Fight Club

The Cowboys set up federal prisoners for beatings -- and blamed it all on the inmates.

The officers' reports on the incident are couched in strikingly similar language. For example, both Armstrong and Schultz describe how Turner "began to viscously [sic] stab" Schultz while "fanatically" screaming. In addition, the photo documentation of the superficial stab wounds to Schultz's arm and LaVallee's chest is remarkably poor. But it was Turner's word against that of four guards, and the case was soon made even stronger by Turner's videotaped statement. After four days of sitting in his own excrement in an isolation cell and receiving minimal medical attention, Turner says he decided to confess to a crime he didn't commit in the hope of receiving better treatment.

"I guess I blew up at Schultz," he told a guard through his cell door. "It was my fault. If you could relay that to the captain...also, I've got two lawsuits. Tell him that I'm willing to tear them up. I don't even want to deal with that shit."

But the case against Turner began to melt under the harsh light of a federal courtroom. Turner's court-appointed attorney, Scott Baroway, obtained forensic reports that suggested that the toothbrush in question hadn't been used to stab anyone and that the blood traces in the cell were inconsistent with the officers' accounts of the assault. "There was blood spatter down the cell door and a side wall," Baroway says. "It looked more like somebody flicked it there, rather than what you'd see from a stab wound."

Beat down: William Vance Turner after his brutal encounter with four prison guards.
Beat down: William Vance Turner after his brutal encounter with four prison guards.

Before the case ever got to trial (but not before thousands of public dollars had been spent prosecuting and defending Turner), Baroway learned of the Cowboys investigation, and the government soon dismissed the charges. Yet Turner's ordeal is hardly over; like several other inmates who say they were assaulted and set up for bogus charges, Turner was classified as a security risk and shipped from USP Florence to the dreaded USP Administrative Maximum next door, the highest-security federal prison in the country. Three years later, he's still there.

The U.S. Attorney's Office recently offered to settle a claim for property damage that Turner had filed for $230. All Turner had to do was waive any claims against the United States of America concerning the incident, "including any future claim for wrongful death." Turner refused the offer.

"You've got a guy that was assaulted," Baroway says. "That happens. But they took it to the next step and charged him federally with stabbing a guard. That's another ten years in prison on top of what he's already doing, and it's damn near undefendable. If a guard says you stabbed him, you lose. Who is a jury going to believe? As far as I'm concerned, the malicious prosecution is even more heinous than the assault."

Turner's civil suit names several prison administrators, including former acting warden Joel Knowles (now retired), as possible conspirators in his case. Baroway says he doesn't know what role other individuals may have played in the inmate beatings, but he believes that the scheme may have had some degree of official sanction. The Cowboys were apparently able to operate as a unit within the SHU for an extended period of time, he notes, despite a BOP policy that requires frequent shift rotations.

In a written statement to Westword, the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the allegation but cited the agency's "zero-tolerance policy" toward inmate abuse: "As a result of this investigation, BOP policies have not changed; our procedures remain in line with our mission to operate safe, secure and humane correctional institutions."

Although he pleaded guilty months ago, Armstrong's sentencing hearing has been repeatedly delayed because of his continuing cooperation in the investigation. Other indictments are expected in the case, but the process may take several more months. In the meantime, several suspected Cowboys continue to work at USP Florence or other prisons in the federal system.

Last year another former guard at USP Florence, Steven Mills, was convicted of beating an inmate and sentenced to 33 months in prison. Testimony indicated that Mills had erased a videotape of the incident that showed him stomping on the prisoner's head "like he was bouncing on a trampoline." Mills claimed he was "covering" for another employee and blamed the Cowboys for the assault.

Mills is now a guest of a federal prison camp in North Carolina, where, if he's lucky, he might encounter corrections officers as dedicated to their jobs as he was.

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