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Strangled with a shoelace: Slaying of inmate in Lancaster prison came after 'extremely vicious' fight

Strangled with a shoelace: Slaying of inmate in Lancaster prison came after 'extremely vicious' fight
Leron Morris, left, is suspected of killing Rashell Clarke Jr. on Feb. 6 at a state prison in Lancaster. (Handout / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

When Leron Morris summoned guards to his cell at a state prison in Lancaster, he showed them a gruesome, bloody scene and a lifeless body.

Morris and his cellmate, Rashell Clarke Jr., had a furious fight that ended only after Morris bit off part of the other man's ear and wrapped a shoelace around his neck, strangling him, according to investigative reports.

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By the time guards began performing CPR on Clarke, his body was already showing signs of rigor mortis, suggesting he may have been dead for a while.

The details of the grisly Feb. 6 killing at the maximum-security Antelope Valley prison were revealed in an autopsy report issued to The Times this week by the Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner's office in a public records request.

The slaying of Clarke, previously a resident of Shasta County, was the first of three suspected homicides this year at California State Prison-Los Angeles County, which houses about 3,300 to 3,500 inmates.

They are among 22 state prison inmate deaths in 2016 that officials are investigating as suspected homicides, according to Kristina Khokhobashvili, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Yet even for a seasoned homicide detective, the death of Clarke — who was serving a nearly 23-year prison sentence for abusing children — stands out for its brutality.

"It was extremely vicious and violent," Los Angeles County sheriff's Det. Frank Salerno said Wednesday. "Whatever dispute they had, it got real nasty."

It was extremely vicious and violent. Whatever dispute they had, it got real nasty.


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According to the autopsy report, Clarke, 39, and Morris, then 33, had left their cell about 6:30 a.m. for breakfast and returned by 7:15 a.m.

Morris, who is serving a life term without the possibility of parole on a murder conviction in Contra Costa County, told investigators that about an hour after breakfast, Clarke made an overt sexual advance toward him. Next, Clarke began stabbing him with a shank, he said.

A violent brawl ensued.

At one point, Clarke bit off the end of Morris' nose, and Morris chomped on Clarke's left ear, biting off a third of his earlobe.

Teeth marks were left behind on Clarke's flesh, investigators said in the report.

Although wounded by the shank, Morris thrashed Clarke around, knocked him in the eye and managed to sit atop him. He put the shoelace around Clarke's neck and strangled him until he became unresponsive, according to the coroner's report.

Morris called for prison guards about 10:45 a.m. — roughly two hours after he claimed the dispute began.

Guards told investigators that when they found the body in the cell, it was "already in rigor," referring to rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body in the hours after death, according to the autopsy report.

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Citing the ongoing investigation, Khokhobashvili, the prison spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the possibility of an hours-long gap between Clarke's death and guards' arrival at the cell.

Still, guards began performing CPR on the man and L.A. County paramedics were called to the facility. Clarke was taken to the infirmary, where he was formally pronounced dead just before 11:30 a.m.

Within days, Morris was publicly identified by state correctional officials as the suspected killer.

More than 10 months later, he has not been charged in Clarke's death. Salerno chalked up the delay to several factors, including  a lag in the completion of the toxicology report, which was dated Sept. 19, and health issues faced by his investigative partner.

The coroner's office has been beset by delays in completing toxicology reports, prompting public criticism by law enforcement. Mark Fajardo, the former chief medical examiner-coroner, abruptly quit in March, saying he had not been given enough resources to do the job properly.

Salerno said the case would likely be presented in early December to L.A. County prosecutors, who will decide whether to file criminal charges.

Twitter: @MattHjourno.

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