Prison violated rules, destroyed evidence in inmate homicide, DOC review finds

MONROE — When detectives arrived to investigate a vicious assault at the Monroe Correctional Center in May, they expected to examine the crime scene.

They couldn’t.

There wasn’t one.

When a Monroe Police Department detective inquired about the dearth of physical evidence, the lieutenant on duty inside the Special Offenders Unit reportedly told him: “I have a facility to run.”

He’d ordered photos be taken and had the area cleaned up shortly after the May 9 attack.

The inmate was stomped on and never regained consciousness. On May 14, five days after the attack, Gordon “Casey” Powell, 45, was taken off life support at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. He died four days later.

The assault turned into a homicide investigation and a charge of aggravated murder.

The decision to mop up the blood violated state Department of Corrections policy that requires crime scenes to be preserved to protect evidence.

It was not the only decision made that day to come under scrutiny, according to documents obtained through a public records request. The prison’s internal investigations unit wasn’t informed of the assault until 5 p.m. the following day. There also were problems with how evidence was handled and with completing incident reports in a timely manner.

The concerns were detailed in a 28-page report known as a “Critical Incident Review.” It was done by Department of Corrections leaders from outside the Monroe prison.

In addition to examining how staff reacted to the assault, the investigation explored whether there were warning signs.

Monroe officials did not comment on the report because the case remains under criminal investigation. They did say such outside reviews can help prevent future problems.

“The information gathered through incident reviews will be analyzed to identify activities that contributed to the successful outcomes, improve department procedures, policies, training, and practices, and determine if improvements are needed,” said Susan Biller, a spokeswoman at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

The attack in the prison’s mental health unit appeared to be unprovoked, according to witnesses.

Powell, of Centralia, was serving time for stealing liquor from a store. He was walking back to his cell from dinner when fellow inmate Benjamin Price allegedly charged him and knocked him to the ground with a single punch, before kicking him and stomping on his head. The nine-second attack was recorded on surveillance video.

A corrections officer heard Powell ask “What did I do?” before getting kicked in the face.

Price has a history of violent behavior and mental illness. He is serving a 12-year sentence for killing his girlfriend, Dawn Ruger, in 2006. He hid her body in rural Whatcom County. He confessed and led police to her body two years later. He claimed Ruger was putting demons in his head. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter after a lengthy stay at Western State Hospital.

Price also made delusional claims that his cell mate was the devil in 2011 after attempting to strangle him at Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Grays Harbor County.

After the May assault in Monroe, Price called Powell a “Satan buddy,” according to court records. He also said Powell used telepathy to tell him that if he assaulted him, Price could finally get to talk to police and a lawyer.

Other inmates in the unit told investigators that they were scared of Price, who would refer to himself as “Arch Angel Michael.” Two inmates said they observed Price frequently pacing in the days before and they stayed clear of him.

At dinner, shortly before the assault, a corrections officer reported in the operations log that Price was “off baseline, seemingly agitated, loud, mumbling to no one in particular.” The officer talked to Price about his behavior.

Other staff at the prison had “noted odd behaviors by Mr. Price up to a day or so preceding the incident, but those observations were not shared with overall unit staff in any formal manner and many staff commented during interviews that the behaviors and symptom complaints were part of (Price’s) baseline” behaviors.

An attorney representing Powell’s sister and father questioned Price’s classi-fication, arguing that he should have been kept in segregation based on his serious mental health issues and history of violence.

“This is somebody that the records suggest to me should definitely have not been classified as someone who should have been with the population of other inmates,” Seattle attorney Ed Budge said. “Other inmates were afraid of him.”

Before his incarceration, Powell lived with his sister, who was his legal guardian, as well as his father. He had never been married and had no children.

Price was listed in prison records as 8 inches taller and 45 pounds heavier than Powell. Budge believes the disparity was much greater. Powell went into prison at 160 pounds but he had lost a lot of weight before his death.

His sister “was shocked by how tiny he had become,” Budge said.

Two corrections officers said they followed orders to clean up the blood and body fluid after the assault despite having reservations. One told investigators that they knew it was against policy and procedure, but they followed directions because they didn’t want to be found insubordinate. Another said he felt he would have been chastised if he said anything.

After the assault, corrections officers gathered property belonging to both inmates. While searching and packing up Price’s cell, they found a note that read “Get Mefford” on the inside of his cell door. It was a reference to another inmate. Investigators were told the paper was thrown in the garbage because it was assumed to be “nuisance contraband.”

One member of the internal investigation unit said the chain of custody of evidence was “horrible.”

Internal investigators said they would have ensured the crime scene was preserved and property belonging to the suspect and victim properly handled if they had been notified in a timely manner.

The critical incident review report did acknowledge the efforts of staff members and the difficulties of working in the Special Offenders Unit.

“The staff … have worked closely and consistently for years with this very challenging patient and it is clear that they have done a tremendous job in trying to manage him in the least restrictive environment possible,” the report said. “The documentation is thorough and it paints a clear picture of Mr. Price’s illness” and efforts to help him.

Price is awaiting trial. Last week, a judge signed an order to have a mental health expert determine if he is competent to assist his attorneys.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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