Special Reports

Secret gesture, bloody shanks: Did prison officials allow this deadly attack?

In a cell block inside one of the state’s most dangerous prisons, an inmate stabs a rival gang member over and over, 13 times. When investigators examine surveillance videos of the murder, they’re troubled by what happens a few hours later:

A man approaches a nurse’s office, where the killer is being held. The man turns and looks directly into the room. He stretches his arms wide above his head, then lowers them and covers his mouth with both hands.

To investigators and the killer’s lawyers, his meaning seems clear:

Keep your mouth shut.

The man making that gesture isn’t another inmate. He’s a manager at Lanesboro Correctional Institution.

A lawyer for the killer said in a court hearing that he believes prison officials either sanctioned the September 2012 attack or looked the other way. Two state investigators said they reached the same opinion.

No prison officials have been criminally charged. But Jeffery Wall – the unit manager who made the gesture – has been accused in federal lawsuits of facilitating two other gang attacks the same year. One prisoner alleges that Wall ran a “violent, contraband-driven fiefdom.”

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer found that state prison policies and management failures allow corruption to thrive. Officers and staff have orchestrated illegal smuggling operations, beaten shackled inmates and engaged in sex with prisoners.

Experts say such corruption jeopardizes prison workers, wastes taxpayer dollars and endangers the public.

Wall, now 45, wouldn’t talk to the Observer. In a court filing, he said he never facilitated attacks.

State prison leaders refused requests for all surveillance videos that show incidents in which Wall is accused of helping inmates wage attacks. They assert that releasing the videos could jeopardize prison security.

But, with the help of a source, the Observer obtained a prison surveillance video from the 2012 attack that killed inmate Wesley Turner, providing a rare glimpse into a prison murder.

The meeting

Drive down U.S. 74 toward the beach and you may not realize it’s there. About 45 miles from Charlotte, just beyond a grove of trees, Lanesboro Correctional Institution houses some of the state’s most violent criminals.

This sprawling complex of concrete and barbed wire in Anson County holds 1,800 inmates, including more than 350 men convicted of murder and 150 convicted of rape.

It’s so dangerous that some officers begin their work days by asking those coming off the previous shift how many assaults they’ve just seen.

On the morning of Sept. 28, 2012, the day that Turner was stabbed to death, there were rumors of potential violence. One inmate warned Lanesboro prison officials that Latino gang members were armed with homemade knives and planning an attack.

Surveillance video from that day offers a look behind the prison’s walls:

Inmates mill about in a hallway, some high-fiving, others hugging or bumping fists, as if they are high-school students changing classes.

That’s Wall in the white shirt and tie entering the hallway on the video. A prison system veteran who earned about $41,000 a year, Wall was one of Lanesboro’s four unit managers, overseeing a block with nearly 300 inmates. Officers and prisoners say he had a reputation for doing favors for gang members.

At 11:49 a.m., less than half an hour before the fatal fight begins, Wall walks into an office with an inmate. Seconds later, another prisoner follows. Both inmates are members of MS-13, a powerful Latino gang.

The first to enter is Julio Zelaya-Sorto, convicted of shooting and killing a man at a Greensboro nightclub.

Next is Joel “Sour” Ortiz, who is in prison for armed robbery and shooting a motorist in the head during a road-rage attack on Raleigh’s beltline.

Combined, they’ve been cited for dozens of offenses while in prison, including weapon possession, fighting and assault.

The two inmates meet in the office with Wall, other administrators and members of the United Blood Nation gang, off and on, for 17 minutes. Prison surveillance video doesn’t capture that meeting, so it’s unclear what they discussed.

It’s also unclear where Zelaya-Sorto and Ortiz go immediately after the meeting breaks up. But minutes later, they are walking through a prison hallway with weapons, headed for a fight.

Awaiting trouble

Inside his cell block, inmate Christopher Cook expects trouble.

Cook is a leader of the Folk Nation, a rival gang, and he has heard rumors of escalating gang tensions.

In Lanesboro, as in many other prisons, gangs often battle for control over drugs and cellphones – a lucrative trade for both inmates and corrupt officers.

Cook is unarmed. He pleads with two other inmates to lend him a weapon. They refuse.

On the video, Cook, 41, is the tall inmate gesturing to other prisoners. He got the nickname “Ghost Face” as the only white kid hanging out in a Durham housing project. He joined the Folk Nation at age 16, was convicted of damaging property soon afterward, and later committed armed robbery, kidnapping and more than a dozen other crimes.

