One year later, no consensus on battle at Bayside

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005.)


It all started over a bag of chicken.

Corrections Officer James Kita moved to frisk convicted drug dealer Omar McCray at the entrance to Bayside State Prison’s D trailer just before 4:40 p.m. Jan. 1. McCray had brought at least one bag of chicken and dessert back to the unit from the Leesburg prison’s kitchen. Kita was one of three officers who met him at the unit’s door.

That interaction sparked what’s become known as the “Bayside riot.” By day’s end, more than 20 corrections officers and six inmates reported and sought treatment for injuries stemming from the brawl. Irons and broomsticks were wielded as weapons. Blood spattered walls, floors and faces. One officer had his face shattered; a steel plate now replaces bone.

Cumberland County Prosecutor Ronald Casella has charged four inmates with rioting and assault. Officers say there probably were two dozen more inmates involved, and Casella is inclined to believe them.

State Department of Corrections leaders say it was a small, contained fight, disputing its own officers’ accounts. Inmates claim officers turned a brawl into a revenge-driven beat-down session. A state Senate committee investigated, but produced little of substance.

DOC officials still cannot – or will not – explain why their records list six injured inmates when they claim only four were involved. Several inmates have claimed they were beaten, and an internal investigation into inmates’ claims of abuse remains open.

The Press of Atlantic City over the past several months has sorted through internal DOC reports, transcriptions of state Senate hearings and accounts from inmates and officers. Occasionally, the story changed as facts became known and certain details were contradicted. What has become clear is that it may never be known, except by those inside Bayside’s D trailer Jan. 1, exactly what happened.

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Word started trickling out about 6 p.m. Jan. 1. “Something big” had gone down, an emergency medical technician called The Press to say. He had just left the prison in Maurice River Township and was at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital in Cape May Court House, where at least eight officers were being treated. Others were at South Jersey HealthCare Regional Medical Center’s Vineland hospital. “A major riot,” he called it.

DOC officials confirmed that night that a “disturbance,” not a “riot,” had taken place. The prison had been locked down. Maybe 15 officers and 25 inmates were involved, it was thought that night. No serious injuries were suffered, a DOC spokesperson said.

That last point, at least, proved untrue: Lt. Dan Habeck’s face had been crushed, and Lt. Wayne St. Aubyn had suffered severe neck and knee injuries.

It wouldn’t be the last time the stated “facts” were wrong.

Officers started anonymously e-mailing and calling The Press. Officers posted incident details on an MSN message board; some details were more accurate than others. The officers wouldn’t talk publicly for fear of losing their jobs, so their union representatives spoke for them.

On Jan. 7, The Press reported that it was a riot, led by the Bloods. Numerous inmates had streamed down hallways, out fire escapes and over fences, onetime union official Troy Ferus said at the time. DOC leadership covered it up, officers claimed.

“Now maybe someone will understand what we are up against,” one Bayside officer wrote in an e-mail to The Press after the first article appeared, “and that the officers aren’t the bad guy.”

On Jan. 8, the DOC internally charged six inmates with assault; other charges would follow.

Officers around the state took up the Bayside cause. After all, gang violence had risen in most state prisons, according to the DOC. The Bayside incident was another sign of that, but for once, the officers said, it was finally going public.

State Sen. Nick Asselta, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, called for Senate hearings on the potential cover-up, and when Sen. Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester, backed the idea, they had the juice to bring in the Legislature.

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The problem was the original account wasn’t entirely true. Officers at the scene disputed certain facts, and so did investigators. Ferus’ claim that dozens of inmates climbed a fence was exaggerated. It was only two, according to St. Aubyn, who watched it happen.

That’s just one detail, but it’s emblematic of the broad differences among the accounts of officers, inmates and DOC leadership. People fought that day, and people bled. Nobody denies that.

But what form did it take? How did it happen? Who started it?

The DOC’s official account says McCray, built like a tank at 5-foot-5, 185 pounds, objected to Kita’s frisking. He punched Kita, then called “Bloods out!” among other things. Bloods Terrance Meggett, Lawrence Brown and Tyrese Wallace responded, and the chaos began.

Meggett hit Kita and Officer Tom Togno with a push broom. Wallace hit Togno and Habeck with an iron.

Wallace and Meggett eventually fled the fight in the trailer’s common room, running out a fire door and hopping a fence into a basketball court, according to a captain’s report and Senate testimony by DOC Special Investigations Division chief Chuck Muller. Officers subdued them after violent confrontation.

Dozens of inmates fought outnumbered officers, according to officers’ accounts. At least 11 inmates were written up internally. Others were lost in the chaos of blue and khaki clothes. Officers still cannot match names and faces to every violent deed.

But DOC leadership didn’t back the officers’ accounts. DOC Commissioner Devon Brown told the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee that only the four inmates took part in the fight, and he downplayed officers’ injuries.

