NC prison officials asked for inmates' silence after Lanesboro killing

A video taken inside Lanesboro Correctional Institution shows prison officials gesturing to suspects in an inmate’s 2012 murder to keep their mouths shut after the killing, lawyers who represented one of the suspects said.

Daniel Roberts, one of the lawyers, said at a sentencing hearing that the footage suggests prison officials may have sanctioned the attack or looked the other way.

One of the officers seen making the keep-quiet gesture was Jeffery Wall, a former prison unit manager who was fired months after inmate Wesley Turner’s murder. Wall’s dismissal letter, obtained by The Observer, states that he had hidden bloody weapons in the ceiling of his old office.

The disclosures raise new questions about the role that corrections officers have played in violence at the high-security prison in Anson County.

New documents, interviews and a lawsuit paint a picture of a place where some officers seemed to collaborate with gang-affiliated inmates and gave them free rein to roam.

Opened in the town of Polkton in 2004, the state-run prison has for years been plagued by stabbings, smuggled contraband and allegations of wrongdoing by corrections officers.

Inmate Gregorio Cortez Vazquez pleaded guilty earlier this month to second-degree murder in Turner’s stabbing death and was sentenced to up 16 additional years in prison. Two other inmates involved in the gang-related fight that day – Julio Alberto Zelaya-Sorto and Joel Corto Ortiz – also pleaded guilty to felonies and had up to four and five years, respectively, added to their prison sentences. All three belonged to gangs.

Roberts and Jeremy Smith, the state-appointed lawyers who represented Vazquez, said they watched prison surveillance video taken on the day Turner was killed and learned the following:

Around lunchtime on Sept. 28, 2012, Ortiz and Zelaya-Sorto, along with one or two inmates who were members of a gang called the United Blood Nation, were in an administrative office with Wall and an assistant unit manager. They visited the office for about 15 minutes.

The fatal fight broke out roughly five minutes after the inmates left the office.

A corrections officer opened the door that allowed the three convicted inmates into an adjacent pod. There, Ortiz and Zelaya-Sorto attacked and seriously injured inmate Christopher Cook. Ortiz later told investigators his weapon was a plastic toilet bowl cleaner with a sharpened end.

Turner reportedly belonged to the same gang as Cook and was trying to go to his defense. But Vazquez stabbed and killed Turner using another improvised weapon, a sharpened metal plate.

Soon afterward, the suspects were escorted into offices where they received medical treatment.

Prison video shows Wall making a “keep your mouth shut” gesture – stretching his arms wide and then folding them so his hands covered his mouth – to the office where Vazquez had been taken, Roberts and Smith said. Moments earlier, the video shows former prison sergeant Jonathan Peguese making the identical gesture toward the office where one of the other suspects was held, the lawyers said.

“Our theory is that, at best, the corrections officers knew (the attack) was going to happen and did nothing to stop it,” Smith said.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety has declined the Observer’s requests for copies of the video, citing “ongoing investigative reviews.”

State Bureau of Investigation agents say they are examining possible wrongdoing by former Lanesboro officers and cannot discuss the assertions by Vazquez’s lawyers.

Other former Lanesboro inmates also say that corrections officers have made a dangerous environment more so. A federal lawsuit, filed last month by five former Lanesboro inmates, alleges that corrections officers helped gang members wage attacks against other inmates.

State officials say they are working to improve conditions at Lanesboro. In a statement to the Observer, N.C. Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry wrote:

“Management changes have been made at Lanesboro, but many other initiatives are in the works that include increasing staff, providing additional staff training and partnering with outside law enforcement and investigative agencies.”

Wall, who joined the prison system in 1995, was fired in August 2013 for “willful violation of written rules” and “creating conditions that increased the chance of death or serious bodily injury,” his dismissal letter states.

Peguese resigned from the system in May 2013, while he was under investigation, said Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker. Walker said she can’t discuss specifics, but the investigation was not related to the Turner case.

Multiple attempts to reach Wall and Peguese – including visits to their last known addresses in Anson County – were unsuccessful.

Bloody shanks

Authorities believe all three of the convicted inmates had homemade knives, commonly known as shanks. Corrections officers flocked to the scene after the stabbings, but only one shank was recovered.

“What happened to (the shanks)?” asked SBI agent Audria Bridges, who led the investigation into Turner’s murder. “If (prison officials) can’t answer that question, why can’t they?”

Polkton Police Chief Matthew Norris said he recovered the one shank in Wall’s desk drawer soon after the 2012 fight. Other prison staff members showed him where it was, he said.

Ten months later, “significant amounts of contraband” – including video recordings and three bloody shanks – were found in the ceiling above Wall’s office, according to his dismissal letter.

Forensic tests did not tie any of the shanks in Wall’s ceiling to the attacks on Turner, according to Bridges, the SBI agent.

Wall was transferred to work at a different prison while under investigation in July 2013. Soon afterward, he contacted a Lanesboro employee, asking her to retrieve the contraband from the ceiling of his old office, his dismissal letter states.

Later, an officer delivered other personal property to Wall, who had been waiting in front of the prison gatehouse. The officer noticed a gun in Wall’s vehicle, the letter states.

Then Wall said, “They have nothing to worry about because if I wanted to ‘get anyone,’ I could get them ‘touched’ from the outside,” the letter states. The dismissal letter, signed by Lanesboro’s acting administrator at the time, called Wall’s statement “a clear threat of injury or harm to staff.”

The letter also stated that Wall “intentionally tried to conceal” contraband that might have been used for pending criminal charges or an internal investigation.

Bridges said she hasn’t watched all of the DVDs found in Wall’s ceiling, but has turned them over to the FBI. Many of those videos were labeled with the words “use of force” – a term that describes the force used by law enforcement officers to control unruly people. Some of the DVDs showed fights between inmates, Bridges said.

At a pre-disciplinary conference, Wall told prison officials he was planning to put the shanks in a display case that would be used to train new staff members. Bridges said she doesn’t believe that.

Wall said he put the shanks in the ceiling because he couldn’t lock his desk drawer or file cabinet, his dismissal letter states.

He also said he had not kept a gun in plain view inside his car, contrary to what a corrections officer had reported.

Dangerous lessons

Dustin Bettis, a former inmate who did time in Lanesboro, told the Observer he saw Wall give a pocket knife to one inmate and a cellphone to another.

Roberts, one of Vazquez’s attorneys, said he was surprised to see how freely inmates at Lanesboro were allowed to roam the prison. Often, observers say, officers let inmates visit and congregate in administrative offices.

“I characterize the lack of supervision there as, quite frankly, shocking,” Roberts said. “If you go down to the local high school, you would see a way more controlled atmosphere than you saw in this video.”

Roberts said that if prison is supposed to be a place where inmates learn to live law-abiding lives, Lanesboro appears to be falling short.

“It’s clearly not a place where they’re learning to go the straight and narrow,” he said.

Staff researcher Maria David and David Raynor of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

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