Murder probe exposes more problems at Lanesboro prison

A North Carolina inmate has been sentenced to at least 12 more years in prison for the gang-related murder of a fellow inmate, a case that has exposed further problems at Lanesboro Correctional Institution.

Minutes before the Sept. 28, 2012, assault that killed Wesley Turner, two inmates involved visited the office of an assistant unit manager at the Anson County prison, State Bureau of Investigation agents say. Soon afterward, a corrections officer allowed the inmates into the pod where the murder took place.

SBI agents who investigated the killing said in interviews this week that they have no proof that corrections officers were trying to help the assailants. But SBI agent Audria Bridges, who led the investigation, said she was troubled to learn that inmates at the prison “roamed freely in areas they should not have been in.”

Bridges said she reviewed hours of surveillance video and saw that inmates frequently visited the office of an assistant prison manager – a practice that she believed posed a danger to officers.

“It was shocking to see the place wasn’t being supervised with more of the restrictions that you’d expect in a prison,” she said.

Gregorio Cortez Vazquez, who was accused of stabbing Turner, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Wednesday in Anson County Superior Court and was sentenced to up to 16 years.

A fellow prisoner, Joel Corto Ortiz, pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon for stabbing Christopher Cook, another inmate who was seriously injured in the fight. Ortiz was sentenced to 37 to 57 months. A third inmate involved in the altercation that day – Julio Alberto Zelaya-Sorto – pleaded guilty last month to assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. He was sentenced to 32 to 48 months.

Here’s how SBI officials say the early afternoon fight unfolded:

Shortly before the attack, two of the convicted inmates visited the office of an assistant unit manager. Then they returned to D pod, the unit where they lived. Soon, the three convicted inmates – all reported gang members – were waiting at the door that would allow them into E pod, an adjacent unit.

They were planning to go to that unit to settle a dispute with Cook, who belonged to a different gang.

An officer in a control room opened the door for them. Turner, who lived in D pod with the other three inmates, went through the door behind them. He reportedly belonged to Cook’s gang and planned to go to his defense.

As soon as the inmates entered D pod, Ortiz and Sorto attacked Cook, surveillance video shows. Ortiz, the inmate charged in that stabbing, said his weapon was a plastic toilet bowl cleaner with a sharpened end. Cook suffered lacerations and puncture wounds.

Soon afterward, Vazquez attacked and killed Turner.

Corrections officers recovered another improvised weapon at the scene – a sharpened metal plate, which may have come from a prison door.

What role did officers play?

A federal lawsuit, filed last month by five former Lanesboro inmates, alleges that corrections officers helped gang members wage attacks against other inmates.

SBI officials say there’s no proof that happened in the Turner case.

“Whether corrections officers helped facilitate any of what occurred that day, we don’t know,” said Tony Underwood, the special agent in charge of the nine-county SBI district that includes Anson and Mecklenburg counties.

The officer who opened the door for the three convicted inmates told SBI agents he did so because he thought the prisoners were returning to their unit following a meal.

“If the officer knew an assault was going to take place, would he have opened the door?” Bridges asked. “No, I don’t think he would have.”

A search warrant affidavit filed earlier this year said that homemade knives were found in the ceiling above the office of Jeffery Wall, a former manager over the prison unit where Turner was killed.

One of those shanks was stained, possibly from blood, Bridges said. The weapons were found nearly a year and a half after the deadly fight, and forensic tests did not tie any of them to the attacks on Turner and Cook.

According to Bridges, Wall told authorities he kept the shanks in his office because he was planning to put them in a display that would be used to train other officers. Bridges said she doesn’t buy that explanation.

“Why would you keep them there, with the risk of them getting into the hands of an inmate?” she asked.

A tough job

All three of the convicted inmates have been transferred to other state prisons.

Vazquez, 32, had already been serving an eight- to 10-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Turner, 35, had also been serving time for second-degree murder and was scheduled for release in 2017.

Located in Polkton, about 45 miles east of Charlotte, Lanesboro has repeatedly drawn scrutiny after violence, contraband smuggling and allegations of improper conduct by corrections officers.

In 2012, an inmate filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Lanesboro corrections officers cracked his skull with a baton and then destroyed a surveillance video that showed the assault.

Starting in November 2013, more than 800 inmates at the prison were put on lockdown for several months after an attack injured a corrections officer. Subsequent searches found numerous cellphones, improvised weapons and marijuana.

In October, the prison’s top administrator, David Mitchell, was injured after he was stabbed in the neck by an inmate wielding a plastic shank. Another officer suffered serious cuts to his face last month after he was assaulted by an inmate with a bladed weapon.

The state has changed the prison’s leadership several times in recent years. Designed to hold 1,400 inmates, the prison has a staff of about 500.

“Most (of the prison’s officers) are good, hard-working folks,” said Underwood, the SBI supervisor. “They have a very difficult job … Most of them do it the right way. It’s the few who don’t who make problems for everybody.”