Officers were furious. Brown, who often clashed with unions and state legislators, made an easy target for the cover-up allegations.

But something had to have been covered up. If only four inmates took part, how did six get hurt?

The inmates’ accounts were missing. The Senate committee never asked for them. The DOC never released them to the public. Cumberland County Assistant Prosecutor Armando Gonzalez relied heavily on internal DOC reports while investigating, but it’s unclear what information he had access to. Casella declined to make it public because the case still has to go to trial.

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In the year since the incident, inmates have contacted The Press with their accounts through letters and telephone calls.

Arnold Bell wrote to Brown, saying that one officer provoked an extension of the violence after McCray was subdued. After he found blood on his lips, the officer started “stating niggers this and niggers that” and going after another inmate.

“Within the state prison system, the staff at Bayside State Prison are well known for their use of unnecessive violence (sic),” Bell, who is white, wrote Brown in a letter he also sent to The Press. “Officers of other prisons are also aware of the racism of the prominently caucasion (sic) officers of Bayside State Prison.”

Bell, who had been incarcerated on drug-possession and theft charges in Atlantic and Ocean counties, claimed he was punched and “dragged, pushed, shoved, kicked, stepped on numerous times” as he and others were moved after the initial fighting was quelled.

Officers made Gabriel Iannacone lie on his bed face-down, then beat him, he wrote his father in a letter that he forwarded to The Press. Others had similar claims.

Danny Powell was a prisoner at South Woods State Prison who claimed to have been sent to Bayside last winter for medical treatment. He watched officers beat two handcuffed men on the infirmary floor Jan. 1, he wrote. Nobody touched Powell.

Edward Fasanella wrote a friend about how five or six inmates beat a small officer. After the fight, he heard officers shout “if you get off your bunks, we will kill you.” But he didn’t see officers retaliate.

Most notable were claims by a current prison inmate who correctly gave details in January that weren’t made public by DOC officials or officers until the Senate hearings in February, such as the specifics of the face-off with Meggett and Wallace on the basketball court. He recounted watching the brawl from a separate wing of the trailer and, because of concern for his safety, requested anonymity until he is released from prison.

“When they came down the D wing, they were beating up inmates,” the inmate said of officers in early February. “I could see that wing through my window. When we got beat up, there was no riot gear. After we got beat up, the riot gear started coming out. People ran in, grabbed inmates, ran out.”

He detailed how a Bayside officer set him face-down on his bed before beating him relentlessly, leaving him with back injuries he still suffers. The officer he accused denied it.

(Every week for several months, he called The Press, saying he wanted somebody to know whether he was alive or not. He routinely asked a reporter to call his estranged girlfriend, who bore him a son, to let her know his condition. When he stopped calling, it was learned that he had been taken into lockup. He later said officers confronted him about his calls to a reporter.

DOC officials intervened and moved him out of lockup after learning of his claims. By spring he’d been paroled to a halfway house. He then violated his parole by walking away from the halfway house to call his estranged girlfriend. Now he’s back in prison. He once talked about suing the DOC but never did.)

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There are problems with inmates’ claims, though.

For example, even DOC officials who privately acknowledged the possibility of officer retribution were skeptical of Bell’s account because he was a special-needs inmate. Bell was released this year and could not be found for subsequent comment.

Fasanella’s letter is full of racist insults toward black inmates. In Iannacone’s case, another inmate said he saw him beaten but said Iannacone was looking more for profit than for justice.

Most inmates have their credibility questioned not only because of their criminal past but also because of the motivation for profit.

After Bayside Officer Fred Baker was killed by an inmate in 1997, the DOC locked down the prison for 34 days. In the following months, hundreds of inmates filed lawsuits alleging vengeful officers abused them during the lockdown. Numerous people involved with these lawsuits acknowledged privately that most were likely frivolous attempts to get rich off the prison system.

But a jury found that there was at least one legitimate case. Two weeks before the Bayside riot, former Bayside inmate Luis Mejias won a $245,000 court judgment against the DOC after a jury believed his claims that eight officers beat him with clubs Aug. 13, 1997, two weeks into the lockdown. Former DOC investigators such as Deb Kopp said they were forced by department officials to change their investigative reports.

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That backdrop was key to understanding everyone’s claims and the doubts about them.

Bayside officers were angry that the riot was being linked to the Mejias decision, when one had nothing to do with the other. They were sensitive that outsiders viewed them as racist because of claims made by defense attorneys in the Baker murder trial.

Black Bayside officers such as Nate Cannon have come forth to say they went out of their way to choose Bayside because of the camaraderie and loyalty among its officers.

Bayside Lt. Scott Derby responded to the prison like many off-duty officers. Unlike some, he’s been willing to intellectually counter claims that officers abused inmates.

“If these allegations are true, you’re talking about widespread, coordinated retaliation against inmates,” Derby said. “That sounds a little fantastic, doesn’t it?”