Cowboy Justice

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

The seven men sat around the defense table Tuesday afternoon, murmuring quietly to each other and exchanging hearty good-luck handshakes with their attorneys. The tension was thick, anticipation high.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the jurors filed into U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel's courtroom. The seven men, now deathly silent, tried to read their faces. The jurors did not look at them.

No easy matter, deciding whether to put someone behind bars. Particularly in this case. The seven defendants -- Mike LaVallee, Rod Schultz, Robert Verbickas, David Pruyne, Ken Shatto, James Bond and Brent Gall -- know all about prison and the terrible things that can happen inside.

Mark Andresen
Split decision: Robert Verbickas was found guilty of 
beating inmates.
Mark Manger
Split decision: Robert Verbickas was found guilty of beating inmates.
Mike LaVallee was found guilty of beating inmates.
Mark Manger
Mike LaVallee was found guilty of beating inmates.
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Mark Manger
David Pruyne was acquitted.
Rod Schultz
Mark Manger
Rod Schultz
Reality check: Inmate William Turner was taken to a 
holding cell after his encounter with four SHU officers, 
including Rod Schultz, who claimed Turner stabbed 
him.
Reality check: Inmate William Turner was taken to a holding cell after his encounter with four SHU officers, including Rod Schultz, who claimed Turner stabbed him.
Semper fi: Several of the acquitted officers are military 
veterans, including ex-Marine Ken Shatto, a platoon 
sergeant during the Gulf War.
Mark Manger
Semper fi: Several of the acquitted officers are military veterans, including ex-Marine Ken Shatto, a platoon sergeant during the Gulf War.

They used to work there.

Known collectively as the Cowboys, the group was accused of being part of a sprawling conspiracy among rogue corrections officers to systematically beat and abuse inmates at the high-security federal penitentiary outside Florence, Colorado. Most of the incidents occurred inside the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, a prison within a prison, where gung-ho guards squared off against some of the most disruptive, defiant prisoners in the entire federal system.

According to prosecutors, the Cowboys selected inmates who "needed to be taught a lesson" and proceeded to punch, kick, choke and otherwise punish them. They also fabricated evidence, including self-inflicted injuries, to make it appear that they were acting in self-defense.

The conspiracy unfolded over thirty months. Uncovering it took much longer: a five-year investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. A grand jury indictment listing 55 overt acts of beating, torture, intimidation, deception and threats. A nine-week trial featuring more than sixty witnesses. And two weeks of jury deliberation in Denver's federal courthouse -- longer than the juries took in the Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols trials, longer than the process for any federal jury in Colorado in recent memory.

The glacial pace of the deliberations had frayed nerves on both sides of the courtroom and led to speculation about a possible hung jury. But by Monday, the jury had reached a decision on five of the seven defendants. Over protests from defense lawyers, Judge Daniel ordered that the verdicts be placed in sealed envelopes, so that even he wouldn't know what they contained, then sent the jurors back to resume their work.

As it turned out, the panel had been struggling with the conspiracy charges -- a circumstance that became apparent the following day, when the jurors brought in a remarkably split decision. LaVallee and Schultz, guilty of conspiracy and one specific beating of an inmate. Verbickas, not guilty of conspiracy but guilty of one specific beating of an inmate. Shatto, Gall, Bond, Pruyne -- not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.

Mothers wept. Beefy men hugged each other and slapped their lawyers on the back. Outside the courtroom, Rod Schultz tried to make sense of it all. All along, he and his co-defendants had denied any wrongdoing. Now four of them were going home, and he and two others were going to prison for up to ten years.

"If I'd done the things they said I did, I would be dead by now," Schultz said, shaking his head. "And do you think things are any better now down at Florence? Things are getting worse, and this is just going to make the inmates more bold. This is the kind of thing that can cause a moment of hesitation by staff, and that can cost lives."

