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Behind death's door

Prosecutors trying to convict guards in the fatal beating of Frank Valdes are up against witness credibility and an unsympathetic victim.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2001


Prosecutors trying to convict guards in the fatal beating of Frank Valdes are up against witness credibility and an unsympathetic victim.

STARKE -- In the toughest wing at Florida State Prison, the inmates in solitary confinement initially could not see prisoner No. 072791 arrive on their hall. But they could hear him.

In the wing's first cell, Castro Flores listened to the sickening thump-thumping of the inmate being assaulted nearby, followed by quick, raspy moaning.

"Uhhhhh. Uhhhhhh. Uhhhhhh."

Inmate James Tavanese could make out the prisoner slumped in a wheelchair, his hands cuffed, a guard punching him in the face. The inmate gasped to another officer -- "Why, captain? Why?" -- before he was wheeled inside and the steel door clanged shut.

Over the next three to four hours, inmates locked down in their X wing cages listened to the dying groans of a 36-year-old hell raiser. Officers would come by his cell from time to time, at one point carrying broomsticks. They taunted him:

"You still breathing? You still alive, Frank?"

Three cells down the hall, prisoner Stephen Geoppo started jotting notes. He figured a murder was occurring just a few feet away, and he wanted to make sure he kept his facts straight. He hid his notes in the cast on his leg.

"They knew this guy was in bad shape," Geoppo said. "They were just waiting for him to die."

Shortly after 3 p.m., the officers summoned the prison's medical staff. The inmate had stopped breathing; he had no pulse. By the time an ambulance arrived inside the razor wire of Florida State Prison, the patient was so grotesquely bruised, broken and swollen, he was barely recognizable as Frank Valdes.

* * *

The state says prison officers killed Valdes that July afternoon more than two years ago. His death, the state says, resulted from "a frenzied attack by multiple perpetrators."

The captors became the criminals, the captive criminal became the victim.

Jury selection begins Friday for five of the eight guards charged in the attack. But the state's prospects for proving its most serious charge -- second-degree murder -- are shaky at best.

A new prosecutor took over the case this year and dramatically changed the basic theory of how Valdes was killed. The new theory is contradicted by inmate witnesses who were just a couple of dozen feet from Valdes when he died.

The prisoner witnesses are career criminals with questionable credibility. Prison officers who might have been witnesses wouldn't snitch on their colleagues.

The crime scene was scrubbed clean before investigators arrived. The accused officers spent hours alone together before investigators could arrive and probe for inconsistencies in their stories. The case will be tried in Bradford County, where prisons are the biggest employer.

Jurors will have a thoroughly unsympathetic victim in Valdes, who was on death row for killing a corrections officer while trying to spring another criminal from prison. To many people, Valdes' violent death was not the way prisons should work, but he probably had it coming. At least it saved some tax dollars.

* * *

Perhaps most daunting for the state is that prosecutors can't even say which officer did what to Valdes, who was 36 when he died.

Most of the evidence remains sealed by court order. But dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of records that are available provide a grim picture of what happened.

Valdes was covered in cuts and bruises. He suffered internal injuries to his heart, diaphragm and intestines, plus 22 broken ribs and fractures of his sternum, vertebrae, nose and jaw. A clear boot print was on his torso. The defense says Valdes injured himself, throwing himself around his cell; medical experts will testify he was obviously pummelled to death.

Quietly, defense attorneys acknowledge the state may convince jurors that corrections officers murdered Valdes. But connecting individuals to the crime? That, they say, will be impossible.

* * *

June 1999, the month before Valdes died. Sgt. Montrez Lucas taught two classes of new corrections officers about use of force on inmates.

A swaggering veteran of the Department of Corrections, Lucas made quite an impression on his students. He profanely and cheerfully offered tips not included in department manuals:

Don't hesitate to lie on your reports, just make sure every officer sticks to the same story.

Stun guns don't leave marks that need explaining.

Better to unload an entire can of Mace on an inmate than just the few quick bursts dictated by department policy.

Medical staff sometimes help cover up injuries.

