Doomed officer warned guards as prison riot erupted

WILMINGTON — A correctional officer testifying Wednesday against four inmates charged in the Feb. 1, 2017, riot at Vaughn Correctional Center told jurors “the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up because we didn’t know what we were walking into” when alerted to impending trouble.

Lt. Charles Sennett testified he heard Lt. Steven Floyd call from a closet where he had been placed by imates to “get out” because the incident was a “set-up” by the prisoners.

The jury in the trial heard testimony from several more prosecution witnesses including correctional officers and two Christiana Care forensic nurse examiners.

Wednesday was day three in what’s expected to be a four-week trial to decide the fate of four of the 18 inmates charged in the riot that left correctional officer Lt. Floyd dead.

Sixteen of the inmates are facing murder charges and, along with two other prisoners, are also looking at kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting charges.

Inmates are being tried in five separate groups before Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. at the New Castle County Court House.

The first group consists of inmates Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of first-degree murder.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Shankaras and Forney are being represented by attorneys Jason Antoine and Ben Gifford, respectively.

Lt. Steven Floyd

According to testimony, on the day of the riot four correctional officers were assigned to C Building (the site of the uprising). Correctional officers Joshua Wilkinson, Winslow Smith and Lt. Steven Floyd were the three officers in the building that were taken hostage. Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilkinson were later released after being badly beaten.

Lt. Floyd was discovered dead after the uprising ended Feb. 2, 2017.

The fourth officer assigned to the building, Robert Ferguson, testified before the jury on Wednesday.

According to his testimony he was outside C Building patrolling the recreation yard’s fence and observing inmates “exercising” or “playing ball” immediately prior to the riot.

Mr. Ferguson didn’t realize there was anything wrong until after a first group of inmates went in from the yard to take showers. Mr. Ferguson recalled overhearing a “code one” (assault on an officer) called for C Building over his radio.

Since he was on the outside of the building, he ran around the perimeter to see if he could determine what was happening inside through the windows, he said. He noticed at that time that blankets were being put up on the windows from the inside to obscure them.

Returning briefly to his post he then noticed that the remainder of inmates who’d been in the yard had disappeared, presumably back into the building.

Mr. Ferguson testified that he then linked up with other responding officers and fell under the command of Lt. Sennett who instructed him to monitor a side door of the building to ensure none of the inmates came out.

On Wednesday the jury also heard testimony from Lt. Sennett and Jordan Peters, correctional officers involved with the immediate response to the riot.

Both recalled being summoned to C Building by the same “code one” that alerted Mr. Ferguson. According to both men, they entered the building around 10:30 a.m. and immediately spotted blood on the floor.

Lt. Sennett noted that the building was seemingly vacant except for smoke and scattered footlockers in the hallway.

“The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up because we didn’t know what we were walking into,” he said.

Then, Lt. Sennett heard Lt. Floyd call from a closet to “get out” because the incident was a “set-up.” Noting that it’s part of standard procedure, Lt. Sennett ordered his small response team to exit the building immediately.

This was done to both prevent any rioting inmates from capturing additional hostages and enable the response team to quickly contain the threat and establish a perimeter around the affected building. The officers then called in a “code three” (major incident) to alert the rest of the facility to the uprising.

Lt. Senett noted that he remembers looking through C Building’s front door window as he closed it to see Staats apparently “scouting” the halls.

During his opportunity to cross-examine the witness, Staats asked Lt. Sennett if he’d been wearing a mask when he allegedly saw him. Lt. Sennett said he was not. Testimony given on day two of the trial from Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Smith indicated that perpetrating inmates had been wearing masks or knit caps over their faces.

In the intervening hours after Lt. Sennett’s initial entry, he described a scene where additional Department of Corrections personnel surrounded the building and attempted to ascertain what was taking place inside.

Lt. Sennett noted his surprise that Lt. Floyd had been attacked, and later killed, because of his “rapport” with inmates.

“He was a great lead officer,” he said. “He was very fair, but very firm.”

Christiana Care forensic nurses Donna Lougheed and Erica Dempsey both took the stand on Wednesday to describe the wounds they personally observed on Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Smith when they were received at the Hospital in Newark.

The jury was shown graphic images taken of both men after inmates released them on Feb. 1, 2017. The photographs revealed both men to have been severely beaten and covered in blood.

Mr. Wilkinson suffered a facial fractures, a broken nose, puncture wounds around the throat and forehead, a fractured skill and a concussion in addition to multiple scrapes, abrasions, hematomas and bruising. Mr. Smith sustained multiple injuries to both hands a concussion and a cervical spine injury in addition to multiple abrasions, scrapes and bruises as well.

It’s expected that the prosecution will continue to try to establish the sequence of events during the riot in continued testimony from survivors, other responding officers and inmates housed in C Building in the coming days.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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