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California and the West

Prison Slaying Prompts Probe

Violence: Officials investigate killing of a gay Corcoran inmate that took 50 minutes and occurred below a guard post. The suspect allegedly killed a cellmate months earlier.

July 16, 1999|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — State investigators are returning to troubled Corcoran prison to probe the fatal beating of a homosexual inmate who was pummeled and strangled for nearly 50 minutes in an open exercise yard directly below a guard post.

The July 2 killing, captured on videotape, was carried out by a prisoner who strangled his cellmate only months earlier and was deemed too dangerous to mix with fellow inmates, according to corrections officials and a local prosecutor.

Corrections Department investigators are trying to determine why the alleged killer, Anthony G. Delgado, 31, was placed one-on-one in a small concrete exercise yard with James Kevin Mahoney, 39, whose homosexuality made him a prime target for attack.

The exercise yards inside the security housing unit are supposed to be under constant supervision by a guard armed with a gas gun to break up fights, and investigators are trying to find out how the attack could have lasted nearly an hour before the guard intervened to stop it.

State legislators who oversee California's vast prison system reacted to the latest death inside the Corcoran security housing unit with bewilderment. How is it, they asked, that a lockup already known as the nation's most deadly--the subject of numerous FBI and press investigations and a state legislative hearing last summer into officer brutality and cover-ups--could repeat the same fatal mistakes?

"With all the spotlight put on Corcoran, it's hard to believe that things are still out of control there," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a persistent critic of the prison during the six-day hearings. "To let a homicidal inmate out in a yard with another inmate and for the beating to go on that long, it's either gross negligence or murder as usual at Corcoran."

Kings County Dist. Atty. Ron Calhoun said his office will file murder charges today against Delgado in the October 1998 strangling of his cellmate, Frank Mendoza, and the July 2 death of Mahoney.

But he said a preliminary investigation of staff has revealed no criminal negligence on the part of the gun post officer. Calhoun said the officer had never manned the security housing unit post before and made the mistake of fixing his eyes on an adjacent yard, where 17 inmates were exercising.

"The officer was green, hardly any training, and he became engrossed in the other yard with all the inmates," Calhoun said. "While he didn't pay as much attention to Delgado and Mahoney as he should have, our investigation so far doesn't show any criminal negligence."

In March, in the same unit, another guard vacated his post for nearly five minutes, a lapse that allowed two inmates to beat and nearly kill a rival. The guard in that incident, who was fired after an internal inquiry, has been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by Kings County prosecutors.

In another security breach earlier this year, security housing unit prisoners invaded a recreation yard for Corcoran's most notorious and protected inmates, beating up mass murderer Juan Corona and smashing Charles Manson's guitar.

State Corrections Director Cal Terhune said he, too, was troubled by the ongoing problems at Corcoran, but he emphasized that administrators at the San Joaquin Valley prison have made great strides to root out brutality and cover-ups. No longer do prison guards watch over inmate fights and then shoot the combatants, he noted, a practice that led to the deaths of seven inmates and the wounding of 40 others from 1989 to 1995.

"Corcoran has a very tough task to do, very complex, and they're doing an amazing job," Terhune said. "There are individual situations that I certainly lose sleep over, and this is one of them."

As a result of the July 2 fatal attack, use of the security housing unit exercise yards has been suspended, and every gun post officer will be retrained, Terhune said. In a shake-up of staff, the supervisor overseeing the unit, Associate Warden Julie Ward, has been reassigned. Warden George Galaza had put Ward in charge of the security housing unit--the most troubled unit at Corcoran--even though she had limited custody experience and came from the business side of corrections, Terhune confirmed.

Neither Galaza nor Ward returned repeated phone calls seeking comment Thursday. It was Ward's decision in June, over the strong objections of other staff, to transfer Delgado from a yard where he exercised alone to a yard where he mixed with other inmates, Calhoun and corrections sources said.

Delgado, who was known as Torro, had been paroled and returned to prison three times over the last decade for convictions ranging from burglary to assault with a firearm. He had been placed on walk-alone status after allegedly strangling Mendoza in their cell and then scrawling a note on the dead man's T-shirt, according to a coroner's report. "There's consequences to everything," he wrote. "He payed [sic] his. And I'm to pay mine. Torro."

During the July 2 killing, prosecutors say, Delgado had enough time to beat Mahoney unconscious, take three breaks and then return with a garrote made from his T-shirt. He wrapped it around Mahoney's throat and held it tight until the victim went limp, corrections officials said the yard camera showed. They said Delgado then held it taut for another four minutes, ensuring death.

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