Longform

Cowboy Justice

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.

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."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast