Cowboy Justice

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

"The witnesses who are in the best position to know what happened, you didn't hear from them," Hammond told the jury. "Where were they? You keep hearing that nobody believes an inmate. Well, the only logical answer is that the government doesn't believe them, either."

Actually, during the trial, the government had former Florence inmates stacked up like poker chips at jails around the metro area, some of them shipped there from prisons thousands of miles away. Perhaps they presented so few of them because they figured that even disgraced guards made better witnesses than litigious inmates. William Turner, for example, has already collected $17,000 from the government over the attack by his cellmate and is currently suing the Cowboys and the BOP for the subsequent beating by staff that he suffered.

"Maybe they thought I was less credible because I've filed a lawsuit," says Turner, who called Westword collect from the Clear Creek County Jail, highly incensed that he hadn't been summoned to testify. "But the fact is, I'm the one who told the truth about what happened, and nobody listened."

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

The Cowboys could have brought the alleged inmate victims into court as defense witnesses, if they thought it would do them any good. As it turned out, only one of them suited their needs. Enormous Ellis Lard took the stand long enough to deny that he'd ever been beaten. But prosecutors characterized Lard as a deluded, drugged paranoid schizophrenic who believes his family has been kidnapped by the government.

"They put him on the witness stand because he was big," Mydans told the jury. "They hoped you would be scared of him. He was an exhibit."

In the end, the case may have hinged not on what the guards said or what the inmates weren't there to say, but on the telltale pieces of evidence, mostly videos and photographs, that nobody had managed to fake or destroy.

The prosecution made much of a single photograph of Turner's cell, showing drops of Schultz's blood on the floor. According to the official story, that blood had been shed before the use of force on Turner, before four brave men rushed into the cell to subdue a toothbrush-slashing maniac; yet somehow all five men, struggling in close quarters, had failed to disturb a single drop of blood.

The only reasonable explanation, Mydans suggested, was that the blood was planted there after the beating. "It's pristine," he said. "There isn't a smear, a footprint, a smudge.... It could not have happened the way they say. It did not happen."

But the jury was curiously unmoved by that photo. They found LaVallee, Schultz and Bond not guilty of beating Turner.

No defense attorney challenged Mydans's analysis. Instead, they attacked Armstrong and praised their own clients as family men, honored veterans, dedicated officers. They were good men, the attorneys insisted; Ken Shatto, for example, was an ex-Marine who'd seen combat during the Gulf War and served the BOP for more than seven years. He'd won awards and saved lives, jumped between two inmates with shanks, disarmed another who was armed with a box cutter. Like Gall and Bond, Shatto had been linked to only one specific beating, largely on the testimony of David Armstrong.

All three men were acquitted.

It would be easy to dismiss the Cowboys prosecution as an overblown affair, consuming years of investigation and troughs of public money over a few tussles in which no one was killed or even critically injured.

"Not one inmate was taken to the hospital," Hammond said. "Nobody broke a bone. It's one more example of how this case stinks."

But if the case was simply about inmate Turner's sore ribs, it never would have gone anywhere. The damage done by the Cowboys was more subtle yet more pervasive than the hurt they put on individual prisoners. Beating inmates puts other officers at risk for retaliation, prosecutors argued; it also contributes to the deadly perception, by guards and inmates alike, that the rules that apply elsewhere, the niceties of the law and the Bill of Rights and all that, don't mean squat in the SHU.

It's no coincidence that some of the most memorable murders committed by inmates at USP Florence have taken place in the SHU. In 1997, a drug smuggler strangled his cellmate and kept the corpse around for days before guards discovered the crime. In 1999, two cousins disemboweled another prisoner who was sharing a cell with them and displayed his vital organs for other prisoners in the SHU to see ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). The Cowboys had nothing to do with either crime, but such deaths raise awkward questions about the level of chaos in the SHU.

There's also evidence that the guards' practice of setting up inmates for abuse extended well beyond the Cowboys. Recently, a former SHU resident named Scott Rollins won a favorable decision in Denver's federal court for a 1996 assault that was remarkably similar to Turner's bludgeoning by his cellmate. Rollins claims he was deliberately placed in a cell with a known enemy, over his protests, then nearly killed by the other inmate. None of the officers named in Rollins's suit have ever been identified as members of the Cowboys.

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