2 die in shootout at federal prison
ARRESTS: Five guards face charges in a sex and contraband investigation. DEAD: A guard who wasn't supposed to be armed kills a federal agent.
By ALEX LEARY, EDDY RAMIREZ and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published June 22, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - A federal prison guard pulled a gun and opened fire on startled government agents who showed up Wednesday morning to arrest him and five other guards.
When it was over, the guard and one of the agents were dead and another prison worker was seriously wounded.
"These agents were just out trying to do their job ... and it just didn't go down exactly as planned,'' said Michael Folmar, the FBI special agent in charge for North Florida.
The shootout, 3 miles east of the state Capitol, capped a months-long investigation of allegations that guards traded contraband and money for sex with female prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution. Agents expected an orderly surrender because guns are banned.
The lurid allegations were detailed in a 13-page indictment a grand jury issued Tuesday.
"The guards were unaware of these indictments today," Folmar said. "This arrest situation was done in a manner to be very controlled ... so we could take this down and there would be no violence."
Five guards were arrested without incident. But at 7:42 a.m., Ralph Hill, 43, opened fire near the lobby of the men's detention center, adjacent to the women's prison.
Hill was killed along with William "Buddy" Sentner, 44, a federal agent with the Department of Justice Inspector General's Office in Orlando.
It was unclear who fired the fatal shots, how long the shootout lasted or how many bullets were fired.
"The only thing I can think of is he didn't want the embarrassment or the risk of going to prison," said Mitch DeLong, a guard who arrived for work shortly after the shooting. "I just can't believe it."
Hill's attorney said he was equally shocked by the shooting. "It was totally out of character," Timothy Jansen said. "He would not, should not, have had a gun at work." Jansen said Hill hired him in November and was cooperating with the investigation. "He maintained his innocence," Jansen said.
Sentner, formerly a Secret Service agent, was a polygrapher and criminal investigator with degrees from the University of Maryland and Georgetown University. "Special Agent Sentner was a dedicated law enforcement agent and a valued colleague and friend," said Glenn A. Fine, inspector general at the U.S. Department of Justice.
The wounded prison employee was identified only as a lieutenant. His wounds are serious, but he is expected to recover, officials said. "He's an outstanding guy," DeLong said.
Few specifics were given Wednesday. Tallahassee police forensic investigators wore white hazardous materials suits and combed the front entrance to the brick federal complex, which is surrounded by a 20-foot fence and razor wire. Small numbered evidence markers were placed on the sidewalk and in the mulch off to the side.
The FBI dispatched a shooting review team from Washington, D.C., which was to begin work this morning. "They are the ones who are going to piece all this together," Folmar said.
Guards are prohibited from taking personal weapons into prison facilities but they are not screened like visitors, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The indictment alleges that such freedom also allowed guards to smuggle contraband and enter restricted areas in the facility. Guards could also request specific work assignments and switch assignments with others.
Besides Hill, the guards named in the indictment are Alfred Barnes, Gregory Dixon, Vincent Johnson, Alan Moore and E. Lavon Spence.
They pleaded not guilty Wednesday and will ask a judge today to release them on bail. They are charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, witness tampering, mail fraud and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. They could face up to 20 years in prison.
Starting some time in March 2002, the six guards are accused of smuggling contraband in return for sex with female inmates. They even used cleaning products to sanitize and destroy evidence of their sexual conduct, the indictment charges. Contraband, which can include alcohol and drugs, was hidden in the facility so inmates could pick it up.
Five of the six guards are accused of having sexual contact with eight inmates from September 2003 through September 2005.
The guards also are accused of using the contraband to buy inmates' silence and threatening others to plant contraband in their belongings. The guards monitored inmate phone calls to intimidate them and identify anyone who talked about the illegal conduct, according to the indictment.
Hill's wife, Toni, was home when she heard on TV that a guard had been killed. Soon a chaplain broke the news of her husband's death.
"The family is really grieving about his loss,'' said Hill's sister-in-law Glyndell Presley outside the couple's residence in a well-kept Tallahassee neighborhood. She said Hill moved to Tallahassee from California. He served in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged, Presley said. The couple had no children.
Presley scurried into the house after Hill's wife shouted through the front door, "There's nothing more to say.''
Alan Moore's residence on a large parcel of land was quiet Wednesday. Next door, John Kelly, a longtime neighbor, had been watching the news. His face turned red when a reporter handed him a news report naming Moore as one of the indicted guards.
He called Moore "a nice guy, a real good neighbor.'' He was also a preacher at a nearby church, Kelly said. Kelly's son, William, went to school with the Moores' only child, who was on the track and football teams at Lincoln High School. The Kellys said Moore was very involved in his son's education. "He was always on the sidelines of the football game,'' William Kelly said.
Times staff writer Joni James, photographer Stephen J. Coddington and researchers Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.
The indictment for the U.S. Northern District Court of Florida names six guards at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee: Alfred Barnes, Gregory Dixon, Ralph Hill (deceased), Vincent Johnson, Alan Moore and E. Lavon Spence.
It accuses the correctional officers of:
Trading or conspiring to trade contraband for sex, money and silence. The guards allegedly "caused inmates, their family members and associates" to provide money the inmates used to purchase contraband, which the guards would then stash around the facility to be collected by the inmates. Five also traded contraband for sex from eight inmates, not identified in the indictment.
Intimidating inmates into silence. The guards allegedly threatened to plant contraband on inmates who told of their activities, or to have them sent to prisons more distant from their families.
Using the U.S. mail to carry on illegal activities, namely extortion and the delivery of illegal items. According to the indictment, the guards coordinated duty assignments to make possible their contact with the female inmates.