When kicking an inmate, be careful about leaving boot marks. He drew a boot mark on a diagram of a body. "Don't leave this," he quipped, jotting a Hi-Tek brand label onto the boot tread.

"Cover your a--" and stick together, Lucas lectured, and you won't get into trouble for excessive force. He showed one class a plastic tub filled with papers that he said represented the assorted allegations of excessive force he had beaten over the years. Only once was he suspended for abusing inmates, for 60 days, and that basically was a vacation.

Lucas made it clear to the more than two dozen trainees that he took pleasure from inflicting pain on inmates; he said that using force is a good path to promotion.

He particularly enjoyed working on "extraction teams" that yank convicts from their cells. Trainee Robin Rosier recalled Lucas' advice:

"Go in, cuff the inmate up, take turns hitting him, kicking him. . . . Then basically take him to medical. Medical would not see anything that would indicate excessive use of force. But when the inmate would make it back to the cell, that's when they would finish the job."

* * *

July 3, 1999. Officers were assaulted in the recreation yard at Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper. The next day, five Hamilton inmates accused of assaulting the officers were transferred to Florida State Prison, home to the state's most difficult prisoners. They were assigned to X wing, home to the worst of the worst -- including Frank Valdes. A week later, one of the officers involved in the melee at Hamilton had a miscarriage. Word spread on the prison grapevine: The brawl was to blame. Soon attorneys, relatives, reporters and a federal judge started hearing allegations that the X wing officers were terrorizing the Hamilton inmates.

"Officers . . . have been methodically beating five X Wing prisoners (from Hamilton). These guards are out of control and are going to kill somebody," inmate William Van Poyck wrote to his attorney in Gainesville.

Justine Mathews, mother of former Hamilton inmate Willie Mathews, said other inmates told her that her son and other prisoners were getting pummelled. She called the prison.

On July 13, she received a call from prison internal investigator Timothy Giebeig, who told her that reports of X Wing beatings were bogus. (Giebeig had been fired for using excessive force on an inmate and not reporting it; the punishment was reduced to a suspension.)

"He assured me he went down to check on my son, and he was fine," Mrs. Mathews said in an interview. "Come to find out, his jaw was already broken. (Mathews initially was diagnosed with only a cavity; prison officials later confirmed the broken jaw.) If they had responded and investigated the matter when I first called them, Frank Valdes would be alive today. I called about this just days before Valdes died."

Thursday, July 15, Willie Mathews filed an emergency grievance, pleading for an investigation into beatings on X Wing "before we are killed." His grievance was rejected.

Mathews lived two cells from Valdes. Some X Wing inmates say Valdes' final confrontation with officers stemmed from his threats to go public about the beatings of the Hamilton inmates.

Michael Lambrix, in a cell above Valdes, said they yelled to each other through vents about the beatings. "Frank was very confrontational," Lambrix recounted in a letter. "He was putting it in their face he was going to write this up. He should have known they were going to come after him."

The guards detested Valdes -- because he had killed a corrections officer and because he was a royal pain. A smart-mouth Brooklyn native, he refused orders to shave, to participate in counts, to sign forms. He filed grievance after grievance, complaining that his mail was late, that he needed more dental floss, that he hadn't received the Bible he requested, or the Book of Mormon, that he needed vegan meals, then later, non-vegan meals.

He slashed another inmate and threatened officers with a homemade knife. Officers confiscated other weapons from his cell. He punched a guard in the nose.

One inmate told prosecutors that in the days before Valdes' death, he overheard several officers: "Valdes should die, needs killing, he killed one of us, and I'm tired of this bulls---."

* * *

Friday, July 16, 1999.

X wing is a three-story building with 30 solitary confinement cells, each 7 by 9 feet, with no windows. Each cell has two steel doors, one with a grill and, 2 feet away, an outer, solid steel door. With the outer steel doors closed, X wing cells are stifling hot.

Dallas Price, in the cell next to Valdes, heard his neighbor demand that Montrez Lucas, the X Wing supervisor, open Price's outer door.

"Worry about your own door, and stay out of my business," Lucas answered.

"Hold it man," Valdes said. "I talked to you like a man. Don't talk to me like a dog."

