It was over two decades ago, in this very month, April, when I stood beside my unmarked Crown Vic in the parking lot of the state police area headquarters, waiting for a ride to a state prison. The evening was warm. The sky clear. And the surrounding trees were filled with new spring leaves. Crickets chirped and mosquitos zeroed in on my face and arms.

Knowing rules prevented me from wearing my pistol inside the correctional institution, I’d placed it inside the small lockbox mounted in the trunk and double-checked to be sure the steel container was secure before closing the lid. I had a bit of time to spare so I walked behind the small red brick building to have a look at an armored vehicle parked there out of sight of the public. I’d seen the truck a zillion times before, but it was something I could use to slow the million thoughts zipping about inside my mind.

I’d have gone inside the office to shoot the breeze, but it was after hours and the administrative staff had gone home for the day, and the troopers working the roads were doing just that…patrolling the highways. It was just me and my imagination, hanging out together, waiting to watch a man die.

After a few laps around the headquarters, an unmarked white van arrived to deliver me to the prison. The driver, a corrections lieutenant, told me to hop in and off we went. I’d return a changed man just a few hours later.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

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Spencer walked into the death chamber on his own that night, unassisted by prison staff. He was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration peppered his forehead and bare scalp.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair nicknamed “Old Sparky,” as are a few of those instruments of justifiable homicide, and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

When asked if he had any final words to say, Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but didn’t. Whatever that thought had been, well, he took it with him to his grave. Officers then placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, a second burst of electricity was delivered to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

He was dead and it was one of the most brutal ways to die one could ever imagine, and believe me I’ve witnessed far more than my than my fair share of death.

Fast forward to April 11, 2016, a date just shy of the twenty-second anniversary of Spencer’s execution. On Monday, Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe rejected a bill that would have mandated using the electric chair as the default method of execution in the absence of drugs used for lethal injections.

This is big news since more and more drug companies are refusing to supply states with drugs if their purpose for obtaining them is to kill people.

The Va. governor is Catholic and says he’s against the death penalty, but as governor it’s his duty to set aside personal beliefs and follow the law. So, he has now proposed a bill that would allow drug companies to remain anonymous if they supply the state/Commonwealth with the necessary drugs to carry out state executions. The information would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and from discovery in civil proceedings, without a high threshold of just cause.

I once sat in Old Sparky and the feeling was surreal, having the same view of the surroundings as did some of the most evil people who ever walked this planet. It was a bizarre experience to say the least. Some things you never, ever forget. Entering the execution chamber to sit in “the chair” was one of those things.

Here’s a brief video that was filmed in the execution chamber in Virginia. This, my friends, is the stuff that could cause Stephen King to wake up screaming. Remember, the video is real, shot in a real place, where real people have been executed. I’ve stood in the same spots as the officers in the film, and I’ve sat in that very chair. But the lights were burning brightly in the chamber and the “juice” was most definitely not connected to the chair when I sat. LIGHTS ON, CHAIR OFF. I made certain that officials understood those two very important details before I took a seat.

Howdy neighbor: sexual predator

 

Fraisure Earl Smith was released from custody this week after serving time for assault with intent to commit rape. Smith, now 51, committed five sexual assaults over a span of 15 years.

In 2007, Smith was convicted for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl (Smith claims he’s not a pedophile, but I’m betting he’d have a hard time convincing the mother of the 17-year-old girl that his claim is just). This, the latest case, was the one that finally landed him in a California state prison. And, as a 1996 law provided, Smith was eventually transferred to Coalinga State Hospital for followup care and treatment prior to his release back into society.

Smith’s timetable of repeat offenses—a violent sexual assault every five years during a period of fifteen years, and these are the one’s known to law enforcement—is a strong indicator of serial behavior. In other words, reoffending is definitely an option on his table, and violence and sexual assault are both in his arsenal. Needless to say, this man is dangerous. Although, Smith says he’s not. “I am not presently aroused by deviant sexual fantasies or urges….” Smith wrote in a recent declaration.

As Smith’s release date drew near (he’s now been legally deemed safe for release), officials from Liberty Healthcare, a company hired by the state to handle sex predator releases, agreed to find suitable housing for him. After an exhaustive search for housing in cities in four counties, courts and other officials were unable to secure a permanent residence for Smith. Locations were limited since sexual offenders are not permitted to live near schools, day care facilities, or other places where children may frequent. In all, 4,108 placement possibilities were looked at, but for one reason or another, none were approved.

The latest single family home that was approved but later rejected due to the outrage of nearby residents, was a house with a pool in a well-to-do neighborhood. By the way, since Smith is still under supervision of county and state authorities, his housing costs are covered by taxpayers. The monthly rent on the above-mentioned home was $3,000 per month. But, citizens banded together and forced the courts to reconsider. Now, however, without a home for Smith to, well, call home, he has been released from the mental health facility as a transient and will reside in a local Motel 6, still at taxpayer expense. Rules/law requires that he move every 5 days.

Smith is currently living in a motel where guests and their children stay when passing through the area. And those children, wives, and mothers will walk the hallways and parking lot, and they’ll wear their bathing suits while enjoying the hotel pool. All this while Fraisure Smith, a violent sexual predator, possibly watches and waits to be aroused by, in his own words, “deviant sexual fantasies or urges.”

I know, Smith and other violent sexual predators have to live somewhere when they’re released, but my past experiences with these guys tells me to keep a watchful eye on them. Sorry if this offends anyone, but that’s the way it is. Believe me, I’ve seen what can happen and it’s horrible.

Things you should know about sexual predators.

1. Grooming – Predators often “groom” children and other potential victims in order to gain their trust, hoping for access to alone time with them.

2. Predators also groom others, not just their intended victims. The purpose of this type of grooming is to “prove” they are not a risk. For example, see Smith’s quote above about no longer having urges or fantasies. This is a classic sign of grooming.

3. Signs of grooming

a) the adult shows an exaggerated interest in a child.

b) an adult buys gifts for a child.

c) the adult finds ways to be alone with a child.

d) an adult displays a fixation on a particular child.

e) the adult “accidentally” walks in a child when they’re bathing, using the restroom, or changing.

f) tickling

g) wrestling with children

h) playing “doctor”

i) taking photos of children, especially when they’re in various stages of undress or wearing swim suits, dance costumes, etc.

j) lots of hugging, kissing, and touching.

 

What to do when a sexual offender moves into your neighborhood?

Here’s a handy Tip Sheet from Stop It Now!

 

What are the warnings signs of possible sexual abuse in children?

