The state Department of Corrections will reinvestigate at least 36 serious and fatal shootings of Corcoran State Prison inmates, department officials announced Thursday during the third day of legislative hearings on allegations of widespread brutality and cover-ups by guards and officials at the San Joaquin Valley facility.
A high-ranking department official acknowledged that a special team of corrections investigators dispatched to Corcoran last year at Gov. Pete Wilson’s behest failed to look at the most serious allegations, ignoring dozens of shootings of inmates by guards.
Testifying that the department was taking a fresh look at the serious and fatal shootings, Richard Ehle, head of internal affairs for the agency, said, “We’re not certain that all aspects of complaints and allegations have been thoroughly pursued and looked at.”
A spokesman for Wilson said Thursday evening that the governor’s office would back the new investigation. If Corrections Department Director Cal Terhune “believes that this action is necessary, we will fully support our director,” said Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh.
Rob Stutzman, communications director for state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said, “Any internal affairs investigation [the Corrections Department] wants to undertake would probably be a good idea.”
The quality of the first inquiry came under heated attack by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) during questioning Thursday of top correctional officials and supervisors who led the probe. Under persistent queries by Hayden, the officials disclosed that key paragraphs in a draft report describing cover-ups of brutality at Corcoran were deleted in the final November 1997 report.
This deletion, Hayden said, amounted to a “whitewash.” “If whitewash isn’t a good word,” he asked corrections officials, “would ‘erasure’ be a substitute?”
Several of the officials, including one who signed the report, said they could not say who removed the key lines on cover-ups by prison officials and guards.
“Is there any reason this document was sanitized?” Hayden asked.
“It was editing by committee,” said Brian Parry, one of the supervisors of the inquiry.
From 1989 to 1995, seven inmates were shot dead and 43 more were seriously wounded by guards during fights in a prison yard. The fights were watched over by guards, and internal reports show that in all but a few cases the inmates did not carry weapons or cause any injuries while brawling.
Ehle said the new Corcoran shooting review team would consist of two retired police chiefs and an FBI agent who would be afforded independence in their investigation. “They are going to take a look at shootings at Corcoran and use-of-force policies,” he said.
Gubernatorial spokesman Walsh, asked in an interview whether Wilson believes that the joint legislative hearings have revealed anything disturbing, said, “Certainly. He found some of the allegations of abuse very disturbing.
“He finds it disturbing that there could potentially be individuals who perpetrated acts of brutality and are still employed at the Department of Corrections today.”
Probes Found to Have Been Limited
A report in The Times this month disclosed that when the Corrections Department and the state attorney general’s office separately examined Corcoran last year, they conducted limited investigations.
The Times found in its three-month study of 10,000 pages of internal corrections reports and interviews with dozens of guards, investigators and others that the probes were either so restricted or so toothless that it became virtually impossible to ferret out wrongdoing.
The story prompted this week’s hearings on whether the result of the two state investigations was a whitewash.
Both of the earlier probes ordered by Wilson ended without any criminal charges filed and with only one officer disciplined for a shooting incident. That officer was Richard Caruso, a former Corcoran guard who turned over evidence of brutality to the FBI, kicking off an ongoing federal civil rights probe.
Wilson and Lungren have each denied that the Corrections Department and the attorney general’s office glossed over a broad range of alleged crimes and cover-ups at Corcoran.
They both cite the ongoing federal probe, which has resulted in the indictments of eight Corcoran officers on charges of brutality, as the reason why the state’s inquiries failed to look at fatal and serious shootings.
In testimony late Thursday, George Williamson, the attorney general’s top criminal lawyer, cited talks with Carl Faller, the assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno, as the prime reason that Lungren’s office limited its probe to one allegation of brutality.
He said that the U.S. attorney’s investigation was broad-based and that he was not willing to risk getting in the way of it.
“They had investigated four years and had spent 18 months to two years in front of that grand jury and for me to come willy-nilly--I don’t care what Gov. Wilson says. I’m not going to [spoil] the feds’ investigation. . . . [Wilson] doesn’t tell the [state] attorney general what to do.”
Faller, however, told The Times in recent interviews before the hearings began that Williamson had exaggerated the breadth of the federal probe and that at no time did his office or the FBI limit Lungren’s office to investigating one case.
Investigator Fears for His Job
Earlier Thursday, several of the Corrections Department investigators quoted in The Times’ report appeared before the joint legislative committee for the second day.
In his testimony, investigator Jim Connor, who helped supervise the corrections probe done at Wilson’s behest, disputed parts of the account he gave The Times. He said his quote that the investigation was a “sham” was incorrect.
Before publication of the July 5 story, a reporter twice read the quotes back to Connor and he confirmed their accuracy, Roxane Arnold, metropolitan editor of The Times, said after Thursday’s hearing.
Days after the story was published, Parry, another supervisor of the probe, said corrections chief Terhune had asked him to do a line-by-line analysis of the story, including having each investigator explain his quotes. “The heat is on,” Parry said.
Another investigator told The Times after his initial testimony before the legislators late Wednesday that he held back on his sworn statements out of fear of losing his job.
The corrections investigator, who asked not to be named, said he wanted to testify about the investigative tools taken away from him and other agents by Del Pierce, a longtime Wilson political appointee who headed the corrections probe. The investigator said he was briefed by higher-ups before his testimony.
“I was told to be careful of my opinions,” he said. “No doubt about it, if I spoke my mind, there would be retaliation. That’s the way it is. That’s the nature of the beast.”
He said he and the other investigators held back after seeing that Terhune and other former and current top officials were seated across from them at the same witness table.
“You’ve got all these bigwigs up there, and I’m not going to volunteer [information]. I wasn’t going to step on any toes,” the investigator said.
Terhune said it was Senate Republicans who requested that he and the department’s attorney be the only ones to sit at the witness table for the length of the hearing. He said he didn’t think his presence was an intimidating factor.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “I’d be in the audience [anyway].”
Under sworn testimony, two other state investigators, Ben Eason and Bryan Neeley, stood by their statements in The Times that their inquiry became an “exercise in futility” after the Corrections Department yielded to the prison guards union and took away some key tools from the investigators.
“The union was allowed to set the ground rules of our investigation as to who we could interview [and] we couldn’t interview,” Eason testified. “I don’t know who made the decision. I know who the messenger was. The messenger was Del Pierce.”
One of those tools would have allowed the investigators, working with the Kings County district attorney’s office, to compel officers to cooperate with a criminal inquiry. Under state government code, if officers refuse to cooperate with a criminal probe, they can be booked for insubordination.
Several legislators Thursday grilled the special investigation team and top corrections officials about examining and disciplining only one officer involved in a shooting--Caruso. That shooting involved a gas gun firing wood blocks and did not result in any injuries.
Information about Caruso’s shooting and discipline were passed on to the FBI by then corrections Deputy Director Eddie Myers. Federal authorities have told The Times that they believe the Myers letter was an attempt to discredit Caruso and sour his relationship with the bureau.
Pierce, who headed the corrections probe, was asked by the hearing panel if the department went after only Caruso’s shooting as a form of retaliation for the guard having gone to the FBI.
Pierce denied that the discipline, a 90-day dock in pay, was a form of retaliation. But other investigators testified Thursday that although they had cleared the Caruso shooting, someone higher up in the Corrections Department still decided to discipline him.
The hearings will continue Monday.
A collection of Times reports on the brutality at Corcoran State Prison is available on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/prison