Vaughn riot trial: Inmate eyewitness describes initial assault on officers


WILMINGTON — Inmate Henry Anderson claimed to be a direct eyewitness to the “intense” first attack on Lt. Steven Floyd during the Feb. 1 2017, Vaughn prison riot.

“‘Why are you doing this man! I know who you are,’” Anderson claimed he overheard Lt. Floyd saying as he was being savagely beaten by at least three masked inmates in the hall of C Building.

Responding to the sound of a “commotion,” Anderson claims he saw two masked inmates struggling to restrain Lt. Floyd and put handcuffs on him while, and unmasked inmate he identified as Obadiah Miller prodding him with an unidentified object.

“He was hitting him in the neck and ribs, poking or punching him and it looked like he had something in his hand but I couldn’t make it out because it was happening so fast,” said Anderson.

He notes that after jab, blood poured from Lt. Floyds wounds.

Anderson was called to testify by the prosecution on Thursday in the ongoing criminal trial that will decide the fate of 18 inmates accused of perpetrating the riot. Sixteen of the inmates are facing murder charges and, along with two other prisoners, are also looking at kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting charges.

The inmates are being tried separately in five groups before Judge William C. Carpenter Jr. at the New Castle County Court House. The first group consists of inmates Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney, all accused of three counts of murder in the first degree.

Inmate Roman Shankaras was also part of the original group of four, but was severed from the trial on Tuesday owing to a “deteriorating” relationship with his defense attorney Jason Antoine.

Staats and Ayers have opted to defend themselves with the assistance of state-appointed counsel. Forney is being represented by attorney Ben Gifford.

‘Code one’

Recalling that he’d slept late the morning of Feb. 1, Anderson realized a serious incident was unfolding when his cell mate shook him awake saying: “Get up man, it’s about to get real.”

At first thinking it may have been a joke, Anderson poked his head out of his cell to witness the first attack on Floyd when he overheard him repeatedly calling: “code one” (assault on an officer). Stepping further into the hall, he noticed both correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson also caught up in the melee. Anderson struggled to remember definitively how many inmates were accosting the officers and recalled all of them wearing masks except Miller.

Anderson noted, pointedly, that the other inmates from his tier all looked on helplessly unsure of what to do.

“I could tell they all wanted to stop it — I know that look — but we were scared,” he said.

To the prosecution’s apparent frustration, Anderson seemed to pull back from identifying Luis Sierra (one of the inmates charged with murder) as a “tall” man beating on officer Smith with a mop wringer as he did in a previous statement to police following the riot. Even when shown a transcript of the statement he gave to investigators, Anderson said it didn’t really refresh his memory. During his cross-examination of Anderson, Mr. Gifford drove that point home, seemingly to downplay the reliability of his testimony.

“Is today the first time that the prosecution has heard that you might have been wrong about that?” asked Mr. Gifford.

“Yeah. It looked like Abdul (Sierra) because he was tall,” replied Anderson. “But whoever it really was was actually taller than that I think.”

During the course of the riot, Anderson claimed to have seen several of the other indicted inmates. He said he saw Staats wielding a knife or shank and participating in negotiations over a walkie-talkie, and Ayers who’d come to Anderson’s cell to both check on him and attempt to collect his locker box for use in a barricade inmates were allegedly building.

Notably, Anderson said he saw Royal Downs (one of the inmates accused of the lesser charges and the only to have accepted a plea agreement) along with several other inmates “parading” officer Wilkinson down the tier hallway with a pair of pants over his head. Only hearing part of what Downs said as he moved Mr. Wilkinson down the hallway, Anderson said he did see the officer’s battered face when it was unsheathed.

“Diamond (Downs) was saying something like: ‘Y’all see what happens to people…’ but I couldn’t make out the rest because he was walking down the hall,” he said. “But when he pulled the pair of pants off his head, his face looked really bad.”

Anderson’s account seemed to run counter to the more magnanimous characterization Downs painted of his participation in the riot during his testimony earlier this week. He’d cast himself as someone with considerable clout among fellow inmates who intervened only to “save lives.”

Being a 57-year-old with a heart condition, Anderson sought to be released from C Building as soon as possible — though he didn’t get out until later in the evening. Anderson claims Ayers helped ensure that he was released to receive medical treatment.

“If I stayed in there, I don’t think I would have made it through the night — I had to get out,” Anderson said.

Scant hard evidence

A DNA specialist and fingerprint analyst testified on Wednesday, but had very little reliable forensic evidence to showcase. That, alongside more C Building inmate testimonies expected to follow, seems to indicate that the prosecution’s case may be built largely on eyewitness accounts.

Inmate Larry Sartin, a resident of C Building during the riot, began his testimony on Thursday and is expected to be cross-examined by the defense today. Similarly to Anderson, Sartin claims to have seen several of the indicted inmates participating in rioting activities on Feb. 1-2.

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