Florida Prison Guards indicted!

Second-degree Conviction in the fatal beating of inmate Frank Valdes could get them life in prison

Four Florida State Prison guards were arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the fatal beating of inmate Frank Valdes.

Brown Thornton
Sauls Griffis
An Alachua County grand jury handed up the sealed indictments Wednesday afternoon. All of the guards were on the 5-man "cell extraction team" that forcibly removed Valdes from his cell on July 17th, the day he died.

Authorities say Valdes was beaten to death. An autopsy showed that all his ribs were broken, boot marks were on the upper part of his body and his testicles were swollen.

Capt. Timothy Thornton, 33, was the highest ranking of the men to be arrested Wednesday. Accompanied by his lawyer, a solemn-looking Thornton turned himself in at the Bradford County Jail in Starke at 6:05 p.m. He refused to answer questions. Bail was set at $100,000.

"The man didn't do anything -- he was doing his job," said Gloria Fletcher, a Police Benevolent Association lawyer representing Thornton. "It's a travesty of justice."

Sgt. Jason Griffis, 26, was picked up by sheriff's deputies at his home at 2:40 p.m. and taken to the jail. Bail was set at $100,000. Like the other guards, he refused to comment.

Sgt. Charles Brown, 26, turned himself in at the jail at 4:45 p.m. Bail was set at $100,000.

Sgt. Robert Sauls, 37, was arrested in Jasper, 75 miles northwest of the jail. He arrived in handcuffs, accompanied by FDLE agents, shortly before 8 p.m.

Jail officials said the prison guards will be kept separate from the general jail population for their protection.

If convicted, the men who once guarded inmates could themselves face up to life in prison.

Valdes, a 36-year-old South Florida man, first entered the Florida prison system when he was 17. He was on death row for killing a prison guard in 1987.

Judge Robert P. Cates ordered that the secret grand jury finding be delivered to a court in Bradford County.

The arrests signal a major break in the case and suggest someone in the tight knit community of corrections officers may have implicated their fellow workers. Nine guards have been under suspension during the investigation.

Prosecutors had been stymied in their attempts to crack the wall of silence erected by the nine guards.

One of the nine, Sgt. Montrez Lucas, 30, was arrested in November of 1999 and charged with assaulting Valdes the day before he died. Officers reported that on the day Valdes died, Lucas summoned the cell extraction team after Valdes refused to submit to handcuffs and threatened to kill him.

But Lucas' attorney, public defender John Kearns, said his client is not cooperating with State Attorney Rod Smith and has not testified before the grand jury.

"There's been no negotiations between Mr. Smith and Mr. Montrez Lucas," Kearns said. "There has been no offer to testify against any of the other defendants."

If Lucas followed department policies, he may not have witnessed the cell extraction: Anyone involved in an altercation with an inmate cannot be on the team that removes him from his cell. Smith is staying mum on whether he has been able to flip any of the other guards who are part of his investigation.

The other guards suspended were Sgt. Andrew W. Lewis, Officer Dewey Beck, Officer Donald Stanford and Officer Raymon C. Hanson.

In reports filed by the guards immediately after Valdes died, they acknowledged that an altercation took place when Valdes was forcibly removed from his cell. But they contended that the inmate was fatally injured later, when he threw himself off his bunk and cell bars.

Stanford, one of the suspended officers who has not been indicted, was stationed on the disciplinary wing where Valdes was housed on the day he died. He said that he hasn't talked to law enforcement officials since he gave his initial statements, and he said he doubted if any of his colleagues are cooperating either.

"If they're indicting those guys, they're wasting the taxpayers' money, because they'll never get convictions because nobody did anything wrong," Stanford said.

Prosecutors must be "blowing smoke" because of the publicity surrounding the case, Stanford said, "and they won't have any chance of convicting them in Bradford County or Union County, because everybody there either knows somebody or is related to somebody" working in the prison system.

Stanford was stationed at the gate to Valdes' confinement wing, when the extraction took place about 25 feet away.

"I couldn't see anything in there, and all I could hear was repeated commands by all those guys for him to cuff up," Stanford recounted. "He was forcibly removed from his cell -- that happened. You got all those big young guys, in their 20s most of them, and you'd think common sense would tell somebody who's pretty small they'd better comply with their orders, but he wouldn't."

Still, Stanford said he watched the officers escort Valdes from his cell after he was forced into handcuffs, and Valdes, still swearing at them repeatedly, was walking and showed no serious injuries.

"He was taken to the clinic and was treated by an MD, and the doctor said he was fit to go back to his cell. If he had all these traumatic injuries, why wouldn't the doctor send him to a hospital?"

After that, Stanford said he knows officers had no other contact with Valdes until he was discovered with his fatal injuries.

"Nobody went down there to his cell to beat him or anything, because I had the keys and I didn't let anybody else in," said the 51-year-old Stanford, who is on paid medical leave because of severe depression.

In the wake of the Valdes case, the Department of Corrections has announced a series of reforms designed to better detect and prevent abuse. Cell extractions must now be videotaped, and mounted cameras have been installed on some wings.

The four guards arrested were all veterans with six to 16 years of experience at the Department of Corrections. Among the four, Thornton had the spottiest record. He was also the man in charge on the day Valdes died.

In 1996, Thornton was charged with aggravated battery after a fight at Bobby's Hideaway in Waldo. The charge was dropped. Thornton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge, after a separate incident in 1986.

Griffis was arrested and charged with driving under the influence on Oct. 15 -- several months after Valdes died -- and released on his own recognizance, according to Bradford County jail records.

Sauls received a written reprimand in 1998 for gambling on the midnight shift.

The charge they are now facing, second-degree murder, carries a punishment of up to life in prison. Prosecutors must prove that they killed in an act or series of acts "imminently dangerous to another, evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life and done from ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent," according to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the past-president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association.

McCabe said that a first-degree murder charge in a beating case is highly unusual, because it requires the prosecutor to prove that someone premediated the murder. Those convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to death.

"I could conceive of a beating death where you might be able to circumstantially prove first degree murder, but they'd be few and far between," McCabe said.


Excerpted from the St. Petersburg Times