Officer Charlie Griffis said Lucas slapped and punched Valdes, whose hands were cuffed behind his back. Valdes taunted Lucas for smacking someone in handcuffs:

"Every time he would call Sgt. Lucas a p---- a-- n----- (Lucas) would slap him open-handedly going forward and then he would slap him back-handed coming back. . . . The last time Sarge slapped Valdes, Valdes just stood and looked at Sarge . . . kind of slumped over like he was kind of dizzy. And Sgt. Lucas hit him with a clenched fist to the facial area."

Officer Kevin Porter said he heard Lucas tell Griffis: "It will just look like he did something to himself."

Lucas phoned Capt. Timothy Thornton to report that Valdes had threatened him. "His number will come up," Lucas said Thornton told him.

That night, Valdes told other inmates on X Wing that he thought Lucas had broken his jaw.

* * *

Saturday, July 17, shortly after 8 a.m.

Lucas confronted Valdes. "You got your mind right now? . . . We ain't going to have people with this kind of attitude," inmate Mark Defriest said Lucas told Valdes, who did not respond.

Defriest heard Lucas pick up a phone; 20 minutes or more later, Capt. Thornton arrived. Dallas Price, in his cell next to Valdes, heard the captain angrily tell Lucas: "I gotta take care of this damn problem for you. Don't bring me back on this wing with this bulls---."

Thornton marched to Valdes' cell and didn't say a word. The next sound the inmates heard -- SSHHHHHHHHHH! -- was familiar: the spraying of Mace.

The officers shut Valdes' outer door and left. Inmates could hear Valdes coughing in his cell and officers coughing in the hall.

Twenty minutes later, around 9:45, the officers returned. SSHHHHHHHHHH! More gas.

For the next 20 to 30 minutes, the only sound on the wing was gagging from Valdes' cell.

The extraction team arrived.

"It sounded like a herd of elephants stomping through the floor, and they dragging that shock shield . . . on the floor," Defriest told investigators. "If you heard it before you know exactly what it is, right? But without no words being spoken, somebody stuck a key in Valdes' door and open the door, and the fight was on."

Cell extraction teams -- called "catch teams" by officers and "goon squads" by prisoners -- are five-man teams outfitted in padded suits and helmets. Their mission is to remove an inmate from his cell.

The first one in pins the inmate on the ground with electric shocks from a plastic stun shield; each of the other four is responsible for immobilizing an arm or a leg.

Capt. Thornton, 6-feet and 250 pounds, was the supervisor, and under departmental policy would have stood outside the cell. Valdes, 5-feet-8 and roughly 175 pounds, was in the fetal position on the floor; prosecutors say he put up no resistance.

First into the cell was Officer Raymon Hanson, 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, wielding the stun shield. He was followed by Sgt. Jason P. Griffis, 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds; then Sgt. Charles Brown, 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds; Sgt. Robert Sauls, 6-feet and a chiseled 175 pounds; finally, Sgt. Andrew Lewis, 5-foot-11 and more than 200 pounds.

Michael Barron, in the cell on the other side of Valdes, said he heard the door slam open, then steady beating.

"You could hear them stomping him, and you could hear his head bouncing on the floor. The sound was clear. You could hear them yelling things, "You want to kill an officer motherf-----?' It was like all their anger just coming out," Barron said in an interview. ". . . Usually when they beat dudes, they scream and stuff, but Valdes wasn't saying nothing. He must have been unconscious pretty fast."

From his cell on the other side of Valdes, Price heard a grunt and then quiet. He heard what sounded like kicking. "Couple minutes later, I heard something hit the floor . . . It was like dropping a slab of beef from 5 foot up in the air."

He peered through the crack under his cell door and could partially see Valdes lying in the hall. He looked unconscious, with blood streaming from his gaping mouth. He saw a foot stomping Valdes' face.

Three inmates -- Price, Defriest and Barron -- said they could partially see Valdes getting kicked and stomped while officers shouted for him to stand up.

The accounts of X Wing inmates differ sharply from what the officers said in their nearly identical reports:

Lucas said he informed Valdes about 9:15 a.m. that he would receive a disciplinary citation for threatening him the day before. "F--- you, n-----. I am gonna kill your f------ a--. I'm a gangster," Valdes responded.

