Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Showdown in West Max

In November 1988, I was 26 years old and a brand new graduate of the Northwest Louisiana Criminal Justice Institute, commonly referred to as the “Academy.” Eight months earlier I was facing Caddo Parish Sheriff Don Hathaway with my right hand held high, swearing to uphold the laws of the state and the parish. As a new Deputy Sheriff I was assigned to Caddo Detention Center located in Springridge, about 8 miles from my home. Caddo Detention Center, or CDC, was the parish lock-up housing over 500 inmates.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving we got our paychecks early due to the long holiday weekend. I’m not sure why it mattered since there was no way to get our check to the bank until Monday, but I was glad to have it. I folded the check in half and did what I always did with it: I stuck it in my right shirt pocket. On that day I was working “West Max” which was the maximum security part of the jail located on the west side of the compound. West Max housed over 80 inmates with a high bond for serious crimes or a history of repeated offenses. Like all jails CDC had a laundry list of rules, and we deputies were expected to enforce them. One of those rules was that the inmates could not wear hats or anything on their heads when they were out of their cells.

Inmate recreation was a special time of day for all prisoners. Twice every day and three times during the summer, the inmates were allowed to get out of their cells so they could exercise, play games like cards or basketball or they could simply enjoy being out of the confines of their cells for awhile. Afternoon “Rec” started at 1 pm and lasted for two hours.

On November 23, 1988, I was working the doors in the “cage” in West Max letting inmates out of their cells for recreation. Two other deputies were outside in the West Max Rec yard which was known as the “bullpen.” The bullpen was a rectangular area of concrete surrounded by high fences and topped off with four rolls of razor wire to discourage climbing. The razor wire was extremely effective, for I know of only two inmates who braved it during my three years at CDC and they ended up cut and bloody. For some reason tracking dogs get real excited when they smell blood.

When I opened the doors of the cells that day, the West Max inmates which were nicely dressed in red filed out...eager to get outside to the bullpen. Most of them considered me to be a part of the entire structure of walls, wire, steel and concrete. I wasn’t human to them, just a part of the justice machine. They ignored me, or more than likely didn’t know or care that I was there. As long as I did not interfere with their entertainment, recreation or meals, all was well.

As one of the inmates filed past me that day he was tying a blue bandana on his head. Of course this was contraband, and colors associated with a gang. It was my duty to inform him of his violation. This was what I had been trained for. It was the reason I received a paycheck.

“Marcus Turner (not his real name) do not put that bandana on your head. You know as well as I do that it’s against the rules.”

Marcus Turner looked at me with contempt and kept walking. He continued to tie the bandana on his head as if I had never spoken a word. At that moment I was in the cage operating the cell doors, and I was unable to stop him. Furthermore, there was no need to overreact. Maybe old Marcus would change his mind and remove the bandana before I stepped outside; it's always best to give people the benefit of the doubt on small matters.

I finished letting inmates out of their cells. I checked all four tier doors, made sure they were locked and had everyone go outside. With everything secure behind me I walked into the sunshine of the bullpen on an unusually warm and pleasant day. It didn’t take me long to spot Marcus Turner. He was the one doing pushups near the north fence with the blue bandana on his head. I took my time so the pushups could have the positive effect of wearing him down. On the far side of the bullpen fence I saw my old friend Kevin Dunn. Kevin was assigned as a “floater” that day, which meant that he escorted inmates on the compound, relieved deputies and did whatever the sergeants directed him to do. All floaters were automatically assigned to the “Response Team.” The Response Team responded to all calls for emergency which included fires, fights and deputies needing back-up.

On October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, there was a little incident known as the “Gunfight at O. K. Corral.” One hundred and seven years later, on November 23, 1988, I had my own little O. K. Corral. The facts of both incidents were strangely similar: known outlaws were breaking minor laws and zealous law men refused to ignore those trivial offenses. The major difference between Tombstone and CDC was that there was far less at stake in the small jail in rural Caddo Parish…or was there? Either way it was time for a show down.

