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Jailers are asked how killer was able to strike again

Deaths of cellmates raise questions about the communications between state, county.

June 28, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Karcher strangled his cellmate in state prison last year, officials say. Then he was moved to a downtown Los Angeles jail, where he allegedly killed another one.

The combination of events has raised questions about how well state and county officials communicate as they regularly trade custody of dangerous inmates, this one already convicted of choking to death an Orange County man in 1993.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials are investigating why Karcher, once affiliated with a white prison gang, was put in the same cell as a Latino gang member instead of being kept in isolation. They also want to know if Karcher was receiving the psychiatric medication that state prison doctors had prescribed to control his actions. He has bipolar disorder, records show.

"If the guy was a onetime murderer and was being accused of a second murder of an inmate, the question I'd be asking is, 'What was my classification unit thinking when they put him in a cell with another inmate?' " said Bruce Bikle, a former prison administrator who teaches criminal justice at Cal State Sacramento.

"The Los Angeles [County] Sheriff's Department's jail operation is bigger than most prison systems. Just the immensity of the process -- you have to be on it. I can understand how you can make small slips. This one was big."

Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to answer questions about Karcher's housing assignment, saying it was part of an ongoing internal investigation. "There will be a robust review and recommendations for doing the job better, if that needs to be done," he said.

The latest killing renews long-standing concerns about how effectively Sheriff Lee Baca manages the county's overcrowded and violence-plagued jail system. Jose Daniel Cruz, Karcher's last cellmate, was the 15th inmate slain in Baca's jails since 2000.

But Cruz's death also highlights an apparent communications gap between state and county jail officials, who exchange hundreds of inmates a day.

State prison officials acknowledge that they did not provide sheriff's jailers with reports that Karcher had been previously segregated because he was suspected of killing a cellmate. Corrections officials said they didn't think that sharing such detail was necessary because it was Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide detectives who had investigated the first inmate death involving Karcher.

Ken Adams, a University of Central Florida professor who has published three books about mentally ill and violent inmates, said prison officials should not have assumed that homicide investigators would tell the jail staff to treat Karcher carefully.

"Clearly, the prison should have communicated more strongly or better," Adams said. "In a large sheriff's department where they do both law enforcement and corrections, I suppose sometimes they just don't talk to each other."

A former high school football player and wrestler, Karcher was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1993 for robbing and strangling an Orange County lawyer who had paid him for sex.

On March 7, 2006, while serving that sentence, he strangled Scott Manning in their cell at the state prison in Lancaster, prosecutors said. Karcher told sheriff's detectives that Manning, in prison for burglary, attacked him while the two quarreled about Manning's personal hygiene and that he acted in self-defense, according to a motion filed by defense attorneys.

Prison officials assigned Karcher to a one-man cell, keeping him segregated from other inmates for the next 14 months. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David S. Wesley signed an order April 27 requiring prison officials to transfer Karcher to the county jail, a move that would make it easier to get the inmate to his downtown courtroom to face murder charges in Manning's death.

On May 18, a sheriff's bus took Karcher from Lancaster to the Los Angeles County jail complex, which contains 1,041 single-inmate cells, of which about 800 are typically occupied. Instead of getting one of those cells, Karcher was placed in a two-man cell with Cruz. Four days after he arrived at the jail, Karcher allegedly attacked Cruz in their cell at Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Cruz was hospitalized for two weeks in a coma. He died June 5.

Sheriff's investigators are trying to determine if anyone warned jail staff that Karcher had been accused of killing a previous cellmate. Wesley's order didn't mention it, and prison officials didn't give sheriff's deputies a copy of his disciplinary file.

Curt Carson, a spokesman for the Lancaster prison, said state prison officials typically inform jail officials verbally about concerns over inmate security "as a courtesy." But he was not able to determine if that happened when Karcher was transferred.

Regardless, Carson said, sheriff's officials should have known that Karcher had been accused of killing his Lancaster cellmate because sheriff's homicide detectives investigated Manning's death.

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