Problem lies in more serious offenders being housed in Gunnison, county attorney says
MANTI—Three prison murders, including two in the last nine months, along with a serious beating of a prison guard in late 2019, raise questions about whether violence is increasing at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) and whether more should be done to protect corrections staff.
Historically, CUCF was a minimum or medium-security prison. According to Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels, the level of violence started increasing four or five years ago, when the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) started sending more serious offenders to the facility.
Daniels said that the Department of Corrections has definitely been referring more cases to his office since early 2021 to try and “crackdown a little” in the hopes that the number of incidents will decrease.
He noted that when a prisoner commits a crime while incarcerated, the classification of the crime can be raised two levels, such as from a Class B misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. So, an altercation that would be considered a misdemeanor outside of prison can become a felony if committed by an inmate. His office is required to prosecute all crimes at the prison if they are charged as felonies.
Fifteen cases of assaults by prisoners came before 6th District Court the week of Feb. 2 alone. In the past, some of those cases would have been handled internally. Now, Daniels says, with UDC consistently taking advantage of the option of raising the level of the charges, more assaults are coming to his office and before the court.
But going back to serious cases over the past several years, on Monday, a jury trial began for Julio Cesar Garza, who is charged with killing his cellmate, Carlos Adrian Hernandez, on Aug. 25, 2016.
Garza was serving time for aggravated robbery, possession of a prohibited item in a correctional facility and for a previous prison assault.
On the night of the incident, officers heard a disturbance coming from Garza’s and Hernandez’s cell. When they investigated, they found Hernandez lying on the floor covered in blood from the waist up. Garza was sitting in the cell, apparently unharmed.
Video footage from outside the cell showed Garza pulling Hernandez from his bed and onto the floor, then kicking and jumping on him for several minutes.
Hernandez was alive when guards found him. He was taken to Gunnison Valley Hospital and airlifted from there to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The full jury trial is expected to take about a week.
The next egregious case was the beating, which occurred on Aug. 7, 2019, in which Dustin Johnson, now a lieutenant at the prison, ended up with life-threatening head and facial injuries.
The main suspect in the case is Deon Clopten, who is in prison for a murder at a Salt Lake City nightclub in December of 2002.
According to Wes Mangum, deputy Sanpete County attorney, Johnson and a second officer, Brad Wilson, had just removed Clopten from the common area outside of the cells to take him for a drug test.
Mangum said that as soon as they left the secure area, which put them out of range of surveillance camera, Mr. Clopten “clocked” Johnson.
Marko Heimuli, another inmate now charged as an accomplice in the crime, cornered Wilson, the other officer, and blocked his movement, so he couldn’t try to stop the assault or even call for help. Clopten proceeded to brutally kick and beat Officer Johnson.
Like Clopten, Heimuli is in prison for murder. In 2006, when he was in his early 20s, he discharged a firearm on a Salt Lake City street, killing an 18-year-old who was attending a Fourth-of-July street party and also wounding a teenage girl. Prosecutors said the shooting was gang-related. Heimuli’s sentence in the murder case left open the possibility for parole someday.
In the beating case, Mangum initially charged him with aggravated assault, a first-degree felony. If he were convicted on such a charge, his sentence could have been enhanced to life in prison without parole. Parole would be off the table, Mangum said.
Mangum offered a Heimuli a deal under which he could plead guilty to assault by a prisoner, a third-degree felony carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Heimuli is expected to enter that plea in the next week or two.
The judge could make the sentence concurrent with Heimuli’s present sentence. And since Heimuli has more than five years left before he is eligible for parole, the third-degree felony might not affect how long he stays locked up.
However, Mangum points out, having a crime committed in prison on his record is almost sure to affect how the parole board views any request for parole.
Clopten is charged with aggravated attempted murder. His case has not come to court yet.
The first of the two recent murders occurred in June 2021 when Steven Dennis Skinner, 39, who is serving five years to life for aggravated sexual assault and receiving stolen property, allegedly killed his cellmate, Dale Lee Rush, 66.
There were no witnesses, nor is there any video of the event. Skinner and Rush apparently had an altercation in their cell late in the evening or early morning that didn’t come to the attention of guards until neither showed up for breakfast. Mangum said the cause of death was a combination of blunt force trauma and strangulation.
Asked why such a violent event escaped notice, Daniels said video cameras are not installed in cells due to privacy laws. He said that guards do not routinely walk the perimeter of cells for security reasons, the same reason that guards don’t routinely mingle with prisoners in the common areas.
The third murder case now being prosecuted occurred Aug. 4, 2021, when Ringo Rudy Duran, 62, allegedly killed his cellmate, William Fowers, 60.
No probable cause statement (a report by an investigating officer) has been filed in the case, so the Messenger has not been able to learn what happened. Duran made his first court appearance two weeks ago.
The Messenger talked with two current corrections officers and one former officer about the potential dangers of their jobs and how fears of what might happen to them affect them emotionally. All three officers talked with us on condition of anonymity.
He said of course he is aware of the danger, but he tries not to take job stress home to his family. He said he is an avid runner, which helps relieve some of the job stress. He said he also enjoys hobbies and surrounds himself with positive things, such as his newborn son.
He said he believes the prison system provides an adequate network of support. “They have counselors that are available anytime we need them, and the administration is very good about giving us time off to de-stress if we need it.”
But another officer said CUCF had announced it planned to have a counseling practice that is under contract with UDC set up a full-time office in Gunnison. Then the plan changed and the satellite office was never established. So officers have to travel to Salt Lake County to take advantage of free counseling.
The former officer, who now works at the Salt Lake County Jail, said being a CUCF guard changed his life. “You become aware of a lot of things you didn’t really pay attention to before, like making sure not to let anyone get behind you, and always trying to read the temperature of a roomful of people to try and determine the hostility level,” he said.
“You develop a sort of hyper-awareness of where you are and where everyone else is at all times, and it can carry over into your civilian life without you even being conscious of it.”
He said he sometimes catches himself being hyper-vigilant at church, with friends or with people who pose no threat.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like conflict…never have,” he said. “I’m still careful, but I really appreciate the reduced level of violence threat I feel at the jail.”
Kaitlin Felstead, UDC spokeswoman, said the wellbeing of the officers and staff members is paramount to operating a safe and secure correctional facility.
Besides free counseling for corrections officers and their families, UDC also employs a full-time chaplain who meets with staff members individually and provides wellness training to groups.
She said the department also has a Peer Support Team available to talk to employees struggling with personal or work-related issues.