Only days out of the Academy I was fresh with knowledge and empowered with the mandate that rules were made for the good of the institution. It was my job to enforce those rules; anything less would be considered cowardice and compromise. Wyatt, Virgil and Doc would be proud. But before I confronted Marcus Taylor, I let my co-workers know what I was about to do. I was particularly interested in telling Kevin Dunn because I knew I could count on him. With a plan in place, I turned and approached the offending inmate, intent on serving and protecting my community by re-gaining and maintaining order among those awaiting justice.

It was rumored that Marcus Turner was a Vietnam vet. He was muscular and tattooed in a day when only cons and soldiers wore ink. On his back in a grand curve of large Old English letters was his last name “T-U-R-N-E-R” spelled out for all to see. He was a formidable foe, full of hate and known for confrontations with deputies, but it really didn’t matter…right is right and wrong has consequences.

By the time I reached Marcus Turner it was as if all activity and noise had stopped in the bullpen. It was 1 O’clock High. All eyes were on me. “Marcus…I told you not to put that bandana on your head. It’s time for you to go back to your cell. Rec’s all over for you my man.”

Since women and children may be reading this I cannot quote what Marcus said to me, but I can say that it was a common phrase heard behind the cement walls and metal bars of CDC. If those walls could talk and someone was listening, those words were sure to offend. Marcus’ two words made up an independent clause complete with an action word and direct object. I, of course, was the direct object. The subject was inferred to be Marcus or perhaps any inmate with disdain for lawmen. A man of few words, Marcus Turner emphasized his brief communication with the body language of contempt. I had ordered him to his cell, but he refused to go. We had ourselves a standoff.

Marcus’ short and not so subtle phrase was a spark in a tinder box. Suddenly, I was surrounded by inmates. The showdown was real and the stakes were high. Marcus was directly in front of me, but instantaneously another inmate appeared on my left. It was Geoffrey Palmer (not his real name). Geoff was short, but powerfully built. His upper lip was raised revealing his pearly-white teeth, and he was biting his bottom lip, sort of like an angry dog. He was only inches away from me. I addressed him directly.

“Geoff…you need to step back!” Now I had told my co-workers what I thought was going to happen, and it was playing out like a gun fight without guns. There were two deputies in the bullpen with me, but they were far away and as it played out, totally ineffective. However, there was Kevin Dunn; he was tried and true. The only thing between him and I was two locked gates. I took my time, thinking he might already be on his way.

Geoffrey Palmer was on my left. Marcus Turner was directly in front of me. Other inmates made a large circle around us. I was all alone in a ring of fire.

Geoffrey and Marcus both refused to move. Palmer was snarling like a rabid dog. I stepped a full step back to create distance, but when I did, Palmer followed me. He was way too close for normal human relationships, except of course for man and wife. Palmer and I weren’t married, so I stepped back again. He continued to follow, so I dropped low and had a flash back from my high school wrestling days.

The double leg takedown was not only quick, but it was nicely efficient. Palmer was top heavy, having big arms and a broad chest and since he was moving toward me to begin with he lifted nicely on my shoulder as I came up holding both of his thighs to my chest. His ascent was brief as was his descent; I took him to the ground, hard and sudden. As he fell he ripped the right pocket off of my shirt and my paycheck dropped to the pavement like a lonely school girl. At this point things were moving very quickly. I pinned Palmer’s arms to the ground and sat on his chest just like my brother Ron taught me when I was a mere six years old. I looked down at Geoffrey, and he still had that snarl on his face.

Suddenly, I felt a weight crashing down on my back. Instinctively I brought my left hand up to my throat and it stayed there as an arm came around my neck. It was Marcus Turner. I could smell him and feel the bristle of his beard on the back of my head.

I was sitting on one prisoner and had another on my back. Turner squeezed my neck tightly. He squeezed with everything he had while the rabid dog beneath me continued to snarl but was unable to move. The only thing that kept me conscious was God and my hand between the felon’s bicep and my throat.

If I had been on my feet I might have slipped away from the slimy soldier’s grip on my neck, but I was sitting on another inmate and completely immobile. My only choice was to control the one I had and survive the other. Releasing the dog was an invitation for disaster.

Once again I felt weight fall on my back. The sensation was momentary but it preceded a gradual lessening of the pressure on my neck until the big arm dropped away completely freeing me from the vice grip of a dead-lock head-lock.

It was Kevin Dunn. Kevin had made his way to the bullpen and put a neck restraint on Marcus Turner. The restraint was Kevin’s signature move. He not only knew the technique, he was proficient with it. As a result Marcus Turner was sleeping like a baby in a mere matter of seconds…lights off, nobody home. That thought is still comforting to me to this very day.

Within minutes the Response Team was all around us. They cleaned up the mess above me, but I still sat on top of Geoffrey Palmer, waiting. My simple plan called for keeping the aggressor down until all was calm, and then I would cuff him and have him escorted to lock down.

 Things were calming down and thinning out. A sergeant appeared on my left…thank goodness the end was near.

But Geoffrey looked up at the sergeant. Through the ever present snarl on his lips he exclaimed, “Sarge, tell him to get off of me!” It was more of a command than a request.

I was fond of this particular sergeant, and I still am to this day, but on that day he did something I have never been able to understand. “Get off of him McDaniel.” What? I couldn’t believe my ears. I looked up at him and he repeated, “Get off of him McDaniel!”

It was not a time to argue, and I was respectful of my superiors. However, his orders placed me back in the fire, and I knew it. Letting up the aggressor without some form of restraint left me vulnerable, and it kept me from retrieving my paycheck which was lying exposed on the pavement. Nonetheless, I am law and order every time. I got off the dog.

The puzzling sergeant was on my left and suddenly free from restraint, Geoffrey Palmer was standing in front of me snarling with his fists clinched. I prepared for the fight. Geoffrey had been humiliated among his peers and any man of any worth would have felt the impulse to redeem himself. I couldn’t blame him for that. Thankfully Deputy Bubba Richardson saw the danger and stepped between us. In the South, any kid named James is Bubba. James “Bubba” Richardson was a tall, far-sighted deputy from Mississippi. Bubba quickly handcuffed Palmer, deflected his verbal assaults and led him away. With the dog finally gone, I reached to get my check, but it was gone…long gone.

It took a little time for the dust to settle in West Max that day. I was left with a lot of paper work and a sore neck, but the incident did not end there. The next week there was a disturbance in West Max, and I responded. The incident that day was resolved fairly quickly, but on my way out I had to pass Marcus Turner’s cell. Marcus repeated his infamous two word phrase, but for more significance he attached my last name. He said something, but I was unable to hear it. I approached his cell.

“You got something to say to me?”

He walked up to the bars and grabbed them with both hands.

“I know where you live. You’re a dead man.” He showed me his back and said nothing further. My paycheck, complete with home address had made its way to the instigator...he knew exactly where I lived.

Within a week we discovered that Marcus Turner had a network outside the cell walls. Somehow he had his cronies in the free world locate where my wife and Bubba Richardson’s girlfriend worked. At that time I didn’t tell my wife, Colleen, about the very real danger for fear of alarming her. For the next few months I slept lightly, responding to every strange noise. I stashed guns in convenient locations throughout the house. I never left my home unarmed, and I saw Colleen off to work every day.  

Due to the disturbance in West Max before Thanksgiving, it was a couple of weeks before I was assigned to work there again. There were plenty of other places to work, like East Max, the West Yard, the East Yard or floating. I guess my supervisors thought it was best to let things settle down in West Max before they put me back over there.

Every inmate involved in the disturbance had received punishment for violating jail rules. Furthermore, Marcus Turner was eventually sentenced to six extra months of jail time, at least on paper. By the time I starting working in West Max again, Geoffrey Palmer had served his time in lock down, and he was back in West Max.

