a few cases, internal reports show, the inmates did not carry weapons or cause so much as a swollen lip while brawling--important factors in determining if deadly force was justified.
In some instances, the wrong inmate--the one complying with orders to stop fighting--was shot by mistake. And yet each shooting was deemed justified by reviewers in Sacramento.
Corcoran’s response to the violence was to declare a “state of emergency” in late 1989. Repeat fighters were removed from the yards, their exercise time cut in half. In a memo to Sacramento, then-Warden Bernie Aispuro pledged that the emergency would remain in effect until the gangs “decided to coexist peacefully on the integrated yards.”
A few Corcoran staffers upset by the escalating violence complained to superiors. Corcoran’s troubles were temporary, not endemic, they were told. Things would calm down shortly, as soon as the new prison in Pelican Bay opened its own Security Housing Unit. The two would work in tandem--the worst of Corcoran being used to fill up the North Coast prison.
“We told Sacramento that integration wasn’t going to work,” said Lt. Jim Bolin. “We said, ‘We’ve got inmates whose grandfathers were enemies, and they’re never going to get along--not in the big real world and not in the little world of the SHU.’ The response that came down was we had no choice. Integration was mandated.”
Compounding the problem, according to some younger officers, was a group of veteran supervisors from San Quentin and Folsom who set down a culture of “you’re either with us or against us.” To prove their loyalty, rookie guards said, they were called upon to help in acts of brutality.
One rite of passage, they said, was to play rough with inmates arriving from other prisons, where they had assaulted staff or committed other offenses. As the bus rolled to a stop, guards would don gloves and manhandle inmates.
“We knew these were inmates who had done wrong,” said Roscoe Pondexter, a Security Housing Unit officer who was forced to resign in 1996 for using excessive force. “We’d place them in a chin hold, tell them look skyward, and any flinch to the right or the left was reason to take them down. Whatever force was necessary, we used.
“And all the while we’re yelling at them. ‘Welcome to the Corcoran SHU! This is a hands-on institution. You’re in our house now. Whatever your life in prison was before, it’s over. Welcome to hell.’ ”
Gladiator Days in the Jail Yard
In the spring and summer of 1990, hundreds of SHU inmates were shipped on a “midnight express” to Pelican Bay. Corcoran’s best gladiators were gone, and the prison had bought a measure of peace. But it was short-lived.
A new batch of gangbangers soon replaced them. From mid-1993 to mid-1994, Corcoran would experience its most violent period--hundreds of fights that ended in four shooting deaths and serious injuries to 15 others.
Every fight, every shooting, every injury and death was documented and the paperwork shipped to Sacramento officials for review. As part of the prison’s emergency declaration, Corcoran was required to report the fights and shootings to the attorney general’s office.
But the state reacted to the growing violence with indifference. David Tristan, the head of the corrections institutions division, said his review of the incident reports turned up nothing extraordinary. He said he and other corrections officials expected Corcoran to be a dangerous place. Indeed, he said, the numbers were so predictable that no one in an oversight position ever found it necessary to visit Corcoran to interview staff about reducing violence.
“In my opinion, Corcoran was not out of control,” Tristan said in an interview. “Were we looking at the number of shootings? . . . Yes. Does it appear that it was inordinate as compared to the population? . . . My response would be ‘No.’ ”
The Kings County district attorney’s office had successfully prosecuted two lieutenants who delivered a Taser jolt to an inmate’s testicles in 1989 and engaged in a cover-up. But prosecutors then retreated from Corcoran.
Garry Gonsalves, district attorney from 1987 to 1995, said he had neither the personnel nor the wherewithal to break through the prison’s code of silence. He said the guards union had told officers not to cooperate with his staff, and shunned those who talked.
“We were aware of things that were going on out there. If you want to say we failed to do our job, that’s one reading,” Gonsalves said. “No, we didn’t investigate the shootings. . . . I was either asleep at the wheel, or there was no communications going on between the prison and my office.
“You have to understand, the prison was a zoo. We had to be blind not to know something bad was going down. But to break through all the lies, that takes a lot of work. That Taser case nearly broke my staff, and it did break the officer who came forward. You can’t imagine the abuse and threats he took during the trial from other guards.
“But that still doesn’t excuse what happened out there and our role, or lack of it.”
As local and state law enforcement agencies looked the other way, Corcoran turned even more perverse, according to internal documents and insider accounts.