He refused to submit to handcuffs for a cell search, Lucas said, so he contacted Capt. Thornton. Valdes spewed more threats. After a warning, Thornton hit him with three quick bursts of pepper spray and left.

Ten minutes later, Thornton returned and tossed in a chemical grenade to fill the cell with stinging chemicals. The grenade didn't go off; Valdes wouldn't give it back.

Thornton summoned the extraction team. After Valdes again ignored his warning, Thornton sprayed more gas.

At 10:25, the men in padded suits and helmets stormed into the chemical-fogged cell. The officers said Valdes punched, kicked and tried to bite them. He wouldn't drop the grenade.

"I entered the cell and inmate Valdes kicked me in the groin area and then kicked me in the stomach," Sgt. Griffis wrote in his report. "I struck inmate Valdes in the facial area with my right fist while attempting to gain control of his left hand (with the grenade)." He said he punched Valdes twice on the upper torso with his left fist.

Brown said he punched Valdes on the forearm, the back and side. Sauls said he struck Valdes' face with his open palm and forced him to the ground with his boot on Valdes' neck and face. Lewis applied the handcuffs and leg shackles.

Contrary to inmate accounts of a prolonged beating, the officers said it was over in about five minutes.

An inmate orderly said he saw the officers working on their reports together and tossing out several drafts before agreeing on a final version. "I want this one done right," he overheard Capt. Thornton say.

* * *

After any use of force, inmates must be examined by the medical staff. The clinic is a quarter-mile straight shot down the hall from X Wing.

In the day room on K Wing, inmates Raye Carniello and John Brannon were playing Scrabble. They saw a shackled Valdes hauled toward the clinic on a three-wheeled supply cart. He was slumped over in his white boxer shorts, bloodied and out cold, or nearly so.

"His mouth was bloody, and he was unconscious," Carniello said. "That kid was down and out. I mean I knew Frank Valdes -- he was a maniac -- and no way would he be put on that cart if he wasn't unconscious."

The officers wheeled Valdes into the clinic around 10:30 a.m. The examination room filled with the stinging fumes from the chemicals they had used on him.

Senior registered nurse Denise McEarchern stayed in the doorway to avoid the fumes. She saw "blood all over his face" and said Valdes did not speak; he only moaned and groaned.

Nurse Jimmie Burger, however, said Valdes answered questions. He noted no serious injuries, only a bloody nose, some abrasions that could have been rashes and a possible fever blister on Valdes' lip.

"I didn't consider him to be in pain, even though he was moaning and groaning," Burger said.

At a second interview with investigators, Burger (now serving 20 years for sexual battery on a victim younger than 12) said he had a "gut feeling" something was wrong. He said Sgt. Lewis kept laughing at Valdes and shining a light in his eyes.

"They all acted like all they wanted to do was take him back to his cell and just continue with it," Burger said.

Officers took Valdes from the clinic in a wheelchair, which Burger acknowledged was unusual for someone reported to have only minor injuries. It was about 10:50 a.m.

Valdes had been in a cell on the west corridor of X Wing; after the clinic, officers moved him to the east side.

An inmate on the east hall heard officers beating someone in the shower or in an adjoining room that leads into X Wing. Another inmate says he cleaned blood from the shower. (Valdes' west-side cell also was scrubbed clean after the morning extraction.)

Inmate Castro Flores said he saw officers carrying Valdes to his cell; they shut Flores' outer door as they passed.

Further down the east hall, inmate James Tavanese said he heard Valdes arrive -- loud, raspy groans, "like a sick animal" struggling to breathe. Tavanese called out to inmate James "Pop" Agan in the neighboring cell.

"I said, "Man, they're bringing a bug (crazy man) on the wing.' I told Pop Agan, "That man is hurt real bad,' " Tavanese said in an interview.

Tavanese said he saw Lucas punch Valdes in the face before wheeling him into the cell.

In his official report, Lucas said he ordered Valdes to lie face down on the bunk so he could remove his handcuffs. "Inmate Valdes sat up and launched off the bunk onto the floor head first. Capt. Thornton ordered him to get up. Inmate Valdes complied by sitting up on the floor next to the bunk."