Again we turn to Stop It Now! for a Tip Sheet.

 

Warning Signs That Might Suggest Someone Is Sexually Abusing a Child

To see the list of warning signs, please click here.

So, for now Fraisure Smith is a guest of a California Motel 6 hotel. Next week, well who knows. Maybe he or another just like him will be your new neighbor. Please be mindful of the activities and whereabouts of your children. You never know…

 UPDATE!

Ironically, this announcement came a few hours after I published this article. What a coincidence…or was it?

From KRON news in San Francisco.

“After obtaining further details from Motel 6, it appears that Motel 6 did not know that they had rented a room to Mr. Smith, the recently released sexually violent predator. Once they confirmed that he was staying there, they acted immediately to evict him,” Vallejo City Manager Daniel E. Keen said.

“Details provided by Motel 6 confirm that Liberty Healthcare Corporation, the contractor hired by the State to provide services to Smith, concealed Mr. Smith’s identity in order to obtain two rooms at the motel,” Vallejo police Cpt. John Whitney said in a press release.

Two Liberty employees gave their names and did not disclose the identity of Smith, police said.

Smith has been placed on the no-rent list.

Total Chaos: 6000 drug offenders

 

Chaos because 6,000 non-violent drug offenders were released at once from federal prisons? Well, that’s probably a bit extreme considering over 10,000 inmates are already being released back into society each month. That’s over 650,000 former offenders each year who return to walk and talk and work and mingle among us. The horror of it all, right?

Some of that horror is totally justified, and how so you ask? For starters, nearly two-thirds of of those 650,000 former prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. I know, chances of finding jobs, housing, and education for those folks are slim or none. Still, according to Justice Department stats, 4,000 of the 6,000 newly released federal inmates will most likely wind up back in prison. By the way, this 6,000 is in addition to the 69 men and women granted clemency by the president.

But, 6,000 is not the final total. The Sentencing Commission estimates a second round of releases to take place in the fall of 2016 will set free nearly 9,000 additional federal prisoners.

Police officials are extremely concerned, and most likely at least some of their fears are justified. There are no real programs in place to handle the sudden release of so many prisoners. There’s a significant lack of housing opportunities, job training, and a near absence of medical treatment, including mental health care and access to needed medications. Basically, there is no real safety net in place to catch these people when they fall, and the odds are so heavily stacked against convicted felons that a tumble for most is practically inevitible.

The additional number of inmates is expected to further burden strained probation departments. Officers who supervise the inmates on probation can barely handle the caseloads that are already dumped in their laps by the handfuls (prisoners are typically released under the supervision of a probation officer unless a court order states otherwise). Likewise, police officers will bear the brunt of dealing with those who choose to return to a criminal lifestyle. Add these new crimes and criminals to those already on the streets and, well, there’s just not enough officers to go around. And that’s the concern of many chiefs and sheriffs.

Let’s revisit the opening line of this article. Will this mass release of prisoners cause chaos in our streets? It’s doubtful that the average citizen will notice the effects. Well, unless they happen to be on the receiving end of the B&E’s, robberies, car thefts, etc. committed by the newly-released as they embark on their journeys back through the current catch and release system.

But chaos? Honestly, I can’t imagine things will be any different than what we’re already seeing on the evening news and across various social media sources. If that’s chaos, then it is what it is and will be what it will be. Besides, the situation—prison overcrowding, mass releases, mandatory minimums, etc.—should certainly be of more concern to citizens than, well, #It’sJustACup. But that’s just my opinion, something I rarely offer on this site.

 

Investigator G. Nome decides that current clues are not related to the true meaning of Christmas, so he moves on.

 

 

Prisons and jails in this country are a big business. A huge business, actually. In fact, well over 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the 5,000 prisons and jails across the U.S.. Obviously, 2 million people is a huge number of folks who must eat, wear clothing of some type, use hygiene products, etc., and those same 2 million people are unable to run out to the nearest mall or restaurant when a need arises. Besides, it’s the government’s responsibility to see to it that an inmate’s basic needs are met. Therefore, a plethora of businesses cater specifically to the prison industry.

For example, there are numerous companies specializing in inmate telephone equipment, ID cards and wristbands, commissary items, food service, condiments (mustard, ketchup, etc.), clothing, bedding, vehicles, security equipment, ATM kiosks (for visitors who wish to deposit funds to an inmate’s account), laundry equipment and supplies, and much, much more. Soooo much more.

The Bob Barker Company is a large well-known company that manufactures and/or sells products to the corrections industry. Items carried and sold include, for example, bedding, clothing, personal hygiene supplies, furniture, electronics (see-through TV’s, radios, watches, etc.), janitorial supplies, shoes, and suicide prevention items—protective helmets, jumpsuits and smocks, and more. They also sell board games, e-cigarettes, and electronic readers preloaded with approved books. Their list of goods and items is extremely long.

Bob Barker Company is a huge, extremely successful business that depends solely upon incarcerated men and women for its income. However, there’s a unique twist to this particular company’s business plan. They run a nonprofit, the BBC Foundation, that’s in place solely to help reduce recidivism. Yes, they actually try their best to prevent prisoners, the very people whom they depend upon to generate income, from returning to a life of incarceration.

Each year, the Bob Barker Company sets aside 10% of their profits to help support two commitments—local nonprofits and church ministries in their communities, and the BBC Foundation. They’ve set aside a $5 million endowment to help reach their support goals. In addition, BBC has awarded over $1 million to community-based projects.

Recidivism

Over 9.25 million people are incarcerated throughout the world, a number that’s approximately equal to the population of the state of North Carolina. The U.S. has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population despite having only 5% of the world’s population. In other words, prison is a big business in the U.S.

In 1970, the entire U.S. prison population was 338,000. It is currently over 2.3 million.

The likelihood of Americans landing in prison?

Men – 1 in 9

Women – 1 in 56

The United States currently has over 7 million people under some form of correctional supervision. Of the 7 million…

21% are in prison

10% are in jail

12% on parole

56% on probation

 

In 2011, one in every 107 U.S. adult citizens was incarcerated in prison or jail. A staggering 1 in every 34 adults were on probation or parole or other form of correctional supervision.

50% of those people housed in jails have not yet been convicted of a crime.

The U.S. spends approximately $48.5 billion per year on corrections. That figure equals to somewhere around $5.5 million per hour or, $92,000 per minute.

60% of all released inmates return within 3 years. Why? Well, I think we should look at some of the factors that may play a role in their lives of crime. First…

1. 56% of all inmates grew up in a single parent home (or guardian).