Many officers knew when a fight was coming. Word would spread across the tier. Before releasing fighters to the yard, they recited the rules. No weapons. No two on one. If one fighter gets the best of the other, heed the call to stop.
Over time, former and current officers said, violence became such a part of the landscape that supervisors would call the control booth officer before a fight and ask for the names, race and prison numbers of would-be fighters.
“They wanted to get a head start on the paperwork. Once we gave them the information, they said, ‘Send them out. Send out the fighters first,’ ” said Richard Caruso, an officer who fired the gas gun 35 times to break up fights, more than any other gunner. “Afterwards I’d huddle with my sergeant and review the tape and then I’d write up the report.”
Caruso, whose information helped initiate the FBI probe, said no one feared an internal inquiry. That’s because the supervisor responsible for calling for an investigation was the same supervisor who gave a green light to the fight.
One corrections officer and union rep, Pio Cruz, released inmates from their cells in an out-of-order fashion so he could pit one skilled boxer against another. Cruz played the role of ring announcer and gunner, transcripts of his administrative hearing show.
He was later dismissed, but the practice of staging fights had become so ingrained that some officers devised a scheme to avoid getting caught. They began moving rivals into cells next to each other in the days before a fight, according to guards and inmates.
By stacking a tier with enemies, a fight was guaranteed without having to release inmates to the yard in an out-of-order sequence.
So many fights took place on the second watch, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., that the atmosphere turned into a kind of gladiator day. “The set-up fights didn’t happen every day. They only happened when the guards had a reason to create them,” said Conrad Harrell, a former SHU inmate whose declarations have become part of a federal lawsuit against the state.
“I was written up six times for being in fights. Three of the six fights were set up by guards. They would come to me and criticize my performance. They would laugh at what had happened.”
Several inmates sued the state in 1992 for staging scores of fights involving the same rival boxers. In each case, the Corrections Department was defended by the civil arm of Lungren’s office.
“Had the [attorney general] taken a serious look at these lawsuits and talked to officers and inmates about the integrated yards, they might have been able to save Corcoran,” said Campbell, the attorney now suing the state in a 1994 shooting death. “Instead, the attorney general tried to hide and ignore the problem and dismiss these cases as frivolous.”
Lungren, who like Wilson assumed office in 1991, said it wasn’t until 1996 that a pattern of inmate lawsuits raised serious questions about Corcoran among his top staff. “We were averaging about 800 to 1,000 lawsuits per year by inmates. We ended up winning 99.9% of those. . . . So the fact that I had a number of cases with a number of allegations doesn’t set off alarm bells.”
As the violence continued to spike, a few SHU administrators disobeyed Sacramento and segregated their yards into “get-along” sections. The number of fights and shootings dropped. Then deputy director Tristan found out and ordered integration to resume.
“Sacramento knew the level of violence,” said Steve Rigg, a former lieutenant who also cooperated with the FBI. “We assumed that they would read the numbers and say something is terribly wrong here and take appropriate corrective action. Instead, we continued to bait inmates into fights and then shoot them for throwing punches.”
A Killing Caught on Videotape
Whether the fight that led to Corcoran’s first shooting death was a form of baiting or staging is hard to say. Even though William Martinez and Pedro Lomelli had signed forms pledging they had no known enemies in their SHU quarters, everyone on the tier knew this was a lie.
Bad blood ran between the gang veterans, if only by virtue of geography. Martinez was an armed robber from Oakland and Lomelli came from Los Angeles, and two weeks earlier they had stood toe to toe in the same yard.
This time, the 30-year-old Martinez was getting the best of Lomelli. A camera set atop the SHU yard captured 13 seconds of bloodless fisticuffs. Martinez knocked Lomelli to the ground, delivered a single kick and then walked away.
The gunner manning the control booth had already fired wood blocks as a warning when he chambered his rifle with a special bullet, one designed not to ricochet but to explode like a land mine inside the body. The fight appeared to be over, and Martinez stood a few feet from Lomelli when the shot rang out, the video showed. He was shot in the back.
The state review panel judging the fatal shooting was made up of four Corcoran supervisors. They included Associate Warden Lindsey, a defender of the integrated yard and weapons practices.
The gunner’s report said that Martinez was kicking Lomelli when he was shot, which is contradicted by the prison’s video. The board exonerated the gunner, finding that Lomelli faced imminent great bodily harm, even though Martinez had ceased fighting.
