South Dakota Corrections Officer Killed During Inmates' Failed Escape

April 21, 2011
Two South Dakota inmates attacked a 63-year-old prison guard and left him to die before using his uniform in an unsuccessful escape attempt.


Two South Dakota inmates attacked a 63-year-old prison guard, wrapped his head in plastic shrink wrap and left him to die before using his uniform to sneak past security in an unsuccessful escape attempt, investigators said in court documents released Wednesday.

Eric Robert and Rodney Berget, both 48, are charged with first-degree and felony murder. Both were ordered to be held without bond and to have no contact with each other. Public defenders assigned to the men had no immediate comment on the case, though Robert's attorney said Robert still was deciding whether he wanted to represent himself.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said corrections officer Ronald Johnson was working alone Tuesday in a part of the Sioux Falls prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects.

"He was assaulted. His uniform was taken," Jackley said. Johnson's son said Tuesday was the guard's birthday.

Robert put on Johnson's brown pants, hat and lightweight jacket before approaching the prison's west gate with his head down, pushing a cart with two boxes wrapped in packing tape, according to an investigator's affidavit.

Berget was hidden inside one of the boxes.

Another corrections officer opened an inner gate and allowed Robert to wheel the cart into a holding area, but became suspicious when Robert didn't swipe his electronic ID card. Robert claimed he forgot his badge and said main control was out of temporary cards, according to the affidavit.

The officer then asked Cpl. Matthew Freeburg if he recognized the guard, and Freeburg said no. When theofficer called for a supervisor, Robert started kicking and beating Freeburg and Berget jumped out of the box to join in, the affidavit said.

More officers arrived to find Berget still beating Freeburg, investigators said. Robert had climbed the outer gate, reaching the razor wire on top. Both inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds and taken to a jail in Sioux Falls.

Jackley said Freeburg was taken to a hospital, but returned to work Wednesday.

Asked whether prison procedures would be reviewed, Jackley said: "As to policies and procedures, that would be up to the Department of Corrections, not the attorney general."

Corrections officials have declined comment on specifics of the incident other than issuing a news release Tuesday.

Berget has been in and out of South Dakota's prison system since the mid-1980s and is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. He was convicted of escaping from the penitentiary in 1984. In 1987, he and five other inmates again broke out of the same facility on Memorial Day by cutting through bars in an auto shop. He was caught in mid-July of that year.

Robert, of Piedmont, is serving an 80-year sentence for a kidnapping conviction. In that case, an 18-year-old woman told police a man posing as a plainclothes police officer pulled over her car near Black Hawk, told her he needed to search it and then forced her into the trunk. She used her cell phone to call for help, and she was found unharmed.

Johnson, who worked at the penitentiary for more than 23 years, was a father of two and grandfather of six. He died on his birthday, said his son, Jesse Johnson.

"He loved to relax and play with his grandkids," Jesse Johnson told the Argus Leader. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody."

Jesse Johnson said his father, known to friends and family as R.J., had lived through a riot at the penitentiary in 1993 and knew the danger of his job but never dwelled on it.

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