Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Four Florida Prison Guards Face Murder Charges

Nine guards from Florida State Prison's "X-Wing" were suspended while state law enforcement investigators probed their role in the July 17, 1999 beating death of X-Wing prisoner Frank Valdes [see page 1 of the October 1999 PLN]. On February 2, 2000, four of the suspended guards were indicted and arrested on second degree murder charges. They were immediately fired by the Florida Department of Corrections.

The indictment accuses the former guards of killing Valdes "by kicking and striking him with their feet and hands." The DOC letter firing the four admonished them for "fail[ing] to summon medical assistance" for Valdes.

An autopsy report showed that every one of Valdes' ribs were broken, there were boot marks imprinted on his body and his testicles were swollen. In reports filed by the guards immediately after Valdes died, they acknowledged that force was used to extract Valdes from his cell. But they contended that Valdes was fatally injured later, when he repeatedly flung himself off his bunk and cell bars.

Captain Timothy A. Thorton, Sgt. Jason P. Griffis, Sgt. Charles A. Brown, and Sgt. Robert W. Sauls were booked into the Bradford County Jail on Wednesday, Feb. 2nd. All four were on the five man "cell extraction team" that forcibly removed Valdes from his cell the day he was killed.

The next day more than 80 people - many wearing DOC t-shirts and Florida State Prison jackets - packed a Bradford County courtroom to show support for the guards who made their first court appearance via video from the jail. At the hearing a judge lowered their bail from $100,000 to $25,000. All four made bail and were released by the end of the day. Some community groups have started a collection drive for their legal defense fund.

One of the nine suspended guards, Sgt. Montrez Lucas, 30, was arrested in November and charged with aggravated battery, battery on an inmate and coercion to alter a report. Lucas is accused of beating Valdes the day before he died and for falsifying reports.

Lucas was fired by the DOC the same day the other four guards were indicted. His firing letter said that on June 15, 1999, a month before Valdes' death, Lucas told a group of prison guard recruits that it was all right to falsify excessive force reports as long as the reports were "verified" by other guards.

Lucas summoned the extraction team to Valdes' cell the day he died, although it is unclear whether he participated in the cell extraction. It is also not known if Lucas cooperated with investigators. But his attorney, public defender John Kearns, said Lucas did not cooperate with prosecutors and didn't testify before the grand jury.

State Attorney Rod Smith wouldn't say whether he was able to "flip" any of the other guards who are a part of his investigation. But a source from the State Attorney's Office said the grand jury's work wasn't finished and hinted that more arrests might follow.

The others suspended were Sgt. Andrew W. Lewisand guards Dewey Beck, Raymond C. Hanson and Donald Stanford. Stanford, who was stationed on X-Wing the day Valdes died, told the St. Petersburg Times that he hadn't talked to law enforcement officials since he gave his initial statements, and he said he doubted that any of his colleagues were cooperating either. "If they're indicting these guys, they're wasting the taxpayers' money, because they'll never get convictions because nobody did anything wrong," Stanford told the Times.

His sentiments were echoed by Gloria Fletcher, a Police Benevolent Association lawyer representing Capt. Thorton. "The man didn't do anything wrong--he was doing his job," Fletcher told the Times. "It's a travesty of justice."

Capt. Thornton was the highest ranking guard of the four who were arrested and was in charge of the cell extraction team the day Valdes died. Among the four, Thornton also has the spottiest record. In 1996, Thornton was charged with aggravated battery after a fight at a local tavern. The charge was later dropped. Thornton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in 1986.

Another of the four, Sgt. Griffis, received a written reprimand in June 1996 for dumping a prisoner out of his wheelchair and kicking him in the back and side, according to personnel records. The reprimand said: "This is not the only instance of inmates sustaining injuries in your presence from unknown sources."

Lucas was given a 60 day suspension in 1995 for using "inappropriate force" to quell a prisoner disturbance.

Suspended guard Stanford said that prosecutors must be "blowing smoke" due to the intense publicity surrounding the case, and that prosecutors "won't have any chance of convicting [the four guards] in Bradford County or Union County, because everybody there either knows somebody or is related to somebody" working in the prison system.

Randall Berg, director of the Florida Justice Institute, said the "community support" demonstrated in the courtroom during the guards' bail hearings could influence a possible verdict if the trial isn't moved. "The entire prison industry is the leading industry of that area," Berg told the Times. "It's going to substantially influence the eventual outcome of the trial no matter how careful the judge and the state attorney might be."

But State's Attorney Smith said that he would seek an impartial jury in Starke, the small town where the Florida State Prison is located. Smith, who is running for the state Senate, publicly sympathized with the guards' families, saying it was a "terrible time" for them.

"I will stand with the families as long as they are standing on the right side of the line," Smith told the Times.

Sources: St. Petersburg Times, Florida Times-Union

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login