Charges pending against four inmates after prison fire, deaths

By on October 14, 2017

Deputy Director of Prisons Annie Harvey and Pasquotank County Sheriff Randy Cartwright at Friday’s press conference. (Dee Langston)

North Carolina state flags will be flown at half-mast this weekend in tribute to the two Department of Public Safety employees who died in the line of duty Thursday afternoon at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

The employees, Veronica Darden, 50, and Justin Smith, 35, were killed during a failed escape attempt after a fire was set at the Paquotank Correctional Institution.

The fire was started in the prison’s specialty sewing plant, where Darden worked as a Correction Enterprises manager, training and supervising the inmates who worked there. Corrections Officer Smith, who had worked at the prison since 2012, was among the officers who provided security in the sewing plant.

Local and state law enforcement and public safety officials were unwilling to offer more than a few specifics about Thursday’s violent escape attempt during a press conference Friday.

Pasquotank Sheriff Randy Cartwright reiterated that no prisoners had escaped, in spite of numerous reports to the contrary on social media.

“We found no evidence that anybody left the yard,” Cartwright said. “This was not an escape.”

Cartwright also said the attempted escape wasn’t spontaneous, and several crime scenes throughout the prison were being processed. Numerous items that could be used as weapons were also discovered, he added.

The deadly fracas was confined to the sewing plant, Cartwright said, adding that the incident couldn’t be defined as a riot. The fire in the sewing plant was set, and as it was being put out, four inmates tried to escape, making it only as far as the yard of the sewing plant.

In addition to the two corrections officers who died, 10 prison employees were injured and transferred to Sentara Albemarle Medical Center. All but three have been treated and released; two others are in critical condition and one is in fair condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital as of Saturday morning.

The four inmates believed to have been responsible for the escape attempt were also taken to Sentara Albemarle, and later transported to Polk Correctional Institute in Butner, where they were being held in the facility’s most secure area, Cartwright said.

Polk Correctional Institution is a close-custody prison, but it is also approved to house inmates assigned to maximum control, intensive control, disciplinary segregation and safekeeping status. Polk has a high-security maximum control unit, or Supermax unit, intended for the state’s most violent and assaultive offenders.

The initial call regarding trouble at the prison came in shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, Cartwright said.

“It came in first as an assault, with a possible attempted escape,” Cartwright said during the press conference. “As the deputies started responding, I was getting updates, and we immediately started calling in mutual aid.”

“We were very fortunate in that the Elizabeth City Police Department responded right away,” Cartwright said, adding that deputies from area sheriffs’ departments, along with members of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol and the State Bureau of Investigation, also arrived quickly. More than 200 law enforcement and public safety officials ultimately converged on the prison.

Few other details of the foiled escape were offered during Friday’s press conference, where Cartwright and Deputy Director of Prisons Annie Harvey both reiterated that the investigation continues.

“The one thing that we do not want to do is impede this investigation, or cause this case to not be prosecuted at its highest level,” Harvey said.

In addition to hampering the investigation, the release of too much information could impede jury selection, Cartwright pointed out.

“We’re a really small town, and a lot of the same people who read and follow our local media are the ones we’re going to have to pick for juries,” Cartwright said.

“We’ve had to get more and more careful about releasing information, releasing too many details on our cases, because we have a hard time then picking a jury, because they’ve read and shared too much on social media,” he added.

“We’ve got to have people who are going to be impartial and listen to the evidence presented in court, not what they read or have heard.”

Charges against the four men accused of being responsible for the botched escape are pending while investigators monitor the condition of the prison employees who were hospitalized.

Corrections officer Wendy Shannon and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe were listed in critical condition at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital as of Saturday morning. Corrections Officer George Midgett was in fair condition at the same hospital

Seven other prison workers were treated and released. They were identified as Sgt. Curtis Casper, Sgt. Larry Swain, Sgt. Jerry Byrum and correctional officers Scott Stormer, Timothy Lewis and Steve Sanders. Correction Enterprises processing assistant Regina Ferebee was also treated and released.

The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Department and the State Bureau of Investigation are investigating the incident.

Pasquotank Correctional Institution houses 725 male inmates in close, medium and minimum security. About 30 inmates work in the prison’s specialty sewing plant, making embroidered logo items, safety vests and other items.

The Town of Kill Devil Hills is observing the order to fly state flags at half-staff, and extends its deepest sympathies to the Darden and Smith families.

Darden had been a Correction Enterprises employee since 2007 and previously worked as a correctional officer. She was the wife of Kill Devil Hills Public Services employee Eric Darden.

 

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