By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Former guard Duane Coleman got to go home. Embattled director Brian Gomez got a new job. And the teenage girls of Colorado's Youthful Offender System got a change of scenery -- though whether the move will help salvage the troubled program remains unclear.
Personnel changes and revamping seem to be the order of the day at YOS, the state's costly prison for adolescent felons. The innovative program has been mired in controversy ever since the Department of Corrections moved its base of operations from Denver to Pueblo in 1998. Over the past two years, several of YOS's female residents (who are outnumbered by males forty to one) have claimed to have been raped or coerced into sexual relationships with guards or male prisoners ("Prisoners of Sex," March 6). An investigation has led to the firing and prosecution of several corrections officers, as well as calls for a legislative inquiry into how the program is operated.
Two months ago, YOS director Gomez told Westword, "I feel comfortable that the situation was dealt with." But yet another investigation into alleged staff misconduct came on the heels of his remarks -- and last month, after four years at the turbulent helm of YOS, Gomez was transferred to a senior position in DOC's Division of Adult Parole and Community Corrections. His replacement is Juanita Novak, a veteran administrator of adult prisons.
Staff scandals at YOS are no longer Gomez's concern -- or that of Duane Coleman, for that matter. For months, the forty-year-old ex-drill instructor has been living with the accusation that he sexually assaulted eighteen-year-old YOS resident Darlene Sandoval in 2001. On April 10, it took a Pueblo jury just fifteen minutes to acquit him of all charges.
Coleman is one of five YOS guards who've been fired in the past eighteen months over alleged incidents of sexual misconduct with residents. Three of the five have since pleaded guilty to felony charges; a fourth was never charged. Coleman denied any wrongdoing and refused to take a plea bargain.
At his trial, both Sandoval and her former YOS roommate, Angel Castro, testified that Coleman came into their room one summer night and raped Sandoval while Castro listened in the upper bunk. But the alleged assault wasn't reported for weeks, and a subsequent DOC investigation failed to turn up any physical evidence to support the girls' accounts.
Coleman's attorney, Joe Koncilja, pointed out numerous inconsistencies in their testimony and blasted the shoddiness of the DOC's investigation. "Nobody wants to see girls get brutalized or see guards in this circumstance," he said. "The DOC had a responsibility to protect both of them, and it failed."
In his closing argument, Koncilja went further, describing Sandoval and Castro as "the sorority from hell" -- "connivers" who'd concocted their accusation against a much-hated drill instructor. (Castro, the first girl to report the sexual-misconduct allegations to authorities, also claimed to have been assaulted by another guard, Gary Neal; Neal is now serving eighteen months after pleading guilty to sexual conduct inside a prison.) The defense attorney characterized the prosecution's theory of what happened as an "amorous crime" rather than a "cold-blooded rape" -- then debunked the idea that his client could feel amorous toward Sandoval, a heavyset Hispanic girl, when there was a lighter, more attractive, supposedly more willing female resident in the next room. He also found great significance in Sandoval's admission that Coleman hadn't fondled her breasts.
"When have you heard of an amorous event where the breasts would not be involved?" Koncilja asked the jury of nine women and three men. "Does that sound logical to you? [The assault] didn't happen. And if you think maybe it did, that's not good enough."
Prosecutor Rick Mattoon shot back that Koncilja's arguments were "offensive," that "rape is rape." But he also acknowledged that his case hinged on the credibility of two convicted felons. After almost three days of testimony, it didn't take the jury long to decide that they didn't believe Castro and Sandoval.
Coleman is understandably relieved by the verdict -- and frustrated with his former employers. "This has been a very traumatic and overwhelming experience for the last two years," he says. "It has financially and emotionally almost ruined my family. It never dawned on me an allegation like that could go so far and cause so much damage."
Coleman blames past administrative decisions, such as assigning all-male staff to work the female wing, for putting both officers and residents at risk. "The staff manages the program, but they don't run it," he says. "They're vulnerable to physical attacks, false accusations -- all kinds of things."
His own case would never have gone to trial, he suggests, if the DOC had done a proper investigation rather than eagerly lumping him in with Neal and others who'd been caught behaving badly. "I thought I had all of DOC behind me, but they'd rather cut their losses," he says. "It was a rush to judgment."
Although Coleman is now clear of criminal charges, two other former residents of the program have accused him of making sexual advances toward them. Coleman says the two are just "jumping on the bandwagon," possibly with the idea of filing lawsuits against the state. "They want to see their names in the paper," he says. "There's no validity to any of those allegations."