2. 1 in 9 of all inmates has lived in a foster home.

3. As children, many were physically or sexually abused.

4. Approximately 20% are illiterate. 40% are functionally illiterate.

5. 40% do not have a high school diploma or GED. 17% have an 8th grade education or less. Actually, the average inmate has a 10th grade education, yet only 3% of the prison population is offered an opportunity to  attend educational classes.

6. A whopping 60% of all inmates report they were using drugs at the time of their arrest. 36% say the same about alcohol use at the time of their arrest. 74% say they were using either or both at the time of their arrest.

*Those of you who have a copy of my book on police procedure may recall the title of chapter 11, Drugs, Not Money, Are the Root of All Evil.

 

7. 16% of all prisoners have a significant mental illness. 40% have mental problems.

8. Over 50% were on probation or parole at the time of arrest.

9. 44% have served time in the past.

10. 55% of incarcerated males have minor children at home. 65% of incarcerated women have minor children at home.

11. Children with incarcerated parents are 5 times more likely to be arrested/incarcerated.

12. 96% of all prisoners will someday be released back into society.

The Bob Barker Foundation’s mission (per the company website) is to develop and support programs that help incarcerated individuals successfully reenter society and stay out for life.

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It’s extremely difficult for former prisoners to become productive members of society. They’re branded for life with a record that follows them forever, and a criminal record will absolutely prevent most of them from securing decent employment. Sure, some will never change no matter how many programs are in place to help them. But, there are others who simply made a mistake, for whatever reason, and would never, ever do anything that would land them back in prison. However, their choices are slim. There are no second chances. Their “debt to society” is never repaid.

In some areas, convicted felons may NOT, work as movers or barbers, or hold public office. Felons may not hold certain licenses, such as a license to work as an electrician. Public housing is not available to them, nor are education grants/loans available for those convicted of most drug crimes.

So, yeah, avoiding a return trip to prison is a tough hurdle to overcome. Perhaps, having a goal to work toward, such as erasing the record of one-time offenders (for non-violent offenses) after ten years of squeaky clean behavior and contributing to the community, would go a long way toward reducing recidivism.

After all, many people are in jail or have criminal records because they were caught and arrested for doing the exact same things our current president admitted to doing (drug use) but was never caught by authorities. His message… I’m the president of the U.S. and I’ve broken the law several times, but didn’t get caught so I’m good to go. You, though, were nabbed doing the same thing so you now can never hold public office or work as a barber (even though the felon trained and worked as a barber while serving time in prison). And, to continue to punish you for the rest of your life (for something he, too, did and openly discusses), we’re not going to allow you to get an education or to have a place to live.

#everybodydeservesasecondchance

*Resources – Bob Barker Company and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

*This post is not an endorsement for Bob Barker Company or its affiliates. 

 

Many of you will be spending this weekend at the beach or at the mall. Maybe you’ll be doing yard work, or simply relaxing while watching TV or reading a book. However, not everyone is enjoying the sun and sand or quiet time. Instead, there are thousands upon thousands of people who’re on the road, traveling to the various jails and prisons across the country in order to visit a loved one or close friend who’s incarcerated.

Sometimes, these weekend jaunts to see inmates are long-distance trips—four or five hours or more—one way—and they often require a stay at a hotel, meals on the road, a missed day at work, and a number of other costly inconveniences.

A visit to a jail, or prison, can be a stressful experience. It’s certainly not as simple as going to a friend’s home to sit on a couch for a couple of hours, laughing and joking about the good old days. Not at all.

So what’s it really like to visit a jail inmate? Here’s a short video that explains the visiting process and procedure at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia.

*Remember, no two jails or prisons operate in the same manner. Rules and regulations vary greatly. The video is merely an example of how one sheriff chooses to run his jail. However, the goals are all the same…security.

A prisoners journey: Part 2

 

Inmate J.L. Bird, #12345-678, had always enjoyed living in California. The scenery was absolutely to die for, and the Mexican cuisine was, without a doubt, the best in the country. Somehow, though, the view didn’t quite seem the same when seeing it through windows covered in heavy metal mesh.

The Marshal had been driving about two hours when Bird reached into his paper sack and pulled out one of the boiled eggs. He gave it a couple of gentle whacks against the aluminum seat back in front of him and then began the tedious process of picking away the shell one small fleck at a time. After a quick inspection to be certain he’d removed all traces of the outer covering, he devoured the egg in two bites. The second one, though, he decided to savor, nibbling at it and letting his tongue enjoy the creamy texture of the yolk. Besides, who knew when the next meal would come.

The inmate seated next to him on his left, a man whose exposed flesh was mostly covered in jailhouse tats, slept soundly. His shaved head lolled from shoulder to shoulder depending on the direction of curves and varying depths of potholes. A bluish-black cobra adorned the back of his head, and the words “You Die” were inked across his forehead in large block letters.

The man directly in front of him wore his hair in long dreadlocks that he’d gathered into ponytail by using a series of bright pink rubber bands. Next to him sat the fattest man Bird had ever seen in prison khaki. His breathing was loud and wheezy and each exhale produced a faint whistle. His nerdish-cut greasy hair was the perfect compliment to the three-day growth of deep black whiskers covering his cheeks and upper neck.

Bird passed the time by thinking about how wonderful it would be to stand outside in the midst of the almond orchard they’d just passed. Or to feel the sunshine on his arms and face while tending to the dairy cows at the massive farm he’d seen back near Barstow.

After traveling through a very long stretch of nothingness followed by desert as far as the eye could see, the driver finally slowed and turned left into what appeared to be an abandoned airport. She pulled over next to a dilapidated tin shed and asked if any of the prisoners needed to use the restroom.

Bird waited his turn as the Marshals let them out two at a time to expel their water right there on the asphalt. The female marshal was nice enough to look the other way while her male partner stood watch over the tinklers.

Twelve men later, and a nice-sized S-shaped river that disappeared beneath the van, the side door was closed and padlocked, and the driver headed straight for a cracked runway with tall, dry weeds sprouting through the jagged openings. She hooked a left after passing a series of rundown metal buildings of varying sizes. And that’s when Bird first saw the menagerie of sheriff’s vans and buses, prison vehicles, and an array of heavily-armed officers from various agencies. A couple of snipers stood on roof of an old hanger, and several sunglass-wearing BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) officers stood on the asphalt pavement. They each held a long gun of some sort—pump shotgun or military-style rifle. Those guys were not there to play games. No sir.