Corrections officials responded to the death of Martinez by encouraging the use of wood blocks over bullets. But otherwise, Sacramento left unchanged a shooting policy that kept gunners in a perpetual state of confusion, unsure about what level of harm needed to be present to trigger deadly force.
Over a five-year span, six more inmates would be shot dead in much the same way. Not one of the fighters carried a weapon.
During one review hearing, board members asked so few questions of the gunner that they never mentioned a prior report showing that he had shot and paralyzed another inmate only months earlier--without firing a warning.
The troubles at Corcoran remained so obscure that when George Smith came before a state Senate committee to be confirmed as warden in January 1994, he was asked just one question: What do you regard as the most pressing problem facing the prison system in the next five years?
He responded, “overcrowding . . . tuberculosis, AIDS.” Out of sight and out of mind, Corcoran had quietly become the deadliest prison in America.
State Launches Twin Investigations
In the fall of 1996, after stories in The Times and by CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Wilson had heard enough. His staff met with then-corrections Director James Gomez and devised a plan. Corcoran would be the focus of a pair of investigations by the Corrections Department and the attorney general.
By this time, two FBI agents had spent two years boring deep inside Corcoran. The focus of the federal grand jury was the 1994 shooting death of inmate Preston Tate, a 25-year-old gang member from Los Angeles. The gunner said he was trying to protect Tate from the blows of a rival and shot him by mistake.
In announcing the twin probes, state officials knew they had a public relations problem. How to explain the lag behind the FBI, if not the seven years of inertia? State officials said it was out of deference to the federal probe that they hadn’t investigated two years sooner. Now the statute of limitations on prosecuting any crimes of brutality was running out, and the state needed to move in headlong.
“We were coming into this thing 30 months after the fact,” said investigator Eason, who helped supervise the 15-member corrections team. “The FBI has been there, the federal grand jury, Kings County D.A., and now all of a sudden we’re going in?”
Eason said he put aside his doubts and took the job out of respect for Brian Parry, a longtime corrections investigator who would direct the team from Sacramento. Parry had chosen Jim Connor, a corrections investigator from Southern California, to oversee the team’s day-to-day movements.
But from day one, team members said, it was clear that neither Parry nor Connor was in charge. The man directing the probe was Del Pierce, a former head of the Department of Motor Vehicles and trusted Wilson trouble-shooter who had gone from political hot spot to hot spot.
“Brian chose the team but he never got to run it,” Eason said. “It was taken out of the hands of an investigator and put into the hands of a political appointee.”
Corrections investigators were not happy with the ground rules that Pierce set down that first day. They would be limited largely to allegations of staged fights detailed in a 1996 Times story. Agents could not delve into any serious shootings or department policy, and could not interview director Gomez or other higher-ups without Pierce’s permission, they said. They would have to wrap things up in 60 days.
“We couldn’t go here, and we couldn’t go there,” said Connor, who supervised the team. “We couldn’t touch the shootings. We couldn’t follow the leads. If a lead took you to the ivory castle--someone high up in corrections--that lead was turned off by Pierce.
“None of his orders came down in writing. Maybe I should have challenged Pierce and asked him for a memo. But I was a just a cog.”
Pierce confirmed that he focused the probe on the newspaper allegations, but said he never told investigators they couldn’t pursue wrongdoing by top brass.
“I would never participate in an investigation in which we couldn’t turn over all the rocks,” he said.
But Connor and other investigators were troubled by the presence of Eddie Myers, who had huddled with Pierce that first day. As deputy director of corrections, Myers was the same official who directly oversaw Corcoran during its most violent period.
Investigators were wary of Myers for another reason: He had made his feelings about violence at Corcoran and the FBI probe clear, according to a deposition by former warden Smith. He told SHU staff members in a 1994 meeting that he backed them fully and didn’t believe the allegations of staged fights or other abuses.
Standoff With Guards Union
The investigators said they knew the role the guards union had played in clamping down on past inquiries at Corcoran. They had watched the union under president Novey ride the prison construction wave, growing from a kind of social club into one of the more powerful forces in the state, with a rank-and-file 27,000 strong.
Novey handed out much-coveted endorsements and sprinkled the union’s millions into campaigns statewide, giving $5.2 million to candidates since 1987. That included $667,000 to Wilson and $159,000 to Lungren in direct contributions. In 1990, the union spent an additional $760,000, mostly on ads targeting Wilson’s opponent, Dianne Feinstein. In 1997, the union spent more lobbying money than any other public employees group in the state.
