clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

OFFICERS WATCHED AS INMATE DIED

The only weapon Corrections officers used to defend an inmate during a brutal slaying was a video camera.

Correctional officers and a church volunteer watched from a Gunnison prison control room on July 6 as inmate Lonnie Blackmon, still in handcuffs, was held by other inmates and repeatedly jabbed in the back, neck, chest and face with a three-inch, homemade knife.A copy of the video seen by the Deseret News captures the grisly slaying and the rescue efforts that followed. The video shows one inmate raising a fist and yelling after brutally stabbing a fellow inmate.

Prosecutors chose not to show the video at a preliminary hearing for the four inmates charged with capital murder in the stabbing partly because they didn't want the media to have access to it.

The video also raises questions about inmate and officer safety - something several officers say they've worried about for the past two years.

The videotaped attack lasted several minutes. The video shows the attacker straddling Blackmon, and it appears he's systematically stabbing him. During a preliminary hearing, witnesses described the stabbing as "slow and

methodical." He even stops the attack once, standing up and wiping his face on his forearm. As he does, Blackmon rolls onto his back and whimpers.

The attacker then walks over to Blackmon and resumes stabbing him in the eye and neck. He stops again, but the second time, Black-mon apparently doesn't make a sound.

The attack ends when inmate Troy Michael Kell throws the shank under the door of another cell, just a few feet from where Blackmon lay bleeding to

death. While those inside the control room wait for a SWAT team, they watch without saying much. Kell, his forearms visibly covered in blood, walks to a shower cell and reaches for a towel. He wipes the blood from his arms, then buries his face in the towel to clean off other spatters.As he finishes, he raises one fist and yells something to other inmates, who return howls and yells. Several minutes later, an unidentified inmate can be heard yelling something about "white power."

Someone in the control room asks how Kell got his handcuffs off.

At the hearing, officer Richard Whimpey testified that moments before the attack, he handcuffed Kell, Blackmon and two other inmates who were about to be transported to the prison's infirmary.

Kell somehow acquired a key to his cuffs and freed himself.

Witnesses said the attack began when Kell yelled, "Hey!" and then punched Blackmon in the face. The assault moved around the bottom floor of the maximum security unit, where inmates with disciplinary problems are housed.

A shotgun, a fire hose and gas were all inside the control room, but none was utilized to stop the attack.

"Did anybody say anything about going in and stopping this thing or going in and helping Blackmon?" defense attorney Stephen McCaughey asked during the

hearing. "No," Whimpey replied.

Utah Director of Corrections Lane McCotter refused to answer specific questions about the attack or the video but defended the officers' decision to go into the control room and their decision not to use the shotgun or the fire hose to protect Blackmon.

"That is not the primary purpose (of the shotgun)," McCotter said. "It's to protect officers from becoming hostages. It's to protect the people in the control room so they can make notifications."

The fire hose, he said, is to put out fires, not break up fights.

But McCaughey also asked in court about a fight between Payne and Blackmon that apparently occurred several weeks before the murder.

"If I told you a fire hose was used (to break up the fight) does that seem usual?" McCaughey asked.

"Yes," Whimpey said. But when asked why a fire hose was not used on July 6, he said he didn't know.

The state just lost a lawsuit over an incident in which an inmate's eye was poked out by another inmate, an incident officers also captured on video. In that trial, officers said they weren't trained to use the fire hose or stun gun available to them.

Several Corrections officers have spoken with the Deseret News about staffing problems at state prisons on the condition of anonymity. Department policy prohibits officers from discussing policy and procedure with the press.

Officers say because of a computerized scheduling system, they sometimes work in positions for which they're not fully trained.

"I get scheduled all the time from one area I've never worked to another," one officer said. "One post here, another post there."

One officer says he works perimeter security often with officers who aren't trained in the prison's outside security system. He says he worries not only for their safety but for his own safety should he need another officer to back him on a call.

"I've told my wife, if anything happens to me while I'm on duty to sue," he said. The officer said due to shortages in staff, officers work alone and sometimes in positions for which they're not trained.

In an earlier interview, Corrections spokesman Jack Ford said officers are never asked to work a position they haven't been trained to work. McCotter adds that he thinks his officers are some of the best-trained in the country.

Ford admits the prison has lost dozens of officers to county jails in recent months because of lower wages at the prison, but he says Mc-Cotter is working to raise their pay.

To cover the vacant positions, other officers are asked to work more overtime and take less vacation, McCotter said in an earlier interview about staffing shortages.

Despite a shortage of officers, the prison inmate population has been at or near capacity for months.

One former inmate told the Deseret News that she feared for her safety several times. Another inmate said he was assaulted as a result of

understaffing. McCotter did say officials are looking into other types of non-lethal weapons to help control uprisings. But he says the officer did the right thing by going inside the control room after the fight between Kell and Blackmon broke out.

Blackmon was out of his cell that day to see a doctor, but the medical slip requesting permission to go to the infirmary was filled out by someone else. Generally, inmates submit requests only for themselves. Three sources have confirmed for the Deseret News that someone submitted a medical slip with Blackmon's name on it, which may bolster the prosecution's belief that the slaying was a planned attack.

Blackmon was wearing a blue bandanna, which some said shows his gang affiliation. And while racial tensions appear to have something to do with the slaying, McCotter emphasized that it doesn't mean race was the motivation.

"I don't know of a prison system in the entire world . . . that doesn't have prejudices," McCotter said. " We have to deal with (racial tensions). Hopefully, we deal with them in a way that prevents violent incidents."