“Where are we?” Bird asked the female Marshal.

“My guess would be an airport,” she said, and looked to her partner who politely chuckled at her weak attempt at humor.

“How about this, then,” Bird said. “Where are we going?”

“You know we can’t tell you that, Bird,” said the male Marshal. “Obviously, you’re going to take a little trip. So just sit there and be quiet. You’ll find out where you’re going when you get there.”

Bird leaned back in his seat. Fat Guy was fidgeting in his seat and sweating profusely, and his breathing whistles had grown louder and higher-pitched, almost to the point of “only dogs can hear.” He toyed with the black box mounted between his cuffs. Bird wondered what he’d done to warrant the added security.

Movement on the runway caught Bird’s eye. The officers outside began to assemble into a somewhat orderly formation. They were also watching the sky. Something was about to happen…and it did. A dot appeared above the horizon and, within a matter of seconds, it grew into a large passenger jet.

The plane made its approach and touched down smoothly, stirring up clouds of dust and sending a half-dozen tumbleweeds rolling off into the desert. The massive unmarked jet came to a stop in front of the officers. The roar from its engines was uncomfortably loud.

A rear stairway lowered to the ground and a handful of jump-boot-wearing marshals filed out. They spoke with the group of ground transport Marshals, deputies, and other officers, and then motioned to the driver in control of Bird’s van, who eased the vehicle forward until it was within a few yards of the plane. She and her partner opened the side door to the van and told the prisoners to step outside and line up, single file. A second door on the jet opened. This one was on the side, and a set of stairs lowered until it, too, touched the pavement.

As the buses and vans unloaded their human cargo, a steady stream of t-shirt and khaki-wearing prisoners made their way down the jet’s side stairs. As soon as their blue-shoed feet hit the pavement they were whisked away by the officers who were there to take them to their new home for the next 5-10 years, or longer. Some, like Bird, were on their way to court where they’d testify against co-defendants or to listen as their court-appointed attorneys pleaded for sentence reductions or new trials, or for whatever legal business warranted a flight on the Marshals’ mass transit system.

After comparing papers and photo ID’s, Bird’s group was loaded into the jet via the rear stairway, where Marshals guided them into seats that had seen their better days many years ago.

The interior of the plane was hot and the little moveable air nozzles either didn’t work or were missing. The seat trays had been removed and the carpeting was stained and sticky. Many years of accumulated artificial fruit juice, piss, and vomit, Bird surmised. The aroma of pine cleaner did nothing to hide the stench. He wondered how the Marshals stood being cooped up inside the funky-smelling jet day in and day out.

Within a few minutes they were taxiing down the runway, headed for who knew where. As soon as they reached their cruising altitude the pilot made a brief announcement. “You must remain in your seats at all times. You may not stand for any reason. You may not use the restroom during the flight. The air marshals on board are not flight attendants. They are here to insure my safety and yours. You will follow their instructions at all times. If you have any questions, please hold them until we land. Until then, thank you for flying Con Air. Enjoy your flight.” Only the Marshals laughed at the pilot’s attempt at comedy.

Bird closed his eyes, hoping to sleep the day away. But the nose-whistling fat guy wasn’t about to let that happen. He stood and began screaming some sort of gibberish about being terrified of flying and that he was going to kill the pilot. Well, it took all of four minutes and five air Marshals, a Taser, and a few well-placed blows to the head, shoulders, and lower back to silence that nonsense.

Bird closed his eyes again, hoping the steady hum of the jet engines would help him sleep and send him to freedom, if only for a few hours. Soon he was dreaming of life on the outside. Ah, to be at the coast once again…

 

Next up…Oklahoma City, good food, and the nightly all-nude girlie shows—for prisoners’ eyes only.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

 

Have you ever sat looking into the eyes of a serial killer, watching for some sign of remorse for his crimes, wondering if he would take back what he’d done, if he could? Have you ever smelled the burning flesh of a condemned killer as 1,800 volts of electricity ripped through his body? No? Well, I have.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned man be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

 

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub where he doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber and out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.

 

Unusual facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

20 reasons corrections officers despise escapes

I got my start in law enforcement as a corrections officer working in a prison designed to house the inmates that had been deemed as “the worst of the worst.” Other institutions couldn’t or didn’t want to deal them, so they sent those little darlings to us. In other words, they were the system’s problem children. Fortunately for the citizens who lived nearby, our place was like Colonel Klink’s Stalag 13 … we’d never had a successful escape. Some had tried, but never succeeded.

Not far away, within sight, actually, was another prison. It, too, housed some pretty tough customers, but it also had a substantial population of medium to lower custody inmates. Unfortunately, their escape record was marred by a few blemishes and this was a concern to the locals. After all, a couple of the prisoners there had once beaten a corrections officer to death. Another had violently raped a female officer. Not to mention the inmates who’d killed or maimed other inmates. So yeah, escapes were always on the minds of everyone, including the inmates who had freedom on their minds.

As officers, escapes meant something entirely different to us. Sure, the safety of our neighbors and fellow staff were a concern, but it was the other stuff that went along with total chaos that followed the discovery of a missing inmate that really bugged us.

For example:

The Day the Alarm Sounded … ESCAPE!!

1. Count time and the final tally came up one man short. So they counted again and again and again and again and again, until someone “upstairs” was finally able to comprehend and embarrassingly admit that a prisoner was not where he was supposed to be. This process could and did last up to 30-40 minutes, or so.

2. When a count comes up short, inmates, if not already there, are sent to their cells and locked inside. Those at work were generally ordered to assemble in one secure spot and remain there until further instructions were provided, which usually meant an escorted trip back to their assigned cells. A top-to-bottom search of the buildings and grounds was then initiated.

The place was a madhouse, with employees turning every stone, bush, and mattress. Inmates shouted and cheered for their missing compadre, even if they’d never seen the guy before in their entire lives. They banged and shook their cell doors, tossed things out into the corridors and dayroom areas. Some flooded their cells to add to the confusion, hopefully to provide enough distraction to aid in the escape attempt.

3. An hour of internal searching went by without a trace of the missing man, so the brass swallowed hard before making THE call to the regional office.

4. The order is given to sound the siren—a shrill, even more piercing than a fire siren noise that reached for miles—alerting everyone, including neighbors and other nearby prisons that an inmate has indeed escaped. And this is where the real pucker-factor for lower level officers sets in because …

5. Officers are at their assigned posts, guarding the remaining prisoners (watching them play cards and dominoes while yelling and cheering for their new hero) when they see a handful of White-shirts approaching (superior officers are called White-shirts because they wear—wait for it—white shirts). The bosses point at various officers as they pass by. First one then another, like selecting the top canines in a dog show.