“They mobilize their members. They have a tendency at times to bully people,” said state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles). “Members up here get scared when the CCPOA starts throwing their cards around.”
Investigators expected the union to flex its muscle. They expected officers not to talk unless granted a form of immunity called a Lybarger admonishment. This immunity would make it difficult to then prosecute any officers.
So investigators devised a strategy to get around the union. They said the key to making it work was the new warden, George Galaza. The first officer who refused to talk would be marched in front of Galaza and ordered to cooperate with investigators. If the officer still refused, he would be charged with insubordination and suspended.
Such a hard-line approach, it was reasoned, would send a clear message to the union and every other officer walking the line between cooperating with the team or not. “We had to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘If you don’t cross it and come to our side, your butt’s in trouble,’ ” Connor said.
As expected, the union took its own tough stance. No officer would be compelled to talk without immunity. No officer would talk without a union representative present. Because only four union representatives were at Corcoran, the union demanded that only four interviews could be conducted at a time.
In the first days of the investigation, more than 90 officers marched in and out of interviews without answering a single question. Investigative reports show that some officers had agreed to talk, only to change their minds when union counsel showed up.
“I lost track of how many officers came in and left without saying a word,” recalled investigator Linda Schulteis.
Investigators said they told Galaza the turning point had come. They needed him to call in a few of the reluctant witnesses and order them to talk. But investigators said they had barely made the request to Galaza when they got a phone call from Sacramento.
It was Del Pierce, the governor’s point man, reciting more ground rules. No officers would be compelled to talk or punished for staying quiet. Of those officers who agreed to talk, a union representative would be present during every interview.
Investigators said they threw up their hands in frustration. The restrictions were unprecedented. The department had blinked, and the union had won. In effect, their probe was over before it had begun.
“We had a good team with good people running it and good people down on the ground,” said Bryan Neeley, a team member. “But whoever in Sacramento made the decision not to compel officers to talk made a big mistake.
“It muzzled the staff at Corcoran, and we needed these guys to talk. We couldn’t read minds.”
“The union was allowed to control the terms,” Eason said. “It became an exercise in futility.”
Pierce said he too was frustrated by the restrictions. But he said it was Gomez who made the call to limit the team. “He’s the director of the department.”
But Gomez pointed the finger back at Pierce: “Del Pierce ran this investigation on a day-to-day basis. . . . At no time did I intentionally limit or restrict any of the investigation.”
Gomez’s account is supported by corrections team members. They say that during the probe Pierce told them he was reporting back to the governor’s office. “Someone above Gomez was calling the shots,” Connor said. “And that someone allowed the union to run our investigation. This all boils down to large campaign contributions.”
The governor’s top aides said the union never came to them to influence the investigation. Pierce did brief them on how the probe was unfolding, but at no time did he express any frustrations. “When Pierce said the investigation was done, I said, ‘Are you happy with it?’ He undoubtedly said yes,” said chief of staff Dunn. “He didn’t share [frustrations] with me.”
Investigators had one modest tool left to lure reluctant officers to cooperate. But even that tool--giving selected officers immunity--was taken away at the request of the attorney general’s office. State prosecutors thought that giving immunity could hamper their criminal probe, they said.
Hobbled or not, the corrections team trudged on, uncovering over the next four months evidence to support allegations of beatings, torture, missing reports and cover-ups by top Corcoran brass, according to interviews and reports detailing their work. And yet none of these cases resulted in criminal prosecution and only a few led to administrative discipline.
One promising case involved a prisoner who confessed to investigators that he had raped inmate troublemakers on behalf of staff, the documents show. The 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound enforcer called the “Booty Bandit” told investigators that as payment for the rapes and beatings he administered, he was awarded privileges.
The enforcer talked of sexually assaulting one unruly inmate in 1993 at the behest of officers who moved the inmate into his cell to teach him “how to do his time.” Over the next 36 hours, the 120-pound inmate was repeatedly raped, according to internal reports. The inmate said he pleaded with staff that his life was in danger but that one guard laughed in his face.
Investigators said they had a strong case of aiding and abetting a felony against seven officers, but few would talk on the advice of union representatives. When agents began approaching guards at home, the union sent out fliers warning officers about a knock on the door.
“They muzzled most of our witnesses,” Neeley said.
Investigators still believed that the case was strong, but Kings County Dist. Atty. Greg Strickland said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. Strickland was in a tough position, agents said, already facing the union’s wrath for pursuing another brutality case.
