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Nearly two years, and no answers in Florida prison inmate's mysterious death

TALLAHASSEE — Nearly two years after a state prison inmate died under suspicious circumstances, the Department of Corrections has offered no reasons for his death and 10 employees suspended over the incident are still on leave and drawing full pay.

Frank Smith of Miami was 44 when he died on Sept. 4, 2012, after a violent altercation with officers as he was being moved from a prison hospital to his cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.

The Department of Corrections placed 10 staff members, including an assistant warden, on paid leave, a routine step when employees are suspected of wrongdoing. So far, taxpayers have paid nearly $700,000 in salaries to them for not working.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement took control of the case 21 months ago and FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said the investigation continues. He said the delay could be due to the time needed to complete toxicology reports.

"There's no timeline that I can give you" on when the investigation will end, Bailey said.

The Alachua County Medical Examiner has declined to release details of Smith's autopsy, citing the investigation. Gainesville-area State Attorney Bill Cervone said Wednesday that nothing has been presented to his office for possible prosecution.

Smith's case is the third in which a state inmate has died after a violent encounter with officers.

Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami, was placed in a scalding hot shower in 2012. Another inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, died in his cell at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 after he was repeatedly gassed by guards as he begged for treatment for a worsening medical condition, the Miami Herald reported.

In that case, four investigators with the Department of Corrections filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit, claiming that inmates are beaten and tortured and that prison supervisors fabricated official reports to cover up Jordan-Aparo's death, the Herald reported.

"They killed that damn kid," prison investigator Aubrey Land told Gov. Rick Scott's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, in March, according to the Herald.

Land and investigators David Clark, Doug Glisson and John Ulm said in their suit that they faced "false and unwarranted" internal affairs complaints and sued after Miguel's office denied them whistle-blower status.

"Where is the outrage?" former Corrections Secretary James McDonough wrote Tuesday in an email to the Herald..

McDonough, who directed the prison system under former Gov. Jeb Bush following a major scandal in 2004, said the official silence from top state officials is deeply disturbing.

"There is only so much that can be feigned as 'we wait for the conclusion of an official investigation,' " McDonough wrote. "These cases did not end tragically last week; they ended in horrific and suspicious deaths some years ago. Where has the leadership been?"

Scott's corrections secretary, Mike Crews, issued a statement Tuesday that said in part: "If laws were broken by DOC officers or staff, those persons will be swiftly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Safe and ethically run prisons are central to keeping our crime rate at an historic low."

Scott repeatedly cites the drop in the crime rate as a reason why he deserves to win re-election. On a public safety tour this week, he won endorsements from police chiefs and sheriffs across the state.

Scott has said nothing about the inmate deaths since a few days after Smith's death became public in October 2012. At that time, he said: "I think all of us want to make sure that anybody that's in one of our prisons is treated with respect and they're safe."

Soon after the state confirmed Smith's death, prison officials replaced Union warden Barry Reddish without explanation.

Union Correctional Institution employees placed on paid leave were: assistant warden Nan Jeffcoat; Lt. Joseph Allen; Sgt. Darryl Phillips; and officers Joshua Bostic, David Brooks, Jermaine Corley, Robert Hill, Clinton Hodges, Derrick Searcy and Kenneth Warren.

Jeffcoat has been on paid leave since Oct. 8, 2012. The others have been on paid leave since Oct. 5, 2012.

All received form letters notifying them that they were being placed on paid leave "pending investigation of charges which could result in your dismissal."

Most of the employees could not be reached for comment.

"I can't talk about this," Warren said Wednesday, denying that his suspension is related to Smith's death.

"It ain't because of that," he said.

At the time it confirmed Smith's death, the prison system opened investigations into possible excessive use of force on five other Union inmates: Christopher Arnold, Ronnie Daniels, Willie Knight, Rudolph Rowe and Leslie Smith.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor who chairs a Senate budget panel that oversees the prison system, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the revelations and said the investigations are taking too long to complete.

"Prisoner abuse is unacceptable," said Bradley, who added that the incidents will be "Topic No. 1" the next time his committee meets in Tallahassee.

Smith, a career criminal with a lengthy rap sheet, was nearing the end of a 16-year term for carjacking and assault convictions. The prison system said his visitation privileges were suspended for six months in 2009 for lewd exhibition of body parts and for a year in 2011 for possession of narcotics.

The prison system lists Smith as 5-foot-8 and 129 pounds. His ghostly mug shot can still be seen, staring blankly ahead on the Department of Corrections website. His status: "Deceased."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crews vows to rid agency of 'bad actors'

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews said Wednesday he will travel to Dade Correctional Institution for a full assessment on Darren Rainey's 2012 death, meet with Miami-Dade police to offer assistance and will fire officers who were responsible.

"I am outraged at these reports of abuse and will not stand for it. That's why we are fully prepared to move forward with terminations of anyone involved in the June 2012 death," Crews said. "I know that the integrity and trust of my department is at question and we must do more to ensure facilities are safe. Let me be clear: There is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse at the Department of Corrections, and we will root out any and all bad actors who do not live up to our expectations."

Nearly two years, and no answers in Florida prison inmate's mysterious death 07/09/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 10:06pm]

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