MONROE — As he left the dining hall that Saturday afternoon, the middle-aged man grabbed a cupcake.
Inmates in his block of the Special Offenders Unit were allowed to take a treat to their cells, and if history was a predictor, Gordon “Casey” Powell would try to swap the pastry for a cup of coffee. More often than not, Powell got the short end of the bargain, but he loved his coffee.
It was a little after 4:30 p.m. May 9, 2015. The wispy convict, barely 120 pounds in his tan prison uniform, entered the commons from a walkway separating the cafeteria from the cells in Pod 2 of the E Unit. It is home to roughly 40 medium- and minimum-security inmates with mental health issues and one of several lockups inside the sprawling Monroe Correctional Complex, the state’s second largest prison, capable of housing 2,400 prisoners.
Benjamin Price was waiting inside. Powell sensed trouble. Like a lot of prisoners, Powell learned to keep his distance from the imposing inmate with the disturbing delusions. Corrections officers and mental health workers also were leery of Price. Some officers had questioned higher ups why he wasn’t in a unit with tighter security.
Price stood with his back to a wall, his eyes fixed on the entry way, his fists clenched. Other inmates wandered by, including one with a guitar, but Price didn’t seem to notice.
When Price spotted Powell, he crossed the corridor in six long strides, passing within a few feet of Tom Talbot. The veteran corrections officer was updating a log behind a control panel. He was among the staff who’d raised concerns about Price. He’d also written critically of inmates as well as upper-level corrections staff.
“What did I do?” Powell uttered as Price approached.
Price offered no explanation. He punched Powell, knocking him backward and onto the floor of the passageway. There he repeatedly stomped on Powell’s head. Hopelessly overmatched, Powell did not fight back.
The assault lasted all of nine seconds. Price was 10 years younger, 7 inches taller and outweighed Powell by more than 60 pounds.
Powell was “basically a toothpick, I mean my thumb’s bigger than his neck,” one inmate told police after the attack. “… He’s just such a little dude in crisis.”
When it was over, Price got on his stomach and put his arms behind his back to be handcuffed.
Powell, unresponsive, was taken to the prison infirmary. There he was evaluated and changed into orange prison coveralls before an ambulance took him to a hospital in Everett. An inmate trained in hazmat cleanup was called to mop up the blood, even before police could investigate the crime scene. He didn’t touch the cupcake.
Price told corrections staff that Powell was “a Satan buddy” — one of his many recurring delusions. He insisted he’d “told everyone I need to talk to law enforcement; I’m getting desperate enough to kill somebody.”
Four days after the attack, Price finally got his audience. He was in restraints, seated on a small metal stool and chained to a wall. He talked incoherently and nonstop for 10 minutes, telling a detective he was a trained assassin for the CIA and other government agencies, that he was suffering from “horrible and excruciating pain” and was being brutally beaten.
At the hospital, Powell lingered. After consulting with doctors, his sister decided the following Saturday to remove him from life support. He died May 18, 2015, nine days after the attack.
A state Department of Corrections team was brought in to investigate. Its report was completed that fall and stamped “…DOC-RISK MANAGEMENT.”
The document, called a critical incident review, found some shortcomings, but concluded that “both offenders were screened and housed appropriately.”
As for Price, it said that staff in the Special Offenders Unit worked “closely and consistently for years with this very challenging patient” and had done a “tremendous job in trying to manage him in the least restrictive environment possible.”
On six occasions, Price had been removed from his living units so he could be watched much more closely.
Today, there is mounting evidence of missed or unheeded warning signs. It can be found in depositions, emails, psychological assessments, police reports, a prison log book and a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Powell’s family.
There also are questions about whether Price had told anyone in the days before the attack that he was willing to kill someone to get to talk with law enforcement.
Stephanie Powell Leisure wants to know why her brother died. It took a while for the Centralia woman to find a lawyer willing to take on the case. In many ways, her brother, a penniless felon, was 45 going on 10. A judge years earlier had declared him “an incapacitated person.” Powell Leisure eventually became his legal guardian. For all his challenging behaviors and her daily fears for his welfare, she loved him dearly.
Edwin Budge, a Seattle civil rights attorney, had a hunch there was more to the story than the corrections department report disclosed. He combed through police reports. What he found raised questions he wanted to ask corrections officers, which led to more questions of prison mental health staff.
Budge describes the DOC document as an “ambiguous and sanitized report for public consumption” that was “carefully written to avoid implying that any DOC employee was negligent, let alone mention even a fraction of what we now know to be true.”
