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Bob and Elisabeth Boccardi of Colorado Springs have spent the past two decades trying to rescue their son Richard. When the boy was three, that meant seeking professional treatment for his hyperactivity. When he was an adolescent, it meant going to bat for him when he was expelled from one school after another. When he was a teenager, it meant bailing him out of jail.

His middle-class parents--Bob is a retired, decorated Army officer and Elisabeth works in a beauty salon--refused to play the savior only once, pressing charges in 1991 when, at age twenty, Richard stole his father's ATM card and cleaned out the family bank account. Richard got a five-year hitch in the state prison for theft, a sentence the Boccardis say they intended as a learning experience that would help their son understand there were consequences to his actions.

The experience, however, didn't teach him what they'd hoped. Richard Boccardi now has a swastika tattooed on his arm, and Department of Corrections officials say he is a prime suspect in a brutal prison murder that claimed the life of nineteen-year-old inmate Robert Gardner III. And, once again, the Boccardis find themselves trying to get their son out of a jam.

Gardner's cellmate at the Limon Correctional Facility, Timothy Starkey, has since confessed to committing the murder singlehandedly. But that hasn't stopped prison officials from pursuing their theory that Boccardi, who has notched up a prison record as a troublemaker, also took part.

Though Gardner was strangled to death more than a year ago, a Lincoln County deputy district attorney assigned to the case has yet to decide whether to file murder charges against Boccardi (officials at the DA's office and other law enforcement agencies say the case is still under investigation). Prison authorities, however, say it is likely Boccardi will be charged--and add that he has already been found guilty through an internal process known as an "administrative hearing." Boccardi was not represented by an attorney at that hearing, and he says he was not allowed to call any witnesses in his defense. But based on the DOC's finding of guilt, he has been denied parole on the theft charge and forced to spend the past year in a maximum-security cell.

There's more to the case than Boccardi has told his parents or the media, says Dennis Hougnon, the DOC investigator who implicated Boccardi in the crime. But Hougnon and other DOC officials refuse to say why they believe Boccardi was involved.

Richard and Elisabeth Boccardi, meanwhile, accuse the DOC of repeatedly breaking its own rules in their son's case. In a separate case last year, three Limon guards were implicated in planting a knife in an inmate's cell, they note--and they fear that guards may also have manufactured evidence against Richard. But despite scores of letters, meetings with corrections officials and complaints to dozens of bureaucrats, there is nothing they can do to help Richard this time. "The bottom line," says Bob Boccardi of prison officials, "is that they can do whatever they want to."

Timothy Starkey shrugs, smiles and says he doesn't "have a clue" why Richard Boccardi is suspected of strangling Robert Gardner. Boccardi wasn't involved, he says, adding that he'd be willing to testify to that in court. The reason, says Starkey, is that he squeezed the life out of Gardner himself.

Starkey, 23, appears subdued and patient as guards lead him, handcuffed and shackled, to a glass-walled visiting booth at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. He becomes more animated when the guards leave, revealing a cocky, breezy air. His wiry body is covered with tattoos, some of which he received surreptitiously in prison, although the picture of Woody Woodpecker emblazoned on his scalp is of an earlier vintage. A self-described former skinhead, he still clings to his racist views.

And racial matters, according to a story he relates in matter-of-fact tones, are the reason Gardner had to die.

Starkey was living at the Limon prison in late March 1993 when prison authorities delivered Robert Gardner to his door and announced he was to be Starkey's new cellmate. The two had first met years earlier when both were incarcerated at the Lookout Mountain school for boys. They hadn't liked each other then. Time hadn't changed anything.

"I wanted him out of my cell, and I told him that if he didn't leave, we would have problems," Starkey says. "I didn't want anybody associating me with him. I tend to stick with my white friends and my white partners, and [Gardner] was a race mixer. He was living with black dudes. I believe in sticking with my own kind. I don't want anybody from any other race influencing me. But [Gardner] was real weak. They turned him into a fag. He also was a jailhouse thief.

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Karen Bowers