Matthew Walker was unconscious, handcuffed, face-down on the sidewalk, in front of a dorm at Charlotte Correctional Institution. The inmate had been beaten and his larynx was crushed so badly that his throat was swollen shut.
Lt. Tyler Triplett, blood on his white shirt, stood over him.
“Do you know who I am? I’m going to kill you mother——!” he shouted, so visibly angry that he had to be restrained by his supervisor, a corrections captain.
But corrections officers were busy tending to the minor injuries of two guards hurt during a melee with Walker, so they let him lay there, thinking that he was faking.
“Whatever game you’re playing, you need to get up and walk. My staff is too tired to do this,” the captain, David Thomas, told him, according to witnesses.
But Walker, 45, had already asphyxiated and, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday, over the next few hours, prison staff removed, contaminated or cleaned up most of the crime scene evidence. The officers gathered in a room, wrote their reports and, a few days later, met again at a convenience store near the prison, ostensibly to support each other after the ordeal, the report said.
In a blistering and graphic rebuke of the Florida Department of Corrections, the Charlotte County grand jury report stated that Walker’s death — ruled a homicide by the medical examiner — was “tragic, senseless and avoidable” and the result of a gross litany of failures by prison staff.
The report concluded, however, that there was not enough evidence to bring charges against five corrections officers the panel suspected had beaten and stomped on him, largely because the prison staff failed to properly contain the crime scene and collect evidence.
“Unfortunately, and to the frustration of this Grand Jury,” the report said, “there was a great deal of conflicting testimony regarding who and what was responsible for the injuries suffered by Walker.”
More than a year after Walker’s death, nearly every officer involved in the incident remains employed by the department. Nine of them, fired last year, have won their jobs back and the warden, Tom Reid, remains at the helm of the prison, located in Punta Gorda. His two assistant wardens have been promoted to warden at other institutions.
The grand jury said it was clear that the confrontation with the 6-2, 250-pound Walker was brought on by commanders at the prison, who authorized a policy of waking prisoners up in the middle of the night, simply to “harass and aggravate them,” inmates told the grand jury. When the prisoners inevitably became agitated, the officers were ready to punish them by forcing them into confinement — separated from the prison population —and if they resisted, the inmates would be gassed and restrained.
Both corrections officers and inmates told the jury that the “cell compliance checks” were uncalled for and cruel.
Said one corrections officer: “Who wants to get woken up at 3 or 4 a.m. to be told a towel is out of place … there was talk among the sergeants that this was a ticking time bomb.”
It was during one of these cell checks on April 11, 2014, that a female officer confronted Walker, who was in cell E4-210, with a cellmate who is not identified in the report. Earlier that evening, a number of sergeants had been ordered into a meeting where they were told to conduct the inspections, which were the brainchild of Thomas, the report said.
So after “lights out’’ at 11 p.m. — though it was unclear what time the inspections began — a team of officers entered Walker’s dorm. The female guard walked over to Walker’s cell and demanded he put away a cup and a magazine that were left out.
Neither Walker nor his cellmate responded because they were presumably asleep. So she shouted again. This time, Walker allegedly responded “I am not doing sh—t.’’ At that point, she summoned Triplett and told Walker he was going to be locked up for disobeying a verbal order and disrespecting an officer.
“This is crazy,” Walker responded, his cellmate told the grand jury. “You are waking me up because of a cup?”
Corrections officers told the panel that they went to handcuff Walker, who resisted and began fighting back. Inmates said Triplett, who was wearing a white shirt because of his rank, was the first to lay hands on Walker, who grabbed a railing and continued to ask why he was being struck.
The cellmate, who had been ordered out of the cell but said he could still see what was happening, said he heard commands full of expletives and “hands flying everywhere” though he couldn’t see who was hitting whom because all the other officers wore brown shirts. Triplett then pulled out a canister of pepper spray and sprayed it toward Walker.
The confrontation spilled out onto the dorm’s upper-tier catwalk, and as it continued, two officers were injured, with one knocked unconscious. The grand jury report noted that the panel received conflicting testimony from witnesses as to how the guards were injured.
The officers said that Walker continued to struggle and ignore commands, but all the officers denied that they punched, kicked or struck him with their radios — as some inmates claimed. However, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that physical evidence and testimony showed that Walker was struck by corrections officers “numerous times.”
“Testimony was conflicting regarding which officers were delivering blows to Walker, how many, and where each officer was located while those blows were delivered,” the grand jury stated.
In addition to Triplett, the inmates identified acting Sgt. Edward Sinor, Sgt. Daniel Lynch, acting Sgt. Mestely Saintervil and officer Thomas Weidner as being involved in the beating.
Thomas, the captain, was summoned to the dorm and ordered the officers to pick up Walker, who was laying on his left side, covered in blood. Thomas found a radio nearby and gave it to one of his officers, but he told the grand jury he could not recall whose radio it was and didn’t think to preserve it as evidence.
