The Killing Floor

In Colorado's highest-security prison, two inmates beat Michael Garcia to death while a crowd of corrections officers watched. Why didn't anyone stop it?

"Inmate Estrada was jerking his own body around to violently twist Garcia's neck and head, and squeezing tightly," one lieutenant wrote in her report of the incident. "During this same time inmate Clark...was kicking and hitting inmate Garcia's head, face and body repeatedly. I slapped the dayhall window repeatedly a few times to hopefully get [their] attention. Estrada and Clark looked at us but continued.

"Inmate Garcia's face looked unidentifiable and very swollen...blood was all over Garcia's face and clothes. Even though Garcia looked limp, inmate Estrada continued to choke and swing Garcia around by Garcia's neck, also inmate Clark continued to kick Garcia's face and head. Finally inmate Estrada threw inmate Garcia to the floor. Garcia twitched his hand...inmate Estrada and inmate Clark kicked Garcia a few more times, then turned to each other, high-fived each other and finally locked up."

At this point there were still four or five inmates standing outside their cells, waiting for the doors to open so they could obey the order to lock up. But it wasn't until Estrada and Clark had returned to their cells that the shift commander determined the situation was safe enough for his team of more than a dozen officers to enter the dayhall. They scooped what was left of Michael Garcia off the floor and secured the crime scene.

The DOC's response to Garcia's death was swift and strange. Clark and Estrada were stripped to boxers and T-shirts and placed in isolation cells--where, Estrada says, they slept on concrete for four nights and weren't permitted to shower or "given an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of the blood." Both were found guilty of homicide at separate administrative hearings, resulting in a six-month loss of privileges. (Clark says he didn't say a word at his hearing. Estrada says he called one witness, another prisoner, to testify that Garcia was the aggressor in the incident: "I could have called the whole pod, but it would have been repetitious.") The decision to file criminal charges rests with the Fremont County District Attorney's Office, which is still waiting for the DOC to complete its internal investigation.

Clark and Estrada could face additional time for killing Garcia. For the rest of CSP, the consequences are already beginning to be felt. Shortly after the fight, the order went out to confiscate all inmate toothbrushes in CSP. Prisoners must now clean their teeth with bristles attached to a stub too short to be fashioned into a serious weapon.

DOC spokeswoman McDonough says that the initial report that Garcia was stabbed to death was an unfortunate mistake on her part. The first information she received about the incident was sketchy, but she was told a weapon had been found at the scene. She assumed that it had been used on Garcia. She issued a correction the next day, she adds, but almost none of the press outlets that carried the original story bothered to pick it up. "There was no interest," she says.

Prisoners, of course, were outraged by the erroneous report. A stabbing can happen in the blink of an eye, but it takes time to beat a man to death. They considered it an all-too-convenient mistake, one that deflected attention from the true circumstances of Garcia's death, including the guards' failure to stop the fight.

But the dead man's mother is under no illusions about how he died. After enduring the horror of the Miyamoto case and her son's trial, then watching him vanish into the prison system for life, Lorene Garcia had to endure one final heartbreak--the return of her son's broken body, the face lacerated and pummeled almost beyond recognition.

"They're supposed to be right there watching these guys all the time because they're supposed to be the worst of the worst," she says. "When we viewed my son's body, there was so much trauma to his face. They destroyed his eyes completely. I mean, come on--how long were these guys able to go on beating him?"

The answer to Lorene Garcia's question could be found in the video recording of the fight made by a DOC surveillance camera. But the DOC has refused a public-records request by Westword to view the tape, on the grounds that its release "would be contrary to the public interest."

The department may have several reasons for keeping the tape under wraps, including possible embarrassment about what it doesn't show. The DOC's own investigation of the incident indicates that the CSP control-center staff failed to follow an order to "lock on" the surveillance camera on the fight, missing crucial minutes of the struggle--and failing to capture scenes that may have bolstered Clark's and Estrada's claims of self-defense.

Even if the entire event had been caught on tape, there would still be many unanswered questions about Garcia's death. A tape can't show what Estrada and Clark were thinking as they beat Garcia, looked through the glass at the corrections officers, then went about their business. It can't tell you what thoughts passed through the officers' minds, either--better him than us?--as they watched and waited for it to be over.

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