Longform

Cowboy Justice

Page 7 of 9

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.

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