Prison riot survivor: Concerns had been widespread

WILMINGTON — Recalling her harrowing experience as a hostage during a prison riot last year, Patricia May said she was “scared to death.”

As the riot erupted, she was taken captive at knifepoint in her office by a black inmate of medium height and build, whose face she had difficulty recollecting, she said. He snatched her identification lanyard, put a hood over her head and tied her to a chair, she said.

“That’s when I got really freaked out because they took my ID — it’s like I wasn’t a person anymore,” she said. “The inmate told me I had to stop shaking, but I just couldn’t stop.”

Called in to testify in the ongoing James T. Vaughn prison riot trial on Wednesday afternoon, Ms. May’s time on the stand continued Thursday morning.

Thursday was day four 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. Steven 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.

Incident seen coming

Although “petrified” for the duration of the nearly 20-hour hostage standoff, Ms. May indicated during her testimony that she had been anticipating just such an incident. She noted that concerns about C Building (the site of the riot) had been widespread among prison staff.

Though she’d been working at Vaughn prison for nearly 10 years, Ms. May was only assigned to C Building two months before the riot, she said. According to her, she’d spoke to multiple other staff members and supervisors to express concerns about the security of C Building specifically.

“I was afraid I was going to get killed in this building,” she said. “It was common talk that C Building was going to explode.”

She also noted that supervisors failed to provide her with a “security brief” on the building before she started work there.

“I wanted to be briefed so I would know what was happening in the building and who the players were, but I never got it,” said Ms. May.

Ms. May, along with 11 others, were plaintiffs in a civil suit against the state arising from the riot that was settled in late-2017 for $7.5 million. The original 52-page federal complaint was filed by Wilmington attorneys Thomas Neuberger and Tom Crumplar in April 2017.

Much of the complaint rested on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long-ignored staffing issues within the DOC and how those failures led to the incident on Feb. 1.

Ms. May was even more direct in holding DOC administration responsible in a July Associated Press Interview.

“They knew it was going to happen. They did nothing,” she said in that interview. “When they put me in that building, they knew they were putting me in a dangerous situation.”

Because the case was settled, the state never admitted any wrongdoing and the plaintiffs never conceded their claims.

May’s experience

According to her testimony, Ms. May arrived at C Building (the site of the riot) sometime after 10 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2017. She’d been speaking to an inmate in her office when an armed inmate burst in.

“He came running into the office and he had a knife in his hand,” she said. “I remember it being a black handle with some kind of design, it looked to be a commercial knife, it wasn’t a shank. I though, OK, this could be real damaging here.”

The inmate she’d been speaking to quickly left the room, she recalled.

“The inmate said ‘I don’t want to hurt you, but if you don’t do everything I say, I’m going to stab you,” Ms. May said.

At some point during the exchange, Ms. May remembers knocking her desk phone off the hook, knowing that it would likely alert prison staff to an issue. She noted that the inmate sat her down with a list of telephone numbers and demanded that she call The News Journal — a Wilmington-based daily newspaper. But, she was able to avoid the request.

Just then, she noticed a fight taking place outside her office door through the window, Ms. May said.

“There was a horrible fight that went flying by, I can’t even describe how violent it was,” she said. “I don’t know who was involved, but I think I saw an officer’s uniform.”

Ms. May’s head was then covered by a hood and she was tied to her chair, she said. She sat idle for an indeterminate amount of time but was then moved at her captor’s request. She recalls seeing piles of debris and puddles of blood all over the floor outside her office while looking out the bottom of the hood placed over her head.

Unsure of what room she was moved to, Ms. May said she was sat down on a metal trunk, where she stayed again for an indeterminate amount of time.

“I just sat there in a fetal position, I was scared to death,” she said. “I lost track of timing.”

During her interment, she remembers being reassured by various inmates that she wouldn’t be harmed. At one point, a cell phone was put up to her ear and a woman identifying herself as “Michael’s mom” told her that the inmates promised they would not hurt her.

Ms. May also recalls talking briefly to who she assumed was a hostage negotiator over what she believed was a radio.

“I remember telling them to tell my husband I love him and always will because I didn’t know whether I was going to live or not,” she said.

During her time as a hostage, Ms. May noted that several inmates made it their job to protect her and were “very kind.” They offered her food, water, a bible and even tried, unsuccessfully, to get a radio for her so she could listen to her favorite music — Christian rock — she said.

Getting emotional during her testimony, Ms. May recalled when an inmate sang to her in an attempt to comfort her.

“He said ‘Ms. May, I’m a Christian, can I sing to you?’” she said. “He had one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard in my life.”

Since she was hooded the entire time, she wasn’t able to identify any of the inmates who helped her, but two of them — Terek Downing and Michael Carello — wrote their names down for her, she said.

Although unable to clearly remember the sequence of events, Ms. May said she was held captive late into the night mostly cloistered in one room in the company of three other inmates. She said she was scared the entire time, she believed that, like her, the inmates she was with were being held hostage as well and were intent on protecting her.

Eventually, in the early hours of Feb. 2, Ms May said the inmates were calling out that a backhoe was approaching the building and they were expecting to be breached. Worried that sieging officers may “come in shooting,” Ms. May told the inmates to shut the door to the room.

After breaking through a wall, the entry team quickly located her by looking through the window in the door with flashlights and she was very briskly extracted from the building, said Ms. May. She was rescued physically unharmed, but badly rattled by the experience.
Staats: ‘that was me’

During his questioning of Ms. May, Staats blurt out that it was him who initially took her hostage on Feb. 1, 2017.

“I think I owe you this, but that was me that came into your office,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The remark drew an immediate admonition from Judge Carpenter.

“This is a court of law, not a counseling session,” said Judge Carpenter. “I’ll ask the jury to disregard that comment.”

The judge noted that Staats was welcome to take the stand himself at a later time and testify, but his comment constituted a breach of customary cross examination.

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