Thomas said he ordered Walker to stand, but when the inmate didn’t comply, they carried him, face-down, his hands cuffed behind his back, down the stairs, where he was placed on the floor of the dorm, while they waited for the door of the control room to open.
Thomas ordered Walker to stand again, but there was no response. It was then that he was carried outside the dorm, where Triplett threatened him, according to testimony cited in the grand jury report. Several officers later confirmed that Triplett had lost his temper and began shouting expletives at Walker, who remained motionless on the ground.
It’s not clear how long it took for medical staff at the prison to arrive, but by the time they did, Walker was dead.
One of the officers providing medical assistance claimed that Walker’s head “felt like Jello” and that “they must have kicked his ass.”
According to Thomas, despite the inmate’s death, he had a compound to run. He notified the warden and ordered all the officers into his office to find out what happened. The grand jury noted that Thomas failed to separate the officers and allowed them to collect their radios, even though they might have been used as weapons.
They then met and wrote their reports. The grand jury did not say whether there were any issues with those reports.
Evidence showed that there were at least 11 separate traumas to Walker, who was serving 20 years for a burglary and assault he committed in Palm Beach County. The autopsy said that the cartilage surrounding his windpipe was broken, all three sides of his larynx were injured and he suffered blunt-force trauma to his head, neck and torso.
The medical examiner told FDLE investigators that Walker’s right eye was pushed into his eye socket, and that the pattern of his injuries could have been caused by strikes with radios or boots.
Cause of death was ruled to be asphyxiation and manner of death was homicide.
The grand jury concluded that the agency failed to deliver “reasonable, timely and appropriate medical treatment.” It also noted that staff spent more time ministering to the needs of the two injured officers, who were treated and released from the hospital that same day.
The FDLE was summoned and agents arrived about 5 a.m. By then, however, key evidence had already been lost or tainted. No crime scene tape was used, no barricades were used, nor were there any attempts to preserve evidence, the grand jury report said.
When FDLE arrived, it cordoned off Walker’s cell, and made it clear that no one was to enter until further notice. But when an agent returned a week later, he found evidence that items in the cell were tampered with and a laundry bag was left in the middle of the floor that was not there when FDLE sealed it on April 11.
The FDLE later analyzed four sets of boots, testing them for DNA. Three of the boots had so much DNA that the lab could not interpret the results. A fourth set of boots, belonging to Saintervil, were inexplicably clean, leading the grand jury to suspect that he had wiped them.
FDLE was further thwarted in its efforts to obtain copies of the prison’s surveillance video. The dorm is an “open population” area that does not have working cameras. However, there were several cameras monitoring the outside of the compound. FDLE was given only a portion of the footage from those cameras. The DOC inspector assigned to the case failed to preserve footage from a camera that would have had a better view of the front of the dorm, the report noted.
“Way too many things point to a cover-up,” said David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor. “They delay the call for medical, they meet together, then there’s cross contamination and it’s clear that one of those officers cleaned his boots off.”
Without DNA and other physical evidence, however, it would have been impossible to prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt, Weinstein said.
“The officers are going to say he attacked them and who is telling the jury different? A bunch of convicted felons.”
The grand jury did, however, issue a number of recommendations, which the agency’s secretary, Julie Jones, said she will “aggressively address.” Among them: that medical kits and equipment to perform CPR be located in every dorm of the facility.
Former secretary Michael Crews fired nine officers following Walker’s death, and all but one of them got their jobs back.
With the closing of the criminal investigation, Jones said DOC has opened an internal investigation into whether any department policies were violated. Four officers have been placed on desk duty, with no contact with inmates, pending the agency’s probe.
The union representing the corrections officers has maintained that DOC punished the officers, and failed to hold those at the top of the prison’s command staff responsible.
Jones said the cell checks conducted at the prison were not condoned by the agency, and ceased last year. Thomas, who was reassigned as captain at Okeechobee CI, retains his status and contact with inmates. He told the grand jury that the compliance checks are a good policy and “I am doing them where I am now.”
Capt. David Thomas is now captain at Okeechobee CI
Sgt. Daniel Lynch is now sergeant at Charlotte CI — no inmate contact status
Acting Sgt. Mestely Saintervil resigned June 30, 2015
Acting Sgt. Edward Sinor remains a correctional officer at Charlotte — no inmate contact status
Lt. Tyler Triplett remains a lieutenant at Charlotte — no inmate contact
Officer Thomas Weidner remains a correctional officer at Charlotte — no inmate contact
Warden Tom Reid is still at Charlotte CI
Assistant Warden Lars Severson is now warden at Okeechobee CI
Assistant Warden Richard Johnson is now warden at Liberty CI
Via Miami Herald