He demanded all recorded interviews, investigative notes, interview summaries, draft reports and correspondence among the critical incident review team. He was told such records don’t exist. “It is impossible for me to believe that a 30-page report could be generated without a paper trail unless interview notes were discarded along the way,” he said.
Budge has spent many hours taking depositions at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Some of those sworn statements are now public record; some related to Price’s mental state are under wraps. Budge is not done looking for answers behind the prison walls.
‘Somebody was going to get hurt’
Benjamin Price is a scary man. Inmates will vouch for that.
One man would simply retreat to his cell whenever Price walked into the commons. In the days before the attack, “I looked into his eyes and there was no soul,” that inmate recalled.
Corrections officers wanted Price moved to another unit. Some mental health staff refused to meet with Price alone, or at all.
“We were all afraid of him,” said Gazelle Williams, a former prison mental health counselor now in private practice. “Was I afraid that Price could hurt me some day? Yes I was.”
Before he was arrested and sent to prison, Price spent time living at the home of his adoptive father who often heard him talking “150 miles a minute” while alone in his room, according to court records. The ramblings were peppered with cussing and screaming. His father kept a pistol beneath his pillow.
Price was a troubled child from a broken home. His mother was said to have used drugs when she was pregnant. He was adopted at an early age and later spent time in foster care. A mental health counselor diagnosed him as a child with depression, Attention Deficit Disorder and a “number of PTSD symptoms.” Price didn’t finish high school.
When Price was 17, he beat another teen with a baseball bat. Witnesses said the 1997 assault in Lynden sounded like a pumpkin being smashed. It fractured the victim’s skull. Price was charged as an adult and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Four years later, when Price was 24, he was charged with violating a no-contact order. Neighbors of his former girlfriend heard her screaming inside her Bellingham apartment. Price and the woman, parents of a 4-year-old daughter at the time, had broken up months earlier. He had been unfaithful and had started using methamphetamine.
In court, questions were raised about his mental health. Jail staff said Price “reported seeing demons and believing that others were inserting thoughts into his mind.” Price was found competent to stand trial, although a psychologist noted his “history of violent behavior, substance abuse, and irresponsible lifestyle are strongly suggestive of an antisocial personality disorder.”
In 2008, Price was charged with murder. Roughly 17 months after 44-year-old Dawn Ruger disappeared in Skagit County, Price walked into the Bellingham Police Department and confessed to strangling her. He led detectives to a shallow grave along a creek bed in eastern Whatcom County. Acquaintances said Price had been acting strangely around the time Ruger vanished and was calling himself Archangel Michael, a biblical figure who waged war with Satan.
Again, Price’s sanity was a question for the court. Price pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He received a 12-year sentence. In court papers, a Skagit County deputy prosecutor noted Price could have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“There was a possibility that detention at Western State Hospital would have been for less than the standard (sentencing) range,” he wrote. “The possibility also existed that release may have been much later and possibly never.”
Gina Good reported her friend was missing and spent many days looking for her.
“I just knew that he killed her,” she said.
She wrote Price in prison after his conviction. She said Price wrote back, telling her at the time he killed Ruger a voice had told him to kill others as well, including Good.
Less than a year into his prison sentence, while assigned to general population at Stafford Creek Corrections Center near Aberdeen, Price tried to strangle his new cellmate with scraps of bed sheet. He told prison officials he had a dream that his cellmate was the devil and he had to kill him to protect himself and his daughter.
Price was never charged in that case. Corrections department records indicate the assault was reported to police in a phone call the day of the attack.
Detectives recommended charges, according to Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office records. Grays Harbor County prosecutors declined to file charges.
The criminal investigation later was placed in the sheriff’s archives. In the file is a two-paragraph letter from a deputy prosecutor dated Nov. 9, 2011, outlining the reasons for the decision. It said the assault appeared to be the result of mental health issues and that the victim was not injured.
“Prosecution in a case like this is going to cost a substantial amount of county and state resources to deal with the mental health issue,” the letter stated. “The Department of Corrections has the ability to monitor this offender’s behavior and punish him through their infraction system.”
As a result, a potential “third strike” felony that could have placed Price in prison for the rest of his life and likely in close observation for at least four years, became an internal issue for the prison system.
Price was transferred to the Special Offenders Unit for mentally ill offenders in Monroe where he’d spend 14 months under tighter security.
Prisons operate on a risk and reward system. Good behavior can allow inmates to earn more freedoms, sometimes with deadly results.
