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HARD TIME

EVEN COLORADO'S TOUGHEST CONS ARE AFRAID TO BUNK WITH MARVIN GRAY.

part 1 of 2
James Mervin, Colorado prison inmate No. 56225, was moving again. Over the years, he'd learned to pack quickly, tossing his meager belongings into a box so as not to upset the guard waiting to escort him to his new home. He didn't think much about it. Shuffling from one cell to another is simply another annoying fact of life in prison.

A tough guy despite his relatively short stature, a weightlifter, hardened con and a lifer, Mervin figured he could take care of himself no matter who his cellmate was. He thought so right up until he began unpacking at his new cell in the state prison at Limon. That's when another inmate slyly asked if he knew that he'd be bunking with Marvin Gray.

Suddenly Mervin wasn't so cocky. He'd be living with the weightlifting champion of the state prison system, a hulking, 280-pound bully who could squat 830 pounds, dead-lift more than 650 and bench press 500. Gray had a rumored predilection for assault--and for young, blonde, blue-eyed guys just like Mervin. And all the inmates at Limon knew that Gray was awaiting trial for allegedly killing another cellmate with his bare hands.

Mervin had never been willing to take on Gray. The two of them had had a run-in back in the state's Shadow Mountain prison years before, and Mervin had been trying to stay away from him ever since. But for all his knowledge of Gray, he didn't know what prison officials knew: that just days earlier, Gray's previous cellmate had been brutally raped. What Mervin didn't know would end up hurting him.

Within days, Mervin, too, became Gray's victim. And in what may be a landmark lawsuit in Colorado, he says he was also victimized by a state prison system that remains callously indifferent to the grim reality of inmate rape. Mervin's suit has already cleared legal hurdles that keep most inmate actions from moving through the justice system. It now seems likely to be the first prisoner lawsuit to go to trial in this state in more than a decade.

If the case does get to trial, state officials will be forced to take the stand and explain why prison guards put Mervin in a cell with a man Mervin's lawyer calls a "raping, killing machine"--and why, after he dared to sue, Mervin became the target of what appears to be a prison whitewash.

Marvin Gray can be soft-spoken and articulate. He takes care of his appearance, keeping his beard trimmed and blow-drying his hair. But his attention to grooming is overshadowed by his imposing figure. At 6-foot-1, he now tips the scales at nearly 300 pounds. And his size is only part of the picture. His arms, stomach and chest are covered with inky blue tattoos--a partial list includes the words "Mom," "Dad," "Stud," "Marv" and "Gayle" (his middle name). He's also decorated with a skull, a buzzard, a rose, a swastika, an iron cross, several lightning bolts, the grim reaper, a Viking man and woman, a biker dude with a gun and a pair of crossed axes.

"I haven't done anything [inside prison]," Gray says during an interview at the state's maximum-security prison in Canon City. "My record speaks for itself."

And Gray's rap sheet speaks volumes. It dates back to 1970, when he was sixteen. He started small--possession of less than $100 worth of stolen property--but quickly made his way into the big time with arrests for aggravated robbery, weapons possession, assault and murder.

Gray's reputation grew with each arrest. It skyrocketed after he escaped from a Kentucky jail with two other men. One of the men told police Gray had cut him with a knife after the jailbreak and that he feared Gray had killed the third escapee, who was never found.

Later, while out on parole, Gray was accused of breaking into a hotel room and sodomizing a young boy. Charges were never brought in that case.

In September 1975, Gray was in Denver with a buddy named William Felder. The duo went on a short-lived crime spree, robbing and assaulting two men near East Tenth Avenue and Grant Street in Denver. Their second victim was a police chief from South San Francisco who was shot in the leg as he walked back to his hotel from the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention.

Alerted by the sound of gunfire, police raced to the scene and arrested Gray and Felder. Two days later officers found a dead body in a vehicle parked near 13th and Larimer streets. The man had been dead several days. Police discovered he'd been killed with the same gun Felder and Gray had used in the robberies. Gray was held for investigation of homicide in the case but was never charged in the murder. He did go to prison for aggravated robbery.

Gray was in and out of the state prison system until 1985, when he was found guilty of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of a 21-year-old woman on the banks of Cherry Creek. He stabbed her fourteen times and was given sixteen years.