6. The pointed-at officers are now part of the search team. These selections are based on absolutely nothing more than an eenie-meenie-miney-mo type system. Time on the job, marksmanship, alertness…they mean nothing. Warm bodies are what’s needed at that time.

7. So off you go to the armory where the “hand-picked” officers are issued a sidearm and sometimes a shotgun, depending upon how many are on hand and how many are in decent working condition.

8. Recently-armed officers are loaded into smelly vans and buses, packed in like the inmates who’d ridden in those very vehicles just hours before. Meanwhile, back at the prison, all time off and other leave is cancelled for all officers. And, no one is allowed to leave their posts until further notice. No one goes home. In fact, more officers are called in to work.

9. The vans and buses head out to the roads surrounding the prison and the wooded areas between. The vehicles stop at regular intervals to drop off an officer who is to stand there until someone comes back to retrieve him/her. This could be hours, or…

10. Night falls and mosquitoes begin to feed on the guard’s exposed flesh.

11. The officer really wishes he’d been issued a flashlight, and something to eat and drink.

12. Midnight approaches, as does something from inside the darkness of the wooded area. It’s a deer.

13. A prison van drives up at 1 a.m.. The passenger, a White-shirt, rolls down his window and asks if the officer has seen anything? He’s holding a bottle of Diet Coke and promises someone will be by soon to relieve him. Doesn’t offer even a swallow of the beverage.

14. An hour later another van pulls up and the driver tells the officer to get in. The officer is told the search area has been expanded and they’re moving him to an area 20 miles away. Still no food or drink.

15. 24 hours later the officer is standing in in front of a house in a residential neighborhood that’s 26 miles from the prison. It’s raining very hard. No rain gear. Thankfully, the homeowner brings hot soup, a ham and cheese sandwich, and cold drinks.

16. 30 hours since the escape siren sounded. A prison van rolls to a stop in front of the exhausted officer and the driver tells him to get inside.

17. The prisoner was located 250 miles away, traveling in a vehicle owned by a prison kitchen employee. She was driving the car at the time it was stopped by state police.

18. The officer, wet, tired, and still hungry, learned that officials suspected the kitchen worker and had alerted police to locate her.

19. The officer also learned that his bosses had stationed him and his co-workers throughout the countryside as merely a precaution in case the other “thing” didn’t pan out.

20. And that, not so much the idea of a dangerous escapee, is why we hated escapes from our facilities.

*Remember, it was a long, long time ago when I worked as a corrections officer. I’m sure times and things have changed a bit since then. However, I’ll still bet money that forced overtime and poor treatment by administration still occurs and is something that’s despised by many of today’s officers.

Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the filthiest public restroom you’ve ever visited. Take a deep breath while conjuring up a stench that lingers in places where only roaches and vermin dare to trod. Combine those odors with the scent of dirty sweat socks, t-shirts and underwear, cooked popcorn, urine, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles.

Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single lungful of fresh air. Could you drink water from a sink that was used to wash the feet of a man who just finished working on a roadside work gang for eight hours in ninety-degree heat—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by three people, but is only capable of being flushed twice in eight hours?

How about sleeping in a six-by-nine room with two other large men who haven’t bathed in several days during the hottest time of the year. There’s no ventilation. No windows to open. How about sleeping on the floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, wool blanket? Roaches, rats, and mice darting from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinder blocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls. HGTV it ain’t.

What I’ve just described is jailing. Serving time. Marking the calendar. Doing time.

Of course, conditions are better in some facilities than others, but many are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.

The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve ever seen. It’s also a very well-run operation. The staff is well-trained, and for the most part the prisoners seemed to be in good spirits considering their circumstances.

A brief tour of a county jail:

Deputy sheriffs  monitor and control inmate activities and movement from inside a master control room. All doors are operated electronically by the officer seated at the control desk.

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Female dormitory

Some prison dormitories house over one-hundred prisoners in a single room. Many times, a single officer is assigned to supervise the activities of one or more dorm rooms. Only non-violent inmates are assigned to dorm-style incarceration. In many federal prisons, dormitory-style housing is quite common, especially in the low-security facilities and prison camps.

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Each inmate is responsible for keeping her personal space clean. Cleaning the overall dormitory is a shared task.

A very happy prisoner. I asked why the big smile. Her reply was, “Things could be worse. At least I’m alive and healthy.”

The silver, metallic cable you see on the right is a telephone cord. This jail features a phone in each dorm. Inmates are allowed to make collect calls during approved times of the day only. The phones are switched off from the control booth during the “off” times.

Jail Library

Books are often donated by local community groups, families of inmates, and even the prisoners themselves.

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Cell block

In the photograph below, a deputy sheriff makes his rounds inside a cell block. He’s actually inside a day room that’s normally occupied by several inmates (they were made to go inside their cells while I was inside the day room). The area outside the windows to the left is the common area hallway that’s outside the locked cell areas. The doors to the deputy’s right and straight ahead are inmate cell doors. Each morning those doors are opened, allowing all inmates into the day room where they play cards, watch TV, eat their meals, and socialize. They return to their cells at night.

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Inmates are not allowed in their cells during the day. Sleeping or lounging on their beds during the day is not permitted. Having all the inmates in the day room also allows the deputies to see their every movement. The only exception to the rule is when an inmate is sick. However, the illness must be verified by a jail nurse or doctor.

Looking out

An inmate’s view through the window in his cell door out into the hallway. Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall is that of another inmate’s cell. The checkered grate at the top of the picture is the only source of ventilation in the cell. It’s also a means for the jail staff to communicate with the prisoner. Jail doors are heavily insulated to retard fires and noise.

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Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in an area I’d just left. The problem—an inmate was having an anxiety attack from being in such tight quarters. He’d become quite violent and was tossing things around. His troubles reminded me of how much I appreciate the little things—trees, flowers, family, home-cooked meals, wine, and flushing my own darn toilet whenever I want.

Inmates who commit violations of jail rules, or exhibit violent behavior, are sometimes placed in segregation/isolation. That section of the jail is often called the SHU (Special Housing Unit) or The Hole.

Overcrowding is a huge problem in jails and prisons. This jail was forced to hang metal beds from the hallway walls when their cells reached capacity—three men in each two-man cell.