A soft-spoken, seemingly mild-mannered former Army MP, Schultz had been portrayed by the government as one of the principals in the Cowboys conspiracy. In the courtroom, defense lawyers were making a strenuous plea to Judge Daniel to release him and the other convicted defendants on bond pending sentencing, arguing that the former corrections officers would be "subject to violence" by other inmates if sent to a federal prison -- an ironic argument, at best, given the charges. But Schultz seemed unconcerned.

"I was a soldier for ten years," he said. "I've lived in worse places than where they're sending me."

The jury clearly didn't buy much of the government's case. Yet even while rejecting the charges against most of the Cowboys, two jurors felt compelled to send a note to Judge Daniel stating their belief that "the environment at USP Florence at the time...was conducive to overall abusive conduct."

There's no question that something went badly haywire in the Florence SHU, something that made dedicated, highly regarded corrections officers act like the criminals they were supposed to supervise. The government's key witnesses were ex-guards who'd also worked in the SHU and now admitted to beating prisoners and covering it up.

"I was so used to not telling the truth," said David Armstrong, once one of the most prominent Cowboys and now their chief accuser. "That's just the way it was."

The defense attorneys insisted that Armstrong was still lying. "This case is not about unfortunate, starving inmates and sadistic prison guards," countered Tom Hammond, LaVallee's lawyer. "The truth about USP Florence is not about the officers. It's about the inmates."

But the Cowboys trial demonstrated that the truth about USP Florence, if it could be discerned at all, was about officers as well as inmates, the criminals and their keepers. The problem was telling them apart.

After dismissing the jury, Judge Daniel ordered that the three convicted defendants be taken into custody. "The Court is concerned about their safety," he noted, assuring defense lawyers that at this point, they wouldn't be sent to a federal prison -- where, presumably, they might be beaten.

Schultz took off his coat and tie and prepared himself to be shackled.


"Among themselves, the guards are human. Among themselves, the prisoners are human. Yet between these two, the relationship is not human. It is animal." -- Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast


Why did it start? How did the relationship between guards and inmates in the Special Housing Unit at USP Florence become a real-life version of The Itchy and Scratchy Show?

To strike a man in a fit of rage is one thing. But to join with others in beating a man entrusted to your care is something else. To coolly select one who is in need of "the treatment," and then to pummel him in the ribs or kidneys; to pick up a handcuffed prisoner and drop him head first on the floor of his cell; to kick him in the crotch, knead his testicles or stomp on his neck when he is already on the ground -- that requires a professional commitment to violence, a conviction that brutality is an essential part of your job.

Of course, the job can't be performed properly without some form of official sanction -- without the blessing of supervisors, perhaps, or at least an understanding that the boss is willing to look the other way. But it also requires a core of dedicated, motivated employees. How did they get that way?

Despite the dozens of witnesses, the hundreds of exhibits and thousands of pages of documents presented at the Cowboys trial, the question of motive was scarcely addressed. The prosecutors tried to stay away from it entirely, arguing that no amount of provocation could justify the beatings. Motive was irrelevant, they told the jury; all they had to do was prove that the seven officers conspired to engage in "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain and suffering under color of law," in violation of the prisoners' constitutional rights.

"The government is not required to offer a motive," said prosecutor Richard McNally of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "We can't look in their hearts."

The defense attorneys weren't eager to go down that road, either. They promised the jurors "a tour of hell," then proceeded to numb them with U.S. Bureau of Prisons manuals and use-of-force procedures, as well as statistics on inmate violence and staff shortages, all to suggest that the guards in the dock had done no more than what was necessary to subdue out-of-control prisoners.

Brian Holland, for example, contended that his client, Robert Verbickas, was merely going by the book, taking "proactive efforts to prevent inmate disturbances" when he slammed cuffed inmate Keith Overstreet to the ground during an escort down a hallway. Verbickas claimed that Overstreet had tried to pull away from him. But Armstrong, the government's star witness, testified that Overstreet didn't try to pull away, that the takedown was one more shot at a man in chains after Armstrong and Verbickas had already beaten him in his cell. The jury found Verbickas not guilty in the incident.