Death row inmate Byron Scherf is an example. In 2011, the repeat rapist was serving a life sentence in the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe for his violent attacks on women. He eventually was promoted to medium security, which allowed him to volunteer in the prison chapel, where he strangled corrections officer Jayme Biendl. She was working alone at the end of her shift.
A civil lawsuit settled out of court focused on Scherf’s known criminal history and his access to Biendl. The Department of Corrections had reduced Scherf’s classification status, despite his violent crimes and despite corrections officials’ written warnings that he always should be considered high risk. In a written statement after the settlement, Biendl’s siblings pointed to “the horribly flawed decisions” that classified Scherf so “he could roam the facility unsupervised.”
In the case of Benjamin Price, he was promoted to medium custody and moved to one of the special offender unit’s two least-restrictive units. The promotion came 14 months after he admitted trying to kill a cellmate. The new status allowed him to wander freely among 40 other inmates in his pod from morning to evening.
That concerned corrections officer Jeremy Seeley. When interviewed by state corrections department investigators after Price attacked Powell, Seeley questioned how quickly inmates were being promoted and said that he felt some weren’t ready to be in the less-restrictive units.
Others in the E unit had similar worries about Price.
Corrections officer Robert Patton wrote emails to unit psychologist Dr. Arthur Davis between October 2013 and February 2014, at one point describing Price’s behavior as “potentially predatory.” He said he was concerned for the safety of staff and inmates.
Corrections officer Talbot said in a sworn statement that he and others urged Davis to remove Price from the unit in the months before the attack.
“I really felt that at some point somebody was going to get hurt,” he said.
Concerns among mental health staff are cited in a complaint that is part of the federal lawsuit brought on behalf of Powell’s estate.
Thirteen months before the attack, Davis wrote that Price had delusional beliefs about the FBI and “demonic psychological intrusions.” The E unit psychologist noted that Price “has murdered while operating under delusional beliefs,” according to the court papers.
More than a year before the assault, Davis instructed mental health counselor Adam Deal that he should never be alone with Price. Deal would say in a deposition that no other offender made him more uncomfortable than Price; and that Price “had the potential to quickly become violent and seriously hurt (me)” as well as offenders in the E unit.
After the assault, Davis, the psychologist, acknowledged counselors expressed significant concerns about Price’s aggressiveness “for as long as he has been here.”
For months, Price had described delusions that he was a trained contract killer acting under orders. His diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder, which according to Deal, was a “dangerous combination.”
In January 2015, Price reportedly was under the firm belief that rather than being in prison, he was in a secret training camp for assassins.
In March of that year, a four-page report concluded treatment had been ineffective and Price’s psychosis was growing worse.
On May 3, 2015, Price still was expressing a variety of delusions, including that the CIA was torturing him and training him to be an assassin. Deal, the mental health counselor, concluded that Price “does not appear to be amenable to treatment at this time.” The next day, Davis noted similar delusions, court papers said.
On May 7, 2015, Price approached Patton, the corrections officer who had written emails to mental health staff sharing his safety concerns. Price asked what he needed to do to have law enforcement notified of “what was going on and what he was feeling,” according to an entry in the log book. Price said he’d already spoken with his counselor and nobody would help him.
“I asked him what he was going to try next. …Price just looked at me for a few moments and then walked away and went to his cell,” Patton wrote.
On the evening of May 8, 2015, corrections officers heard yelling and the sound of a fist striking a wall inside Price’s cell. They checked on him, told him to stop and recorded the incident in the operations log.
During breakfast the next day, corrections officer Keri Walters grew concerned about Price’s behavior. He seemed agitated and loud, a departure from his usual mumbling. She told him to quiet down and she made sure a note was written in the operations log that Price seemed to be “off baseline.” That terminology would alert her colleagues and, she hoped, would lead to Price being assessed by a mental health counselor. The log entry was made at 6:41 a.m.
The state so far has produced no written documentation that such an assessment occurred, and, if it did, what was discovered.
That evening, Monroe police detective Barry Hatch was sent to the emergency room at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. There he found Powell, comatose beneath a tangle of tubes.
Hatch caught up with two corrections officers at the hospital. They’d received word during shift change about Price’s erratic behavior. During the conversation, Hatch jotted down in his notes: “Price was slipping.”
A question of facts
While Hatch was at the hospital, Monroe police officer James Hand tried to document the crime scene, despite the order that it be cleaned up before his arrival.
As Hand took photos, he overheard a conversation between corrections officers Talbot and Seeley.
In his report and a follow-up deposition, Hand reported that one officer told the other that Price had been requesting for several days to talk with law enforcement and that if he had to kill someone to get police attention, he would.