Tavanese said he heard Valdes fall to the ground and heard officers swearing at him. Valdes was difficult to understand, Tavanese said, but he could make out the inmate's raspy question: "Why, Captain? Why?"

"It was like he was asking, "Why'd you do this to me?' Thornton just said, "You know why.' "

For the next three to four hours, Tavanese says he listened to the dying gasps of Frank Valdes. So did inmate Stephen Geoppo, housed next to Tavanese and three cells away from Valdes.

"It sounded like he had a punctured lung or something, because he couldn't breathe," said Geoppo, who couldn't see anything.

Every 10 or 15 minutes, Officer Dewey Beck checked on Valdes. "You all right Frank," he asked in a tone that Tavanese took as more taunt than concern.

Pop Agan shouted from his cell: "You know he's not all right. You killed that boy! He's not all right!"

Geoppo said Beck seemed to be waiting for Valdes to die.

"He'd ask, "You still breathing Frank?' (Valdes') response was, "Uuhhh, uhhhh, uhhhh.' He didn't respond at all. All he was trying to do was breathe."

At 1:30 p.m., Geoppo heard Valdes' cell open and then close. He didn't hear anything happening inside. Later that day, the inmates on either side of Valdes, Agan and "Uno" Flores, told Geoppo they heard officers hitting Valdes in his cell.

"Uno was saying, "Man, those mother f------ had broomsticks and s---," said Geoppo.

Officers say that whatever injuries Valdes received after leaving the clinic, he inflicted on himself.

Lucas said Valdes "launched" himself onto the floor head-first shortly before 11 a.m. At 12:30, Officer Dewey Beck said he saw Valdes sitting upright on his bunk. "Then he rolled off his bunk head-first. I asked inmate Valdes if he were okay. He said, "Yeah.' "

At 2 p.m. Capt. Thornton reported finding Valdes holding onto the cell bars 3 feet off the ground. "I asked inmate Valdes what he was doing, at which time he turned loose of the bars and fell backwards, striking the left side of his body against the edge of the cell bunk. I asked inmate Valdes if he was all right and he said yes."

Thornton called nurse McEarchern in the medical clinic. (Investigators suspect Valdes might have been dead or nearly so at this point, and the officers were beginning a coverup.) McEarchern said Thornton reported Valdes had a "tiny cut on his forehead" from rolling off his bed. He told her she didn't need to come check on the inmate, that he had called only because he wanted to document that Valdes "is doing self-injuries to himself."

She suggested they move Valdes to another cell without a bed he could roll off, but Thornton told her no such cells were available. She thought he was wrong about that but agreed to check on Valdes when she came by for regular rounds at 3 p.m.

By then it was too late. Shortly after 3, the medical clinic received a call: Get over to X Wing, fast.

When medical staffers arrived, Sgts. Brown and Lewis had handcuffed Valdes and begun CPR. They could find no pulse or breath. One nurse said Valdes was cool and apparently dead.

"You killed that boy," Tavanese said Agan shouted at the guards and medical staffers.

They hoisted Valdes onto a stretcher and pushed him to the prison emergency room with a breathing bag over his face. Sgt. Brown, sweat pouring from his face, did chest compressions. He said he heard a loud pop from Valdes' chest, suggesting the officers will say the chest compressions explain some of Valdes' 22 broken ribs (15 of his ribs had multiple fractures).

By the time an ambulance arrived, a heart monitor showed Valdes had no pulse. Officers in bulletproof vests escorted Valdes out the prison gates, to Shands hospital in Starke.

At 4:18 p.m., Shands officially declared what they already knew at the prison.

* * *

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates all suspicious deaths in prison. The FDLE was alerted at 4:35 p.m. By then, the officers had contacted their union representative in Starke, Paul Wellborn of the Police Benevolent Association.

Warden James Crosby, who was on vacation and jogging when he received a call about an inmate believed to be dead, came to the prison. Capt. Thornton and other officers briefed him. Crosby, now a regional prison director, initially thought the officers could be in trouble for not properly handling an inmate hurting himself.