Two years later Gray was charged with his first institutional rape. According to Department of Corrections documents, the victim "did go to Gray's cell under his own power" but "felt compelled" to do so because of Gray's size, his history of physical violence and the potential for retaliation if he didn't comply with Gray's sexual demands.

On the prison charge form filled out by authorities in that case, it was noted that Gray had "been involved in homosexual acts with other inmates in the past." There was no mention of whether those acts were consensual.

Gray could have been taken to district court and slapped with a criminal charge for the prison rape. But nobody followed through with it. Instead, after being found guilty in an administrative hearing, he was shipped off to Centennial, then the state's maximum-security prison, with the following caution: "It is highly recommended that he be involved in a sex-offender group when it is available." (Gray never was.)

When, in late 1988, the DOC was looking to ease overcrowding by sending Colorado inmates to Washington State, Gray surfaced as a volunteer. The DOC was only too happy to send a glowing recommendation to Washington to smooth his way.

"I am not certain whether or not Gray in fact committed the [rape]," his caseworker wrote on his behalf. "However, it is out of his character to do such a thing." DOC officials added in an internal memo that both they and Gray were "hopeful" he would be accepted and transferred.

The officials in Washington, though, proved to be a little more picky than their Colorado compatriots had hoped. Gray was rejected and remained in Colorado.

Two years later, in November 1990, Gray was again making plans to leave the Colorado prison system. This time, however, he went out the front door. Despite his lengthy rap sheet, his record of escape in Kentucky and his problems within the Colorado system, he was slated for parole.

Gray left prison on January 18, 1991. He was supposed to report to his parole officer in Denver a few days later and find himself a job. Gray wasn't interested. A couple days after leaving prison, he was aboard a Greyhound bus headed for Paducah, Kentucky, not far from his hometown.

The members of Gray's large family (six brothers and four sisters) were none too happy to hear that the black sheep planned a visit. One of them went so far as to warn Gray's former probation officer, Bill Fryar, that "Gayle" was coming home.

Fryar immediately contacted Colorado authorities, who then put out a fugitive report over the national crime computer. Fryar followed his call to Colorado with a letter to his supervisors. "My interest in this case is that this defendant has made death threats against the circuit judge, a former sheriff and me," Fryar wrote. "He has also abused, assaulted and threatened members of his family who live here and elsewhere." Fryar claimed that Gray had stabbed one of his own brothers and that he'd once thrown a sheriff's deputy across a room.

Gray arrived in Paducah as scheduled. He was met by a brother-in-law and a cousin who had been sent with strict instructions to keep Gray as far away from the family as possible. Over the next few hours, Gray's relatives drove from town to town looking for an open bus depot to leave their charge. The Hopkinsville depot was closed. The one in Madisonville was closed, too. They finally left Gray in an all-night restaurant, where they gave him $200 and an order to get his butt on the next bus to Colorado.

In 1992 Gray went back into the Colorado prison system for good. A single robbery conviction sealed his fate. Deemed a habitual criminal, Gray received three life sentences.

Compared to Gray's exploits, James Mervin's criminal career amounts to small potatoes. Although his first conviction as an adult was for third-degree assault, he was a thief at heart. Of his nine other arrests over a seventeen-year span, eight were for larceny or burglary. The other was for a traffic offense.

In 1993 Mervin broke into his ex-girlfriend's house. The resulting conviction earned him a designation as a habitual criminal and garnered him a life sentence.

Mervin spent most of his time in prison lifting weights, and it was through that mutual interest that he and Gray became acquainted. Just how close they were is a matter of debate.

Gray insists the two were good friends. "I have come to his rescue a few times," he claims. "Mervin has a chip on his shoulder. He's egotistical. I was trying to school him, help him learn right from wrong. His worst enemy is himself."

Gray claims that he and Mervin worked out together almost every day when they were at Shadow Mountain. Mervin and his friends deny it. "I worked out with him maybe once," Mervin says. And for the most part, he gave Gray wide berth. It was a wise decision.

On the morning of November 5, 1992, Gray was brought from the Denver County Jail to a third-floor holding cell at Denver's federal courthouse. Although Gray now contends that he doesn't know why the feds wanted to see him, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshal's office confirms that Gray was slated to testify in a case involving alleged drug kingpin Anthony "Cricket" Smith. Cricket was suspected of dealing in major amounts of heroin, some of which reportedly made its way into the state's prisons.

