Prisoner strangled on bus, parents allege

They say another inmate was found with blood

February 04, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon and Gus G. Sentementes | Stephanie Desmon and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Philip E. Parker Jr., the 20-year-old who died early Wednesday aboard a prison bus staffed with five guards, was strangled in his seat by another inmate who was later found with blood on his wrists, Parker's parents said yesterday.

While a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Correction said the 35 inmates on the bus from Hagerstown to Baltimore should have all been in handcuffs and leg irons, Philip E. Parker Sr. said he couldn't understand how a properly shackled inmate could have committed a murder, how no one heard anything and how no one knew his son was dead until the bus was unloaded and he didn't get off.

"There is no way in this world," said the elder Parker, who has ridden that route as a prisoner himself. "Once you're shackled down properly, it is very hard to scratch your nose."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's editions, Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, was incorrectly quoted as telling a panel of lawmakers that some of the correctional officers suspended after the death of an inmate on a prison bus were from Hagerstown. Responding to a senator's question, Saar said the officers were not from Hagerstown.
The Sun regrets the error.

Priscilla Doggett, the correction spokeswoman, said that the killing was under investigation by the department and that no charges had been filed. In the meantime, she said, the five correctional employees who were on the bus had been placed on leave and a complete review of the agency's transportation policies and procedures had been ordered.

"At this time, I have no information that indicates the inmates were not properly restrained, but that is one of the things that will be reviewed," she said.

At least some of the correctional officers placed on leave were from Hagerstown, according to Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who answered some questions from state legislators in Annapolis about the incident during a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday.

Parker's autopsy was completed yesterday, but the office of the chief medical examiner would not release information because the circumstances of his death were "part of an ongoing criminal investigation," said Shirl Walker, the office spokeswoman. She referred questions to the Division of Correction. Doggett said she knew nothing of an autopsy.

Parker - who was 6 feet 6 and 200 pounds - had been in Hagerstown on Tuesday to testify in the sentencing hearing for Kevin G. Johns Jr., a convicted killer from Baltimore who strangled his 16-year-old cellmate at the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown in January 2004.

At the hearing, where Johns received a life sentence, he vowed to kill again unless he received psychiatric treatment. Parker was one of four inmates from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, known as Supermax, who had gone to testify in the case.

"DOC can't give him the treatment he needs for all his mental problems," Parker told the court, according to a Hagerstown newspaper. "He gets really paranoid. He gots a really short temper, right."

Doggett refused yesterday to say whether Johns was on the bus when Parker was killed, citing agency policy. Johns, who was in court in Hagerstown Tuesday, was back at Supermax yesterday.

The bus arrived about 4 a.m. Wednesday at Supermax. Armed officers ride the bus, divided between fenced-off sections. Music plays over the radio. The senior Parker said guards often slept on the long, dark bus ride through the night, but Doggett said they were required to remain "alert."

Thousands of inmates a year are transported this way - to and from court, between prisons. This is the first time anyone has been murdered on the trip, Doggett said.

Melissa Rodriguez found out her son, the younger Parker, had died through a phone call she received just before 6 a.m. Wednesday. It was a prison chaplain who told her that her son "had passed," she said. He came to her Baltimore home. Her ex-husband did, too.

Both of Parker's parents were told the same story, that their son had been strangled by another inmate and left for dead on his seat. He was found slouched down as if he had been sleeping.

The officers found no pulse, saw the blood and soon found another inmate with blood on his wrists, the parents said.

Officially, though, they have been told nothing. The senior Parker can't understand how no one heard a struggle.

"I'm sure he was kicking with everything he could when he was being choked to death," he said. "I would bet my life that the guy who choked my son, the chain was loose."

Parker was in prison serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery for an incident involving a pellet gun. He was originally serving time in Hagerstown but was moved more than six months ago to Supermax. His parents said he suffered from some mental illness and liked being at the more secure prison where he could be alone. He "was afraid to be around" other inmates, his mother said.

"He did everything he could so he didn't have to be around anyone else," said Rodriguez, a moving-company worker.

Both of Parker's parents said they feel they're not getting enough information. "Why would he kill my baby?" asked Rodriguez, 38, crying. "They're telling me nothing. I don't know what to do. It breaks my heart."

Parker's father, a 41-year-old warehouse worker on disability, said his son wasn't going to spend his life in prison.

"I knew once he got out and got his freedom back he'd never go back again," he said.

Sun Staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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