Past the livestock market, past the Ocala Speedway and a smattering of small farms, a medium-security men's prison is planted in the heart of Central Florida's horse country. Marion Correctional Institution is a concrete complex penned by razor wire. A sign at the east entrance reads, "We Are All Role Models."
Nicketta Webb sees the prison every time she pulls out of the driveway of her small ranch across the street. It remains a raw reminder of her daughter.
"He knew better," she said. "He's the assistant warden. He's held to a higher standard."
Five years ago her daughter, Charlotte, was an entry-level corrections officer carrying on a dangerous affair with the prison's second-in-command. It was one of several reckless decisions Charlotte made in the months before she took her own life.
The assistant warden was transferred but never disciplined for the inappropriate relationship. He escaped sanction, and this spring earned the promotion of his career: He became the warden at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution.
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Charlotte Webb treaded water for 17 years as a Kash n' Karry cashier. But she wanted a career. So she became a prison guard, first at the Lowell Correctional Institution for women, then at Marion CI, the men's facility next door. A meticulous woman who logged her expenses in notebooks and organized her cabinet contents in neat, even rows, Charlotte found a good fit in the orderly routine of prison life. She loved her job and put in for a promotion to sergeant.
But trouble was also brewing for Charlotte, 38. After having difficulties with her previous co-workers at the women's prison, she began getting threatening phone calls off duty and was having problems on her shift. The warden at Marion CI asked his assistant warden, Gustavo Mazorra, to keep an eye on Charlotte.
"She'd say what a wonderful guy he was, how kind and understanding he was," Nicketta said.
The relationship quickly escalated into an affair. Mazorra's secretary helped keep the romance under wraps, referring to Charlotte by a code name when she called his office.
At the same time, Charlotte was involved with another married superior at the prison, one of the sergeants on her midnight shift. They shot racy pictures of each other and injected cocaine together — until the sergeant's wife found out and forced him to end the affair. Nicketta believes her daughter feared the angry wife would report the drug abuse to prison officials, ending Charlotte's career.
On the afternoon of July 29, 2005 — three days after her last tryst with Mazorra, and two days after the sergeant broke things off — a roommate found Charlotte's lifeless body on the bathroom floor of her mobile home. She had overdosed on antidepressants.
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Mazorra is a 24-year veteran of the state prison system. The Miami native was already a young husband and father by the time he graduated from high school in 1984. He was drawn into corrections as a stable career path with good benefits and the opportunity to serve the public. Over the years he has been involved with church groups and youth sports for his three sons. He earned glowing evaluations as he worked his way through college and up the ranks.
This February he was named warden of Zephyrhills CI, an east Pasco facility with 750 beds and more than 250 employees. It's one of a handful of state prisons that provides special medical care for inmates who are elderly, infirm or have mental health issues.
He replaced Sammy Hill, who resigned under pressure after he failed to properly document the pepper-spraying of an unruly inmate.
Mazorra declined to discuss his affair with Charlotte Webb and the events of five years ago.
"I made a stupid mistake," said Mazorra, 44, who said he will celebrate his 27th anniversary with his wife in September. "I paid for my mistake. I live it every day."
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As detectives from the Marion County Sheriff's Office investigated Charlotte's death, her affairs became public knowledge. Mazorra couldn't remain at Marion CI.
"There was an appearance of impropriety there," said Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
Mazorra was shuttled 50 miles away to Lancaster Correctional Institution in Trenton, where he took a "voluntary demotion" to colonel, Plessinger said. Mazorra was offered an assistant warden job at another prison, Plessinger said, but he opted for the position at Lancaster so he wouldn't have to relocate his family.
But the incident was never treated as a disciplinary matter. There was no internal investigation. No reprimand. No letter of counseling in Mazorra's file. No suggestion of any missteps in the evaluation that followed seven months later, when Mazorra received a perfect 5 in the leadership category that covers professionalism with subordinates.
Just 20 months after his demotion, Mazorra was bumped back up to assistant warden at Lancaster. Less than three years later, he got the big promotion to head Zephyrhills CI.
The only critical memo in Mazorra's file was dated Feb. 4, 2000, when he allowed the postage machine to run out at a Miami-Dade prison, delaying the delivery of outgoing mail.
"Behavior of this type cannot be, and will not be, tolerated," the memo said.
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Plessinger said the affair wasn't treated as a disciplinary matter because no policy had been violated. Nothing in the prison code of conduct, and nothing in the rules governing state employees, bars a supervisor from dating a subordinate.
"With our employees, if they have a personal relationship and it's off duty, it's their personal business," she said.
That attitude is in sharp contrast to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the military and other federal agencies that prohibit romances within the supervisory ranks.
"I think the whole concept of professionalism in any walk of life requires that a management official be fair and impartial," said Peter M. Carlson, a retired official from the Bureau of Prisons and co-author of Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory. "And that is virtually impossible when you have a management official who is physically, socially or in any other way involved with an employee in the chain of command."
Carlson, who served as warden at three federal prisons and later as director of the bureau's Western region, saw that agency's antifraternization policy strictly enforced.
"Everybody knew up front there was a penalty to be paid," he said, "and it was usually your career."
• • •
Charlotte's other lover, Sgt. George Sherrets Jr., came clean with investigators and his bosses after her death. He acknowledged using drugs with her. He was promptly fired.
But Nicketta believes the "good ol' boy" system took care of Mazorra. It stings, but she wasn't surprised.
Nicketta also worked at Marion CI years ago, then left after she said a male supervisor groped her. She complained to a lieutenant, who told her not to bother. She recalls the lieutenant's words: "He's more important to us than you are."
State prison regulations require wardens and other supervisors to "ensure that proper reports of violations and investigations thereof are maintained in … employee record jackets."
Why doesn't Mazorra's file contain any mention of his relationship with Charlotte or the reasons for his transfer to Lancaster? Mazorra said he didn't know. Former Marion CI warden Bill Smith, who now runs the state prison in Sumter County, declined to comment for this story.
Plessinger, the prison system's spokeswoman, pointed the finger at another figure of the past.
"You have to look at who the (Department of Corrections) secretary was at that time," she said, referring to then-Secretary James Crosby, who resigned in February 2006 amid allegations ranging from misusing inmate labor and hiring phantom employees to accepting kickbacks from a vendor. "I don't think that was uncommon for that time period."
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Nicketta, 63, remains haunted by her daughter's death. Charlotte's son, Jeff Lovelady, can't accept it.
He was 15 then. He talked to her by phone a few hours before she died. He was visiting his father in a Georgia hospital, and his mother promised to come pick him up in a few days.
Promised — a word used sparingly in this family for commitments that came from the heart.
"It's always puzzled me," said Lovelady, choking back the tears.
Now 20, he trains horses and conducts auctions. He lives with his grandmother, in the shadow of Marion CI.
A few years ago, still burning with questions, he went to the Marion County Sheriff's Office to request a copy of his mother's death investigation. The clerk asked why. He explained he was Charlotte's son.
He took comfort in her response: "She said that's one case nobody will ever forget."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.