Vaughn riot witness: ‘Floyd’s family deserves to know the truth’

WILMINGTON — After giving vague statements to investigators in the wake of the 2017 Vaughn prison riot that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, inmate Cornell Hester testified in court on Thursday afternoon that he recently had a change of heart and gave prosecutors a fuller accounting of his experience.

“I’m a Christian, and I talked to my wife about this,” he told the jury. “I’ve had nightmares about it, but this is the right thing to do Floyd’s family deserves to know the truth.”

Hester was Roman “Rome” Shankaras’ — the inmate currently on trial — cell mate at C Building in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center back on Feb. 1 2017. Shankaras, the eighth inmate to be tried of the 18 originally indicted, is accused of riot, conspiracy, kidnapping, assault and murder. Leaning heavily on two ‘kites’ (prison letters) allegedly written by Shankaras that seem to take responsibility for the riot, prosecutors have been trying to portray him as one of the primary planners of the incident.

In previous interviews immediately after the riot and several months later, Hester said he didn’t provide much detail to investigators because he “feared for his life.” Claiming that other inmates who were in C Building (the site of the riot) were closely monitoring one another for “snitches.” Hester said giving names to prosecutors would have put his life in danger. However, since being moved to a prison in Pennsylvania, he’s less worried.

Roman Shankaras

In a pre-trial interview on April 9, Sgt. David Weaver — the State Police’s lead investigator on the case — said they brought Hester in to prepare for Shankaras’ trial when he started providing “new information.”

Questioned on the stand on Thursday, Hester’s account of the riot mirrors many others from inmates who’ve testified in previous trials. On the morning of Feb. 1, he claims he was startled by the sounds of fighting coming from the hallway. Finding his door had been “popped” open — presumably by the rioting inmates — he looked down the hall to see correctional officers Lt. Floyd, Joshua Wilkinson and Winslow Smith all being attacked by masked inmates.

Two of the inmates, he claimed to have recognized by their faces: Dwayne Staats, who wasn’t wearing a mask, and Obadiah “OB” Miller, whose mask had fallen off in the melee. A third, he said he recognized by voice as Lawrence “Smoke” Michaels. Staats was convicted of kidnapping, conspiracy, riot, assault and murder in the first trial late last year. Miller was found not guilty of conspiracy, assault and kidnapping but the jury returned “no decision” verdicts for riot and the two individual counts of murder (felony murder and murder of a law enforcement officer) in the second trial that wrapped up earlier this year. Michaels is scheduled to stand trial in October.

Some time after the attack, Hester noted that he overheard Shankaras in their mutual cell talking to Miller about the assault on Floyd.

“OB came back and said to my celly (cell mate): ‘We did everything to Floyd and that N-word (sic) just won’t die.’” said Hester. “So Rome said: ‘get the fire extinguisher and spray him with it or hit him, just finish it.’”

Prosecutors have long claimed that shanks (homemade knives), fire extinguishers and mop wringers were the primary weapons used against the correctional officers during the riot.

After leaving for a short time and returning to the cell later, Hester claims Shankaras was pleased.

“He said: ‘I love when a plan comes together, that goose is cooked,’” claims Hester. “I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But I was just trying to stay out of the way and mind my business. I was scared for my life.”

On cross-examination, Shankaras’ defense attorney Patrick Collins grilled Hester on his agreement to testify in exchange for immunity in the case and recent attempts to reduce his sentence — questioning the legitimacy of his recent statements. Hester, who has six and a half years left of a 15 year sentence for burglary and assault, admitted that he has applied for 11 sentence modifications, filed two post conviction relief appeals and is currently pursuing relief under recently-passed laws that apply to habitual offenders. However, Hester claimed that he didn’t come forward to testify in order to make any “deals,” and the immunity obtained in testifying was something applied for by his lawyer.

Mr. Collins’ cross examination of Hester will continue this morning in Judge William C. Carpenter Jr.’s courtroom in the New Castle County Courthouse.

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