Guard on bus says suspect moved to sit next to victim

Officer claims he followed rules, will appeal firing

February 25, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A correctional officer who was fired over the strangling death of an inmate on a prison bus said yesterday he saw a suspect in the killing move from his seat and sit next to the victim at one point during the trip.

The officer, Robert R. Scott, was seated along with another officer in a protective cage at the back of the bus less than 10 feet from where Philip E. Parker Jr. was strangled by another prisoner as the bus traveled from Hagerstown to Supermax prison in Baltimore on Feb. 2.

Scott said he noticed Kevin G. Johns Jr., who is a suspect in the killing, according to law enforcement and other sources, move from his seat behind Parker to sit beside him at one point during the trip. Scott said he phoned officers at the front of the bus to report it.

Inmates, who are transported in three-piece restraints of handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains, are not supposed to change seats or move around while the bus is traveling.

Scott said the officers in front turned on inside, overhead lights and asked Scott if he could see anything more, but several were broken and the dim lighting, even with his flashlight, made it impossible to see what was happening.

Scott, who has worked in corrections for nine years, said that he was given no further instructions.

In any event, he said, officers are not permitted by policy to leave their cages and enter the cabin with prisoners because of safety concerns; nor could the bus pull over and stop.

Scott, 32, said he followed required procedures, isn't at fault and will appeal his dismissal. "I was alert, paying attention and doing my job," he said.

Scott said a darkened bus cabin with broken interior lights, the steady roar of the engine directly beneath him and the other officer and the rattling noises of the bus kept them from noticing anything was seriously wrong.

Scott said inmates often slump over and sleep on bus trips, and it can be difficult to see them from the back of the bus. He said that there was no indication from any other inmates seated nearby that anything was seriously wrong. All were staring straight ahead, he said.

Scott said Parker's attacker might have been able to strangle his victim very quickly, if he used his waist chain, which would muffle any sound and limit signs of disruption.

Parker might have been dead - or near death - at the time that Scott said he saw Johns switch seats.

An inmate witness, in letters to relatives, has said that Parker's attacker managed to loop his loosened waist chain around Parker's neck and pulled back as another inmate helped pin the victim to his seat.

Parker's body wasn't discovered until the bus arrived in Baltimore around 4 a.m. Scott said that he saw blood on Johns' shirt when the inmate's name was called out and he stood up to exit the bus.

In his interview, Scott said a small razor blade was found after the bus arrived at Supermax. Inmate witness accounts also said a razor blade was found.

While no cut marks were found on Parker's body, Scott said, some cut wounds were found on Johns' arm - which Scott says might have been self-inflicted.

Prison officials announced disciplinary action against all five officers on the bus.

Scott, the officer with him at the rear of the bus and an officer who was in the front compartment were fired. Of the other two, one received a five-day suspension and the other received a written reprimand.

Scott, who was paid $14 an hour, said that he will appeal his dismissal.

"We believe the only fair and just thing to do is to allow the officer to be placed back on the payroll until a third party can hear all the facts," said Ed Rothstein, a board member with the Maryland Association of Correctional and Security Employees.

Scott said he was fired once before but was reinstated after an administrative hearing officer found him not guilty of charges of allowing a fight between inmates. He said that he also was reprimanded once for absenteeism.

Parker, 20, was among 35 inmates on the bus, which included Johns, a twice-convicted murderer who told a judge the day before that he was likely to kill again if he didn't get psychiatric help. Johns, 22, should not have been seated with Parker at the rear of the bus, according to Maryland policy governing the transport of prisoners.

The front of the bus has wire mesh cages that can be used to isolate especially dangerous prisoners from other inmates.

Scott said officers on the bus were not told of Johns' threat in court or that Parker and other inmates on the bus had testified at his sentencing hearing. If they had been told of that fact, he said, Johns would have been segregated.

The bus also was supposed to be checked for defects such as broken interior lights before it went out on the road. Scott said the broken lights have been a longstanding problem that was reported repeatedly but that they were not fixed.

Johns originally was sent to prison for choking an uncle with a belt, trying to saw his head off and leaving him in a closet to die. In prison, he strangled his 16-year-old cellmate.

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