With investigators on the way, Crosby suggested the prison officers wait together in a conference room. Later, Crosby told investigators "someone had gotten the perception I had helped or told the officers how to handle their story." He said he did nothing of the kind.

The officers moved to the prison's visiting park and spent hours together. They conferred with their union lawyers.

Gainesville attorney Gloria Fletcher, on contract with the PBA and one of that area's top criminal defense lawyers, took a lead role that would open her to conflict of interest questions.

* * *

That night, Fletcher told all the officers to amend their official reports to say they were written at the orders of Capt. Thornton. Prosecutors think she was trying to keep the reports from being allowed as evidence in court.

* * *

State Attorney Rod Smith, a former PBA lawyer and Fletcher's former law partner, took the lead for the prosecution.

He focused on the morning cell extraction, where inmate witnesses reported hearing or seeing a beating. Evidence included a boot recovered from Sgt. Brown's home that was consistent with the print on Valdes' torso.

In November 1999, prosecutors charged Lucas with aggravated battery on Valdes the day before his death, apparently to pressure him to flip on his colleagues. He was the only African-American among the implicated officers, and he wasn't a veteran of Florida State Prison.

But this was the same man who had told corrections trainees to never, ever snitch on a fellow officer: "You don't want to go there . . . (or) you'll hate life and won't want to come to work."

Lucas went to trial; he was acquitted.

In February 2000, four officers involved in the cell extraction were indicted: Capt. Thornton and Sgts. Griffis, Brown and Sauls. A key witness was Hanson, who wielded the stun shield. Now living in a secret location, he is expected to testify that officers falsified their reports.

Last year, prosecutor Rod Smith was elected to the state Senate; he no longer had time for the case.

In February 2001, newly elected State Attorney Bill Cervone assigned it to his chief assistant, Greg McMahon, who waded through 17 boxes of documents to get up to speed. McMahon saw holes in Smith's theory of the murder.

The state would be hard-pressed to prove Valdes died from his cell-extraction injuries, given the testimony of prison medical staff who saw him afterward. Medical experts say that anyone who sustained the injuries that killed Valdes could not have lived more than an hour -- and certainly not four hours, as Valdes did after he left the clinic.

McMahon reframed the case. Now, instead of saying Valdes died from injuries sustained in the morning extraction, he said the officers killed Valdes when they brought him to the new cell in the afternoon.

But there are still problems: Prosecutors can't prove that some of the officers charged with murder touched Valdes; also, two of the inmates within a few dozen feet of Valdes after he was seen in the clinic, Tavanese and Geoppo, never heard a prolonged assault.

Four new officers were charged with second-degree murder -- Donald Stanford, who controlled access into X Wing; Beck, the X Wing housing officer who checked on Valdes after the clinic; Lewis, one of the extraction team members; and Lucas.

Prosecutors added a slew of lesser charges into the mix: conspiracy to commit aggravated battery; accessory after the fact; official misconduct; tampering with evidence; battery on an inmate.

Defense lawyers saw an obvious strategy: Bradford County jurors won't buy the problematic murder case, but they might convict on lesser charges and save face for prosecutors.

"They won't have any chance of convicting them in Bradford County . . . because everybody there either knows somebody or is related to somebody" working in prison, Officer Stanford told the Times after four colleagues were indicted last year, before he was added as a defendant.

Depending on what happens in state court, federal charges still could be filed.

Going in, prosecutors well knew the challenge of convicting prison officers. In 1998, the chief investigator for the same state attorney's office wrote a blunt letter about a prison abuse case he felt could not be prosecuted because of the "saw nothing, did nothing, heard nothing and know nothing" attitude of prison staffers:

"Even if a case could be developed to the extent that criminal charges could be filed by this office in good faith, the trial would still take place in the county where the crime is alleged to have occurred," Wiley Clark wrote. "We both know that the chance of a guilty verdict being obtained under this circumstance is extremely unlikely and would make the situation worse than it is now."

This time, the case was too high profile for prosecutors to pass. This time, with people across the state watching to see how justice works behind bars, the stakes are far higher.

-- Staff writer Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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