When Seeley was questioned under oath in November, Budge, the Seattle civil rights attorney, asked him numerous times about the conversation at the officers’ post.
Q: “Officer Talbot told you, in substance, at the officer’s post, that in the days prior to the fatal assault, that Price had been requesting to speak with law enforcement and stating that he would kill somebody to get police attention if necessary or words to that effect; correct?”
In January, Seeley submitted a long list of changes he wanted made to his testimony, including who said what and when it was said. He said it was he who told Talbot that Price said he was desperate enough to kill someone to talk to police. He also claimed that statement was only made after the attack.
Talbot was deposed in early December. He said he and other officers had made clear to Davis, the unit psychologist, that they considered Price dangerous and wanted him off the unit. Talbot denied having heard Price say before the assault that he was desperate enough to kill someone to talk to police.
“If I would have heard him say that he was going to, he was going to kill somebody, that would have been my golden ticket,” Talbot said. “It wouldn’t have mattered what Davis did because I would have gone so far over his head he would have gotten athlete’s scalp.”
During the day-long deposition, Budge brought out a book titled “What Really Happens In Prison — One Officer’s Journey.” The author’s name on the cover of the 171-page self-published work is Tommy Giovani. It turned out to be a pen name used by Talbot.
Budge challenged Talbot’s credibility and professional judgment by asking questions from passages in the book.
In his book, Talbot described a time when a sergeant intentionally knocked off an offender’s baseball cap to incite the prisoner to take a swing at him — so he and Talbot could slam him to the ground. Behind closed doors, the sergeant asked Talbot if he was going to say anything about what led up to the inmate’s behavior, according to the book. Talbot said he was not a rat.
Budge asked Talbot: “Do you boast that you omitted information from an official report in order to give a false impression that the offender incited the incident when, in fact, it was the sergeant who incited the incident?”
“Yes,” Talbot said.
Budge also asked Talbot about a string of other anecdotes from his book. The corrections officer wrote how he’d once aimed a gun and threatened to shoot a loud inmate partially chained to a bed in a hospital. He wrote how he intentionally revealed the details of one inmate’s sex crime so that others could hear, knowing that it could make him a target.
The book also included the story of how Talbot and Seeley once confronted an offender who was heating water. They believed he had been stealing tea.
When confronted, the inmate threw the cup of water against a wall and it splashed on the corrections officers. After consulting with a lieutenant, they began writing infraction reports against the offender. Later, after video of the incident was reviewed, the lieutenant determined the offender didn’t mean to throw the water on them. The offender also tried to apologize.
Both correction officers believed it was intentional and filed their reports anyway. The offender was given 15 days in segregation.
A sergeant later asked them if they thought it was fair.
That unnamed offender, Budge discovered in his research, was Gordon “Casey” Powell. At the time of the fatal beating, Talbot was the officer who was standing behind a control panel only a few feet away. In his book, Talbot had described the inmate who splashed him with water as an “a**hole.”
The state Department of Corrections has no comment about instances described in Talbot’s book, said Jeremy Barclay, the agency’s spokesman.
Nor does the Monroe Correctional Complex, said Susan Biller, a spokeswoman at the prison.
Corrections officials also had no comment about whether Price had been assigned to a unit with too few restrictions, given his mental state and violent past, and whether his placement there endangered the lives of prison staff and other inmates.
“This is an active lawsuit and the department doesn’t comment on active lawsuits,” Biller said. “Therefore, I will not be able to provide a response to any of your questions.”
A brother missed
The phone call from the prison came on Mothers’ Day.
Stephanie Powell Leisure, Casey Powell’s sister and legal guardian, was told to call an Everett hospital where her brother had been taken the day before.
She learned his chances were bleak.
His condition never improved. Eight days later he was dead. He had entered the prison six months earlier weighing around 160 pounds. His weight was listed as 114 pounds in the autopsy report.
Casey Powell’s memorial was on a Monday afternoon two weeks later. Roughly 70 people filed into the Evangelical church in Adna, a rural community in southwest Washington. It pleased Powell Leisure to see so many people who loved her brother despite his many imperfections. Many of the mourners over the years had spotted him wandering around town and given him rides home: sometimes sober; sometimes not.
The sister and brother were born 21 months apart. They shared a room for a good part of their childhood, which for Casey Powell included Little League baseball, youth football and hours pedaling his blue and yellow bike with the neighborhood kids.
