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Suspect in Cellmate's Death Was Termed Dangerous Before Killing

Prison: Wasco guards allegedly missed warning signs that the psychiatric patient posed a threat to the 18-year-old newcomer.

November 26, 2001|MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASCO, Calif. — When Gary Avila arrived at Wasco State Prison two months ago, the 18-year-old was ushered into an 8-by-10 cell that was already home to another inmate--a psychiatric patient who had been deemed too dangerous to share a cell with anyone.

By the time dawn broke on Avila's first night behind bars, he was dead, a bloody bedsheet looped around his neck.

Inside the cell, Paul Posada paced back and forth, mumbling to himself.

"Yeah, I did it," Posada allegedly told a prison lieutenant minutes after the discovery of Avila's body. "He messed up."

A prison official said Avila and Posada appeared on paper to be compatible cellmates. But confidential prison documents, interviews and court records show that prison guards allegedly missed warning signs that Posada posed a threat, and may have violated prison policy by placing Avila in his cell.

An investigation by The Times also found that prison officials withheld potential evidence from the district attorney. Family members of the victim also complain that they have not been told details of Avila's death.

"They've told us nothing. . . . It's like we're nobody," said Christine Avila, Gary's mother.

Prison spokesman John Katavich defended the institution's handling of the case, but acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding Avila's death may prompt a change in policy regarding background checks on arriving inmates. Had such a check been performed, the spokesman acknowledged, it would have shown that Avila and Posada were not compatible at all.

Avila had been convicted of being a gang member in possession of a gun, a relatively low-level offense by state prison standards. He was sentenced to two years.

Posada, 33, is a career criminal with a history of psychiatric problems. "[His] personality appears to be best characterized as aggressive, paranoid, antisocial, explosive, schizoid and depressive," according to a court-ordered analysis done two months before the slaying.

Posada had told other examiners that he takes orders from a mythical "devil girl" and that he eats his own feces.

There were more recent warnings that Posada posed a threat, according to a guard at Wasco and a sergeant at Kern County Jail.

On the day Avila was killed, Posada had been transferred from the Kern Jail after having been sentenced to eight more years in prison for spitting in a guard's face at Tehachapi State Prison last year. Posada was regarded as a "high-risk" prisoner and was separated from other inmates as he awaited trial in that case, Sgt. Gary Knox said. Knox said paperwork documenting Posada's security status and mental health problems was forwarded to Wasco prison along with the inmate when he was transferred Sept. 28.

And just hours before Avila was killed, Posada's first cellmate, Rufus Hernandez, was removed from the cell after allegedly complaining to a guard that Posada was crazy, according to a prison report documenting an interview with Hernandez.

"Inmate Hernandez allegedly told [the officer] that inmate Posada was nuts, and he shouldn't be here," according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. "Inmate Hernandez also allegedly told [the officer] that nobody should be celled up with inmate Posada."

Although that interview was conducted Sept. 29, prison officials did not send a copy of their report to prosecutors pursuing a murder case against Posada. Only later, after prosecutors learned about the interview and requested the report, did they receive it.

"This information was deemed not necessary for inclusion [in the original report]," according to a memo from the prison lieutenant who interviewed Hernandez.

The prison spokesman, Katavich, said institution officials would have soon discovered that Avila and Posada should not have been housed together. Information downloaded from a Department of Corrections computer in Sacramento would have revealed that Posada had "single cell status" and therefore was not to be housed with other inmates. Under current policy, Katavich said, that database is not checked during the initial screening process, which is why officials did not discover it until it was too late.

Katavich denied that county jailers sent documentation to the prison regarding Posada being a security risk. He said statements made by Hernandez were disputed by the guard who moved him, and are the subject of an ongoing investigation. As a result, Katavich added, prison officials are limited in what they may release to family members and others.

Avila Seen as Both Thug, Respectful Young Man

From those who knew him, two distinctly different impressions emerge of Gary Robert Avila. Some saw him as a streetwise thug who belonged in prison. Others considered him a charming, respectful young man who had the potential of making something out of his life. Maybe, he was a bit of both.

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