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Fight Club

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

William Vance Turner told them he didn't do it. They didn't believe him, of course. Three years ago, anything a prisoner had to say about what was going on inside the special housing unit (SHU) of the federal penitentiary at Florence would have been dismissed by authorities as pretty damned unbelievable.

On August 8, 1996, Turner, a 45-year-old convicted robber, had an altercation with four corrections officers in his cell at the high-security pen, part of the four-prison federal complex in Fremont County. The guards reported that Turner had stabbed two of them with a sharpened toothbrush and had to be physically restrained. The officers' wounds were then photographed and treated, while a bruised and bloodied Turner was charged with assault and moved to a small holding cell.

Over the next four days, Turner, stripped to his boxers and shackled hand and foot, was visited frequently by medical staff, who were required to check on his condition and document his treatment with a video camera. Unable to shower or even defecate without assistance, Turner pleaded to be taken to an infirmary so that his aching ribs could be taped and X-rayed. He whimpered that he was innocent. And he said he was afraid that the officers who'd beaten and kicked him would be calling on him again soon.

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.

"They're going to jump on me and kill me," he said. "Look at me, man. I didn't stab nobody. I'll take a polygraph on it, man. I have never stabbed anybody in my entire time in this system."

"So you're saying these officers stabbed themselves?" asked one skeptical staffer.

On the grainy videotape taken of the discussion, Turner seems to be on the verge of telling the employee that that was exactly what happened. But then he slowly shakes his head. "I don't want to get myself in no kind of trouble," he replies, his voice shaking. "I don't want to go against those officers no more."

Truth is a scarce commodity in the bowels of a penitentiary, but subsequent events have made Turner's improbable story seem increasingly, chillingly plausible. Last year, criminal charges against Turner for the stabbings, which could have added another ten years to his sentence, were abruptly dropped. Six months ago, one of the guards involved in the incident pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the rights of prisoners, a conspiracy that involved singling out "problem" inmates for brutal attacks and fabricating evidence -- including self-inflicted injuries -- to make it appear that the guards were acting in self-defense. And last month, Turner filed suit against thirteen current and former employees of USP Florence, seeking damages for malicious prosecution as well as for the beating he suffered.

The dramatic turnabout in Turner's case is the result of a two-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into criminal misconduct at the Florence prison. The probe focuses on a group of a dozen guards known as the Cowboys, a rogue element that allegedly dispensed its own brand of justice for more than eighteen months -- and threatened any inmates or fellow officers who dared to complain about it.

How many inmates were attacked by the Cowboys or how many staffers were aware of the group's activities is unknown. Both Mark Blumberg, the Washington, D.C.-based prosecutor for the Justice Department's civil-rights division who is heading the effort, and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver declined to comment on details of the ongoing investigation. But court records and inmate accounts provide glimpses of a prison operation in which men already in handcuffs were beaten regularly and the beatings just as regularly covered up.

The key witness in the government's case is David Armstrong, a former lieutenant at the Florence prison and admitted member of the Cowboys. Armstrong was transferred from the prison a few months after the Turner fracas and was subsequently questioned about possible misconduct while employed at another U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility. Last July he entered into a plea agreement in Denver's federal court, acknowledging that he and other Cowboys engaged in "retaliatory beatings against disruptive or 'problem' inmates...[and] routinely joked, bragged and related tales of their abuse of inmates to each other."

Armstrong, who faces up to ten years in prison but is cooperating with investigators, no longer lives in Colorado. His attorney, Robert Berger, declined to comment on the case. But in his plea agreement, Armstrong states that the Cowboys were a secret wrecking squad formed early in 1995 out of staff frustration with perceived lenient treatment of SHU inmates who assaulted guards. The group's solution was to intimidate, harass and physically punish the "problem" inmates by punching and kicking them in the body and head -- and then file false reports that made the inmates appear to be the aggressors.

"Officers who expressed disapproval of the Cowboys' actions...were often threatened with physical harm," Armstrong's agreement states. "Officers who did not support them could be at risk of harm from an attack by an inmate because the Cowboys would delay or avoid providing help."

Turner hadn't been at the prison long enough to be known as a problem inmate when he was attacked in 1996, but by that time, the Cowboys' agenda had apparently expanded. A jailhouse lawyer, Turner had been in the SHU only a week when he asked an officer named Roderick Schultz for a towel. According to Schultz's report, Turner grabbed his wrist when he attempted to place a towel through the slot in the prisoner's door and proceeded to stab him repeatedly with a sharpened toothbrush. The 150-pound prisoner wouldn't release him, Schultz reported, and had to be subdued by Armstrong and two other officers, James Bond and Michael LaVallee, who arrived to offer assistance.

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."

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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