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Another answer to overcrowding was to convert the jail parking garage to living space. By bringing in shipping containers (like those you see on cargo ships and the backs of tractor-trailers) and converting them to individual housing units, this jail was able to safely increase it’s capacity by 100 inmates. A chain-link fence circles the mini-compound.

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Each module is a self-contained unit equipped with air conditioning. A deputy sheriff monitors the parking garage jail from a small booth positioned outside the fence. Cameras are placed throughout the module areas.

Inside, the modules are narrow, but adequate. Bunk beds for ten prisoners, storage lockers, and a shared writing desk made from a single piece of lumber.

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The space between two modules serves as the recreation yard. Remember, just a few months before I snapped these photos this space was a parking garage for the jail staff and visitors.

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Visiting Room

Prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room. The view below is from the inmate’s side of the glass.

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By the way, prison and jail are not synonymous. They’re entirely different animals. But that’s a topic for another blog.

*Not all jails and prisons operate in the same manner. Nor are they all the same in appearance.

Escape from death row

Mecklenburg Correctional Center, a twenty-million dollar institution built in 1977, was once touted as an escape-proof prison. But double fencing topped with miles of looping razor wire, heightened security measures, highly trained staff, and all the electronic bells and whistles, didn’t stop two of the most dangerous killers in America, James and Linwood Briley, from finding a way to beat the system.

How’d they do it? Did they use James Bond-like electronic gadgets to override the security systems? Did they have a cache of high-tech weapons smuggled inside through a network of hidden tunnels? Or, did they have a team of conspirators posing as high-ranking prison officials? Well, believe it or not, all it took for six condemned killers to break free of their death row cell block was a little bit of planning, a few officer’s uniforms, a portable TV, and a fire extinguisher.

The Briley Brothers, along with four other death row inmates, Lem Tuggle, Earl Clanton, Derick Peterson, and Willie Lloyd Turner, began their plan by watching the habits of the guards who worked in the death row section of the prison. A seventh prisoner, Dennis Stockton, was to have joined the escapees, but backed out at the last minute fearing a bloodbath during the jailbreak. However, Stockton helped plan the escape.

During the planning stage, the prisoners quickly learned what size clothing each officer wore, and they managed to learn the secret codes used by officers that locked and unlocked security doors.

After months of studying the guard’s movements, the prisoners decided to make their move. On the night of May, 31, 1984, the inmates overpowered a few guards, took their uniforms, and then set their bizarre plan in motion. They each put on a guard’s uniform and then used the door codes to begin a journey that started from deep inside the prison and ended with the freedom that awaited them outside the gate .

They took a stretcher, placed a portable TV on it, and then covered it with a blanket. Pretending to be corrections officers, they called the officer working the main gate and said they’d found a bomb. They told the gate officer that the situation was dire and they needed to exit the prison immediately to dispose of the device.

The Brileys and their partners in crime knew the prison had never dealt with a bomb before and figured there was no set procedure for dealing with one. Their assumptions were correct.

The six inmates made their way to the front gate, carrying the faux bomb. One of the prisoners occasionally sprayed the “bomb” with the fire extinguisher, hoping to make the situation seem more realistic. The men placed the device into a prison van and climbed inside. The officer working the controls opened the gate and allowed six death row inmates to drive off into the dark Virginia night. It would be a little over an hour before prison officials realized they’d been hoodwinked.

I remember receiving the call about the Brileys’ escape. It was an odd feeling to learn that some of Virginia’s most notorious murderers were on the run. I also remember wondering how they managed to pull off such a daring move. My first thought was that they’d most certainly killed several people in order to successfully reach the outside. It’s mind-boggling, to those of us in the business, when we hear of any prison escape. But an escape from a death row? Impossible, or so I thought. To understand why I say impossible, you must know a little about a maximum security facility.

Large prisons, such as Mecklenburg Correctional Center, are like small fortresses that contain several smaller fortresses inside the sprawling compounds To reach either of these smaller sections of the prison, you must first pass through several locked gates, doors, checkpoints, housing units, medical facilities, security stations, electronically controlled doors and gates, and you’ll most certainly pass dozens of employees before reaching the exit gate.

The exit is not a simple gate like you’d find in a nstandard chain-link fence. A prison exit is actually two separate gates with a large space between the two called a sally port. The person exiting the prison must approach the gate and press a call button. A guard in a tower is responsible for the electronic gate controls (the purpose of the tower is so that no one can get to the officer and force him to open the gates). Still, there are guards on the ground who visually check to see who is coming and going.

When the ground and tower officers are certain the person at the gate is someone who’s allowed to leave (they should confirm by ID card and facial recognition), the tower officer opens the first gate. The person exiting the prison steps, or drives (there are separate, smaller sally ports for pedestrians), inside the sally port and waits for the gate to lock behind him. Then the officer opens the second gate, which is the final barrier to the outside. There are numerous checks and balances in place to prevent escapes. On the night of the Briley escape, every single check and balance failed. The cause—human error.

The events of May 31, 1984, are best described by Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Bill McKelway. Mr. McKelway writes:

* The following is an excerpt from a Richmond Times Dispatch article written by Bill McKelway

May 31, 1984, was a Thursday, a beautiful spring day.

Richmond Times Dispatch image

Nearly a dozen of the 24 death-row inmates knew of an escape plan. All but six backed out. The plan depended on a domino effect of good fortune.

Guards didn’t notice that an unusual number of death-row inmates suddenly appeared clean-shaven with their hair neatly kept that day. If they had, perhaps the change would have signaled to them that it was “E-Day” — escape day. How could the rough-looking inmates pass for guards if they looked like slobs?

At 6 p.m. in the recreation yard, inmate Lem D. Tuggle Jr. walked over to Stockton with a question.

“We’re gonna leave tonight and I need to know how to get away from here. Can you tell me which roads run into North Carolina and where they are?”

The words were recorded by Stockton in his diary.

Stockton, a moonshine-running country boy, had backed out of the escape; Tuggle figured he would have to drive the getaway vehicle himself.

“I wish you were going,” Tuggle is said to have told Stockton, the only other white man among the group of likely escapees. “I’ll stick out like a bad penny.”

About 8 p.m., the bulk of the prisoners left the yard and waited in a bunch to enter death row’s C pod.

Lagging behind, inmate Earl Clanton Jr. darted into the bathroom adjoining the control booth. The door was unlocked, and no one saw him.

The others quickly dispersed into the pod; guards failed to count them or notice that Clanton was missing.

