Federal Corrections Officer Eric Williams
Photo credit: Courtesy Photo
Four months to the day since a federal correctional officer from Nanticoke was savagely killed on duty, a federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted a gang-affiliated prison lifer on charges of premeditated murder.
The indictment out of U.S. District Court in Scranton charges Jessie Con-ui, 36, with first-degree murder, first-degree murder of a federal corrections officer and possessing contraband in prison for the Feb. 25 slaying of Correctional Officer Eric Williams at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County.
Armed with a homemade knife, Con-ui ambushed and brutalized an unsuspecting Williams by "repeatedly stabbing and striking him with weapons and repeatedly kicking, stomping and slamming him about the head, face, and torso," according to the indictment, signed by U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith.
Con-ui, an enforcer for the notoriously deadly New Mexican Mafia prison gang who was already serving life for a murder in Arizona, could face the death penalty if convicted.
"It's four months. Today is the anniversary," Williams' mother Jean said in a brief telephone conversation Tuesday. "We knew the day was coming. We were just patiently waiting."
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment about the indictment, referring to a news release announcing the charges. The U.S. Justice Department, which oversees federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, also declined comment.
In past conversations with The Citizens' Voice, Williams' colleagues provided a more detailed account of the attack. An inmate, they said, blindsided Williams as he worked alone, making rounds, for nightly lockdown just before 10 p.m. The attacking inmate, they said, hurled the 34-year-old down a set of steps and pounced, beating him and repeatedly stabbing him with a crude, knife-like weapon known as a "shank."
"Before he could even react, the inmate was on him," one fellow Canaan correctional officer lamented.
A possible motive, if any, was not included in charging documents.
Hired on Sept. 11, 2011 after spending years as a police officer and working security, Williams was the 25th federal correctional officer killed in the line of duty since 1901 and the first since two inmates ambushed Jose Rivera at a federal prison in Atwater, Calif., in June 2008.
Con-ui was jailed at Canaan at the time of Williams' death on an 11-year sentence for his role in his gang's Arizona drug trafficking operation.
Con-ui was scheduled to complete the federal sentence in September and would have immediately been returned to Arizona to begin serving a life term for murdering a gang rival in Arizona in 2002.
Immediately after the killing, prison officials moved Con-ui to the U.S. Penitentiary at Allenwood, a high-security facility near Williamsport. In late April, they moved him again to ADX Florence, the supermaximum security prison in Colorado known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," which houses more than 400 of the most ruthless criminals in federal custody, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Con-ui's court-appointed attorneys, James Swetz of Stroudsburg and Mark F. Fleming of San Diego, Calif., did not return telephone and email messages Tuesday.
Darrell Palmer, the president of the union representing correctional officers at the Canaan prison, said Williams' colleagues were pleased charges have finally been filed. He said they collectively wish for a conviction and the ultimate punishment.
"Hopefully everything will go as planned and the death penalty will be implemented. That is what everybody's hope is," Palmer said. "Anyone who walks the walls of Canaan definitely wants it."
Since Williams' death, The Citizens' Voice has published a series of stories under the banner "Crisis at Canaan" detailing the attack, life as a correctional officer and the struggle between the union and federal officials to balance safety and costs.
Williams' killing shined a national light on unsafe working conditions for federal correctional officers, according to union leaders. Since a 2005 policy change to save money, officers like Williams work alone in housing units with up to 150 inmates. At the time of Williams' death, he was equipped only with keys, handcuffs and a radio. Canaan was not among the handful of federal prisons involved in a pilot program to arm officers with pepper spray. Three days after Williams' slaying, the Bureau of Prisons expanded the pilot program to include all 20 of the nation's high-security prisons, including Canaan.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder eulogized Williams at his funeral March 2 in Nanticoke, vowing to punish the killer and make federal prisons safer. Union officials lauded Holder for his decision on March 22 to block impending furloughs of correctional officers by transferring $150 million of department funds to maintain staffing levels.
But that wasn't and isn't enough, Dale Deshotel, national union president for the American Federation of Government Employees, Council of Prison Locals, said Tuesday.
Williams' death highlighted why no officer should be left alone in a housing unit of inmates and why a second correctional officer must be returned to each cell block, he said. A second officer, he said, may have saved Williams' life.
"There's no way we could continue to function this way," Deshotel said. "The inmates know we're vulnerable."
As for Tuesday's charges against Con-ui, Deshotel said it's "a step in the right direction for justice for Eric and his family."
"Our officers should not be subject to that kind of brutality and violence," he said, advocating quicker prosecutions and tougher sentences for inmates who harm staff. "We have to do something to give these inmates the idea our officers are off limits."
Copyright 2013 - The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service