From a common area, Cook can see Zelaya-Sorto and Ortiz – the prisoners who have just met with Wall.

They are joined by a third Latino gang member, Gregorio Vazquez, who is in prison for second-degree murder.

The three wait outside Cook’s cell block for more than a minute. They’re within feet of an officer who controls the locked door to the block. He’s a rookie at Lanesboro who is new to that job, still learning who to let in and who to keep out.

The officer opens the door for an inmate, and the three gang members follow him into a cell block where they don’t belong.

A bloody battle

Another prisoner also slips through the door.

Wesley Turner has come to defend Cook, his friend. Both are members of the Folk Nation.

Turner, 35, a convicted murderer nicknamed “Thug Life,” has served most of his 21-year prison sentence. Cook said he met him in 2001, when Turner came to his aid in a fight against correctional officers. But, Cook said, Turner usually kept to himself.

This morning, Turner had warned Cook that Latino gang members planned to create trouble between the Bloods and the Folks.

Turner walks over to Cook and they stand shoulder to shoulder, braced for an attack.

First to arrive

Zelaya-Sorto pulls out a shank – a handmade knife – from inside his jumpsuit and lunges at Cook. Seconds later, Ortiz grabs a shank from his waistband and also begins slashing Cook.

Just out of view, in the lower right-hand corner of the video, a second fight erupts.

Vazquez repeatedly stabs Turner with a shank.

The control booth officer sees the fight, picks up a radio and makes a call.

The fight lasts about 40 seconds.

Wall is the first staff member to arrive. He goes straight to Cook, who is bleeding, and motions for him to get down on his knees.

Officers sprint in behind Wall, cornering the three attackers. They pepper-spray and beat Vazquez with batons to stop him from stabbing Turner.

But it’s too late.

Turner lies bleeding to death on the concrete floor.

Message to the killer?

Shortly after 3 p.m., almost three hours after the attack, correctional officers lead Vazquez into a nurse’s office.

Wall and another prison manager walk down the hallway minutes later, then stop outside the office.

Now comes the gesture. Wall turns and looks directly into the room where Vazquez waits. He stretches his arms high. Then he covers his mouth. He stares into the office for a few moments before walking away.

Attorneys for Vazquez said their client never told them what led to the fight. But Daniel Roberts, one of the attorneys, told a judge at a court hearing his theory was that “Mr. Wall and the Blood Nation gang likely ordered this to happen. If not ordered it, at least knew it was going to happen.”

Roberts also told the judge he believed Wall’s gesture was a signal “not to give any statements, for them not to talk about what had happened.”

Jeremy Smith, who also represented Vazquez, formed the same opinion: “Our theory is that, at best, the corrections officers knew (the attack) was going to happen and did nothing to stop it,” he told the Observer.

“It's odd that (the gang members) are meeting with Wall minutes before the attack,” Smith said. “And with Wall's signal after the fact, telling (Vazquez) essentially to be quiet, I don't know what other inference you can draw from it.”

The missing shanks

Less than an hour after the fight, SBI agent Audria Bridges began investigating the murder.

Bridges, 46, a North Carolina State graduate and former Concord police officer, was familiar with Lanesboro. She and her colleagues in the Charlotte SBI office were frequently called to investigate crimes there, including officers charged with bringing drugs to inmates.

For months, Bridges tried to make sense of what she saw at the murder scene and on surveillance video.

Where, she wondered, were the shanks used to attack Cook and Turner?

All three of the Latino inmates had sharp weapons. Inmates involved in the fight told investigators that one of the shanks was a “real long knife,” another resembled a razor, and the third was a plastic toilet bowl brush sharpened at one end. But only one shank was recovered.

In interviews with investigators, officer Kearry Hinson said he picked up one of the weapons used in the fight and gave it to Wall.

Phillip Boney, a former Lanesboro officer, told the Observer that right after the fight, he saw Wall put a shank inside an unlocked wooden podium near the cell block. The shank didn’t belong there. State prison policy says weapons – potential criminal evidence – should be kept in a locked container in the prison’s armory.

Bridges also questioned why Wall met with two gang members minutes before they attacked Cook.

Wall told Bridges that he was asking about rumors of a planned attack on him. Another prison manager in that cramped office at the time told investigators that she was not paying attention as Wall spoke to the gang members, Bridges said.