Gray was placed in the cell with six other inmates. One of them was Daniel Green, who was also slated to testify in the Smith case.

At 10:30 that morning, the prisoners in the holding cell started calling out frantically for help. Something was wrong with Green, they said. Green was rushed to Denver General Hospital, where he died an hour later from a lacerated spleen. Somebody had hit Green in the gut hard enough to kill him.

Gray's version of events didn't hold up under questioning from Denver police. He told detectives that the morning Green died, a guard had come into the cell and announced, "Green, you're here to testify against Cricket." When the guard left, Gray told the cops, "two black guys jumped on Green and beat him."

The remaining five inmates in the holding cell told police a different story. They all said they'd been trying to sleep when they heard loud voices and looked up to see "the big white guy with tattoos" grabbing Green by the hair and beating him. One prisoner added that he'd seen Gray standing over the victim yelling, "You're going to open your big mouth, you son of a bitch! I'm going to kick your fucking ass! I'm going to kill you!"

Green's response to the threats, another inmate told authorities, was a desperate and pitiful attempt to save his own neck. "Marv, I don't know why I'm here," Green reportedly cried. "I don't know why I'm here, Marv."

Gray was charged with first-degree murder in late 1992 and sent to the state prison system's diagnostic center in Denver. There psychological testing pinpointed him as a prime candidate for maximum security. But according to a lawsuit filed by another inmate in 1994, prison officials instead upgraded Gray's classification to "close," a designation between medium and maximum security. That allowed Gray in the summer of 1993 to move to the prison in Limon.

Most of the cells in Limon are single-occupancy. But when the need arises for double bunking, prison staffers are supposed to search for compatible cellmates, based on the theory that the happier prisoners are, the less likely they are to cause trouble. Race and age are two of the factors that go into making a housing decision. If inmates are friends, every effort is made to allow them to bunk together.

Gray's first cellie was "an older dude," he says. "Fifty, at least." The older man didn't make much of an impression on Gray. On July 19, however, Gray was paired with blonde, blue-eyed Gary Hilton, a 27-year-old in on a contraband rap.

In a later affidavit, Hilton said that while he knew of Gray's history of violent assaults, "staff assured me...there would not be any problems with Gray." It was an assurance the staff never should have made.

Immediately after lockdown on the day he'd moved in, Hilton wrote, "Gray immediately began to act strange, and stated that he wanted to do something to me. With that comment, he reached up to the second bunk, pulling me by my T-shirt to the floor, where he began to physically beat me with his bare hands. For the better part of an hour, he beat me. He continued to physically beat me until he knocked me unconscious with his fist.

"When I awakened sometime later," Hilton wrote, "I found him sexually molesting me with his hands, mouth and other parts of his body."

Hilton said in the affidavit that he again resisted, giving up only when his energy diminished and his pain overcame his will. Gray then "continued his attack for a couple of hours until he was satisfied," Hilton wrote. The battered Hilton lay awake the rest of the night.

Snitching is an affront to the convict code, the informal set of guidelines that governs life in the joint. But the next morning Hilton went to his caseworker, Judy Lindsey, and told her he'd been raped. In a written report of that meeting, Lindsey wrote that Hilton "appeared distraught." Hilton told her that he'd been raped sometime after 9 p.m. the night before. "I asked if his cellmate was in the cell at the time," Lindsey wrote, "and he said `no.'" Hilton told Lindsey only that he'd been threatened and that if he had refused the demands of his "attackers," he would have been killed.

"Hilton is scared and didn't want to give me more information," Lindsey noted in her report. "When I tried to send him back to his cell to wait the hour before his appointment with Dr. Hedgemen, he started talking about killing himself. When I asked Hilton if he was sure his cellmate had nothing to do with the sexual assault, he started to shudder. However, he said nothing."

Hilton was placed in an isolation cell for observation. He told staffers that he "felt dirty" and "no longer a man," and that the rape brought back memories of his being raped as a child. Mental-health workers considered Hilton's state of mind so precarious that they ordered him placed on suicide watch.

Hilton was kept in isolation for several days, until he was moved to the Arapahoe County Jail for a previously scheduled hearing. Gray remained behind, awaiting a new roommate.

end of part 1

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