Last month, Strickland was defeated by a challenger who had the union’s financial backing. The union blanketed the county with a last-minute, $27,000 mailer that accused Strickland of being in league with prison gangs.
The state team “worked real hard on the rape case, and it should have gone to the grand jury,” said a source in the district attorney’s office. “They have to understand that the prison and the union are big forces in this county.”
There was one area, however, where the state team clearly had a green light--digging up dirt on officers working with the FBI.
The team generated more than 1,000 pages of information regarding whistle-blowers, including how one of the officers supposedly shot and killed his neighbor’s dog.
Information about another whistle-blower, Richard Caruso, was then passed on to the FBI by corrections deputy director Myers. Federal sources describeMyers’ letter offering the information as an obvious ploy to sour their relationship with Caruso.
Myers did not respond to requests for an interview.
After spending more than $500,000 and employing 15 agents to canvass the state, corrections officials ended up investigating and disciplining only one officer involved in a shooting. That officer was Caruso, who was docked 90 days pay for firing wood blocks at an inmate in 1993, a shooting that resulted in no injuries.
“I think it says a lot that out of 2,000 shootings [of wood blocks or bullets], they investigate just one. Mine,” Caruso said. “After coming forward and losing my career as a correctional officer, the state launches an investigation and comes after me.”
The Probe of ‘Ninja Day’
There were no such cat-and-mouse games in the attorney general’s probe. State agents focused on a single case of alleged brutality and cover-up--a June 1995 incident known as “Ninja Day.”
The head of the attorney general’s criminal division said he made the call to limit the probe and that Lungren agreed.
Chief Deputy Atty. Gen. George Williamson acknowledged that his office could have done a better job monitoring Corcoran. But he said it was unfair to read anything sinister in the decision to narrow the investigation.
He said that decision came after conversations with federal prosecutors, after which he concluded it would be best not to complicate the FBI probe by pursuing the same witnesses.
“I knew they were looking at the Tate killing in particular. And the impression I had was that the feds were looking broadly at use-of-force concerns. . . . So we decided not to duplicate efforts.”
But Williamson agreed that at no time did federal prosecutors tell his office to steer clear of Corcoran.
Federal authorities told The Times that their probe was “only the tip of the iceberg.” Said a federal source: “The A.G. could have convened its own grand jury.”
Lungren said he stood by Williamson’s decision, calling him one of the finest prosecutors in the state. Lungren said he would welcome the guard union’s endorsement in the governor’s race, but that he would not politicize an investigation to get it. The union opposed Lungren in 1990 but supported his bid for attorney general four years later.
When asked if his office had ceded authority to the federal government in matters involving a state prison, Lungren said: “It’s not a matter of ceding authority. It is what we do often times.”
The one case that Lungren’s agents did pursue was first investigated by the state corrections team. The case dealt with a 1995 mock fire drill involving scores of officers who donned ninja-like uniforms and face masks and roused hundreds of half-naked inmates from their cells. The prisoners were herded onto a patch of grass under the hot sun.
Several inmates were then kicked and beaten by a squad of guards whose faces were covered and name tags removed, according to interviews and investigative reports. Under the direction of Lt. Francisco Rodriguez, black inmates were targeted for particular abuse, including one inmate whose wrist was broken and another who was allegedly beaten by Officer Francisco Galvadon, reports show.
Galvadon was well known to Corcoran’s brass, not only because he had been the subject of numerous excessive force complaints but because he looked like an inmate with his shaved head and neck tattoos, documents shows.
Corrections investigators concluded that the abuses occurred and were covered up by a group of officers, including the union’s chapter president, Rod Nason. Rodriguez was demoted to officer, and disciplinary action is pending against six others. Galvadon and Nason, who denied any wrongdoing, are not among them.
The mock fire drill case was then passed on to the attorney general. After spending more than 2,500 hours conducting its own probe, the attorney general concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to file criminal charges. State agents expressed the same lament as the corrections team: Nearly all of the officers contacted declined to talk on the advice of the union.
As part of its Corcoran probe, the attorney general’s office also reviewed paperwork but never did a full-blown inquiry on another incident that took place 10 days later and involved a group of officers known as The Sharks.
Several Sharks--so called for their reputation to attack without warning--teamed up with other officers and engaged in a mass beating of black inmates arriving by bus from Calipatria Prison, internal reports show.