A nurse arrived to administer medicines, only to find a locked bathroom, where she would usually draw water for the pills. James Briley concocted an explanation off the top of his head, according to Stockton. Earlier in the day, someone had said the bathroom was out of order, Briley told the guards. They believed him, and the nurse went elsewhere.

About 9 p.m., James Briley asked the guard in the control booth for a book from the adjoining day room.

The guard opened the door to the booth, Briley yelled to Clanton, and Clanton burst from the bathroom into the booth, subdued the guard and used the control panel to open all the cells.

Within three minutes, the inmates took control of the pod. Unarmed guards were stripped of their clothes, their mouths were taped shut, their hands tied behind their backs.

Uniforms were piled on the floor, and the inmates searched through them for pants and shirts that fit.

Guards arrived one after another, wondering why there seemed to be delays or that they hadn’t heard back from co-workers. Each was seized by uniform-wearing prisoners. The hostages were kept in cells. Some inmates protected guards and nurses from attack.

When a white-shirted lieutenant was captured, he complied with orders that he summon a van.

“We have a situation here,” he barked, a knife at his throat.

Informed that the inmates had a bomb, a guard brought up a van, making sure to use an older vehicle so an explosion wouldn’t damage a new vehicle.

“So you had this man willing to spare a new van but not seeing anything wrong with six men he  thought were officers possibly getting blown up,” said Lettner, author of the state police report.

The inmates found a closetful of riot gear. They donned helmets and armed themselves with shields. Gas masks dangled around their necks.

They were in absolute control of C pod, even as walled-off inmates and guards in the rest of the building remained oblivious to what was transpiring.

The escape route from Building 1 was still blocked by a guard in the main control room at the front door. She was lured away with a fake report that she had an outside call.

The lieutenant, still threatened, told her over the phone that a replacement would be showing up so she could leave her post to handle the call.

The guard opened the door to the entryway control booth as she saw her replacement approaching, a man she didn’t recognize.

It was inmate Derick L. Peterson. He subdued the guard and called upstairs to James Briley, who yelled out to the other inmates: “He’s in!”

Peterson could hear cheers over the phone.

The van arrived at the sally port inside the prison’s main vehicular entrance. The sally port is a double-doored, cagelike structure designed to isolate vehicles within the two gates so that a vehicle’s contents can be checked and the identity of any personnel entering or leaving the prison can be confirmed.

A vehicle enters through one of the gates; the gate closes; the vehicle is then confined and checked. The second gate opens and the vehicle leaves.

What came next was one of the most bizarre sights to ever emerge inside the walls of a prison.

Six death-row inmates, each one a heartless killer dressed in riot gear, burst through the door of Building 1 with a wheeled stretcher. They yelled they had a bomb; two of the men were hosing it off with a fire extinguisher, supposedly to cool the explosive.

The bomb, under a blanket, was the television set from death row.

The inmates, their identities obscured in the darkness and beneath helmets, hustled toward the van across the prison yard. They loaded the bomb into the van and told a guard to open both gate doors at once.

She briefly objected, saying it was a blatant violation of policy.

But she relented, opened both gates, and the van passed into the pitch black countryside.

The two Briley brothers, Clanton, Peterson, Tuggle and Richmonder Willie Leroy Jones were free.

There had been no bloodshed, no gunfire. A prison van loaded with a TV set and six murderers rolled toward North Carolina. They had $758 in cash taken from guards, plenty of clothes and hundreds of marijuana cigarettes.

It was 10:47 p.m.

Harold Catron, the prison security chief, still remembers the late-night phone call that awakened him.

“They told me death-row inmates had escaped,” Catron recalled.

He responded with an expletive.

Catron’s world suddenly turned upside down.

“My God, I’m going to lose my job,” he thought.

Then his mind tried to absorb the mayhem that might follow.

“I thought of the murders that would happen, the rapes that could follow, as they tried to get away.”

Snook, the lawyer, turned to his wife in bed. The radio was blaring news of the escape.

“I tried to tell them,” he said. “What happened?”

~

The news spread slowly.

Investigations of the escape revealed that precious chunks of time elapsed before area law-enforcement agencies, as well as the state police, were notified of what happened.

Even the on-site prison command didn’t learn until 11:15 p.m., Lettner said.

State police were told at 11:31 p.m. — not by the prison but by the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s office.

In the nearby town of South Hill, the acting police chief said descriptions of the escapees didn’t reach him until Friday afternoon, 16 hours after the breakout. Initial reports from the prison said there were five escapees, not six. Prison officials did not offer a formal explanation.

At the Executive Mansion, Gov. Charles S. Robb had just dozed off to sleep when the phone rang.

“It was 1:30 or 2 a.m. in the morning and I can remember being pretty upset that all this time had apparently gone by before the word went up the chain of command or whatever and got to me,” Robb said last week.

“I particularly remember feeling concern for the inmates who had helped keep harm from coming to the guards.”

As the enormity of the escape began to sink in, memories awakened about the Brileys’ victims, the viciousness of the crimes and the random nature of what had befallen the Richmond area in 1979.

Suddenly, Richmond seemed a city about to come under siege by some terrible, too-familiar force: the Briley brothers.

“I think what concerned me the most was that I had seen firsthand what they were capable of doing. I knew their determination to seek revenge. You never forget the smell of death and the smell of blood from what they did,” former Richmond detective Woody, now city sheriff, said this month.

So Woody made sure he was armed at all times. He drove different routes to and from work and around town, and he moved his family to a safe location.

Judges, witnesses, prosecutors and victims’ relatives were given protection. Even the family of Meekins, whose testimony sent the brothers to prison, was warned to take precautions.

Gallows humor surfaced as well. A set of playing cards with cartoonlike images of the escape and capture would later appear in Richmond.

Neighbors of Warren Von Schuch, who had helped prosecute the Brileys and is now Chesterfield County special prosecutor, fashioned a posterboard-sized sign for the Brileys, pointing them to Von Schuch’s house across the street.

“Actually, I’d moved out of the neighborhood by then,” said Von Schuch, who had started packing heat.

Two of the escapees, Peterson and Clanton, were captured that Friday morning just across the North Carolina border, sipping wine from a bottle inside a coin laundry. Their prison-issue shoes gave them away.

The arrests and discovery of the escape van in the area fueled the notion that the Brileys and others remained near Warrenton, N.C. More than 200 law-enforcement agents in Virginia and North Carolina, along with scores of media representatives, converged on the community, now transformed from a sleepy town to a place where residents waved guns instead of hello.

Warrenton was sealed off by police.

