Cowboy Justice

They ran the toughest cellblock in the most dangerous prison in the state. It was the perfect place to beat inmates.

"These officers relied on the institutional presumption that no one believes an inmate," prosecutor Mydans told the jury. "[The guards] were instantly believed. And they were never challenged by a system that was supposed to investigate inmate complaints."

Eventually, though, they were challenged, as the evidence leaking out of the SHU became too formidable to ignore. In 1997, a Catholic priest went to the warden with some disturbing stories about inmates who claimed to have been abused in the SHU. There were reports of beatings, of prisoners being served food mixed with urine and feces, of deadly enemies being deliberately celled together for the sake of the sporting event that might follow. And there was a loose cannon roaming the BOP by the name of David Armstrong.

By that point, promotions and transfers out of the SHU had effectively put an end to the Cowboys as a working unit. Armstrong had made lieutenant, his salary raised to a magnificent $38,000 a year, but he couldn't shake his old ways. Assigned to a prison in Pennsylvania, he was soon demoted for rules violations, then transferred to a prison in New Jersey. A few months later, he was suspended for seven days for an altercation with an inmate in a holding cell.

Mark Andresen
Split decision: Robert Verbickas was found guilty of 
beating inmates.
Mark Manger
Split decision: Robert Verbickas was found guilty of beating inmates.

He returned to work in the spring of 1998 and found an FBI agent waiting for him. The agent wanted to ask him a few questions about his dealings with inmate Overstreet at USP Florence two years earlier.

Armstrong had been questioned about the Overstreet beating before. He'd stuck by his memo, denying any misconduct. But the FBI had gone back over his statements and noticed certain discrepancies. He'd been caught in a lie, the kind of lie that could lead to a perjury charge. Over the next few months, Armstrong's story began to buckle and collapse. He admitted to beating Overstreet. Then three or four other inmates. Then a dozen more.

Around the same time, the government's case against inmate Turner for stabbing Schultz was unraveling faster than a pair of Wal-Mart stretch pants. Turner had been fortunate enough to land a court-appointed attorney, Scott Baroway, who actually looked into his wild story about officers stabbing themselves and trying to pin it on him. Baroway sent an investigator into the prison to interview inmates. He obtained forensic reports on the toothbrush used in the stabbing and the blood spatter in the cell and discovered that the evidence didn't match up with Schultz's account of being attacked; for one thing, the blood trail looked like it had been "flicked" onto surfaces rather than dripped from a stab wound ("Fight Club," December 16, 1999).

The criminal case against Turner was dismissed. But if he didn't stab anyone, prosecutors wondered, what happened in that cell?

Armstrong told them. He also told them about beating Gilbeaux and Wiggins. In 1999 he entered into a plea agreement in Denver's federal court, admitting to abusing inmates and pledging his cooperation in the investigation in hopes of a lighter sentence. Four years later, he's still awaiting sentencing. Two other implicated officers, Gutierrez and Jake Geiger, soon hammered out plea bargains of their own; for her part, Gutierrez was able to get a possible twelve felony counts knocked down to one misdemeanor in exchange for her testimony against the men who'd tutored her. She, too, has yet to be sentenced.

The indictments that followed were based largely on the beatings that Armstrong, Gutierrez and Geiger claimed to have witnessed or participated in, and the three played critical roles in the trial. Much of the defense's energy was expended attacking their credibility, portraying them as "bargain hunters," "bought testimony," witnesses who'd tailored their stories to fit the government's theory of the case and earn themselves a light sentence. But their testimony was bolstered by that of other officers -- some promised immunity, some not -- who admitted to helping cover up the beatings. A shamefaced guard named Kevin Mitchell said he wished he'd "had the guts to do the right thing" and report the mess years ago.

The long journey to the courtroom hadn't been an easy one for Armstrong, who'd been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. At the eleventh hour, prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to postpone the trial, citing his weakened condition. No longer the swaggering tough guy who didn't take crap from anyone, he was a specter on the stand, pale and weak, with an oxygen tube running to his nose. The cancer had lodged a tumor in his throat, constricting his speech and making it difficult to breathe. The grueling hours of questioning sent him to the hospital and delayed the trial for several days until he could return. Yet he still managed to croak out a damning tale of beatings and lies, more of both than a man could be expected to keep straight.

Prosecutor McNally described Armstrong as a man confronting his own mortality. "In this prosecution, there are no innocent bystanders," he said. "There's no other way. People involved in the conspiracy had to tell you about the conspiracy. These people, by necessity, are criminals."

The defense suggested Armstrong had embellished his story over the years, trying to purchase as much freedom as he could for whatever time he had left. And they pointed out the curious absence of inmates from the witness stand. Of the sixteen prisoners the indictment had identified as victims of the Cowboys, the government called only two to testify.

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