Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Public safety

Authorities: Pinellas jail inmate chokes cell mate to death

LARGO — A Pinellas County Jail inmate killed his cell mate early Sunday, authorities said, in the same way he murdered his girlfriend nearly a year ago — by stuffing wet toilet paper down his throat and strangling him.

The crime came shortly after suspect Scott Alexander Greenberg, 28, of St. Petersburg told fellow inmates he planned to be executed on death row rather than spend life in prison, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

The sheriff said this marks the first time he has heard of that one inmate killed another at the county jail in at least the 31 years he has been with the agency.

"What's clear is that he had a plan, and he decided to execute that plan early this morning," Gualtieri said at a Sunday afternoon news conference.

Greenberg killed Kelly Damon Harding, 48, just before 1 a.m. by breaking bones in his neck and asphyxiating him with a small amount of the toilet paper that was in the cell, Gualtieri said.

The cell was not monitored with a surveillance camera, and the murder happened just minutes after deputies performed a routine check, Gualtieri said.

Harding, who was homeless, was serving jail time on a trespassing conviction pleaded down from a burglary charge.

Until Sunday, Greenberg faced a second-degree murder charge after an autopsy found he had inflicted "continuous and intentional" violence on girlfriend Jennifer Zale, 26, during what he maintained was a consensual sexual encounter in a hotel that got out of hand.

Both of Greenberg's alleged victims were asphyxiated with toilet paper. The injuries to their throats, necks and skulls were similar, Gualtieri said, although Harding was found fully clothed and his murder did not appear to be sexual in nature.

Greenberg now also faces a first-degree murder charge in Harding's death, Gualtieri said.

Harding and Greenberg became cell mates Saturday night by unfortunate coincidence, Gualtieri said. Both were in protective custody as a result of their aggressive behavior at the jail, Gualtieri said.

Greenberg had thrown a punch at a staff member and fought inmates. Harding had used racial slurs, spit on inmates and defecated in the recreation yard, Gualtieri said.

Normally, Gualtieri said, the jail tries to keep violent and nonviolent inmates separate.

"Single cell space is limited so sometimes that does not happen," he said, adding that the jail was crowded Saturday and deputies were forced to move people around. The two were the only inmates sharing that cell.

Greenberg recently fell in the shower and hit his head, so he went to the jail's clinic and then was allowed to select the cell where we wanted to spend the night. At roughly 10 p.m., he joined the cell with Harding, whom Gualtieri said Greenberg had never previously met.

Lights went out at 11 p.m. Saturday, as usual. And when deputies checked at 12:52 a.m. Sunday, nothing was suspicious, Gualtieri said.

Then began gurgling and thumping. "I did it, it's done!" Greenberg shouted, according to a Sheriff's Office investigation.

"What did you do?" an inmate asked from a nearby cell.

"What I'm in here for," Greenberg replied.

At 12:58 a.m., Greenberg yelled to deputies that there was "a man down" in his cell. Deputies found Harding unconscious and under cardiac arrest, and he was rushed to a hospital where he died.

Greenberg is now isolated and under supervision.

Harding's brother, Earl Harding of St. Petersburg, declined to talk with a reporter late Sunday after the circumstances of the murder were released. Earlier in the afternoon, he said he last visited his brother at the jail in February.

"I was shocked," he said of the murder.

State criminal records show extensive arrest histories for Greenberg and Harding.

Since 2001, Greenberg has racked up convictions for charges including drug possession, interference in the custody of a minor, check fraud and domestic battery, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

According to the state Department of Corrections, Harding since 1985 had served at least six prison stints for charges including burglary, cocaine possession and carrying a concealed firearm.

The slaying comes on the heels of another violent encounter between Pinellas detainees. On July 6, deputies say, Leonard David Lanni Jr., 36, repeatedly kicked Thomas Morrow, 59, of Treasure Island inside a transport van being driven to the jail by a contractor's employee. The older man suffered a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung, extensive head injuries, fractured ribs and cuts.

Gualtieri said both cases are "horrible" but said they don't signal systemic problems at the jail, which handles roughly 3,000 inmates a day. So far, he said, an internal investigation into the murder suggests deputies handled themselves properly.

"Just because you have an incident doesn't mean you have a big problem," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected], and Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected]

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