In early 1988, Sergeant Jim Reed worked day shift with weekends off as the classification officer. By summertime, Jim left the Sheriff’s Office and went to work for the Post Office. Six months later Mr. Reed returned to CDC; the Post Office job had not worked out for him. Fortunately for all of us Sheriff Hathaway hired him back, but when he returned, Mr. Reed was no longer a sergeant. He was assigned to the shift just like everyone else. Mr. Reed was older than the rest of us, probably fifteen or so years older than me. It was no doubt a difficult transition for him to return to the jail as a regular deputy. No one was too sure how to handle the situation. Most deputies kept their distance from the old sergeant, but for some reason he and I hit it off from the very beginning. We worked together often, and I enjoyed his company. If he was mad at anyone or angry about how the Sheriff’s Office had treated him he never told me. I never heard him complain or criticize anyone.

When I returned to work in West Max in December of 1988, Mr. Reed and I worked there together along with another deputy. The day started with a headcount and then recreation. That morning I assumed my usual role of letting the inmates out of their cells and making them go outside to the bullpen.

I finished letting the inmates out on the upstairs’ tier and then went downstairs to let the rest of the inmates out. Things went quickly on the lower south tier, but when I went to the lower north tier things slowed down. It took a few minutes and some strong words to usher a couple of inmates out. One inmate was rather slow and confused about what he was supposed to be doing. Perhaps it was his first full day behind bars. I walked him down the tier to make sure he went outside. When I got to the end of the tier, I turned and shut the bar door and then pulled it to make sure it locked. When I turned back around Geoffrey Palmer and another inmate were standing there, waiting for me.

The inmate who had been loitering on the tier was nowhere to be found. I was blocked in. I had metal bars behind me and on my right side, a brick wall on my left and my two friends were directly in front of me. If I turned my back and tried to unlock the door to escape, I was sure to be ambushed. I knew what was at stake, but I followed my use of force policy. “You guys need to head on outside right now.” It was a clear and unambiguous command, yet I had no expectation that they would obey it.

I dropped my right foot back, lowered my center of gravity and tightly gripped the giant jail keys in my right fist.  My plan was simple: the first one to move toward me was getting my booted foot in his groin and the second one would receive a handful of keys in the mouth.

Geoffrey was wearing his infamous snarl and both inmates had their hands tight at their hips. I lowered my gaze to the middle of their chests and waited for first draw. At about that moment I heard a deep voice, “No one is supposed to be on the tier…get outside now!” It was Mr. Reed.

Geoffrey and the other inmate looked at me, looked at each other, and then dropped their heads and walked out to the bullpen. Mr. Reed had suspected that something was wrong, and he came back inside to check on me. His presence was enough to alter the odds and cause Geoffrey and his pal to recognize that their intentions had been thwarted. Both Mr. Reed and I knew what was at stake. He watched out for me the rest of the day.

I was grateful to Mr. Reed: grateful for his insight, grateful for his care and grateful that he had the presence of mind to recognize danger. However, my gratitude was not complete until the next day. During our shift meeting that was held every day before we took our posts, the shift sergeant read over the events that had occurred at the jail over the past twenty four hours. It seems that the evening shift became suspicious of Geoffrey Palmer after they relieved us the day before. The guys on evening shift decided to search his cell. During the search they found what in jail lingo is known as a “shank.” This particular shank was a long, thick piece of wire that had been sharpened to a point. When I heard about Geoffrey’s shank the full gravity of what had happened the day before came upon me.

Throughout my career in law enforcement the protective hand of God has been upon me and my co-workers. Back in 1988 that fact was very clear through the efforts of Kevin Dunn and Jim Reed. Kevin is now my boss and I call him “Captain.” Jim Reed retired as a Lieutenant, but sadly he died in September, 2011. I will always remember Mr. Reed, and I am grateful for the lessons he taught that young impulsive deputy twenty five years ago.