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Ex-Prison Guard Sues, Says He Was Harassed

His case involves a hazing in Blythe, a stabbing outside his home and early retirement that he argues was forced. Defense attorneys say there's no case.

September 26, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

A former correctional officer who was hazed by co-workers at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe -- and later stabbed outside his house after reporting the incident -- was pushed out of his job and eventually forced to retire because he was labeled a snitch, his attorney argued in court Monday.

Curtis Landa is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for allegedly punishing him for "breaking the code of silence" by transferring him to a desk job in Sacramento, where he says he was continually harassed by agency officials.

"The retaliation that began in Ironwood continued in Sacramento," Landa's attorney, John Houston Scott, told a Riverside jury impaneled to decide the lawsuit. "Rules we take for granted don't necessarily apply in prisons, and I think this case will show that."

Defense attorneys, who will give their opening statement today, have said in court documents that the state did not have a duty to protect Landa from his co-workers within the prison under "safety in the workplace" statutes and was not responsible for his safety at home.

They have also noted that since police never found those who stabbed him, Landa has no grounds to argue that the attack was connected with the prison.

Landa said he was attacked after he was involved in a squabble with Correctional Sgt. Jesse Lara on Sept. 13, 2000.

Along with Lara, Correctional Sgt. Glenn Barr and two other officers followed Landa to a back office at the prison, where they threw him to the floor, taped up his arms and legs and beat him up, Landa's lawsuit alleged.

When pictures of the hazing came to the attention of prison officials, the state agency launched a criminal investigation and an administrative inquiry, and Landa cooperated with the authorities.

Landa said that when he left work at Ironwood on a November evening in 2000, he feared his life was in danger. He said he had received an ominous phone call hours before from Barr, who allegedly told him that colleagues had a memo showing Landa had snitched.

"My friends think you're a snake and a liar," Barr allegedly warned Landa, according to court documents filed by Landa's attorneys.

"You better have kept your mouth shut. You better not have talked to anyone."

Landa said that at 5 a.m. the next day, when he took out the trash at his Blythe home, two attackers clubbed him in the back, pulled his jacket over his head and stabbed his back and chest with a knife.

Blythe police never arrested anyone for the stabbing, and the four officers involved in the hazing denied involvement in the stabbing. The crime remains unsolved.

The Riverside County district attorney's office filed assault and false-imprisonment charges against Lara, Barr and another correctional officer for the September hazing at the prison.

A Riverside County judge in 2001 dismissed the criminal charges, however, describing the incident as horseplay.

The attorney who represented Lara and Barr said one of the witnesses he called for the preliminary hearing saw Landa laughing uncontrollably after he was untied.

"The judge has to be in a state of mind that there's no reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed," their attorney, Everett Bobbitt, said Monday. "I've practiced for 22 years, and I've only had three [cases] thrown out" at the bench.

When Landa recovered from the stabbing, he told prison officials he wanted to keep his Ironwood job so his wife and his two children could stay in Blythe.

But Landa said the officials, who provided him with 24-hour armed security at his house for six weeks after the stabbing, told him they could no longer protect him. He faced a choice between retirement and a desk job in background investigations in Sacramento that he did not want, he said.

Landa said his Sacramento colleagues mistreated him with a burdensome workload and repeated talk about being a snitch. He says he had frequent panic attacks and a hernia and often became so ill that he threw up blood at his desk. Eventually, he took early retirement because of his disabilities, and he now works at a Northern California golf course.

The defense attorneys for the Department of Corrections have argued that the department was required to provide "a safe and healthful working environment" but that an employer is not "a guarantor of safety."

Defense lawyers wrote in a January court filing that "the 'safety in the workplace' statues were intended to prevent physical harm as a result of unsafe work conditions -- not prevent harm arising from acts or conduct of co-employees."

Landa's lawyers have filed workers' compensation documents showing that he was compensated by the state for the stabbing in a $269,729 settlement agreement that listed both the September hazing and the Nov. 7 stabbing as "industrially related."

Defense attorneys said the documents were irrelevant to Landa's civil case because the standards of proof in workers' compensation proceedings are different from those in a civil proceeding.

The defense won a series of victories in motions last week, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gloria Connor Trask agreed that the state prison agency did not have a duty to protect Landa at home.

Trask told jurors Monday that although the Nov. 7 stabbing will be mentioned during the trial to provide context, they will not be permitted to speculate on who did it or why it was done.

Ironwood officials had recommended the dismissal of Lara and Barr, but the two men were demoted in an agreement with the state personnel board, according to court documents.

Both men still work for the state prison agency and could not be reached for comment.

State prison officials and the warden at Ironwood State Prison said they could not comment on incidents that were part of continuing litigation.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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