Sterling prison murders blamed on staff indifference, misconduct
Court records and testimony prompted by a wave of inmate homicides at the Sterling Correctional Facility claim that SCF officers have repeatedly placed at-risk prisoners, particularly sex offenders, in life-threatening situations -- and that some staff have even celled deadly enemies together to "teach a lesson," fully expecting one inmate to attack another.
James Bergman beat a child killer to death the first day they were put in a cell together. Additional photos below.
The result has been mayhem on a grand scale: Five inmate murders at Sterling in a two-
year period that ended in 2012. An internal investigation, with findings never made public, was ordered by prison chief Tom Clements before his own murder last year. A lawsuit was recently filed by one victim's family, with possibly more to come.
With close to 2,500 inmates, Sterling is the largest prison in the state system, housing everything from short-term, minimum-security offenders to high-security prisoners serving long sentences. Prison officials say they have a proven system for separating inmates who may fight each other and have suggested -- most recently in this peculiar article in the Denver Post -- that a new law allowing for civil detention of the most predatory inmates beyond their sentence would help stem the violence.
But other observers say the rash of killings at Sterling has a great deal to do with staff attitudes and even possible misconduct by guards. "I refuse to believe that this many deaths in a two-year period in the same prison is a statistical anomaly," says Tom Ward, a public defender whose office has represented several of the defendants in the fatal attacks. "If you look deeper into this, the evidence is clearly that it isn't."
The Sterling Correctional Facility, home to 2,481 inmates.
Inmates who fear assaults by gangs or a mentally unstable roommate are routinely told that the Colorado Department of Corrections doesn't make "convenience moves" and that they are just supposed to "deal with it." At one hearing last fall, inmate Virgil Rice testified that a Sterling major told him that sex offenders weren't entitled to the same protection as other inmates. "She openly said, 'I don't care what happens to you. I believe all of you should be assaulted,'" Rice said. "She, herself, claimed to have been assaulted by her father. So it was her attitude that she needed to, you know, to prosecute her own agenda on the backs of prisoners."
Three of the five killed were serving time for crimes against children. David Guerrero-Estrada, beaten to death in his cell in early 2010, was sentenced to three years for attempted sexual assault of a child. Mark Hanson, also beaten to death, received two years for failing to register as a sex offender. Lyle White, killed six days after Hanson, had murdered an eleven-year-old boy.
In defending White's killer, James Bergman, at a special evidentiary hearing last fall, Ward called several inmate witnesses in support of Bergman's claim that he'd been forced to share a cell with White over his protests. The move was described as a form of punishment for Bergman orchestrated by one correctional officer, who told him, "You're moving in with a chomo [prison slang for child molester] and you're going to deal with it."
Bergman dealt with it in accordance with the convict code. He beat White to death the first day they were alone in a cell together.
Continue for more about murders at the Sterling prison, including additional photos.