“I believe it’s not a coincidence that they are in that office within minutes of carrying out that hit,” Bridges told an Observer reporter.

In July 2013, 10 months after the attack, Bridges was at Lanesboro interviewing an inmate when she got a tip.

Hidden weapons

Wall had been assigned to another prison while the Turner investigation was underway. A female officer told Bridges that Wall just called looking for help. The officer said Wall asked her to go into his old office and retrieve a bag of shanks from the ceiling.

Bridges and a prison captain searched the ceiling and found videos of prison fights, nine rods, a long metal shank and three bloody shanks.

Later that afternoon, Wall arrived at the Lanesboro parking lot, according to a prison document. An officer at the gate house said Wall was upset and had a gun visible in his car, which violates prison policy.

“They have nothing to worry about,” Wall told the officer, according to the document, “because if I wanted to get anyone, I could get them touched from the outside.”

Prison officials considered that a clear threat to staff. Three weeks later, Wall was fired. His dismissal letter states that he helped create conditions “that increased the chance of death or serious bodily injury” to employees, inmates or the public.

Asked to explain the shanks in his ceiling, Wall told his bosses he was planning to put them in a display case to train new staff members.

That explanation didn’t make sense to Bridges. “In my opinion, it didn’t seem logical to hide them in the ceiling,” she said.

Bridges said forensic tests did not conclusively tie any of the weapons in Wall’s office to the attack on Turner. Prison officials refused to open Cook’s cell door so that investigators could get a DNA sample, Bridges said. If Cook’s DNA had turned up on any of the shanks in Wall’s office, that could have helped tie them to the attack.

Bridges said that, in her opinion, Wall’s meeting with the Latino gang members was connected in some way with the subsequent fight. But after investigating for more than a year, the SBI closed the case. “I didn’t have enough cooperation to connect the dots,” she said.

Tony Underwood, who headed the Charlotte area’s SBI office at the time, said he’s still troubled by what investigators learned about Wall’s relationship with inmates.

“It did not appear to be a normal prison relationship that a correctional officer should have with inmates,” Underwood said.

In an email to the Observer, state prison leaders said they have “no evidence to support that conversations and gestures with inmates seen in the surveillance video are anything other than normal discussions with the inmate population.”

Wall: I did nothing wrong

Two pending federal lawsuits allege that Wall and his officers sold weapons to gang members. The suits also contend that Wall facilitated attacks on two other inmates the same year Turner was killed.

The Observer repeatedly tried to reach Wall to discuss the Turner murder and the lawsuit allegations. He did not respond. His attorney, Joseph Ledford, wouldn’t discuss his case and said he advised his client not to talk.

In a court filing, Wall denied the federal lawsuit claims, saying he never facilitated attacks or gave gang members preferential treatment.

“At no time did (I) knowingly or willingly allow any inmate … to attack any inmate,” he wrote.

Fate of attackers

In 2014, Vazquez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Turner. Zelaya-Sorto and Ortiz pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon.

All three are serving their sentences at other prisons.

Ortiz is scheduled to get out in 2019. Vazquez and Zelaya-Sorto are scheduled for release in 2028. The three continue to cause trouble: Since Turner’s death, they’ve been written up for about 50 infractions, including weapon possession, setting fires and assaulting staff.

Ortiz and Vazquez didn’t respond to the Observer’s requests for information about the case.

Zelaya-Sorto did reply to the Observer, but wrote only: “Este caso esta serado” – “This case is closed.”

Lanesboro’s troubles

Five years after the murder, Lanesboro’s problems continue.

David Mitchell, a Harley-riding former Navy officer brought in to run the prison in 2014, was attacked three times in his first eight months – once stabbed in the neck by an inmate wielding a dagger fashioned from melted plastic. Before he left in 2016 to oversee 15 state prisons in western North Carolina, Mitchell told the Observer: “I’m certain there are people involved with gang activity that work here.”

At least eight Lanesboro officers were caught bringing in drugs, cellphones and tobacco from early 2013 to early 2017, according to law enforcement records.

Since the beginning of 2016, more than 30 stabbings occurred.

In an 11-week period in early 2016, more than 15 staff members left Lanesboro under suspicion of wrongdoing, Mitchell said. Among them: a manager suspected of being too close to inmates. Another was criminally charged with bringing heroin to a prisoner.

