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Inmates say the coronavirus has hit Florida’s death row, Tommy Zeigler

Prisoner featured in Blood and Truth series hasn’t communicated with family, friends recently.

Two weeks ago, Tommy Zeigler typed in an email from Florida’s death row that he’d gotten food poisoning from chili. A day later, on Aug. 28, the 75-year-old wrote a supporter that he “was struggling trying to breathe.”

This week, two of Zeigler’s neighbors on death row confirmed independently by email to the Tampa Bay Times that they had tested positive for COVID-19. Both said they heard Zeigler also has tested positive, though the Times has not been able to confirm that.

Zeigler has been on death row for 44 years. For the past two decades, the state of Florida has turned down his requests for advanced DNA testing six times. He was convicted of killing his wife, in-laws and another man at his Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve 1975.

His hopes to clear his name hinge on the DNA testing, which may be supported by the new prosecutor likely to be elected in Orange County this November.

Related: Read the Tampa Bay Time series, Blood and Truth, about Tommy Zeigler's case.

Another death row inmate, Daniel Peterka, said Zeigler and John C. Marquard, the inmate on his other side, were taken to the prison hospital on Aug. 29. The pair has not returned.

Marquard, on death row for killing a woman in St. Augustine in 1991, said in an email that he and Zeigler were both tested in the same room, more than 6 feet apart. There was only one bed open, Marquard said, so Zeigler was taken to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, because his symptoms were worse.

Since then, Zeigler’s cousin, lawyers and friends have not been able to reach him, and he has not sent out any emails. A spokesman for UF Health Shands Hospital said Zeigler was not currently a patient there.

Marquard said he heard Zeigler may have returned to an isolation unit in the prison.

Union Correctional Institution, home to death row and located just outside Starke, has refused to disclose health information because Zeigler doesn’t have release forms on file, said Terry Hadley, his original trial attorney.

Connie Crawford, Zeigler’s cousin and last remaining relative, said she called and spoke to the chaplain and a nurse, but neither could tell her anything.

"I asked, 'Could you at least tell me if he’s breathing?’ and the nurse replied, ‘I can’t tell you anything,’ " Crawford said.

Hadley said he prepared a health care form, giving Crawford access to Zeigler’s health information and sent it to the prison last week for Zeigler to sign. Still no word.

The Florida Department of Corrections declined to discuss individual cases or the status of the prison wing that holds Florida’s more than 300 death row prisoners. To protect the identity of the prisoners, it is reporting information by institution only.

As of Friday, Union Correctional Institution, which can hold 2,172 male prisoners, had completed 1,701 COVID-19 tests on inmates. One hundred and twenty-two prisoners and 48 staff members have tested positive.

At Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City, 1,338 inmates and 87 staff members have tested positive. The prison can hold 1,427 men. At Lowell Correctional Institution, a womens' prison in Ocala, 1,004 of the 2,165 inmates and 71 staff members have tested positive.

The Department of Corrections reports its tests on an online dashboard that shows many prisons across the state struggling to contain COVID-19. The statewide prison system had 15,812 inmates and 2,836 employees who had tested positive. Of those, 12,678 inmates have been cleared from medical isolation by health professionals and returned to their housing units, and 2,193 staff members have returned to work.

Death row prisoners contacted by the Times said multiple prisoners have come down with fevers and other symptoms.

“The necessary precautions aren’t being taken,” said Ronald Wayne Clark Jr., convicted of killing a man who picked him up hitchhiking in 1990.

Marquard said he has been moved back to a cell near others who are in quarantine. He said he needed 2 liters of oxygen initially but was asymptomatic by the time he received his positive test result on Sept. 4.

Peterka, on death row for killing a roommate in 1989, said that after Zeigler and Marquard left, the staff tested the entire floor. On Sept. 8, the results came back. Eleven of the 12, including himself, tested positive.

“Between the guards touching everything and everyone without changing gloves, the close quarters and the commingling on the rec yards,” said Peterka via email, "the surprise would be if it didn’t spread once it got in here.”

Peterka said he filed a grievance two months ago. In it, he observed that Union Correctional Institution had positive cases already and guards should use fresh gloves and avoid “hands-on custodial escorts." He said the staff had refused.

He said he received a reply a month later, on July 31, which said that “hands-on custodial contact” would continue and that proper personal protection equipment was being used.

He said many on his floor either have or have had fevers and other symptoms associated with COVID-19 but nothing that he would consider “severe.”

On Thursday, Peterka wrote that he heard from a nurse who said Zeigler was off supplemental oxygen and ready to return to his regular dorm.

Statewide, the Department of Corrections has reported 117 deaths due to COVID-19. Union Correctional has reported two deaths.

Lynn-Marie Carty-Wallace, Zeigler’s private investigator, urged prisons to find a way to connect inmates with loved ones.

“This is a very unusual situation,” she said. “Can’t they have one person whose job it is to help inmates connect with one loved one? If there was, everyone would feel a lot better.”

On Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch announced the resumption of visitation Oct. 2 at institutions deemed safe.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at llapeter@tampabay.com. Follow @WriterLeonora.

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