This weekend marks a grim anniversary in the Autobee household. It was twelve years ago -- October 18, 2002 -- that Eric Autobee, a 23-year-old correctional officer, was murdered in the kitchen of the Limon Correctional Facility. His killer, Edward Montour, was a mentally ill inmate who was off his meds, trying to get a cell move after being denounced as a snitch, and may have been wrongfully convicted of the crime for which he was already serving a life sentence: inflicting fatal injuries on his infant daughter.
Autobee's death was the first inmate killing of an officer in the Colorado Department of Corrections in 73 years. But not the last, unfortunately. In 2012, Mary Rickard, a sergeant at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, was fatally attacked by a convicted child rapist. Last year, the DOC's reform-minded chief, Tom Clements, was gunned down in his home by parole absconder Evan Ebel, who also killed Nathan Leon to obtain a pizza delivery uniform. All those fatalities are the reason Eric Autobee's parents, Lola and Bob, will be picketing outside DOC headquarters in Colorado Springs on Friday, calling for changes in the way the prison system operates.
"For twelve years, I've been trying to work with them to avoid these situations," says Bob Autobee. "The DOC doesn't want to know what's going on because then they'll have to address it."
Both the Autobee and Rickard homicides involved disturbed inmates gaining access to kitchen implements -- a knife, a heavy soup ladle -- that can instantly become lethal weapons. But Bob Autobee says such security lapses are only the most obvious problems in a prison system that's become increasingly less safe for staff and inmates alike because of inadequate mental health programs, sloppy management and "too many maximum security inmates in medium security facilities that are understaffed."
Autobee met with Clements last year to express his concern about staff welfare and isolating the most dangerous inmates. Clements had embarked on an ambitious effort to reduce the use of solitary confinement and better prepare inmates for release. "I told Mr. Clements that we are in jeopardy outside of the prisons," Autobee recalls. "This was about three weeks before he was murdered."
The Autobees would like to see the DOC hire an outside contractor to conduct focus groups with staff, so that they could air security and management concerns without fear of retaliation from superiors. Bob says that idea has been rejected by Clements' successor, Rick Raemisch -- which is what prompted his decision to protest outside DOC HQ.
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"He pretty much wrote us off," he says of Raemisch. "He may be able to not listen to his staff, but he's not going to be able to ignore me. It's on."
As prosecutors in the Eighteenth Judicial District have discovered, Autobee is a difficult man to ignore. Initially supportive of pursuing the death penalty against Edward Montour, the man who killed his son, Autobee became disillusioned with the many delays in the process and highly critical of the government's insistence on executing Montour. After meeting with Montour in a restorative justice session, Autobee began protesting the death penalty outside the Douglas County courthouse and fighting for his right to address the jury about Montour's punishment. On the second day of Montour's retrial, prosecutors abruptly hammered out a plea agreement that took the death penalty off the table; instead, Montour was sentenced to life without parole for Eric Autobee's murder.
Autobee's parents welcomed the resolution of the long-running case. But Bob, a former DOC employee himself, says he can't rest easy with the way the system is operating. "Things are worse now than when my son was killed," he says. "We're getting people killed. I do not trust the DOC administration."