When Mike LaVallee, the reputed leader of the posse, took the stand in his own defense, he brought with him a box of shanks -- homemade knives confiscated from inmates at USP Florence. It was tantamount to saying, See, any day one of us could die in there. But the box explained nothing. It couldn't explain the lies and subterfuges, the faked injuries and bogus memos, the elaborate arrangements the Cowboys had worked out among themselves for taking care of business in the SHU.

And it couldn't begin to explain a man like Mike LaVallee. LaVallee testified that he did nothing wrong, yet the government's witnesses portrayed him as a kind of high priest of the SHU's sacred mysteries, the man who most thoroughly embraced the Cowboy motto: "Lie till you die." No matter what official investigations might ensue, "Stick to your memo," he counseled one nervous colleague. "What starts in the SHU stays in the SHU," he allegedly told another.

LaVallee didn't always follow his own advice. Witnesses testified that he boasted in bars of the beatings and angrily confronted officers he didn't think were sufficiently loyal. A schoolteacher who visited his home said he told her he'd beaten an inmate so badly that day that he thought he'd killed him; the man started to convulse, but the beating continued.

These were rare glimpses, though, into a hidden world. Everyone understood that what happened in the SHU had to stay there. Cops and soldiers have similar sayings about what happens on the street or on patrol, and the Cowboys knew that ethic well; six of the seven indicted guards are ex-military. Several of them had gone through the BOP's training academy together in 1993, an initiation into the seal of silence and loyalty they would share.

They were still relatively young, inexperienced corrections officers when they arrived at USP Florence a few months later -- a new prison that was already home to more than a thousand high-security inmates, close to double the number it was designed for.


Penitentiaries such as USP Florence are the dumping ground of the federal system, reserved for the most violent, escape-prone or long-term problem prisoners. Officially, "the worst of the worst," including convicted terrorists and gang leaders, are sent to the Florence supermax, the highest-security prison in the country, across the road from the USP. But any corrections officer will tell you that the USP is a far more dangerous assignment.

In the supermax, prisoners are rarely out of their cells, and the staff-to-inmate ratio is high. At USP Florence, depending on the shift, guards are outnumbered as much as ten to one by prisoners, many of whom belong to the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the DC Blacks or one of forty other prison gangs. There were eight inmate homicides in the prison's first seven years of operation and close to one hundred inmate-on-inmate assaults in one seventeen-month period.

Prisoners who attack other prisoners or guards are removed from general population and sent to the Special Housing Unit -- along with the deranged, the gangbangers and the protective-custody cases. The SHU at the Florence pen soon became so crowded that double-bunking was the norm. Far from being a deterrent to violence, the segregation unit emerged as the most dangerous place in the prison, for inmates and guards alike.

By early 1995, the situation had reached a boiling point. An influx of hard-core gang members from other prisons had produced a rash of assaults on staff and filled up the SHU. The administration's solution to bad behavior was simple: loss of privileges, more time in the SHU. This was little comfort to the guards who worked in the SHU, dealing daily with men who cursed them, spat on them, shit-bombed them or ejaculated through their cell's food-slot door. What could be done to control hard cases and nutjobs who had so little left to lose?

According to prosecutors, it was around this time that Mike LaVallee told other officers he'd been given a "green light" by Captain Terry Hines, overlord of the SHU, to take care of business. Hines was a mentor to the young Cowboys, a veteran officer who told jaw-dropping stories about the good old days at USP Marion, the Illinois pen that had replaced Alcatraz as the toughest joint in the system until the Florence supermax opened in 1994.

One witness would later recall Hines bragging about his boys at Marion, who were sharp enough to drag inmates into an elevator, away from any cameras, in order to administer correction. "You haven't done anything until you've been suspended one time," Hines allegedly told his green troops at Florence.

Hines, who left Florence in 1996 and became an associate warden at a prison in Pennsylvania, was never charged in the investigation. He appeared at the Cowboys trial as a defense witness, sparring with prosecutors and denying the "green light" conversation or any knowledge of officer misconduct. But Armstrong claimed to have had a similar conversation with Hines about doing what had to be done.

