Corcoran Probe Renews Focus on Rape of Inmate
Guards at Corcoran State Prison are under renewed state criminal investigation for allegedly setting up the rape of an inmate, state officials confirmed Tuesday as a two-day legislative hearing began on allegations of widespread brutality and cover-up at the San Joaquin Valley prison.
Testimony at the hearing also confirmed that the FBI is now looking into a 1995 incident in which a busload of black inmates from Calipatria State Prison was beaten by a team of guards upon arrival at Corcoran.
After learning that the two cases were under renewed scrutiny, two prison guards refused to testify at the packed hearing and another officer cut short his testimony at the behest of their attorney.
Lt. Robert Dean, one of a group of officers known as the Sharks for their reputation for attacking without warning, refused to answer repeated questions by state legislators about his role in the beating of 36 inmates at Corcoran in June 1995. Dean was disciplined administratively for his involvement in the incident but was later promoted to lieutenant.
“How is it that you were not criminally prosecuted for this incident?” asked a frustrated state Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino).
“I decline to answer,” said Dean, invoking his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Last year, the state attorney general’s office reviewed the incident involving the inmates from Calipatria after a local grand jury refused to indict any of the officers. The office decided not to reopen the case, saying the grand jury had handled it properly.
“We talked to [Kings County], we got their investigative reports . . . and we looked at the grand jury transcripts,” George Williamson, the chief of the attorney general’s criminal division, said Tuesday. “We determined it was done properly.”
The legislative hearings, which continue today, are also due to look at whether the Wilson administration and the attorney general’s office failed to adequately investigate problems at Corcoran, where seven inmates were fatally shot by guards and 43 were wounded between 1989 and 1995.
The Wilson administration and the attorney general’s office have said they met their responsibilities in regard to Corcoran.
On Tuesday, the four legislative committees holding the hearings managed to question only half of the 20 current and former officers and top state Corrections Department officials scheduled to testify.
The morning session focused on allegations that guards at Corcoran, which is between Fresno and Bakersfield, set up the rape of Eddie Dillard, a small, frail inmate who got in trouble for kicking a female officer. Dillard was locked into the cell of Wayne Robertson, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound prison enforcer nicknamed the “Booty Bandit.”
Robertson was listed as a sexual predator, and Dillard had named him as an enemy. Even so, Dillard was placed in the cell on the orders of a sergeant and repeatedly raped, according to investigative reports and interviews.
No criminal or administrative charges were filed in the case, although Dillard lodged complaints with corrections officials and Robertson later admitted to state investigators that he had raped Dillard at the behest of Corcoran staff.
Last year, a special team of Corrections Department investigators spent several months assembling solid evidence in the Dillard rape case but could not get any officers to cooperate.
The case was one of a series of brutality allegations investigated by the team at the behest of Gov. Pete Wilson after an August 1996 report in The Times detailed staged fights at Corcoran.
State investigators later told The Times that the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.--the guards’ union--impeded their inquiry in the Dillard case, posting fliers throughout the prison informing officers that they did not have to talk without union representation.
The state team, working with the Kings County district attorney’s office, had hoped to compel officers to talk under a state government code that requires peace officers to cooperate with a criminal investigation. Under the code, if officers refuse to cooperate, they can be booked for insubordination. But the state investigators said they were told they could not invoke that provision by Del Pierce, a Wilson administration trouble-shooter who headed the state team.
Without a single officer cooperating, Kings County Dist. Atty. Greg Strickland declined to take the case to the local grand jury.
Called to testify Tuesday, Strickland told the joint legislative panel that state investigators could not penetrate the wall of silence surrounding the rape of Dillard because of the tactics of the union.
"[The investigators] ran into the brick wall. . . . I can understand their frustration, because I’m running into it as we speak today,” Strickland said. “The union rep has no right to step into my investigation and to send out memos to correctional officers telling them not to talk unless the union rep is present. That I deeply disagree with.”
Strickland and state corrections chief Cal Terhune confirmed that the Dillard rape case was under new investigation by state and local authorities. Citing confidentiality, Strickland insisted that details of the case not be spelled out at the televised hearing.
One of the officers investigated by the state team for allegedly participating in the cover-up of the rape, Lt. Jeff Jones, told the joint committee that he could not recall being handed a report on the rape. Then, upon learning that the case is under renewed investigation, Jones declined to testify further.
Union officials sat in the audience and refused to comment about the so-called code of silence at Corcoran, saying they would make a statement later in the hearings.
The legislators spent a good portion of the afternoon hearing the testimony of Connie Foster, a former prison canteen operator who witnessed the June 1995 mass beating of black inmates transported to Corcoran.
Foster, who had previously given her account to The Times and the FBI, described in detail how a group of officers, wearing black gloves and tape over their name tags, performed half an hour of football-like warmups and cheers while awaiting the bus. She said the officers then grabbed the shackled inmates off the bus one by one and ran them through a gantlet of fists, batons and combat boots.
According to corrections investigators, some of the officers weren’t even working that day but were called in. The investigators said the incident was covered up with the help of a lieutenant who manipulated time sheets to show that these officers, known as the Sharks, had worked overtime that day.
Three of the officers appeared before the joint committee, but each refused to discuss the incident after learning that Foster had given her account to the FBI last week.
Lt. Dean invoked the 5th Amendment eight times in refusing to answer questions about his role in the incident and his promotion.
The legislators then questioned Corcoran Warden George Galaza, who tried to explain why Dean had been promoted. “It was not an easy decision to make,” said Galaza, who added that Dean was among a short list of qualified candidates.
One officer who did agree to testify was Francisco Galvadon, whose neck tattoos could be seen above his shirt and jacket. He denied engaging in a fistfight with an inmate during a mock fire drill in June 1995, an incident that has become known as Ninja Day because the officers donned Ninja-like uniforms and masks before manhandling inmates, according to interviews and investigative reports.
Lawmakers had a mixed reaction to the hearing.
“There were some problems at Corcoran, and there were some efforts to address it and that’s pretty much what we knew going in,” said Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway). “There’s no evidence of some big cover-up or whitewash.”
But others were disturbed that the numerous incidents detailed never resulted in criminal prosecutions and that witnesses such as Foster were not approached by local or state investigators.
“We’re hearing witnesses that a grand jury never heard. We’re seeing evidence that wasn’t brought to light,” said state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a former federal prosecutor. “Some of these witnesses didn’t volunteer the information because they were intimidated for other reasons. But a good investigation not only uncovers witnesses who volunteer themselves, it digs to find witnesses who don’t.”