In February, the FBI charged former Lanesboro officer Evangeline Hunt with smuggling in drugs and other contraband for inmates. In a recorded phone conversation, Hunt told a friend she knew a “bunch” of corrupt officers, according to an FBI affidavit.

But local law enforcement officials are optimistic about changes at Lanesboro.

In January, police and prosecutors teamed up with the prison’s new administrator, John Herring, to begin criminally charging inmates caught with weapons. The crackdown has reduced assaults, a DPS spokesman said.

Time for truth

Cook, the target of the 2012 attack, was released from prison in March.

He said he’s haunted by Turner’s murder and has branded the letters of his best friend’s nickname into his right side. Turner was scheduled to get out of prison this year, too.

“He died helping me,” Cook wrote in a letter to the Observer. “It was me who was supposed to die that day.”

It’s time, Cook wrote, to expose why Turner died.

“I would like to see the truth be told about what happens at Lanesboro. I’d like to see the truth be told about what really does go on in here.”

Staff researcher Maria David and editor Rogelio Aranda contributed.

Editor’s note: This story is based on interviews with dozens of sources – including inmates, investigators, lawyers and 19 current and former prison employees – as well as court files, correspondence, criminal records and state prison documents. Some facts related to events surrounding the murder of inmate Wesley Turner are drawn from prison surveillance video obtained by the Observer.

For almost two years, an Observer reporter exchanged letters with inmate Christopher Cook, who described what led to the attack that killed Turner. Prison officials refused to allow reporters to interview Cook in prison, citing mental health concerns and a policy that does not allow media interviews with inmates in solitary confinement. Reporters interviewed Cook in March, two days after he was released from prison.

Prison officials investigated the murder, but refused to provide the Observer their report.

A timeline of trouble

Here’s a look at incidents at Lanesboro Correctional Institution since its opening in 2004:

▪ January 2009 - Inmate Bill Rayburn alleged he was repeatedly pepper-sprayed by correctional officers – twice while he was naked – after he requested medical help. He sued and won a $10,000 settlement from the state.

▪ April 2009 - Inmate Prentiss Quick complained of chest pains and requested medical help, but no one at the prison got him to a nurse or a doctor, a correctional officer and an inmate said. He was found dead in his cell the following morning, a victim of coronary artery disease. Officers skipped their required rounds at the prison the night Quick died, records show.

▪ December 2010 - Thirteen inmates assaulted staff members in various attacks, state records show.

▪ April 2011 - Richard Neely, a former top administrator at Lanesboro, was charged with felony obstruction of justice following allegations that he destroyed video footage that might have shown officers using excessive force in a fight with inmates. Prosecutors later dismissed the charge because of problems with the credibility of witnesses.

▪ August 2011 - Eighteen inmates assaulted staff members throughout the month.

▪ September 2012 - The stabbing death of inmate Wesley Turner spurred an SBI investigation and led to three felony convictions. Surveillance videos and shanks hidden in the ceiling of a prison manager’s office raised questions about whether prison officials helped plan the attack or allowed it to happen.

▪ January 2013 - A former Lanesboro correctional officer began sending letters to state officials, describing several incidents in which some prison officials appeared to collude with gang members.

▪ November 2013 - A gang member cut a correctional officer three times on the neck and face, requiring 39 stitches, according to a police report. Following the attack, more than 800 inmates were put on lockdown for several months. Searches found numerous cellphones, improvised weapons and marijuana.

▪ October 2014 - Prison administrator David Mitchell was stabbed in the neck by an inmate wielding a plastic shank. That was one of three times inmates attacked Mitchell.

▪ November 2014 - Five former Lanesboro inmates filed a federal lawsuit alleging that officers at the Anson County prison repeatedly helped gang-affiliated inmates get weapons and wage attacks.

▪ September 2016 - Inmates stabbed a sergeant and a lieutenant at the prison, and hit two other officers with a broom handle.

▪ October 2016 - Former correctional officer Scarlette Hodges pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs, tobacco and other contraband to at least one inmate. Other inmates had told investigators that Hodges was supplying contraband to an inmate gang member who she later admitted was her boyfriend, court records show. Hodges was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

▪ February 2017 - Former officer Evangeline Hunt was charged with smuggling in drugs and other contraband for inmates.

We want your tips

Do you want to share documents or information about the North Carolina prisons? Contact an Observer reporter:

Ames Alexander | 704-358-5060 | aalexander@charlotteobserver.com

Gavin Off | 704-358-6038 | goff@charlotteobserver.com

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