Suspect ID'd in bus killing, says source

Man slain in prison vehicle after testifying in court

February 07, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Kevin G. Johns Jr., a convicted killer who was given a life sentence last week for killing his cellmate, is a suspect in the prison bus slaying of a 20-year- old inmate who testified about him in a Hagerstown court, according to a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

The victim, Philip E. Parker Jr., had been brought to Hagerstown last week with other inmates to testify that Johns, 22, who was convicted of killing his 16-year-old cellmate early in 2004, needed psychiatric treatment. During the sentencing hearing, Johns said he would kill again unless he received treatment, but the judge did not make such a recommendation.

Both Parker and Johns were part of a contingent of 35 inmates and five correctional officers that left Hagerstown early Wednesday en route to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Supermax, in Baltimore. Johns is being held at Supermax, according to DOC records.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday that he could not comment about possible suspects.

"This investigation is progressing extremely well," he said. "We are being cautious about not reporting details on the passengers on the bus at this time. We'll be forthcoming with information as soon as possible."

An autopsy was completed last week and Parker's body was released to his family, but authorities have yet to disclose publicly the cause or manner of his death. He had been serving a three-year sentence for unarmed robbery.

Prison officials have also refused to say officially whether Johns was on the bus or where he may have been seated.

In an e-mail response to questions Friday, Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Correction, wrote that "inmates who are known enemies or who have other special circumstances that require them to be separated can be transported on the same bus but are separated by the security grills and the segregation cages."

Doggett noted that the bus has two segregation cages for inmates, but she refused to say whether Parker or Johns were held there, saying that it was "considered security information [that] cannot be disclosed by the Division of Correction."

Parker's parents say they were told by a prison chaplain that their son was strangled in his seat by another inmate, who was later found by authorities with blood on his wrists. Inmates on the bus are typically shackled at their hands, waist and feet, and have limited range of movement if they are properly restrained, according to ex-inmates familiar with the procedures.

The five officers on the bus were placed on administrative leave, and the DOC said it was reviewing its inmate transportation policies. The Sun, citing Maryland's Public Information Act, has asked the DOC to release corrections guidelines and procedures for transporting inmates. Doggett said the department's lawyers were reviewing the request and that "no decision has been made on which information will be released."

According to former inmates familiar with the prison buses, it was not unusual for loud music to be blaring or for correctional officers to fall asleep during nighttime trips. Doggett said that department policies prohibit officers from being "inattentive" on the bus trips; there was no specific policy in place to address loud music, she wrote in the e-mail.

The investigation into Parker's death is being led by the public safety department's Internal Investigation Unit, a cadre of detectives who investigate crimes within prisons. Some legislators and critics have recently asserted that the state police should take the lead in investigating serious crimes within prisons, such as homicides, to eliminate any hint of bias.

In the case of Parker's death, the state police have been asked to provide unspecified assistance to Internal Investigation Unit investigators.

Services for Parker will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Gonce funeral home, 4001 Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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