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Lawyers: Accused guard saved a life

Guard Vincent Johnson rushed to help: That guard, and another guard, were released without bail but still must stand trial.

By EDDY RAMIREZ and JONI JAMES
Published June 22, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — In the frantic moments following the shooting of a federal agent at a federal prison here Wednesday, help came from an unlikely source.


Vincent Johnson, one of six guards accused of abusing inmates in a sex-for-contraband scandal, helped save the life of a corrections lieutenant who had been shot, by pressing his hands to the man’s wounds. He also tried to shield a federal agent from the gunfire that erupted outside the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee.

Details of Johnson’s efforts came to light in a federal bail hearing Thursday as he and one other guard were released without bail over the objection of federal prosecutors. Three other guards accused in the scandal remain in custody.

A sixth suspect, Ralph Hill, died from a gunshot wound. An Air Force veteran, the 43-year-old is accused of starting Wednesday morning’s firefight with federal agents who arrived to arrest the suspects at a shift change.


Also killed was one of the Justice Department’s Orlando-based agents, William “Buddy” Sentner. The federal prison lieutenant who was wounded has not been named and remains in stable condition.
But Johnson’s actions contrast sharply with the charges of mistreating female inmates at the minimum security prison.

The Tallahassee incident has cast fresh light on a perennial problem in America’s penal system: Corrupt corrections officers who use their power over inmates to coerce sex, sometimes for the simple exchange of food or contraband.


Just last year, the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general warned that sex abuse of inmates of both sexes by personnel remained one of the most vexing problems in the nation’s federal prisons — a report that led Congress to increase the penalties for federal employees convicted of sexual contact with prisoners.

The study followed a 2004 survey of 2,700 local, state and federal correctional facilities that found allegations of sexual misconduct by staff in all but one state prison.

A former inmate of the Tallahassee facility said Wednesday’s arrests came far later than they should have. Ashley Turner of Rome, Ga., who has filed three lawsuits over sex abuse, said she was coerced to strip and touch herself sexually. She said other inmates would have sex with the guards in exchange for cell phones, money and marijuana.

“That list (of suspects) should probably be three times longer,’’ said Turner, who spent three years at the facility for bank fraud, leaving in 2004. “These are just the ones who hung around long enough to get arrested.”

All five remaining suspects, who have pleaded not guilty, face charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, witness tampering, mail fraud and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison. Their trial is set for Aug. 21.

“These defendants abused their position of authority and demonstrated a lack of respect ... in taking advantage of vulnerable female inmates,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney Robert Davis. The suspects used “soft contraband” — usually defined as toiletries, food or cigarettes — and marijuana to coerce sexual contact with inmates, Davis said.

The five guards filed into the courtroom Thursday still wearing their prison work uniforms, though their ankles were shackled. Wives, pastors and other friends and family watched the men take their seats beside their lawyers.

Among the suspect guards are a Desert Storm war veteran, a Navy veteran, a lay minister, a man convicted of mistreating pit bullterriers and Johnson, whose lawyer argued he should be commended for his efforts to save lives during Wednesday’s shooting.

Johnson, a five-year corrections veteran, triggered the alarm inside the federal complex that alerted others about the shooting, said attorney Robert Morris. “He acted as a citizen should have.”

A father of one child and engaged to be married, Johnson also supports his fiancee and her five children, Morris said.

Johnson is not accused of having sex with any inmate, only in helping some of the five other suspects do so by showing victims prison tracking information to intimidate them into keeping quiet.

Also released without bail by U.S. District Judge William C. Sherrill was E. Lavon Spence, a Desert Storm veteran awarded the Kuwaiti Liberation Medal. An 11-year corrections officer who’s been married for 18 years, Spence wasn’t working at the facility during much of the time period when the alleged incidents took place. He had three major back surgeries between March 2003 and November 2005, his attorney told the court.

“He didn’t have contact with the inmates for over half the time alleged in the indictment,” attorney Teri Donaldson said.

Spence and Johnson are barred from having contact with anyone at the correctional facility, including inmates and staff. The men must also wear electronic monitors and obey curfew rules.

Remaining in custody were Alfred Barnes, Gregory Dixon and Alan Moore. Law enforcement officials contend that both Dixon and Moore tried to avoid arrest Wednesday.

Attorney Robert Harper described Moore, a 13-year corrections employee and Army veteran with a 20-year marriage, as a “churchgoing man” active in his church’s ministry.

Prosecutors said Dixon walked hurriedly out of the building and jumped into his car, surrendering only after

Tallahassee police arrived and drew their weapons.

Barnes is on probation for withholding water from his nine pit bulls and training them to fight.

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7305.