Some residents patrolled their property with weapons at the ready.

“I’m going to blow the man’s head off and then ask questions,” Frank Talley, a shotgun on his lap, told a reporter.

Alleged sightings popped up across Virginia and North Carolina, from Portsmouth in the east to Rowan County, N.C., 120 miles to the west.

Missing underwear on a clothesline near Warrenton sparked fears of a Briley in the area, attracting dozens of officers.

Key investigators interviewed recently, however, revealed that Virginia State Police had reliable information that the four remaining escapees — the Brileys, Tuggle and Jones — had traveled north and passed Richmond before dawn Friday, June 1.

The startling information was kept highly classified. V. Stuart Cook, then head of Richmond’s major-crimes unit, doesn’t recall being told.

But the information focused a key, clandestine element of the investigation northward even as swarms of police and the media chased reports of sightings to the south for more than two weeks.

A blue pickup truck stolen near Warrenton overnight May 31 was the key.

In interviewing the owner, former state police criminal investigator Larry Mitchell said, state police determined the likely range of the vehicle before it would need refueling.

Agents focused on one of the few all-night gas stations along the Interstate 95 corridor north of Richmond.

“It turned out that there was a sighting at a station in Thornburg” about 50 minutes north of Richmond, Mitchell said. The description of the vehicle matched and so did the arrangement of its four occupants: three black men and a white man.

“The white guy was in the bed of the truck facing backwards,” Mitchell said.

Years later, Tuggle would tell reporters he had trouble tracking the escape route because “they made me sit in the back; all I could see was the back of the highway signs.”

Tuggle, minutes after robbing a store clerk at knifepoint, would be arrested June 8 in Vermont’s southwest corner trying to outrace a local constable.

Tuggle was driving the truck stolen in Warrenton.

“He popped like a grape,” said a state trooper when asked the day of the arrest if Tuggle was cooperative.

Tuggle said the Brileys exited the truck in Philadelphia, Mitchell and Lettner recalled.

Tuggle watched the Briley brothers ditch part of their correctional uniforms and a badge in the hollow of a tree in a park in Philadelphia, Mitchell said.

That same day, June 8, police arrested Jones in northern Vermont a few miles from the Canadian border, leaving only the Brileys unaccounted for.

Jones, whose mother persuaded him to surrender, had been driven north by Tuggle.

Back in Philadelphia, state police agents working with the FBI found the uniforms hidden in the tree. The hunt for the Brileys in the City of Brotherly Love heated up.

A key focus was an uncle, Johnnie Lee Council, who lived there.

But Mitchell said agents found it very difficult to track the man’s movement because of the teeming North Philadelphia neighborhoods he frequented and the traffic congestion.

A big break came with a call to a person in New York whose telephone was being monitored. Lettner and Mitchell declined to discuss specifics of the call.

But immediately after the escape, efforts were put in place to monitor Briley relatives, former associates and people they had been in contact with throughout their prison years.

It took two days to locate the origin of the call to New York: a garage in North Philadelphia. The FBI sent an informant to see who was there, Mitchell said.

Descriptions came back fitting the Brileys.

Within a matter of hours that day, June 19, teams of federal agents swarmed the building, catching the Brileys barbecuing chicken over a charcoal fire in an alley.

They had been sleeping in the garage, doing odd jobs and befriending neighbors.

People called them Lucky and Slim. Linwood was Lucky; James was Slim.

Fairmont in North Philadelphia, where the capture went down shortly after 9 p.m., was a no-questions-asked neighborhood notorious for crime and secrecy.

“It’s where people live to prey on other people,” taxi driver Richard Batchlor told a reporter at the time. “You live here, you get preyed on.”

“All I could see was barrels of shotguns,” said Dan Latham, who owned the garage, when police stormed the place. He had no idea, he said, who Slim and Lucky really were, even as the three of them listened to news reports of the escape.

Charges of aiding and abetting against Council, the uncle who helped settle the Brileys in Philadelphia, were dropped.

Within minutes of the capture, Jay Cochran, head of the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, called the trooper on duty at the Executive Mansion.

When Robb got on the line, Cochran uttered the words that ended 19 days of torment: The Brileys were in custody. No one had been harmed.

~

The Briley brothers returned to Richmond on June 21, arriving at the now-demolished State Penitentiary — located near the NewMarket Corp. (formerly Ethyl Corp.) complex off Belvidere Street — about 9:15 p.m.

Driven from Philadelphia by a cortege of law-enforcement vehicles, the two brothers received a loud reception from the 900 inmates who quickly became aware of their presence.

“I don’t know if it was cheers or jeers,” a supervisor with the U.S. Marshals Service said at the time.

Death by electrocution would soon follow, the end game in a years-long legal process rather than retribution for escaping.

Linwood, 30, went first. His case had been heard by about 40 judges since his arrest in October 1979. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeal Oct. 11, 1984; he died the next night at 11:05 for the murder of disc jockey John “Johnny G” Gallaher.

Prison officials at the State Penitentiary rejected Briley’s request that his last meal be the same as that of other inmates. He received steak instead of fried chicken.

He was able to hold his mother in his arms earlier in the day, but the same opportunity was not extended to him regarding his son, then 10, a child who went on to become a career criminal.

Hundreds of protesters chanted or wept on either side of Belvidere Street as the death hour approached: one side spelling out “F-R-Y,” the other holding candles.

Cook, of Richmond’s major-crimes unit, witnessed the electrocution, calling it “quick and uneventful.”

Death-row inmates at Mecklenburg signed a petition, saying they would protest the execution by not eating. Eleven of the 19 signers ate anyway.

Linwood Briley’s execution was the second in Virginia after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The total is now 102.

James Briley was executed April 18, 1985, also in the electric chair at the state prison in Richmond.

In a last interview, he professed his innocence and his love for his brother, whose death steeled his courage.

James said he had vowed to be nearby at his brother’s execution, something prison officials didn’t want. James said he took two hits from a stun gun and was dragged away.

“I told them I wouldn’t leave my brother. I wouldn’t walk out.”

The morning of James’ execution, fellow inmates rioted in hopes of stalling the electrocution. They injured nine guards in brutal attacks that used homemade knives. In the minutes before he died, James twice looked to witnesses and asked, “Are you happy?”

Tuggle, the last of the escapees executed, chose lethal injection. He died Dec. 12, 1996. A tattoo on his arm spoke to a bitter truth: “Born to Die.”

Tuggle was almost buoyant in his last words to witnesses. He entered the death chamber and shouted, “Merry Christmas.”