Like a lot of officers in the SHU, Armstrong was disgusted by the administration's lack of backbone in dealing with mouthy, belligerent prisoners. In 1995 he was 29 years old, around the same age as most of the other Cowboys, and not inclined to take crap from lowlifes. He became an enthusiastic participant in more than a dozen beatings of prisoners -- too many, he told the jury, to remember them all.

Armstrong beat inmate Kevin Gilbeaux -- with the assistance of barrel-chested guard David Pruyne, he says, who packed a mean two-handed punch. (It was Pruyne who supposedly gave the group its nickname, boasting to inmates that the guards had their own gang, the Cowboys; he was acquitted of the Gilbeaux beating.) Armstrong also brought inmate Felton Wiggins into the SHU, then joined in a mass thumping of him with a group of fellow Cowboys -- including, he says, Brent Gall, Ken Shatto and Rod Schultz.

At trial, there was considerable dispute over whether Gall was present for the Wiggins episode, or whether it even happened the way Armstrong described. But one officer was so disturbed by the whole business that he vowed never to do another prisoner escort with Armstrong.

The preferred method of instruction involved punches and kicks to the chest and abdomen, to minimize bruising, but it didn't always work that way. Heads were slammed into walls, bodies hurled to the floor. The injuries could always be explained, as long as everyone kept his story straight and stuck to his memos -- which usually reported a justifiable use of force on an inmate who was combative, self-mutilating or just plain crazy.

Of course, not every officer in the SHU was involved. But no one who worked with the Cowboys reported the beatings, not for years. Loyalty may have played a part, or maybe it was because, as prosecution witnesses suggested, the Cowboys had no more affection for snitches than the inmates; they might be slow to respond to a colleague's body alarm if he or she was telling tales out of school.

Yet the silence was based on more than fear. In January 1996, a 25-year-old officer named Charlotte Gutierrez came upon LaVallee working his magic in the cell of inmate Ronnie Beverly. According to Gutierrez, LaVallee was punching Beverly in the torso while he was lying cuffed on the floor. LaVallee told her to leave. Gutierrez, who'd just started working in the SHU, responded by stepping on Beverly's head.

"I wanted to be part of the group," she told the jury. "I wanted the respect of the other officers, except for the weak and scared ones."

Before long, Gutierrez was kicking inmates in the groin and squeezing their testicles. Schultz congratulated her, she said, and LaVallee showed her how not to leave marks.

At first the treatment was reserved for the most repellent inmates, men like Howard Lane, a lifer who'd killed another prisoner and threatened staff. Gutierrez described him as a stalker and compulsive masturbator who was known for following female officers around and writing them disgusting letters. He had two penises tattooed on his chest, with shooting stars surrounding them.

After one of Lane's episodes of sexual misbehavior, Captain Hines summoned Verbickas and Officer Dennis Britt. Britt remembered Hines's order: "Take this piece of shit down to the SHU and give him the treatment."

Once in the unit, Britt testified, Verbickas picked up the handcuffed Lane and dropped him chin first on the ground. Gutierrez kicked him in the ribs. Afterward, a lieutenant looked in on the messy scene and told Gutierrez, "Fix this."

So Gutierrez cleaned up the blood. Then she slapped her shins repeatedly to raise red spots that would photograph nicely -- supporting evidence for the official reports, which stated that Lane had kicked Gutierrez and sustained injuries by hurling himself into objects in his cell.

But it wasn't just deviants like Lane who needed to be taught a lesson. Inmates who kicked cell doors, inmates who made vague threats about lawsuits or insulted an officer's family -- whatever the problem, beatings were the solution. One officer said that when he called Schultz for some advice on how to deal with an unruly inmate in his own unit, Schultz's answer was unequivocal: "Take him down to the holding cell and beat him." On another occasion, Schultz allegedly declared that an officer who was suspected of snitching "should be taken out to the parking lot and beaten."

