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Raped and extorted by a prison gang, Scott Howard was called a "drama queen" by corrections officials

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"The only reason I don't choke you the fuck out is I'm leaving," he seethed.

Shimbel checked the window to make sure no one was watching. Then he unzipped his pants. "Do what you do," he said.

Howard says Shimbel struck him on the back of the head until he started performing oral sex. After a couple of minutes he knocked Howard to the floor again and ejaculated into the toilet. "Can't give you any of this," he muttered. "You'll go to the pigs."

Howard jumped up and hit the cell's emergency button. When a voice came on the intercom asking him what the trouble was, he shouted that he needed his dress-out clothes. The door opened. The marshals were already coming down the corridor.

Howard and Shimbel were transported to the marshals' office in the same car. He didn't get a chance to report the alleged assault until Shimbel was gone — bound for Australia, to serve time for a prison escape there. Shifted temporarily to the Jefferson County jail, Howard spoke to several officers and medical personnel before someone took a report.

A Jeffco sergeant called corrections officers at DOC to check Howard's account of being sexually assaulted while in their custody.

"The guy's a drama queen," he was told. "Don't worry about it."

******

Howard's lawsuit was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham, then reinstated by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that there was evidence that prison officials at Sterling knew Howard "faced an ongoing risk from a prison gang with a substantial presence" and failed to take reasonable steps to protect him.

After that ruling came down, Howard managed to get the civil-rights law firm of Killmer, Lane & Newman, whose client list ranges from Ward Churchill and Richard Heene to several death row inmates, to represent him. The case soon became a costly, heels-dug-in wrangle over who had bigger credibility problems: convicted fraud Scott Howard or see-no-evil, cover-your-ass corrections officials.

It was the state's position that Howard had never told case managers at Fremont and Sterling about ongoing gang threats, extortion or sexual assaults — not until after he was caught red-handed with the tax data in 2006. His transfer from Fremont to Sterling had not been for security reasons, but because he was accepted into a "life learning program" at Sterling. His complaints about his placement at Sterling were not because of 211 threats, but because he wanted to get back to his "paramour" in another unit.

The official version took some bizarre turns. One officer maintained that 211 members at Sterling had such an aversion to homosexuality that one of their members was stabbed over a forbidden tryst; thus it was unlikely that gang members would sexually assault Howard or pimp him out to other gangs. Case manager Backer maintained that complaining about custody issues — for example, saying that gang members are trying to kill you — is somehow different from snitching. Backer had "never seen an inmate get retaliated against" for seeking protection, so why didn't Howard speak up?

Case manager Halligan insisted that extortion was no big deal, either. "In my experience, threats of extortion and extortion itself rarely leads to violence in DOC," he stated in one affidavit. "Nearly all such activity is resolved by the inmates themselves."

After months of discovery and depositions, Howard's lawyers found numerous holes in the official story, but nothing that proved Howard's version. "That was a weakness in our case," attorney David Lane says. "We had no corroboration of any kind that he'd ever made a report. But then lo and behold, there was a memo from his case manager that the attorney general's office never gave to us. And it was the smoking-gun document of the entire case."

Howard had filed a second lawsuit after his encounter with Shimbel on his last day in the DOC. A private law firm defended that case, and it produced many of the same documents the Colorado Attorney General's Office had handed over in the original case — with one glaring exception. A transfer form signed by Fremont case manager Dave Mason had surfaced in the second wave. The form states that one of the reasons Howard was being moved from Fremont to Sterling was because "other offenders" were pressuring him for money. Handwritten and circled on the form is a number: 211.

Weeks before that document was found, Mason had filed an affidavit in the case denying that Howard had ever told him about any threats or extortion. Other officers filed similar affidavits, insisting that nothing in Howard's file or their discussions with him pointed to a gang problem. Yet the form backed up Howard's account of his meeting with Mason and the reasons for his subsequent move to Sterling.

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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