Longform

Cowboy Justice

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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.

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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