As the bus pulled in, dozens of guards snapped into drill position and performed a half-hour of football-like warmups and cheers. Wearing black gloves and tape over their name tags, the officers grabbed shackled inmates one-by-one and ran them through a gantlet of fists, batons and combat boots. One inmate was thrown through a window, another rammed into a wall, witnesses said.
According to corrections investigators, some of the Sharks weren’t even working that day but were called in as enforcement. They said the incident was covered up with the help of a lieutenant who manipulated time sheets to show that off-duty Sharks had worked overtime that day.
“I’ve seen guards beat inmates but nothing ever like that,” said Connie Foster, a former Corcoran canteen operator who witnessed the incident. “I couldn’t watch it all. After it was over, I went to my car and threw up.”
Foster said no one from corrections or the attorney general’s office ever contacted her.
Corrections officials disciplined eight officers, including Associate Warden Bruce Farris.
As the attorney general’s probe came to a close, the agent who headed the effort took a higher-paying job with the Corrections Department. Al Fox said there was no conflict of interest in taking a post with the subject of his last investigation. “You’re trying to create a story where one doesn’t exist,” he said. “My decision to come to corrections had nothing to do with the Corcoran investigation.”
For three years now, not a single rifle shot has echoed through Corcoran. The calm is a kind of redemption for the officers who blew the whistle and then had to leave their jobs because of threats from fellow guards. Warden Smith, embittered by critics who nicknamed him “Mushroom George” for his supposed preference to be kept in the dark, is retired, though hardly chagrined.
“Corcoran was a very functional institution,” he told state agents. “It was not out of control. It was never out of control.”
Gone too is corrections director Gomez, appointed by Wilson to the state’s public employees pension fund. His right-hand man, Eddie Myers, also has retired.
The FBI is still inside Corcoran, investigating the rape case and the Calipatria bus incident. The eight officers already indicted are awaiting trial. The state is paying for their defense.
After six years insisting that its integrated yard policy had no flaws, the Corrections Department has finally retreated. Deputy Director Tristan said he discovered only recently the level of concern and confusion at Corcoran.
A new written policy allows for compatible gang members to exercise with each other. These are the same “get-along” yards that some Corcoran staff had instituted in the early 1990s--before several deaths and injuries--only to be told by Sacramento that they were illegal.
“Apparently there was some confusion,” Tristan said. “In 20-20 hindsight, we probably could have done a lot of things different.”
Next: One guard’s tale of brutality, cover-up and redemption.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE PRISON AT A GLANCE
* Built on what was once Tulare Lake, home of the Tachi Indians, Corcoran is 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley.
* First California prison with separate housing built exclusively for high-security inmates.
* Designed for 3,000 inmates, Corcoran is now home to 5,030 prisoners, including Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Juan Corona.
* Surrounded by cotton fields, it encompasses 942 acres and employs 1,534 people.
* Inmate programs include farming, dry cleaning, computer-assisted education and toy repair.
* From 1989 to 1995, seven inmates were fatally shot by guards, more than any other prison in the United States.
* Nov., 1988: Facility opens at a cost of $271.9 million.
* Sept., 1989: Violence in the Security Housing Unit leads to state of emergency declaration.
* April 4, 1989: Inmate William T. Martinez is shot to death by guard during fight with a rival.
* June 29, 1989: Inmate William Randoll Jr. shot to death by guard.
* 1989: Fights and shootings during prison’s first full year are so rampant that is characterized as the most violent in America.
* Feb. 3, 1990: Inmate Andres Romero shot to death by guard.
* April 8, 1993: Inmate Michael Mullins shot to death by guard.
* Sept. 9, 1993: Inmate Henry Noriega shot to death by guard.
* April 2, 1994: Inmate Preston Tate mistakenly shot to death by guard aiming at another prisoner. Death prompts whistle blowers to come forward; lawsuit by family of victim calls public attention to alleged abuses.
* May 30, 1994: Inmate Donald Creasy shot to death by guard.
* June 1994: Some guards stop mixing rival gangs in exercise yards; top corrections officials order them to resume integration. Violence spikes again.
* Fall 1994: Corcoran guards, upset by brutality, contact FBI, which launches civil rights probe.
* June 1995: Busload of new inmates allegedly beaten in prison yard. Eight guards, including an associate warden, are later disciplined.
* Feb. 26, 1998: Federal grand jury indicts eight guards for Tate shooting and alleged abuses.
* Summer 1998: Federal probe expands; two grand juries weigh more allegations of abuse and cover-up.
Sources: State Department of Corrections; Times files and interviews