In time, the lessons doled out to their captive pupils became more elaborate, the purpose more obscure. What end was served, after all, by roughing up inmate Pedro Castillo, a notorious self-mutilator? What pedagogical aim could there be in torturing a prone, cuffed, mentally ill prisoner named Ellis Lard? Yet, according to one officer, LaVallee stomped on Lard's neck while Verbickas soccer-kicked him in the ribs.

(The jury acquitted LaVallee and Verbickas of beating Lard.)

Perhaps the most bitter lesson of all was prepared for William Turner. It's not clear how Turner, a slight, scrawny bank robber, was selected as a candidate for the treatment; he'd been in the SHU only eight days when he got the stuffing knocked out of him in the summer of 1996. Staff memos at the time refer to various threats and rants Turner supposedly uttered in the days leading up to the altercation, claiming to be "running shit in segregation" and having a pipeline to Johnnie Cochran. But prosecutors say the memos can't be trusted, that they may have been faked to make the subsequent assault more plausible.

On the third day, guards put a jumbo-sized prisoner into Turner's cell. Turner, who claimed to be a protective-custody case, protested. He got the worst of the ensuing fight with his cellie, who was soon removed.

On the eighth day, Schultz stuck his arm into the food slot in Turner's cell, ostensibly to hand him a towel. Schultz cried out that Turner had grabbed him by the wrist and was stabbing his arm. Officers Armstrong, LaVallee and James Bond responded. Turner was slapped, kicked, punched, put in a chokehold and otherwise neutralized. Shackled hand and foot, he was moved to a holding cell and charged with assaulting Schultz and Armstrong.

Stabbing a corrections officer can add another ten years to an inmate's sentence. But the entire incident was a fraud, Armstrong testified. The guards had decided in advance to pay Turner a visit, with the aim of nailing him on charges that would keep him in 23-hour lockdown for years. Schultz had sharpened a toothbrush in an office, Armstrong said, stabbed himself in the arm, then sprinkled blood in Turner's cell after the beating.

Videotapes of Turner in the holding cell, taken to document his medical treatment, show a frail, whimpering wreck who can hardly stand or even defecate without assistance. He complains of severe pain in his ribs, protests his innocence, frets that the men who did this aren't finished with him.

"They're going to jump on me and kill me," he tells one skeptical staff member. "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."

Nobody pays too much attention to what inmate Turner has to say. After four days of sitting in his own excrement and receiving minimal medical attention, his moaning stops. He offers a contrite apology to a guard, clearly eager to better his situation. Here he is, facing another ten years in prison -- and calmly consenting to the frame. Like Winston Smith in 1984, who appeases his keepers by acknowledging that two plus two equals five, he seems willing to confess to anything.

"I guess I blew up at Schultz," he mutters. "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."

Turner learned his lesson well. What was real was not his aching ribs, but what the guards said was real. Nobody would ever believe anything different, especially if it came from the likes of William Turner.

So it came to pass: What started in the SHU stayed in the SHU.


Except it didn't.

One of the more troubling questions to emerge from the Cowboys trial is how an alleged conspiracy of such magnitude, involving more than a dozen officers and spanning two and a half years, could go undetected for so long. So many crimes, so many constitutional violations committed by federal employees inside a high-security federal institution -- wasn't anybody paying any attention?

Prosecutors say the isolated nature of the SHU helped to conceal what was going on. Captain Hines had a great deal of control over which officers were assigned to the SHU, and those officers controlled access to the unit. The inmates were locked away from the world, their injuries dutifully explained away in memos and minimized by medical staff who were willing to cover for the officers. "The SHU was the perfect place to beat inmates," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mydans said.

Nonsense, responded defense lawyers, who pointed out that there was an endless parade of people through the SHU: wardens, associate wardens, captains and lieutenants, food-service personnel, physicians' assistants. At the end of his closing argument, Tom Hammond, LaVallee's attorney, thumped the lectern repeatedly, ridiculing the notion that other staff could be kept waiting, "knocking at the door" of the SHU until the Cowboys were through beating someone. It was absurd to believe that so many beatings could occur and nobody outside the unit would know, he argued.

