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Murderer killed in Pasco prison died over a towel fight, report finds

ZEPHYRHILLS — The pounding on the door came from inside Zephyrhills Correctional Institution Cell 3105.

Sgt. Richard Piccininni heard it from the officers' station around 9 p.m., echoing down the third wing of Dorm K, one of the state prison's wards for the mentally ill.

It was a Sunday night, the last day in February, and guards were making rounds passing out toilet paper and toothpaste. The inmates were to be settling in for lights-out at 11 p.m. Verdie Williams, a murderer from Manatee County, stood at the door of 3105 in his underwear. He knocked again for help.

Piccininni walked to the end of the hallway and looked through the cell's thick plastic window. James Hugger knelt behind Williams, gripping cellmate Augustus King in a tight headlock. King — about half a foot taller than Hugger and, at 280 pounds, nearly twice his size — lay facedown on the sallow tile floor.

Piccininni commanded through the two-inch-thick metal door for Hugger to let go.

"I didn't hit him, I didn't hit him," Hugger yelled, still gripping. "Come in and get this man."

Piccininni opened the door and waited as an officer escorted cellmates Williams and Eugene Allison to the day room. He waited another minute for backup then entered, tapping Hugger's shoulder. Hugger stood and backed away.

King lay near two stacks of dog-eared magazines, one open to a woman modeling underwear. He wore a standard-issue blue shirt and elastic-band pants. No shoes. One of his eyes, Piccininni would later say, looked like a squeezed grape.

King was dead. Hugger had killed him. But why?

The answer, Williams told investigators, was simple.

"The towel."

• • •

Two investigators with the state Department of Corrections' Office of the Inspector General arrived in Zephyrhills late that night. They photographed the murder scene, collected surveillance video, interviewed prisoners and officers on duty, and relayed their findings to the State Attorney's Office, which released their file to the Times last week.

Among the four prisoners of Cell 3105, Hugger, 52, was the youngest, the latest sentenced and the one scheduled for soonest release. He had stolen and possessed cocaine, but what landed him in this state prison for 15 years was an attempted killing in North Miami.

Unlike his cellmates, he was not a murderer. Williams, 55, and Allison, 54, had been imprisoned since their 20s for killings. King, 68, predated them by more than a decade. In 1966, King stabbed to death an Escambia County deputy, father of three, who was trying to arrest him. At 24, he was locked up for life.

King had a lazy eye and diseased lungs. He was obese and wheezed when he tried to talk. He refused medication. Prison officials said he had made threats, possessed weapons and committed assault. He said he heard voices.

Hugger, by contrast, had earned good standing among prison staff for his attention to detail and hygiene. Guards, Piccininni said, often selected him from among the inmates to clean up the TV room. During leisure time at the rec yard, Hugger threw litter into a can.

Hugger and King, cellmates said, shared the 16-by-18-foot cell for half a year without a problem. Hugger had even shopped for King at the prison commissary, Williams said.

But Hugger's cleaning habits set him apart.

"Hugger's been saying, well, these guys are pigs. They don't clean," Piccininni told investigators. "Hugger was a clean freak. Everyone else in there, you know, they were regular people."

• • •

At 2:38 a.m., five hours after King was pronounced dead, investigators interviewed Hugger.

He told them he had taken a shower. He hung his towel and wash cloth to dry. But when he woke up from a nap, they were damp, as if someone had used them.

"I said, 'I don't know why you brothers keep messing around with my towel and my wash cloth,' " Hugger told the investigators. "I know how this be when I lay it down, I know exactly, and how good it dry, real good and everything, 'cause of the air vents and everything."

Surveillance video shows Hugger hunched over the cell's stainless steel sink-and-toilet unit. He dips his towel and wash cloth under the faucet.

King stands behind him, wrapping toilet paper around his fist.

He strikes a surprise backhand to Hugger's head. Hugger turns quickly and tackles him. Both men crash onto Hugger's squat bedding pad, pressed against the concrete-block wall. King grabs his testicles and, as Hugger recalled for investigators, says, "I'm fixing to hurt you."

Hugger wrestles his way on top of King, pinning his legs together, and locks his arm around King's neck.

"Why'd you hit me?" he asks King. Williams and Allison don't move from their beds. Hugger yells, "Verdie, get on the door!"

By the time Piccininni breaks up the fight, 5 1/2 minutes after King's first punch, King has gone limp.

An autopsy later shows King was choked to death.

In May, the State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute Hugger, calling the killing a "justified homicide," though State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the guards seemed slow to act.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff said the guards followed protocol — calling for backup and removing other inmates before entering — to ensure their safety during a violent conflict. Other inmates asking for supplies during the nightly rounds, she said, may have added to the response time.

Both men were taken to the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, where Hugger was transferred into solitary confinement and King was buried at the inmate cemetery.

"I never did fight back or nothing. All I did was just hold him," Hugger told investigators, before leaving Cell 3105 for good.

"Something like hurting a person or disrespecting a person, that's something I don't have in my mind or my thoughts. I done served almost my 20 years, and I got me two grandsons that wasn't even born when I came to prison. I'm trying to get my tail home to them."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@ or (727) 869-6244.

Murderer killed in Pasco prison died over a towel fight, report finds 07/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 25, 2010 10:16am]
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