Powell didn’t finish high school and his behavior began to change in his late teens and early 20s. At first, his family figured it was alcohol or drugs, but it turned out to be more deep-rooted. On four occasions beginning in 1995, Powell was sent to Western State Hospital for evaluations after arrests. In 2010, he spent more than 180 days there. A psychologist noted that Powell had a long history of chronic mental illness and determined that he was not competent to stand trial.
Powell moved in with his sister, who cooked for him and took him to his mental health appointments. He was never able to work or date. Powell Leisure felt that her brother needed 24-hour care, but she could not find any such program. For five years, he slept on the couch in her living room. There’s still a human-shaped trough on the blue sofa to remind her of her brother.
She fondly remembers the days when he would listen to his radio in the back yard and drink his coffee; or how he’d fill his plate with coconut shrimp and nothing else at a Chinese restaurant buffet in town. “Even if he’d just met you, he’d say, ‘That’s my friend’ and always remember them,” she said.
She savored his lucid days, when he was “just like the old Casey.”
Those days never lasted.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 2014, Powell broke a window to the Blind Pig Spirits distillery in Centralia and stole four bottles of liquor. Six hours later, police were called to a pharmacy in town to deal with a man sitting on the ground showing signs of “severe intoxication.” It was Powell. When the officer attempted to arrest him for trespassing, Powell grabbed his wrist and began to lay down. The officer figured it was an attempt to knock him down and pulled his arm away.
The day after his arrest, Powell was charged with burglary and assault. His case moved through the court system at warp speed. Less than two weeks later, he was sentenced to five years in prison. There is no indication in his thin Lewis County Superior Court file that anyone raised the issue of his mental competency. When Powell Leisure tried, she was told by attorneys in the courtroom that it was too late, that her brother felt bad and wanted to plead guilty.
She figured he belonged at the mental hospital, not in prison. She worried about his safety.
Powell Leisure spoke with her brother three times by phone in February 2015 and wished him well on his birthday. His thoughts were sometimes confused. He asked how their mother was doing. She reminded her brother that their mom was in the cemetery.
In March, two months before the attack, Powell Leisure received a letter from her brother. It was a single sheet, neatly printed with no misspellings. His thoughts were coherent and she found that encouraging. He thanked her for the $20 she’d sent him and told her he’d spent much of it on coffee. He wrote about reading his Bible and how much he enjoyed her letters.
The letter closed: “The days come and go. I hope you had a wonderful Valentine’s Day. Never forget that I LOVE you no matter what. Past, present and future. Your brother, Casey.”
Those were his last words to his sister.
Waiting for answers
For now, Casey Powell’s ashes are kept in a shiny wooden box in the living room. They’re on a shelf next to a stuffed toy bunny. Powell gave it to his niece when she was a baby. She now has twin boys of her own.
Stephanie Powell Leisure, a school bus driver, rises early each morning to complete her routes. She’s hoping the lawsuit will yield answers and perhaps save someone else from the grief she now lives with. She misses her brother and believes they will meet again in the Resurrection.
Benjamin Price was charged with aggravated murder in Powell’s death. In December, Snohomish County prosecutors dismissed the case when he was found criminally insane and committed to Western State Hospital. The charges can be refiled when and if Price is ever deemed competent to stand trial. He has plenty of company. Last year alone, the state’s two mental health hospitals admitted 890 people accused of crimes whose competency was in question.
Western State has been plagued by safety and security issues, including the 2016 escape of a Lake Stevens murder suspect who was captured two days later in Eastern Washington. It is under federal order to make improvements.
At Western State last fall, Price was spending much of his time alone in his room sitting atop his desk, talking to himself and sometimes yelling. In December, he said he believed Powell was alive but had shape shifted. Price again claimed he is the Archangel Michael and that he “felt threatening power on the ward.”
Price is now deemed “a high risk for future dangerous behavior,” according to a hospital report.
As this story was being completed, corrections officer Talbot was placed on “temporary administrative home reassignment” pending a personnel investigation. That is standard practice, said Biller, the Monroe Correctional Complex spokeswoman. The move was effective Feb. 10. The reason has not been disclosed.
Budge continues to depose witnesses at the prison in Monroe. The trial date in the federal lawsuit has been moved to February 2018 to allow more time to prepare.
In Skagit County, Frank Riddle wonders how Price could have had the opportunity to kill again. It was his daughter Price strangled and left covered with rocks along a creek bed a decade ago. He’d wanted Price to get a longer sentence and to be imprisoned in a setting where he would have minimal contact with prisoners and corrections officers.
“I was just disappointed in the justice system, that he wasn’t put in a place where he could do no harm to anyone else,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.