Inmates indicted: 18 face charges for prison riot; 16 for murder

Four Delaware State Police officers ride horses on Smyrna Landing Road at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center during February’s uprising. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

WILMINGTON — Sixteen inmates are facing murder charges for the death of a correctional officer, and along with two other prisoners, are also looking at counts of kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting after a nearly two-day uprising at a Smyrna prison.

Lt. Steven Floyd

After more than eight months of investigation, authorities announced indictments Tuesday against 18 inmates allegedly connected to the death of Lt. Steven Floyd and takeover at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 1-2.

“We’re pleased to see indictments filed in the murder of Lt. Steven Floyd and the senseless assault of other correctional officers,” Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) said. “Now is the time for the judicial system to do its work. It’s not a perfect system, but we look forward to it doing justice.”

All charged were inmates at the maximum security prison near Smyrna when the uprising occurred and they have remained incarcerated at Delaware correctional facilities.

Of the 18 charged, 11 were serving sentences for murder and manslaughter. Four have life sentences.

The Delaware Department of Justice said charges stemmed from injuries suffered by correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson, and the kidnapping of counselor Patricia May.

A New Castle County Grand Jury returned the indictments Monday and initially sealed the document “so that Department of Correction personnel could ensure that necessary security precautions were taken within correctional facilities to process inmates on the indictments,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Sixteen inmates are facing murder charges for the death of Delaware Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd during the February uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

Brendan O’Neill, Delaware’s chief public defense attorney, said in a statement Tuesday that his office has started the process of providing lawyers for the inmates. “Under our system of justice each of these persons is presumed innocent and the lawyers in the Office of Defense Services will do their utmost to protect the constitutional rights of their clients,” he said.

The prison was placed on lockdown when the inmates traveled to court for the arrest and indictment process, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said. The lockdown was lifted Tuesday afternoon.

The indictment explained the charges brought against the 18 prisoners, but did not describe the circumstances that led to them.

“This was an extremely important and time-consuming investigation that involved unique challenges.” said Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn in a prepared statement. “I appreciate the police and prosecutors’ focus on ensuring that justice is done for the victims in this case and their families.”

The 16 defendants were charged with three counts of first-degree murder (intentional murder, felony murder, and recklessly causing death of a correctional officer); two counts of first-degree assault (a count each regarding officers Smith and Wilkinson); four counts of first-degree kidnapping (a count each for Lt. Floyd, officers Smith and Wilkinson and counselor May); one count of riot; and one count of second-degree conspiracy (regarding the riot).

Facing those charges are Jarreau Ayers, Abednego Baynes, Kevin Berry, John Bramble, Abdul-Haqq El-Qadeer, Deric Forney, Kelly Gibbs, Robert Hernandez, Janiis Mathis, Lawrence Michaels, Obadiah Miller, Jonatan Rodriguez, Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, Roman Shankaras, Corey Smith, and Dwayne Staats.

In addition, inmates Pedro Chairez and Royal Downs were each charged with four counts of first-degree kidnapping, (a count each for Lt. Floyd, officers Smith and Wilkinson and counselor May); one count of riot; and one count of second-degree conspiracy (for conspiring to commit riot).

Chairez is an inmate from Arizona serving a 43-year sentence for second-degree murder and other charges committed in that state.

Downs is an inmate from Maryland serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and other charges committed in that state.

The February siege

According to a series of reports given by correction and state officials, the takeover of C Building, which then housed about 120 inmates in transition from medium to maximum security, began at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 1. During the incident, inmates took four correctional workers — three officers and a counselor — hostage. Two of the three officers, both severely beaten, were released later that day.

Using a backhoe to break through a barricade of water-filled footlockers, tactical teams rescued the female counselor and found Lt. Floyd unresponsive on Feb. 2

Officials said inmates were armed with sharp instruments and used an officer’s radio to communicate with negotiators.

The counselor was not injured and officials said that some inmates may have been actively “shielding” her from harm.

The decision to breach the barricaded building came at around 5 a.m. on Feb. 2, when negotiation experts determined there was significant stalling and fear for the remaining hostages’ well-being was rising.

Earlier in negotiations, the inmates had bargained to have the water in Building C turned back on so they could “hydrate” and for hygiene purposes, but they instead used the water to fill footlockers to add weight and blocked entryways with them.

Officials confirmed that 16-year veteran officer Floyd died sometime during the siege. He was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. The Delaware Division of Forensic Science later ruled his death a “homicide by trauma.” He is believed to be the first correctional officer to die during duty in Delaware.

Outrage over the death of Lt. Floyd prompted state House lawmakers to vote this year to reinstate Delaware’s death penalty, but the effort died in the Senate, so the most severe punishment the inmates charged this week can get is life without parole.

In a news release early Tuesday, Attorney General Denn noted the cooperation of several agencies and individuals that led to the charges. He cited Delaware State Police Sgt. David Weaver, Deputy Attorneys General John Downs, Brian Robertson and Nichole Warner, the Delaware State Police Homicide Unit, Delaware State Police Criminal Investigation Units, the Delaware State Police Evidence Detection Units, and the Delaware Department of Correction “for the extensive work that resulted in Monday’s indictment.”

Citing ongoing investigation into the incident “and because of court rules that restrict prosecutors’ ability to publicly discuss criminal matters prior to the time of trial,” Department of Justice spokesman Carl Kanefsky said, “police and prosecutors will have no further comment about the indictments at this time.”

Staff writers Matt Bittle and Ian Gronau contributed to this report.

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