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California and the West

$1.7 Million for Whistle-Blower

Prisons: State settles with ex-guard who lost career after exposing pattern of inmate shootings at Corcoran facility.

June 11, 1999|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — The state has agreed to pay $1.7 million to whistle-blower Richard Caruso, a former guard at Corcoran State Prison who broke the code of silence and exposed a pattern of deadly shootings of inmates, only to lose his career.

The settlement, one of the largest damage awards to a state whistle-blower, came together late Wednesday after months of negotiations in which top officials, including Gov. Gray Davis, had urged a resolution of Caruso's five-year ordeal.

"The nightmare is finally over," Caruso said. "Now I can take care of my family."

Caruso, 35, had sued the state, alleging that prison officials created a hostile work environment and effectively forced him to retire. He said they did this after he and another officer went to the FBI with evidence of set-up fights and shootings at the San Joaquin Valley prison near Fresno.

Caruso and Lt. Steve Rigg were vilified as rats by the prison guard union and investigated by top corrections officials when they went public with their allegations in the Los Angeles Times in 1996.

With Wednesday's settlement, California taxpayers have now paid nearly $5 million in damage awards for abuses at Corcoran, where 50 inmates were wounded or killed by guards firing assault rifles to stop inmate fights.

"The settlement is welcome news for the individuals involved in the lawsuits and for the taxpayers," said Cal Terhune, director of state corrections. "A protracted civil trial would have resulted in even higher expenses."

State lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) began pressuring the corrections department to settle Caruso's lawsuit last summer after six days of dramatic legislative hearings in which Caruso, Rigg and other officers testified that their careers and lives had been ruined for doing a public service.

The officers testified that their attempts to draw attention to wrongful inmate shooting deaths at Corcoran were ignored at the highest levels of the corrections department, then headed by James Gomez and two assistants, Eddie Myers and David Tristan.

With nowhere else to turn, the officers said, they went to the FBI and the media and were met with intimidation and death threats from fellow officers and supervisors.

Rather than investigate the shootings, testimony showed, Myers and other officials ordered that Rigg and Caruso be investigated for alleged wrongdoing. Rigg, who was also forced to retire, has filed a similar lawsuit that is pending. He said he is happy for Caruso and is waiting for the state to negotiate with him.

"My wife and I have been through the mill and our lives have been destroyed," Rigg said. "I've been punished and cast aside for doing the right thing."

Caruso was a gun post officer assigned to Corcoran's notorious Security Housing Unit, or SHU. From 1989 to 1995, as a way to break inmates there of gang ties, the prison sent rival groups into the same cramped concrete yards to exercise. This so-called integration policy was based on the premise that gang members needed to show they could get along before being released back into the main prison setting.

The effect of the policy, however, was the opposite. Gang members with histories of bad blood began fighting and guards--many poorly trained and confused about when to use deadly force--began shooting to stop the fights.

Caruso himself fired wood block warning shots from a gas gun more than any other guard. He said he did this to avoid firing his 9-millimeter assault rifle. But other gun post officers did not hesitate to use deadly force.

Over a six-year period, seven inmates involved in fistfights were shot and killed at Corcoran, making it the deadliest prison in America. None of the inmates carried a weapon or posed serious harm to the other, reports showed.

It was the 1994 shooting death of Preston Tate, an L.A. gang member imprisoned for rape, that prompted Caruso and Rigg to go to the FBI.

Tate had been released to the exercise yard with his cellmate, and the two inmates were attacked by two rivals. Even though Tate wasn't the aggressor, he was killed by a bullet that the guard intended for the rivals.

Caruso said he was so upset by the Tate shooting that he began digging into prison files. He said he discovered that officials were trying to cover up the killing by reporting that Tate had been the aggressor.

Caruso and Rigg said they approached top corrections officials and tried to point out serious flaws in the integrated yard and shooting practices. They said they were told to mind their own business.

In the summer of 1994, Caruso slipped out of work one day with an armful of documents that showed that guards were pitting rival inmates against each other in the exercise yards, encounters that routinely ended in fights and shootings. In every instance, state review panels had deemed the shootings justified.

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