Yet there is reason to believe that many people outside the SHU did know about the beatings. They just didn't do anything about it. They didn't take the information seriously, they didn't care, or they were scared.

As early as 1995, Chris Kester, a representative of the guards' union who worked in the SHU, had gone to warden Joel Knowles about the injured inmates he saw when he arrived for his shift. Knowles discounted the stories, though, and Kester's subsequent efforts to go up the ladder -- meetings with top-ranking BOP officials, calls for a congressional investigation -- led nowhere. (According to Schultz, Kester was trying to "bring down" officers who challenged his leadership.)

In fact, the most tangible result of Kester's efforts was the growing rank-and-file hostility toward union reps who failed to support their brother officers. After a shakeup in leadership of the guards' local, the union began taking a more sympathetic position concerning the Cowboys, regarding them as fall guys targeted by ambitious Department of Justice lawyers ("The Cowboy Way," November 23, 2000). The DOJ routinely defends high-ranking prison officials in prisoner lawsuits, union officials noted, while leaving lowly line officers to hire their own attorneys.

Plenty of inmates complained, too, but they fared worse than Kester. After all, inmates always complain, and nobody pays them any mind. Called to the stand to account for his findings that inmates had consistently assaulted staff in the SHU, not the other way around, a disciplinary hearing officer explained that in 12,000 hearings, he'd never taken the word of an inmate over that of a guard without persuasive supporting evidence. But the supporting evidence -- the memos, the photos of officer injuries, the medical reports -- was invariably on the guards' side.

So when the complaints did produce an investigation, either by the BOP's own snoops or by the FBI, it was a perfunctory effort that couldn't pierce the wall of paperwork the Cowboys had erected around their activities. The investigators would talk to the guards and read the documents. Then they'd dismiss what the inmates said as -- well, the kind of thing inmates say. What was real was what was on paper.

If they'd looked closely at the paperwork, they might have detected some problems. They might have noticed, for instance, that the guards seemed to have collaborated on their reports of the Turner incident, right down to the same misspellings in identical accounts of how Turner "began to viscously [sic] stab" Schultz while "fanatically" screaming.

But they had no reason to be suspicious. In a sense, they were unwitting accomplices in the conspiracy themselves, part of the same system, a system that brutalized prisoners and corrections officers alike and never attached much value to either group. All they had to go on were inmate complaints, and everybody knew that inmates were liars.

"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.

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.

"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."

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.

In his ruling on Rollins's claims, Judge Richard Matsch wrote that he'd found parts of Rollins's story to be "not credible," but there were serious problems with the guards' accounts, too. In fact, a lot of what the officers had to say about how Rollins got his clock cleaned simply couldn't be believed, Matsch decided, and the BOP's own investigations into the incident were "lethargic and poorly documented." Matsch ended up awarding Rollins $5,000 for his trouble, plus attorneys' fees.

Matsch dismissed Rollins's claims against regional and national BOP officials, ruling that they had no involvement in the matter. In fact, the only person on the administrative side of USP Florence to face criminal charges over the troubles there is Christine Auchenbach, the former public information officer who used to field reporters' questions about the Cowboys investigation. A few weeks ago, Auchenbach was sentenced to five years of probation for another kind of abuse of power: having sex with two inmates.

Understandably, the absence of any commanders' names from the Cowboy indictment was a sore point among the defendants. "Why isn't Hines at the front of the table?" asked Pruyne's attorney, Daniel Smith. "Why does this conspiracy stop where the brass starts?"

It was a damn good question. The Cowboys got indicted. Their supervisors got promoted. Every corrections officer knows that the bodies on the front line are the ones who get blamed for everything, regardless of how it goes down. Still, these seven men, men who wielded such extraordinary power over the lives of other human beings, never expected to find themselves quite so alone, so vulnerable, like...like prisoners.

Perhaps their crime was thinking they were above the law, but they weren't the only people in the Florence pen who thought that way. Their folly was believing that the people who truly had the power, the ones who'd told them to take care of business, would still be standing by them when the business failed.

For related stories please see Crime and Punishment

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