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Colorado Prisoner Targeted by Gangs Wins Injunction for Placement in Protective Custody

by David M. Reutter

Finding a Colorado state prisoner was in grave danger from gang members he’d testified against in a murder investigation, the federal court for the District of Colorado enjoined the state Department of Corrections (DOC) on May 12, 2022, to place him in protective custody (PC).

When DOC transferred John Standley Snorsky to Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) in October 2016, he reported that he was in fear of his life due to custody issues with other prisoners there. Specifically, he informed prison officials, he was to be a witness at the trial of another CSP prisoner, Chad Wesley Merrill, for the fatal 2015 stabbing of Joshua Edmonds, a fellow prisoner at Limon Correctional Facility.

Because of publicity in that case, Snorsky argued he was a well-known “snitch” and easily recognizable to violent gangs who targeted him. However, his request for placement in PC was denied. Instead, he landed in the same unit with Merrill, who dutifully spread the word that Snorsky was a witness against him. Merrill recruited three more prisoners to attack Snorsky. On February 22, 2017, Danny Samson, Jaray Trujillo, and Christopher Clark stabbed him 43 times. Not long after that, Merrill was one of four prisoners charged with the murder of yet another prisoner, Matthew Massaro, on July 14, 2018.

Snorsky then filed his complaint pro se in federal court for the District of Colorado on November 18, 2018, accusing DOC officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of violating his civil rights. In his complaint, he asked for compensatory and punitive damages and to be placed in PC until his release.

In September 2019, a month after filing for a preliminary injunction, Snorsky was transferred to Buena Vista Correctional Facility and placed in PC. But he was removed in July 2021 for allegedly “causing a disturbance” during a riot. Snorsky later testified this was “a trumped up charge” that was “retaliatory,” as the Court recalled.

Sent back to CSP, he was placed in a day hall, which has only eight prisoners in each unit. Snorsky asked the Court for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to force DOC to return him to PC. But the Court denied those requests on October 22, 2021, quoting Schrier v. Univ. of Colo., 427 F.3d 1253 (10th Cir. 2005), to explain that granting them would “affirmatively [require] the nonmovant to act in a particular way” and place the Court “in a position where it may have to provide ongoing supervision.” See: Snorsky v. Raemisch, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 204841 (D. Colo.).

Snorsky didn’t give up, though. He filed a new motion for an injunction. Before an April 2022 evidentiary hearing on that, the Court appointed attorney Kevin Homiak to assist Snorsky. At the hearing, it was shown that members of the four gangs involved in the 2017 assault on Snorsky either still lived in the unit with him or in adjacent units. To protect himself, moreover, Snorsky was on self-imposed lockdown, staying in his cell except for meals and appointments within the prison.

DOC Case Manager Supervisor Larry Winegardner also testified, admitting that Snorsky should be in PC if the threat from other prisoners was present. A hit list was presented that prison officials recovered from the “North Side Mafia” gang, and it had a star next to Snorsky’s name as well as the word “rat.” Monte Gore, a guard sergeant in the PC unit where Snorsky was previously housed (who is now warden at a New Mexico prison) also provided a declaration that Snorsky belongs in PC. He noted Merrill is a member of the “211 Crew,” the gang that organized the 2017 attack on Snorsky as well as the murder of DOC Executive Director Tom Clements at his home in 2013. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.1.]

Given that Snorsky was housed with gang members associated with Merrill, Trujillo, Samson, and Clark, the Court found a threat indisputably present. In its May 2022 order, the Court said “[t]here is further no dispute that [Snorsky] is currently on multiple hit lists from the gangs associated with Merrill, Trujillo, Samson, and Clark.”

Additionally, the Court noted that Snorsky is housed with prisoner Armando Diaz, a Bloods gang member who assaulted Snorsky in 2021 at CSP. In the weeks before the evidentiary hearing, Diaz was walking down a hall unescorted while Snorsky was escorted nearby with his hands restrained behind his back, a situation that has resulted in other assaults.

Thus the Court found Snorsky satisfied the irreparable-harm requirement to be granted injunctive relief. It also found DOC’s efforts to protect Snorsky were lacking and entered an injunction requiring he be “forthwith” placed in PC.

A few weeks later, on June 3, 2022, the Court also extended Homiak’s appointment as pro bono counsel through trial.

Then on August 5, 2022, just five days before the May 2022 injunction was set to expire, the Court extended it another 90 days to November 8, 2022. Snorsky was also awarded fees of $15,724.80 for his attorney on September 30, 2022. The case is now proceeding toward a trial before a magistrate judge that is currently set for March 2023. PLN will report developments as they are available. See: Snorsky v. Raemisch, USDC (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:18-cv-03025.

Meanwhile, Merrill is not the only prisoner being prosecuted for Massaro’s murder. Also charged were prisoners Brett Boyles, a White Supremacist who threatened Snorsky, too, as well as Gary Labor and Daniel Egan. Merrill and Boyles are still awaiting trial. Labor pleaded guilty in February 2021 and was sentenced to an extra two years. Egan was released from federal custody in March 2022 to plead guilty to second-degree assault, after which he promptly went on the run. He was recaptured in July 2022 and given additional charges, including vehicle theft. Also charged in his escape was Ashley Egan, who was driving the vehicle in which he was spotted hiding in the back seat by a Colorado State Parks officer. He was re-jailed on a $100,000 bond, twice as high as the one he skipped out on months earlier. 

Additional sources: CBS News, KUSA

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Related legal case

Snorsky v. Raemisch